Afghanistan: Obama’s Sad Legacy

Hamid Karzai leaving the Interior Ministry after being sworn in as prime minister of Afghanistan’s interim government, Kabul, December 2001; photograph by Paula Bronstein from her book Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear, just published by University of Texas Press
Paula Bronstein
Hamid Karzai leaving the Interior Ministry after being sworn in as prime minister of Afghanistan’s interim government, Kabul, December 2001; photograph by Paula Bronstein from her book Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear, just published by University of Texas Press

It is only two years since Hamid Karzai, leader of Afghanistan since the beginning of the American intervention, stepped down from the presidency, but amazingly many Afghans are regretting the day he left. Afghanistan is in a precarious state. The economy has taken a dive since 2014, when most American troops withdrew. Assistance programs and lucrative contracts have dried up and thousands have been put out of work. Insecurity has increased as the Taliban has sharply escalated its offensive to seize territory and unseat the Afghan government.

Political divisions within the Afghan leadership compound the unease. President Ashraf Ghani, who took office in September 2014, appears isolated in the Arg, the former royal palace, at odds with his chief executive Abdullah Abdullah and most of the political leadership, while in a house just outside the palace walls, Karzai hosts a growing crowd of former ministers and wealthy supporters in a manner that hints at a political comeback. The mood among ordinary Afghans is one of disillusionment and nervousness. Taliban advances have won them control of more districts than any time in the last fifteen years and new groups swearing allegiance to the Islamic State have unleashed appalling violence.

Afghan security forces and police are hemorrhaging men amid accusations of corruption and poor leadership—the army has been losing five thousand to six thousand men a month in casualties and desertions, while enlistment has fallen to two thousand a month. In Kabul government offices and embassies have disappeared further behind high concrete blast walls. Helicopters clatter constantly overhead as American and Afghan officials travel by air across the city rather than risk suicide attacks.

While the country is in a state of national emergency, political leaders are locked in a power struggle. Ghani and Abdullah agreed to share power for two years in a government of national unity—brokered by John Kerry after widespread fraud rendered the 2014 election result inconclusive. But the two men have barely been able to agree on ministerial appointments, and the planned reforms to the electoral law and to the constitution have yet to take place. The two-year deadline passed in September amid fierce political maneuvering only after the Obama administration insisted that the unity government continue for the full five-year presidential term. Yet many worry that the arrangement is not functional.

President Obama’s legacy in Afghanistan is disappointing. He made broad promises to focus on…



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