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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

War-weary Afghans watch Trump strategy with mix of hope and scepticism

As the situation worsens, Mr Trump’s new plan, which focuses on increasing troops and involving regional partners, is welcomed by many Afghan stakeholders

For Afghans in Kabul the war against the Taliban has become a way of life. AP Photo/Rahmat Gul
For Afghans in Kabul the war against the Taliban has become a way of life. AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Mohammad Baqir has no opinion on Donald Trump. For Baqir, 38, a Kabul-resident and driver by profession, the US is one big entity that has a crucial impact on the war in his country. And so he followed Mr Trump’s much-awaited strategy for the war in Afghanistan very closely.

In his first elaborate address on the war in Afghanistan, the US president presented an outline of the way forward for their country’s involvement in the region. While the half-hour address provided little information of the actual plan, it gave insights to what the future might look like for what has become America’s longest war.

For many Afghans, the four-decade has become a way of life. “Things have become worse in the last two years. I have watched Afghans die, and those who survived I watched them leave,” Baqir told The National. Indeed, the increasing conflict has seen a rise in the number of civilian casualties with more than 11,418 deaths and injuries from war in 2016, according to figures from the United Nation’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama).

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“Personally, the increasing conflict has affected the economy and there is less work for me, making it very difficult to meet ends,” he said. “I really hope this new plan works better than the last one,” Baqir said referring to the Bilateral Security Agreement signed in 2014.

As the situation worsens, Mr Trump’s new plan, which focuses on increasing troops and involving regional partners, is welcomed by many Afghan stakeholders.

Most notably, the new US strategy would have no timeline, something seen as a positive step by many Afghans. “A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions,” Mr Trump said, essentially stating that the long war in Afghanistan has been extended without an actual end date, a move welcomed by the Afghan government. “It is a good thing that there is no timelines and things have to be seen based on ground realities,” Javid Faisal, spokesman to Afghanistan’s chief executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah told The National. “It means that the US would be standing by Afghanistan for as long as we destroy the terrorists and return peace to our country,” he said.

Ahmad Shuja, a former researcher and current director at American University of Afghanistan, explained why this move was so important for the Afghan government. “Afghan president Ashraf Ghani would love this strategy because it offers him more troops, more help and more time in return for unspecified ‘results’ from unspecified ‘reforms’,” he said, adding he also appreciates how this strategy would appear to anti-war Americans, who see it as an indefinite commitment to a war that has already gone on for long.

Mr Trump’s refusal to provide a timeline was in fact reflective of sentiments expressed by US senator John McCain who led a bipartisan delegation that visited Kabul on July 4 to assess the situation on the ground. “I think one of the greatest failures has been when the president of Unites States announced a surge and put a date out for a withdrawal. If I were the leader of the Taliban I’d say, just hang on … General Eisenhower did not announce the date that Berlin would fall,” Mr McCain said.

While Mr Trump admitted his initial instincts were to withdraw entirely, the new strategy would instead bolster US forces in Afghanistan. But he did not divulge any details on the numbers. “The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” he said, adding that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda”.

ISIL has been growing roots in Afghanistan and has conducted several attacks adding to the growing instability in the region. The US has already shown interest to invest and engage with ISIL in Afghanistan. In April, the US army dropped a 21,000-pound bomb, known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or the “Mother of All Bombs” (Moab), destroying caves in Nanagarhar province that were an ISIL stronghold.

However, it was Mr Trump’s approach to Pakistan that drew the strongest response from Afghan sections. “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change,” Mr Trump said, threatening consequences, whilst urging India to play a larger role in economic development.

Afghan political activist Idress Stanikzai agreed. “Donald Trump knows that Pakistan is sponsoring terrorism in the region. If the Americans really want good relations and strategic partnership with Afghanistan and India, they must take economic sanctions against Pakistan,” he said. “There is no room for diplomacy with a country led and controlled by an army,” he added.

Those sentiments were echoed by the Afghan government. “This new strategy is a good opportunity for Pakistan to not repeat the mistakes of the past by continuing to support terrorism but, make better smart and better choices,” Mr Faisal said.

The Taliban on the other hand was predictably scathing in its response. “If America does not withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the day will not be far when Afghanistan shall transform into a graveyard for the American Empire,” spokesman Zabihullan Mujahid said. “So long as a single American soldier remains in our homeland and American leaders continue treading the path of war, we shall also sustain our Jihad.”

Meanwhile, Mr Trump reiterated the words of his predecessors, “I was given a bad and very complex hand. But I fully knew what I was getting into, big and intricate problems.” Repeating the US’s long- standing promise for peace, he added. “But one way or another, these problems will be solved. I’m a problem solver. And in the end, we will win.”

However, for those like Baqir, who have lived the conflict through several US and Afghan administration, the burden of the war has become hard to bear. “I don’t think we can sit around and wait for the foreigners to end this war for us. It’s time we take matters in our hand,” he said.