Trump’s decision to continue sending troops to Afghanistan has been criticised in the US and elsewhere. But in Kabul it’s a different story.
The news in August that Donald Trump had approved a modest “surge” of troops back to Afghanistan was met with consternation in the world’s press. His talk of chasing down “losers” missed the point. And his refusal to put a deadline on ending the US’s longest war is a policy reversal. How much impact can a few thousand soldiers really have when the Taliban has retaken so much territory?
On the streets of Kabul, however, the news was met rather differently. It’s hard to underestimate how entwined the Nato and US-led campaign was in Afghanistan’s economy: per-capita gdp more than quadrupled in the decade after 2001 as a service industry boomed with the arrival of soldiers and diplomats, and the logistics of keeping them housed, fed and mobile. After the US announced in 2011 it would begin withdrawing its forces the economy contracted sharply.
“Suddenly people who had been making $2,000 to $3,000 a month had to go back to living on $100 a month and it wasn’t possible,” says Javid Faisal, deputy spokesperson for the chief executive of Afghanistan’s national unity government. “No one was prepared for it.” The pullout has pushed some Afghans towards the booming opium trade and left many more unemployed.
Trump has said that the troops’ return is not about nation-building but the view from the US’s generals based in the country is reportedly quite different. Abdullah Habibzai, the acting mayor of Kabul, inherited a capital city that is plagued by terror and in the throes of an economic nosedive. He tells us that his office is expanding the city’s “Green Zone” to safely house a larger diplomatic corps and international organisations.
On the next page we look at key sectors in Afghanistan that boomed during the invasion and that are hoping to grow again, and assess the country’s outlook in light of the redeployment. First we meet Sir Nicholas Kay who is the UK’s new ambassador to Afghanistan. In 2006 he was the UK’s regional co-ordinator for southern Afghanistan at the height of Nato’s campaign against the Taliban; he has also served as the UN’s special representative for Somalia.
Monocle: How has Afghanistan changed since you were posted there in 2006?
Nicholas Kay: Active discussion of a peace process with the Taliban was not on the agenda before. The government in Kabul is reform-minded, grappling with issues of governance and civil service. Another big difference is that for two years it’s been the Afghan National Security Forces protecting the country. Also, the place is full of young Afghans who are working in ministerial positions, in business and civil society – a lot of diaspora refugees who have returned committed to their country. The negatives are that the security situation remains precarious: there’s more territory contested by the Taliban than in 2006 and Isis wasn’t here 11 years ago.
M: What are Afghanistan’s critical needs?
NK: Internal political unity. There is a complex political and ethnic patchwork here and it’s important that the national unity government remains united ahead of parliamentary elections in 2018 and presidential elections in 2019. The US strategy announcement is significant because it outlines that we’re not aiming to defeat the Taliban militarily but we’re not going to lose to them either.
M: Should the UK commit more troops to Afghanistan?
NK: The UK has announced a small uplift in its numbers for training and assistance this year but absolutely not in a combat role. The UK government is clear that the key to long-term success is to build Afghan security forces, compared to 2006 when we were fighting for them.
M: What lessons from Somalia apply to Afghanistan?
NK: Somalia [proves] that after decades of state failure a country can pull itself together again via a political project, and by the diaspora having the confidence to return to the country to help build it. It helps when the international community unites around common goals of stability, prosperity and security. In Afghanistan, all those things apply.
M: Was Trump right to put pressure on Pakistan?
NK: The government of Afghanistan has welcomed the US approach but has been right not to over-egg it because Afghanistan is focused on building proper relations with Pakistan. The UK has been clear that safe havens for terrorists should not be tolerated. The important thing is that we use the shake-up that this strategy represents to help Afghanistan and Pakistan put themselves on the path to what’s in their mutual interest: becoming a functioning part of the world community.
