Its protracted presidential election has finally been decided, but Afghanistan is on hold.
President Barack Obama hasn’t said how many troops he’ll send. Speculation abounds about whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai will assemble a Cabinet of reformers or political friends. It’s unclear whether humanitarian work will be curtailed by the U.N.’s decision to relocate several hundred workers out of the country after five staffers were killed in an attack.
And overhanging the uncertainty is the question on everyone’s mind: Will security in this impoverished nation worsen or improve as fall turns to winter?
“God knows what will happen,” Ghulam Sakhi Wardak said Tuesday, standing beside concrete security blast walls his company makes on the outskirts of Kabul. “So far, the attacks have not decreased.”
Asked what he wants from the next five years of the Karzai administration, Wardak replied, “A government that serves the people with total honesty.”
That’s also what the international community is demanding from Karzai, who won re-election following a ballot tainted by fraud and a planned run-off vote that was cancelled when his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out.
Western diplomats say Karzai has been busy at the presidential palace fielding phone calls and meeting people eyeing seats in his new government. Afghans are anxiously waiting to see whether Karzai will award Cabinet positions just to political allies who supplied him with votes, or will assemble a Cabinet of people eager to provide public services so lacking in Afghanistan and to tackle corruption that has corroded the government.
“We have nothing. No electricity. No water. Not enough money to buy food,” said Zubeida, a middle-aged woman who embroiders clothes in Kandahar, a violent province in the south. “We have only insecurity, looting and corruption. We have no government, only thieves.”
In the capital, everything appears normal. Bread hangs for sale in bakery windows. Taxis blow their horns at pedestrians as they negotiate deep ruts in the roads. Truck drivers deliver blue propane tanks. Young men hawk phone cards on street corners. Children play with kites.
But there is deep uncertainty about the days ahead.
“The people are concerned. The people are worried,” said Abdullah, who has been organizing an opposition movement to Karzai’s administration. “When there was talk about the possibility of a second round, things were put on hold. Businesses were not paralyzed, but very slow. Activities were slow as a whole. ... It hasn’t picked up.”
The U.N. retreat after a deadly attack on a Kabul guest houseused by its staffers has exacerbated the unease.
“The U.N. guest house attack added a whole new layer of uncertainty,” said Ashley Jackson of the international aid agency Oxfam. “We’re waiting to see what’s going to happen, especially during the winter. There is a lot of uncertainty among the Afghans about what’s going to happen to them. Will Karzai’s government change? Will things improve? Everyone knows that Obama’s strategy is forthcoming, but what will that mean?”
Obama’s top war commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has laid out options for deploying between about 10,000 and 40,000 additional U.S. troops next year, and prefers the high end, military officials have said. They said the more likely outcome is a middle path that would add some 20,000 to 35,000 troops.
Obama is expected to announce his decision after he returns from a trip to Asia, perhaps after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 26 -- despite continued criticism from conservatives in Washington that Obama is taking too long.
“We are listening on the radio, watching in the TV for the last couple of weeks waiting for President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan,” said Nadar Khan, a businessman who sells wheat, sugar and oil in Uruzgan province. “If there is no security, you can’t do your business.”
Even on the battlefield, troops are wondering how the upcoming decisions will impact their lives.
Sgt. 1st Class Scott J. Lund of Balaton, Minnesota, with the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, wonders whether Obama’s plan will push his deployment beyond its current 12 months.
“I don’t think the president is going to do that,” Lund said. “But if he does, we’re prepared. We’ve done it before.”
Some French troops, working to secure areas east of Kabul, said waiting for Obama’s decision has led to doubts about the mission.
“We’re sort of fighting the Americans’ war here, and it’s starting to look like they’re not sure why they’re in Afghanistan either,” said Chief Sgt. Olivier, part of the 3,000-strong French contingent of NATO. He and others only gave their first name because of the French Foreign Legion’s strict anonymity rules.
Fellow soldiers said the current political and military limbo in Afghanistan hasn’t dampened their morale, but it has raised questions back home.
“Our families call and say: ‘Don’t get wounded or killed for these Afghans, who can’t get their act together,”’ 1st Class Legionnaire Aristide said.
As everyone awaits decisions from Obama and Karzai, the Taliban has carried on with its attacks.
Security is being tightened in and around the capital ahead of Karzai’s inaugural on Thursday. The government has declared the day a national holiday and has asked the public to stay home to minimize traffic on the capital’s clogged roads. Regular flights at the airport are being cancelled the day of the event, which is attracting leaders from around the world.
Col. Sanam Gul, commander of the 4th Battalion of the Afghan National Army, said his troops along with U.S. forces were increasing their patrols and checkpoints leading into Kabul and stopping suspicious vehicles headed in that direction.
“The enemy is now trying to penetrate into Kabul to disrupt the inauguration,” Gul said.