With a sense of betrayal and relief, Afghans eye a future without U.S. troops

Susannah George, Aziz Tassal and Sharif Hassan

April 17, 2021
Image without a caption
KABUL — When the 44-year-old women’s rights activist saw the news that all U.S. forces will withdraw by Sept. 11, her thoughts immediately flashed to fear of the Taliban returning to power.

“To be honest, my first feeling was, I was scared,” said Asila Wardak, who is also a former Afghan diplomat. As a divorced woman, she doesn’t think twice about going to the market alone, something that was — and might again be — forbidden under Taliban rule.

But her fear has since given way to a wholly different feeling — hope.

“I’m hopeful because, as Afghans, we have to stand on our own,” she said. “The United States was here to help, but they were not 100 percent successful.” The way she sees it, the United States withdrawing while the Taliban grows more powerful puts Afghans like her at a disadvantage. But she hopes the Afghan government and the Taliban can hash out a deal that will prevent another civil war.

Wardak’s conflicting reactions to news of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan reflect the uneven and often contradictory impact the last two decades of U.S. military presence has had here. For some, the U.S. invasion created opportunities that would have been unimaginable just years before. But the same forces and the policy that guided them also ripped communities apart, led to thousands of civilian casualties, and ultimately left the Taliban a more formidable force than the group was before its overthrow.

The United States has spent nearly a trillion dollars on Afghanistan since 2001, funding the war, propping up the country’s government, building a military and financing infrastructure projects, according to Pentagon reports. But independent watchdogs have uncovered massive corruption and waste. Afghanistan’s elected government remains shaky, the country’s military struggles to hold and retake territory without close U.S. support, and many U.S.-funded infrastructure projects lie in ruins, destroyed by conflict and neglect.

The country has also seen significant, measurable advances: Maternal and child mortality rates have dropped; millions more children are enrolled in school; more women are members of the workforce; minorities enjoy greater protections; independent media has proliferated; and access to the Internet is widespread. But without continued international aid, World Bank assessments show, improvements in sectors like health care and education are unsustainable.

For Asad Wahidi, 35, a peace activist who lives in Kabul, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has been defined by the corruption that has siphoned international aid from the needy to the elite and the empowerment of warlords who he fears will continue to hold influence long after U.S. forces leave.

“As an Afghan, I was happy to hear the news,” he said. “The United States created a criminal class and imposed it upon the Afghan people.”

The Afghan government is riddled with corruption. A recent report from the U.S. watchdog on Afghanistan said the high level of corruption undermines trust in the government, “compromises the intended outcomes of development interventions, and undermines security by fueling insurgent and corrupt power structures.”

Efforts to combat corruption have gained support in recent years. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani earlier this year established a commission to investigate allegations of graft in all branches of government, including his own office.

The United States also supported warlords during different periods before the invasion and over the past 20 years. Some of those people remain powerful to this day. At the most recent peace talks with the Taliban, Abdurrashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — two men who previously led militias accused of massacres and terrorist attacks — were in attendance.

The U.S. “withdrawal will not weaken them or remove them from power,” said Wahidi, who fears the influence the United States provided these men will make them permanent players in any future Afghan government.

Mohammad Rahim Aliyar, a member of parliament from Bamian, was a militia member loyal to one of the warlords supported by the United States. He fought against the Taliban before the United States invaded Afghanistan but, along with his fellow fighters, laid down arms after U.S. forces offered them protection.

Aliyar is Hazara, an ethnic minority group brutally oppressed by the Taliban. When U.S. troops moved into Afghanistan, he said, he trusted them to secure the country and handed over his weapon. Now, with foreign forces leaving behind a Taliban more powerful than ever and rising instability nationwide, Aliyar said he is filled with remorse.

“We were so naive. We are all so regretful,” he said. Once U.S. forces depart Afghanistan, Hazaras will be “the number one enemy of the Taliban.”

Image without a caption

Many Afghan women also saw the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan as protective. Under Taliban rule, women were not allowed to work, attend school or travel outside the home without a male guardian. When in public, they were required to wear a head-to-toe covering with a small mesh window to see through.

In most Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan today, women remain largely absent from public life and still face the same restrictions on dress, but girls are allowed to attend school and women are allowed to work in certain fields such as medicine and education.

In the parts of Afghanistan under government control, women are allowed to work, travel unaccompanied and pursue an education to the level of their choosing.

Forozan Rasooli, 29, deputy director of an Afghan organization promoting women’s rights and peace, credited the U.S. military invasion with bringing about those changes and with inspiring a generation of girls.

“We had this feeling like we had the strong support of the United States, a superpower. It motivated us,” she said. “The United States showed dreams to Afghan women.”

But now she fears those dreams could be lost.

A friend recently joked with her that it was time to buy a burqa, the covering the Taliban requires women to wear in public.

“For me that would be like living in a prison,” she said. “This isn’t what we envisioned in 2001.”

But the progress Rasooli lauds has been uneven across Afghanistan. Outside urban areas, even in villages not under Taliban control, there is little visible development that would reflect the billions of dollars in aid spent. For rural Afghans, especially in volatile provinces, it was deadly airstrikes, arbitrary detentions and night raids that defined two decades of U.S. troops on Afghan soil.

“When the United States came, they didn’t stop the war. They made it worse,” said Sayed Akbar Agha, 57, the director of a conservative political movement and a former member of the Taliban.

“Once the United States leaves, there will be more discipline and order; the war will end,” he said. “It will be our independence day.”

With a sense of betrayal and relief, Afghans eye a future without U.S. troops