In April of 2014, when I visited Afghanistan to observe its third national election, the spring air in Kabul was filled with the anticipation, hope and determination of common men and women exercising their democratic rights to vote in the face of severe threats from the Taliban. But with a second round of the election, hopes for a democratically elected legitimate government were shattered, with large-scale fraud and ethnic divisions emerging. In the interest of national unity and legitimate governance, the two top candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, formed a National Unity Government (NUG).
The international community does not appear to be in touch with the realities unfolding outside of their walled compounds.
I next visited Kabul in June 2015 –less than a year into the formation of the NUG. The journey from the airport to the hotel was not any different from my drives on this road in previous years. On the surface, Kabul city manifests the resilience of Afghans, who have fought and survived decades of conflict. But by looking below the surface and not retreating into the protected enclaves of expatriates, I noticed a sense of hopelessness and frustration among the unemployed, store-keepers, drivers, cleaners, cooks and civil servants.
Disaffection is prominent, since the people’s interest and faith in democracy was shattered with the fraudulent election of last year. The promised electoral reforms not having been implemented, the parliamentary election has been delayed. People consider the extension of the term of the current parliament to be unconstitutional and, thus, undemocratic. It is surprising how vocal people have become; perhaps this is an indicator of tiny success in democracy-building over the past decade and a half.
People’s priority concerns now are income and security. Unemployment is high and ever-increasing. Civil servants’ salaries have been cut back due to reduced operational budget support by donors and declining government revenues. With the operational budget of employers in all sectors being tight, workers are not paid regularly. The government defaults in paying for essential services such as electricity. Thriving local markets and businesses catering to expatriate customers have shrunk with the withdrawal of foreign troops, the closure of army camps, a shrinking diplomatic community and with increasing insecurity discouraging foreign consultants’ visits. Security threats have led to the closure of hotels, restaurants and guest houses, driving up unemployment.
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Afghans I spoke with said that they supported the NUG as a compromise solution to avoid the nation’s downhill slide to ethnic divides, social and political tensions and spiraling insecurity. But an unclear understanding of NUG operations and the governance process cloud people’s minds. Afghans in all categories believe that the Unity Government is not united, making the decision-making process excruciatingly slow. Afghans find it regrettable that officials at high positions are fired but not often replaced soon enough, and that an inexperienced team of cabinet ministers is struggling to manage their portfolios, with no Defense Minister yet in place. The government’s promised war against corruption shows little sign of success.
According to NUG representatives, overblown and negative reporting on both government operations and security incidences contribute to confusing Afghans and generating poor publicity internationally. Government representatives also speak of constant adversarial interventions by ex-President Hamid Karzai, which are spoiling the image of the NUG.
My own perspective is that NUG officials are not necessarily out of touch with contextual realities and popular views. They admit that since the draw-down of the foreign forces (now with 150,000 fewer foreign troops), the Afghan army is facing mounting challenges. The Afghan government’s attempt to follow a peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban and Pakistan is wise but lacks popular support. Afghans’ skepticism is not totally unfounded, as the country continues to face unprecedented Taliban attacks: 5,365 security incidents over the last six months and over a thousand incidents recorded in June alone, resulting in collapse of several districts. A reduction in random Taliban attacks following the first meeting between high-level Taliban command and NUG representatives in Islamabad in July might help to turn Afghans’ views.
- Nipa Banerjee, CIDA’s Summative Evaluation and On-the-ground Realities in Afghanistan
- Roland Paris, The Truth About Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan
But currently, heightened security challenges are primary in people’s minds. I was told on June 18 by a high-level government official that Kunduz will be soon in the hands of the Taliban. Within days, some new districts within a few kilometers of the capital of Kunduz came under Taliban control. In the Wardak province, the Taliban has reached districts in frighteningly close proximity to the Kabul city. Herat and Badakhshan, once the safest provinces, are under threat. Daring attacks have been made in well protected areas of the Kabul city: a police station and the Parliament. Kabul is in the list of one of the most unsafe provinces; and Kandahar, once the home of the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team, is rated as the second most unsafe province in the country.
That the international community’s promise of securing Afghanistan remains unfulfilled is clearly manifested in the current security crisis. It is also legitimate to question the effectiveness of training imparted by foreign troops to the Afghan army and security forces.
The international community does not appear to be in touch with the realities unfolding outside of their walled compounds. Expatriates (including Canadians) are in constant lock-down mode. Security around the Canadian and some other embassies has risen significantly from last year. Walls with barbed wire topping have grown taller, and towering steel gates separate residents behind the walls from the public. The international community rests in well-protected compounds fulfilling their dreams to develop and secure Afghanistan.