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America’s failure in Afghanistan, explained by one village

18 years after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, the capital city of Kabul is prospering. In rural areas, it’s a different story entirely.

Young Afghan children look on as a US soldier secures the area in the Logar Province, Afghanistan, on August 22, 2009. The Logar Province is roughly an hour away from the Mussahi District.
Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images

MUSSAHI DISTRICT, Kabul Province, Afghanistan — A small group of men, and children who quickly grow bored, are standing by the riverside. All of them are staring at the contraption before them: a small water pump that, despite their best efforts, won’t turn on.

A young man tries to set it in motion by pushing at the gear and pulling at the engine, all the while staring at the tube protruding from the lifeless pump. The water in the river remains still and calm. The pump, sent by a relative who spent the last two decades in Germany, simply will not work.

It’s an all too typical story in the Mussahi District of Kabul Province, 30 kilometers (around 19 miles) south of the capital itself, where many things have not functioned for some time. Much like Mussahi’s water pump, most of Afghanistan isn’t functioning either, at least outside the major cities.

And even if the newly reelected president, Ashraf Ghani, does his best to try to improve things, he’ll have a hard time holding off the Taliban.

Eighteen years after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, the capital city of Kabul has gone through several transformations. The city is now dotted with high-rises that fill the skyline, roads that are slowly being paved, and newly renovated monuments of eras gone by.

A small, burgeoning moneyed class is also fueling the slow growth of Western-style coffee shops complete with $1 lattes while more than half of the country’s population is living on less than $1 a day. This transformation has been topped off with mansions and fancy wedding halls — secured places and compounds where urban elites display their wealth.

A large affluent home built in an older neighborhood in Kabul, Afghanistan, seen on April 3, 2012. Since the US invasion in 2001, Kabul has seen massive investment in aid money but still needs help with infrastructure 18 years later.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

However, only a short drive south of the city lies a different world, one that has been left behind by the years of poverty and war. Mussahi has been a part of Kabul Province for decades now, but it is one of the districts of the province that is de facto controlled by the Taliban.

This will also not change after the final results of the recent presidential elections were released earlier this week. After five months of waiting, current President Ashraf Ghani has been declared the winner while his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, rejected the result and said he will form his own “inclusive government.”

But both Abdullah and Ghani lost in rural places like Mussahi.

During the presidential election campaigns last autumn, while the political elites in the city celebrated their version of Afghan democracy, the people of Mussahi were shut out from the political process entirely.

Nightly Taliban checkpoints meant they could not travel to the capital to address the candidates directly during their live televised interviews. The lack of Army presence meant none of the candidates came to campaign in a district of Kabul.

And on election day, the very real threat of Taliban attack meant the polling stations remained closed.

Mussahi is a prime example of exactly what went wrong in Afghanistan

The signs of the US-backed government’s failure are written all over Mussahi, and many residents express their dissatisfaction with the nation’s leadership. Many also support the Taliban.

In Mussahi, soldiers of the Afghan National Army, which was created and trained by the US and its allies after 2001, are disregarded. The soldiers know that it is Taliban country and that they may risk their lives entering it. Few of them appear for Friday prayers, and when they do, they look insecure and nervous.

“They just want to leave as soon as possible. They know that nobody wants to see them here,” says a resident.

The truth is that few, if any, of the soldiers can make it past their checkpoint on the bridge that marks the entrance to the district itself.

An Afghan National Army soldier checks cars at a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, on September 27, 2019.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Several residents I spoke to complained about corrupt local government officials and told me they support the Taliban because, unlike the government officials, the Taliban actually gets things done. For instance, longstanding family feuds are finally being resolved in Taliban courts.

“This is [the Taliban’s] court. They have the control here,” said a local who wanted to remain unnamed. Many rural districts in Afghanistan are already fully controlled by or under the influence of the Taliban. According to various estimates, more than half of the country is contested or controlled by them.

As the recently published “Afghanistan Papers” revealed, this reality has largely gone ignored in both Washington and Kabul. Instead, the US government tried to paint a different picture of the war, one dominated by lies and false facts.

Mussahi is a prime example of exactly what went wrong over the last 18 years.

Washington has poured more than $2 trillion into the country over the last 18 years. But the only “aid” that can be found in Mussahi is a defective German water pump from the 1950s.

“There has not been any other aid. We have many problems here, especially with farming. But as you can see, we have to figure out how this pump works. It is sad that we remained that backward, but nobody is interested in our cause,” said Mohammad Azif, a farmer from Mussahi.

Like many other Afghans, Azif hopes that peace talks with the Taliban will be successful so that he and his fellow villagers could solely focus on rebuilding their homes. “We can live in poverty but not without peace. We cannot move freely at night. There is always fighting between the army and the insurgents. We need a peace deal that serves the interests of all Afghans,” he underlined.

Mohammad Shaheen, who lives in Kabul but visits Mussahi regularly with his family, believes that the government will continue to be careless about the daily problems of the villagers. “This is the closest district to the capital. The presidential palace is 15 kilometers from here, but we have so many problems here in terms of economy and security. The government does not care,” he said.

Mussahi may be a stone’s throw from the palace, a part of the province both the president and chief executive have resided in for decades, but the people here continue to feel politically helpless.

Rural Afghanistan almost doesn’t exist in the minds of many urbanites

Mussahi is just one example out of many. Often, it appears as though rural Afghanistan does not exist in the minds of many urbanites. Especially in Kabul, political elites have always lived in their own bubble.

This is nothing new: When the British tried to take over Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th centuries, their installed monarchs ruled in Kabul while rural Afghans organized resistance. When the Soviets invaded the country in 1979, people in the cities benefited from housing projects and infrastructure, while rural villages were wiped off the map by the Soviet Red Army and its Afghan Communist allies.

Men walk along a path on a hillside near the Qargha Lake on the outskirts of Kabul on February 17, 2020.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Ashraf Ghani’s government has not been able to change this long-standing reality. Instead, it became part of it and created its very own bubble. His government largely consists of Westernized technocrats, often with dual citizenships, who sometimes are not able to speak the local languages.

This can be observed in every aspect of life. In the context of ongoing peace talks with the Taliban, for example, many rural Afghans like those in Mussahi welcome any kind of violence reduction and appear optimistic, while large parts of the country’s urban elites fear for their lucrative and powerful positions.

This might also be one of the main reasons why a finished deal has not yet been agreed to, although Washington and the Taliban underlined that their talks are going to come to an end at the end of this month and are signaling that a deal may be signed soon.

However, an upcoming intra-Afghan dialogue among the Taliban, Ghani’s government, and other political factions of the country must also be able to build a stable bridge between rural and urban Afghanistan.

When Ghani celebrated the 100th anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence in the newly renovated Dar-ul-Aman palace in Kabul last August, American airstrikes and night raids conducted by CIA-backed Afghan militias had dramatically increased in the country’s rural areas.

At the same time, insurgent violence escalated and large parts of the country were under Taliban control. Last but not least, Ghani’s entire government is dependent on economic and military aid from the US and its allies.

To many Afghans, it appeared more than paradoxical to celebrate an alleged independence under such circumstances.

Emran Feroz is a freelance journalist and author and is the founder of Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims. Follow him on Twitter @Emran_Feroz.