Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Afghanistan : The gnawing fear of transition
There is perhaps no word so misunderstood in Afghanistan right now as transition, or one causing as much unease among ordinary Afghans still grappling for a sense of their future.
U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, expected to soon leave the country, is on an urgent reassurance mission, leaping this week onto an open special forces buggy without a flak jacket or heavy escort to tour a former insurgent stronghold in Kandahar’s Khakrez district, hoping to prove safety is on the uptick. ”Just about one year and a half ago it would have been difficult for me to be here. The security would not have allowed me to,” the energetic former general told village elders clustered in sunshine on a lawn walled by roses.
Eikenberry has visited probably every province of Afghanistan with his long immersion in the country, including a stint commanding U.S. forces.
But ordinary Afghans, many of whom are resentful of the foreign troop presence in the country and civilian war deaths, also worry about how their own fledgling security forces will cope when they go.
Eikenberry travels to tell turbaned local mullahs and leathery faced elders that he has come to listen to their needs, usually mundane but vital-to-confidence complaints about crumbling roads, poor water access, and non-existant schools and doctors.
And more and more their worries are also about the transition to Afghan security and what happens as foreign troops start to draw down numbers from July and completely hand over control after 2014. ”We want peace and stability in this country. We are worried about what will happen. We have always stood against the Taliban,” said one elder in the village of Darbishan as Eikenberry and his entourage listened intently.
Those concerns are repeated when Eikenberry climbs onto his blue-and-white helicopter, and in a swirl of grit and dust leaves for yet another community shura in Kandahar city with provincial governor Tooryalai Wesa.
“Our people are dying here, but we don’t have anyone to look after them, to help them,” one Kandahari literally screams into a microphone at the back of the room. Only days before, the Afghan police chief was killed by a suicide bomber.
Equally, many people in the city that gave birth to the Taliban rage at night-time flash searches of their homes by U.S. and NATO soldiers.
“They take our sons and our husbands. We would like this to stop,” says another city district elder.
Eikenberry admits there is currently deep uncertainty throughout Afghanistan and that both the government and international backers have to improve their communications. ”Transition doesn’t represent an end to America’s involvement in Afghanistan. It actually represents a new and better phase where we are in support, but support will go on and on,” he tells the restless room before an exasperated Wesa guillotines questions.
Later in his aircraft, Eikenberry says it is vital to explain that transition does not mean abandonment, especially in places like Khakrez where U.S. soldiers say the Taliban have been pushed back, but could quickly return.
Much of the area, including shops and the Sufi shrine of Shah Maqsood Agha, was shattered by U.S air strikes in 2001 as American troops tried to drive out the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, with an intensive rebuild only just completed.
“There is uncertainty throughout Afghanistan. On one hand there is a sense of pride that goes with transition, but at the same time there is a sense of apprehension that goes with transition,” Eikenberry tells Reuters.
“It’s going to require constant communications and clarity from the government of Afghanistan and from ourselves, with one unified message, as we move forward.”