The US’s decision may be of debatable utility in turning Afghanistan into a peaceable country but it will be welcomed by the private-security sector whose opportunities had diminished with the falling military presence. “There might be a slight increase,” says Stephen Smith of Separ International, a Kabul-based risk-management consultancy. “But that will be less to do with the surge and more to do with the increased size of the Green Zone. That will mean more mentors and advisers, probably predominantly American.”
Smith says that private security in Afghanistan dropped off in 2011 as US troops withdrew and Afghanistan’s government began directing more of the work once done by foreign ngos to Afghans. Some Afghan security companies have been launched – among them Saladin, Burhan, Seddiqi and Kabora – although Smith notes they often hire foreigners in oversight roles.
There has been some fervid suggestion that the war could be privatised entirely, not least by self-interested Erik Prince, chairman of Frontier Services Group and founder of controversial contractor Blackwater, now known as Academi. This is likely to remain a temptation, especially for a US president who believes himself a businessman. “All over the world,” says Rebecca Zimmerman, a policy researcher at US think-tank Rand Corporation, “tolerance of casualties is dropping among the public – and contractor casualties don’t make the news.”
Joint US-Afghan plans to privatise Nato airports to boost the economy will likely be put on hold in the short-term. But if international donors continue to invest in training an aviation workforce, then Afghanistan will step closer to aviation self-sufficiency. It may, in the next decade, meet International Civil Aviation Organization standards, which would be a boon to the country’s economy.
Where once US forces and diplomats were fed with fruit and vegetables flown in from all over the region, in 2014 Anham – a supplier of meals to US mess halls in Afghanistan – started working with Afghan suppliers and farmers. The modest influx of US troops isn’t going to change livelihoods overnight but supply chains that promote higher-quality produce aid exports.
Corruption is endemic to Afghan logistics, which is a drain on the economy and scuppers supply routes for local security services. But the outlook is shifting as new routes open that divert trade from the overland route to Pakistan. Chabahar Port in Iran is being built by India, creating a corridor to Afghanistan, while the Afghan government is also examining overland routes to Kazakhstan.
Construction boomed during the invasion as Nato and US forces employed contractors to build bases. Facilities were mothballed at withdrawal but Khaled Monawar, an adviser to the Ghani administration’s finance ministry, says greater security with more US troops is giving the government cause to think bigger. “It’s about implementing big projects that have been on hold: railroads, energy projects and dams.”
One of the few positives to emerge from the war has been the creation of a homegrown media industry. From a handful of news outlets at the start of the invasion, and certainly little in the way of independent media, there are now hundreds of press titles, local television and radio stations.
Afghan news networks are now breaking stories themselves – according to Saad Mohseni, the Australian-Afghani founder of Moby Group, the country’s biggest media company – creating a way for the public to let off steam. “If you were to experience a thuggish police officer, the inclination in most other countries would be to ring the prosecutor or the government. But because of frustration with the state, here people tend to ring the media,” he says. “Right across the region Afghanistan stands out in terms of the stuff that we can cover, from the criticism of individuals to our corruption stories.”
The return of troops may give some assurance to consumers that the state isn’t going to collapse but smaller outfits need international support to survive in the absence of traditional advertising models. It remains to be seen what aid and soft-power package will follow in the wake of the US troop influx. It helped buoy the nascent industry: if the Ministry of Health wanted to communicate a vaccination campaign, for example, international aid money often went directly to media spend.
US senator Ben Cardin has called for a “diplomatic surge” in light of the redeploy, while Xenia Wickett of think-tank Chatham House and previously a foreign-affairs specialist in the US state department, says that a shift in funding from diplomacy to defence needs to be addressed. “It has meant that you’ve got a much more robust military doing jobs that would have been taken by diplomats.”
Afghan tradesmen – drivers, carpenters and electricians – found employment from coalition forces during the invasion and the withdrawal has hit average pockets hard. Zemarai makes a living driving 2,000 Afghanis a day from Kabul to Jalalabad. “In the end all we want is an end to the war,” he says. “Peace can only come if Trump does what Bush and Obama didn’t and puts pressure on Pakistan.”