U.S.-Taliban peace deal

Bleak days in Afghanistan

Developments in recent days have revealed – unsurprisingly – that Donald Trump's recent "peace deal" with the Taliban is barely worth the paper it was written on. What is clear, however, is that the next president of Afghanistan, whoever that may be, will inherit a nation that has long since ceased to function. Emran Feroz reports from Mussahi

A small group of men, and children who quickly grow bored, are standing by the riverside. All of them staring at the contraption before them – a small water pump, which despite their best efforts, won’t switch on. A young man tries to set it in motion by pushing at the gear and pulling at the engine, all the while staring at the tube protruding from the lifeless pump.

The water in the river remains still and calm. The pump, sent by a relative who spent the last two decades in Germany, simply will not work. It is an all too typical story in the Mussahi district of Kabul province, 30 kilometres south of the capital, where many things have not functioned for some time. And that tells a larger story. Much like Mussahi’s water pump, most of Afghanistan isn’t functioning either, at least outside the major cities.

Eighteen years after the U.S.-led invasion, the city of Kabul has gone through several transformations. The city is now dotted with high-rises that fill the skyline, roads are slowly being paved and monuments of past eras renovated.

Urban elites in Kabul

A small, burgeoning moneyed class is also fuelling the slow growth of Western-style coffee shops, complete with $1 lattes. This transformation has been topped off with many gated mansions and fancy wedding halls – places where urban elites display their wealth.

Only a short drive south of the city lies a different world, however, one that has been left behind by the years of poverty and war. Mussahi has been a part of Kabul province for decades now, but it is one of the districts of the province that is under the de facto control of the Taliban. And Mussahi is just one of many.

Coaxing an old German water pump back to life in Mussahi (photo: Emran Feroz)
Left to their own devices: while Washington alone has poured more than a trillion dollars into the country during the last 18 years, the only "aid" that can be found in Mussahi is a defective German water pump from the 1950s. "There has not been any other aid. We have many problems here, especially with farming. But as you can see, we have to figure out how this pump works. It is sad that we have remained so backward, but nobody is interested in our plight," said Mohammad Azif, a farmer from Mussahi

Often, it appears as if rural Afghanistan does not exist in the minds of many urbanites. Especially in Kabul, political elites have always tended to live in a bubble. Nor is this a new phenomenon; it has happened over and over again.

When the British tried to take over Afghanistan, their installed monarchs ruled in Kabul, while rural Afghans organised the resistance. When the Soviets invaded the country, people in the cities benefitted from housing projects and infrastructure. At the same time, countless villages were wiped off the map by the Red Army and its Afghan Communist allies.

President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which largely consists of Westernised technocrats, often holding dual citizenships and sometimes unable to speak the local languages, has not been able to change this repetitive reality. Instead, it has been absorbed by it, creating its very own bubble.

Disillusionment in the provinces

While Ghani was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence in the newly renovated Darul Aman palace in Kabul last August, American airstrikes and night raids conducted by CIA-backed Afghan militias reached a peak in the provinces. What is more, Ghani’s entire government is wholly dependent on economic and military aid. To many Afghans, it appeared more than paradoxical to celebrate their country's alleged independence under such circumstances. 

The signs of the U.S.-backed government’s failure are written all over Mussahi, and many residents express their dissatisfaction with the nation’s leadership. Many also support the Taliban. In Mussahi, soldiers of the Afghan National Army are disregarded. Few of them appear for Friday prayers, and when they do, they look insecure and nervous. "They just want to leave as soon as possible. They know that nobody wants to see them here," says a resident. 

The truth is that few, if any, of the soldiers can make it past their checkpoint on the bridge that marks the entrance to the district itself. Several residents spoke about corrupt government officials and long-standing family feuds, many of which are resolved in Taliban courts. "This is their [the Taliban’s] court. They are in control here," said a local who wanted to remain unnamed. Many rural districts in Afghanistan are already fully controlled by or under the influence of the Taliban. According to various estimates, more than half of the country is contested or controlled by them.

A lack of real aid

As the recently published Afghanistan Papers revealed, large portions of this reality have gone ignored in both Washington and Kabul. Instead, the U.S. government tried to paint a different picture of the war, one dominated by lies and false facts. However, Mussahi is a prime example of exactly what has gone wrong over the last 18 years.

In the 1980s, during the fight against the Soviet occupation, Mussahi was controlled by mujahideen fighters, then enemies of the Soviet-backed communist governments. Today, the mujahideen have been replaced by the Taliban, and the communists by U.S.-backed democrats. 

While Washington alone has poured more than a trillion dollars into the country during the last 18 years, the only 'aid' that can be found in Mussahi is a defective German water pump from the 1950s. "There has not been any other aid. We have many problems here, especially with farming. But as you can see, we have to figure out how this pump works. It is sad that we have remained so backward, but nobody is interested in our plight," said Mohammad Azif, a farmer from Mussahi. 

Like many other Afghans, Azif hoped the peace talks with the Taliban would be successful, so that he and his fellow villagers could solely focus on rebuilding their homes. "We can live in poverty, but not without peace. We cannot move freely at night. There is always fighting between the army and the insurgents. We need a peace deal that serves the interests of all Afghans," he underlined.

"Peace deal" or capitulation?

Last Saturday and after 18 months of negotiations, Washington and the Taliban finally signed an agreement in Doha. The deal includes the total withdrawal of all American troops and the release of 5.000 Taliban prisoners – a major bone of contention in the eyes of the Afghan government, who were not consulted. In return, the Taliban agreed to cut their ties with al-Qaida and prevent anti-American extremists from hatching plots from Afghanistan. Many Afghans still hope the deal is a first major step towards long-term peace in the country.

Mohammad Shaheen, who lives in Kabul but visits Mussahi regularly with his family, nevertheless believes that the daily problems of rural communities will continue to be ignored. "This is the closest district to the capital. The presidential palace is just 15 kilometres away, but we are struggling with so many issues here relating to the economy and security. The government does not care," he said. 

Mussahi may be a stone’s throw from the palace and a part of the province both the President and large parts of his government have resided in for decades, but the people here continue to feel politically helpless. At the moment, however, Ghani's government is facing its very own crisis.

Mussahi's disenfranchised

Two weeks ago and after months of waiting, the final election results were released. While Ghani declared himself as winner, his former Chief Executive and main opponent Abdullah Abdullah rejected the outcome and said that he would form his own government. Abdullah Abdullah has already nominated officials and at least two governors.

In Mussahi, most people could not care less about the recent quarrel in Kabul. During the presidential election campaigns last autumn, while the political elites in the city celebrated their version of Afghan democracy, the people of Mussahi were shut out from the political process entirely.

Nightly Taliban checkpoints meant they could not travel to the capital to address the candidates directly during their live televised interviews. The lack of army presence meant none of the candidates came to campaign in Kabul district. And on election day, the very real threat of Taliban attack meant the polling stations remained closed.

Emran Feroz

© Qantara.de 2020

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