Ten years after the start of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, prospects for a lasting peace remain dim and many fear that what progress has been made will be jeopardised once the country's fledgling government is left to fend for itself.
It was ten years ago today, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, that US and British forces launched "Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan. Starting on October 7, 2001, a series of massive military strikes were coordinated by Western powers to upend the ruling Taliban regime.
For ordinary Afghans, the invasion was only the latest chapter of a war that had been raging for over 20 years. As usual, hundreds of thousands of civilians would be caught in the crossfire.
A decade after “Enduring Freedom” began, aid and development organisations on the ground paint a damning picture of the human cost of the Afghan war.
Insecurity and the lack of adequate medical care – especially in rural areas – remain major concerns for NGOs. According to Amnesty International’s 2010 report for Afghanistan, the country is among the poorest in the world and human rights abuses remain widespread.
Nevertheless, without denying the need for more social and economic progress, many Afghans say they are certain their lives have improved since 2001, particularly those who live in urban areas.
Some Afghans refuse the idea that the war has added to their suffering. "In Kabul, I feel safe. I can walk down the street without much fear. I can also go to work without knots in my stomach. That’s already a lot," Isna, a resident of the Afghan capital, told FRANCE 24.
Isna, 32, says the long years of violence have left the country disorganised and almost every imaginable area needs repair. But she remains convinced that life, at least in Kabul, is better than it used to be under the Taliban.
International observers and researchers have drawn attention to what they say is a deterioration of the economy and security situation of rural Afghans, who represent 70% of the country according to the United Nations.
That decline coincides with a resurgence of fighting between coalition forces and the Taliban since 2007. Insurgent attacks and NATO air strikes regularly claim victims among the civilian population.
Citing UN data, an August US congressional report said that 1,462 civilians had been killed and 2,144 more had been injured in the first half of 2011. That was a 15% increase over the same six months in 2010. The UN attributed 80% of this year’s civilian deaths and injuries to Taliban attacks.
"We are particularly concerned about the Afghans who are on the firing line. Their security situation remains alarming," said Jacques de Maio, head of operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for South Asia in an October 3 statement.
Dangers of foreign aid
Insecurity has been heightened through a campaign of active intimidation by the Taliban. There have been numerous reports of Islamist groups attacking girls on their way to school and sending threatening letters to discourage women from working. This despite the presence of some 140,000 foreign soldiers.
"In some provinces, far from the capital, some people say they fear the pressure of the Taliban,” said Aziz, a university professor in Kabul. “[The Taliban] threaten them, force them to take sides. In the capital we do not see such things."
The result is that many Afghans do not dare go to health centres hosted by international NGOs, which are also regularly harassed. According to Aziz, receiving foreign aid is sometimes like signing a death warrant. “Getting treatment at a NATO-run clinic puts one at risk of Taliban retaliation,” he told FRANCE 24.
However, the fear that has gripped Afghans in rural areas may be making its way back to the capital. Former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani was killed in a suicide attack in the capital on September 20. Six days later the US embassy in Kabul was targeted in a fatal shooting.
Fragile advances for women
Despite the setbacks in security and access to healthcare, figures and personal accounts signal important strides in other areas, notably in education, business and women’s rights.
According to a report by Oxfam, also released on October 3, there are 2.7 million girls in school today, compared to a few thousand during the Taliban’s rule.
Women’s education is a victory that Isna from Kabul was also quick to highlight: "There is still room for improvement but more and more women read and write in the country. My cousin who is seven and lives in Kandahar learned to write last year. It's really amazing, "she enthused.
However, in the same report Oxfam warned that those gains were under threat. The organisation questioned if they would continue after the final withdrawal of coalition troops in 2014.
“Women are working as doctors, lawyers and businesswomen; and girls are at school. But what is life going to be like for us in the next 10 years?” asked Orzala Ashraf Nemat, who co-authored the report. She worried women were poorly represented in the High Peace Council that will negotiate peace with the Taliban.
In recent years President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called on the Taliban to join the peace table. The Islamists have insisted there would be no negotiations until all foreign troops leave the country.
Aziz insists that despite the challenges he is confident about Afghanistan’s future. “There are still many barriers to overcome and many institutions to build, but we are on the right path. I prefer to bet on the future and hope for a brighter day for my country.”
Date created : 2011-10-07