A weary Afghanistan sighs at Obama’s second term

November 7, 2012

Ethnic Hazara leaders listen to a speech in Kabul. (MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL -- Najibullah, 32, a shopkeeper and law-school dropout who sells knock-off Chinese military garb in a crowded urban bazaar, followed the American presidential election closely on his small counter-top TV set.

Like many in the Afghan capital, he was happy when President Obama was elected in 2008, largely because he hoped it would bring about a change in U.S. military policy toward his country. But when he saw the news flash Wednesday afternoon about Obama's re-election, his reaction was much more mixed.

"In one way I was happy he won, because he has a softer approach to the world than Romney, but I am also disappointed because he said so little about Afghanistan in his campaign," said Najibullah, who uses only one name. "We don't know what his plans are. All we know is that the American troops are going to leave, and everyone is very scared what will happen to us then."

Across the capital Wednesday, people interviewed about the 2012 election immediately flashed forward to 2014, a year in which the remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan will begin their final departure after a decade of war against Taliban insurgents, and in which Afghan presidential elections are scheduled to be held under tense and turbulent conditions.

Like Najibullah, many expressed deep ambivalence about the Obama administration's past role in ratcheting up the war against Taliban insurgents and its current plan - now about to become official U.S. policy in a second Obama term - to get out of the conflict altogether except for a smaller role in training Afghan forces.

"As a Democrat, I'm happy for him. As an Afghan, I'm not," said Shukria Barakzai, a liberal member of parliament who often visits the United States. "Everyone is worried about 2014. This is not a closed chapter. Obama promised us a responsible exit, and we hope he means it," she said. "My message to him would be, please don't step back and give up. Let's begin a new relationship and work for a common vision. Please don't ignore us."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose relationship with Obama has often been acrimonious, issued a lukewarm message of congratulations from Indonesia, where he is attending a conference. In a statement tweeted by his office, Karzai said he hoped Obama's second term would lead to "an expanded relationship based on mutual interests."

Karzai cannot legally run for another presidential term, and last week he formally announced the schedule leading to elections on April 5, 2014. But critics fear the election might be tainted by the same kinds of fraud that marred Karzai's re-election in 2009, leaving Afghanistan with a weak, poorly credible government that must face a persistent insurgency without international military support.

The Taliban, in a statement e-mailed to Western media outlets Wednesday evening, urged Obama to rethink American foreign policy, saying the United States should "stop policing the world" and "further burning the flames of world hatred.

"Obama knows the American nation is fed up with war and faces a dire economic tragedy," it said. "Therefore he needs to withdraw soon his invading troops from our country and prevent further losses of American soldiers."

The dominant feelings expressed by dozens of people in Kabul Wednesday were worry, confusion and enormous ambivalence about the past and future U.S. role in their country. Many offered complaints about the behavior of foreign troops, especially their insensitivity to Afghan culture. Yet in the next breath, they pleaded for Obama to keep U.S. forces in the country until it can achieve a modicum of political stability and self-defense.

"Your American troops violated our traditions and customs. They burned our holy Koran, and Americans made the video that insulted our Islam," said Mohammed Daoud, 25, a student who was snacking between classes at the national teachers' college. "Now they will go and leave behind only fighting and insecurity."

Jawad Qazimi, 35, a pharmacist in a neighborhood of West Kabul, said his family survived heavy rocketing but lost their home and possessions during the civil war of the 1990s that nearly destroyed the capital and led to the Taliban takeover.

"I am praying to God that the dark days do not return again," he said Wednesday afternoon.

"I don't watch TV and I don't know about the American election," Qazimi said. But I know one thing: we need the Americans to stay until our forces can defend us."

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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