Obama “magic” just another illusion

Updated on
The World

KABUL, Afghanistan — If Afghans mark the anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration at all, it will most likely be as the day that electricity came to Kabul. On Jan. 20, 2009, the lights came on and stayed on overnight in the Afghan capital, for the first time since the fall of the Taliban regime.

At the time, it seemed like just another miracle on a day that was doused in magic. America’s first African-American president gave a rousing speech, he offered to extend the hand of friendship to the rest of the world, his beautiful wife and adorable children beamed, and it was impossible to believe that things would not turn out alright.

Now, a year later, much of the glow has dimmed, at least from the perspective of the people of this sad and war-ravaged nation. It was inevitable, of course — no one could have lived up to the inflated expectations that Obamamania had generated. But in Afghanistan the disappointments have been especially bitter.

Over the past year, it seems the mood has darkened as the war has deepened. More and more of Afghanistan has become unstable, with insurgents and warlords vying for the honor of tearing the country apart.

Amid the chaos, the Obama administration has seemed unfocused and uncertain, with promises sounding increasingly hollow, according to Western and Afghan analysts.

The young American president unveiled his Afghan strategy barely two months into his administration. In late March, 2009, he announced a new “Afghan Compact” to battle corruption, a civilian surge to jump-start reconstruction, and an increase in troops. Sound familiar? The same themes were struck in December, when Obama once again presented a long-awaited policy review.

The scale, of course, had changed. In the halcyon spring of 2009, the United States had barely 40,000 troops in the country. By December it was over 60,000, and by the time the new “surge” is over there will be more than 100,000.

The other major difference between March and December, despite a determined rhetoric campaign, was a lessening of America’s commitment to Afghanistan. Domestic politics overtook the war, with the economy and health care absorbing time, energy, and funds.

For Afghanistan, Obama promised a withdrawal at the same time that he announced the troop increase: the United States would begin to bring home its soldiers in July, 2011. He also rejected high-flying promises of nation-building, trying instead to scale down expectations.

“Some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort — one that one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade,” said the president in his West Point speech. “I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost and what we need to achieve to secure our interests… Our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended. Because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.”

The irony was not lost on Afghans — ramping up the war at the same time that you divulge your timetable for ending it struck many as short-sighted, if not self-destructive.

“More troops, specifically given that they’ll be in and out in less than two years … will not reverse the Taliban momentum, let alone cure the security problem in Afghanistan,” said Janan Mosazai, a young political activist in Kabul.

One young journalist was even more pessimistic.

“This is the end of the new system that has been emerging,” said Nasim Nasimi, after hearing the speech. “If the troops pull out, it is over.”

Other factors have combined to cast a pall over Obama’s first year in office, according to observers here in Kabul.

The ebb and flow of relations with President Hamid Karzai has presented a curious spectacle. Obama made no effort to hide his lack of confidence in Karzai, and those watching the election felt that the United States was even actively working against the incumbent during the election process.

The elections themselves were one of the defining events of 2009 in Afghanistan. Corruption, intimidation, and well-documented fraud made a mockery of the democratic process, and the international community, including the Obama administration, was slow to acknowledge the scale of the problem.

The much-vaunted counterinsurgency strategy announced by the newly appointed commander of international forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has engendered some hope in the population. McChrystal has made “hearts and minds” a centerpiece of counterinsurgency, and has promised that special care would be given to protecting civilians. The major Marine offensive in Helmand caused relatively few non-combatant casualties.

But some well-publicized cases have dented the more benign image of the international forces. A German colonel in Kunduz called in an airstrike in September that incinerated over 100 people, and local residents insist that the majority were civilians.

More recently, American forces killed eight schoolboys during a night raid in Kunar province. The incident sparked protests and calls for U.S. troops to leave the country.

There have been some successes, certainly: parts of Helmand province have been stabilized, after a major operation in the summer which inserted 4,000 Marines and a great deal of hardware into the volatile province. For once the soldiers were able to hold the ground after they had routed the insurgents; this resulted in a calmer south, but a much more unstable North.

“It’s like squeezing a water balloon,” remarked one military analyst. “You chase them out of one place, they show up in another.”

Some experts have estimated that it would take up to 400,000 troops to stabilize the country, a sacrifice that the international community is very far from being prepared to make.

Another major difficulty is that, while paying lip service to stabilization, the Obama administration is taking some steps that will have exactly the opposite effect.

Under the rubric of “building local capacity” Washington is undermining the Kabul government, dealing directly with provincial governors and even doling out finds directly to regional centers, bypassing the central budget.

“This is one of the most basic contradictions within the U.S. Afghan strategy,” said Thomas Ruttig, senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN). “If the Kabul government is not playing ball, they go to regional players, often warlords who undercut the center, which the international community is mandated to strengthen.”

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former finance minister and in the minds of many the architect of the new Afghanistan , has taken the United States to task for this practice, saying publicly that it will lead to a “fragmentation” of the country.

Still, with all of the problems, Afghans are reluctant to see the international community pull out. Without the safety net provided by the United States and the rest of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), things could get out of hand very quickly.

“If the Americans leave there will be fighting,” said Qasem, a young man who works as a driver in Kabul. “Things might be okay here if they stay for awhile.”

When asked for an expansion on “awhile” he paused and said, judiciously, “Thirty years. Maybe 50. Once Afghans are educated, and learn to think, then they won’t fight so much. But it will take time.”

Obama may still be Afghanistan’s best hope for a peaceful future. But right now it is much harder to see than in the bright early days of his presidency.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.