Anti-American sentiment is at record high levels in Afghanistan, a factor that promises to complicate what is already shaping up as a tricky transfer of security responsibilities from Western forces to indigenous military and law-enforcement entities.
Under the existing timeframe, the Afghan government will assume in 2014 primary responsibility for maintaining security in the country. The transfer of authority would involve the withdrawal of the bulk of US troops that are currently fighting to contain the Taliban insurgency. Growing Afghan displeasure with the US military presence means that many are eager for foreign troops to leave. “The people of Afghanistan no longer desire to see others defend their country for them,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai said March 22.
But the unpopularity of US forces could increase the difficulty of preparing Afghan forces to handle security operations after 2014. Foreign analysts widely agree that the Afghan Army and other government security structures are unprepared at this time to take the lead in battling Islamic insurgents. A major risk, given the current dynamic, is that anti-American sentiment can cloud the government’s judgment, leading to a transfer of authority in Kabul that ends up boosting the Taliban’s strategic position.
Karzai’s comments on the public’s perception of US troops came two days after Der Spiegel, a German magazine, published photos allegedly depicting American soldiers posing with the bloodied and naked corpse of an Afghan civilian, killed in what US authorities are investigating as a murder. Though the public’s response to the Der Spiegel photos has been relatively muted, observers fear the possible release of hundreds of other photos could spark a popular backlash.
Most Afghans mention civilian casualties as the major source of their disenchantment. A recent ABC/BBC poll released in December found that, among Afghans, strong support for the presence of US military forces had declined from 30 percent in 2006 to 16 percent in 2010; the number of those strongly opposed to their presence had almost tripled during the same period.
A story recounted by a government official is representative of the experiences of many Afghans, and helps illustrate a major cause of anti-Americanism. The official, in an interview with EurasiaNet.org, said he was traveling through northern Afghanistan with his son, visiting from Europe, who was filming the trip.
An American convoy stopped them. “They said, ‘Give us the f***ing camera. Who sent you?’” the official recalled, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They did not ask what we were doing there, but asked ‘who sent you,’ as if my son needed their permission to be in his own country.” The matter was resolved, but ended on another inappropriate note. “They gave us 500 afghanis [USD 9] as compensation. Were they buying the right to insult?”
Back in late 2001, when an American-led offensive drove the Taliban from power in Kabul, support for US troops among Afghans ran high. Many citizens saw the American presence as a welcome relief from Taliban oppression. They also entertained perhaps unrealistic hopes that American economic muscle would transform their war-ravaged country. The pool of goodwill that once existed, however, has been drained, according to Najib Manalai, a senior advisor in the Ministry of Finance.
“In 2001 and early 2002 there was quite a positive feeling toward Americans,” Manalai said. “But instead of winning hearts and minds, they [US forces] alienated the people through their indiscriminate punishment of the larger population … with blind bombing in certain areas and culturally inappropriate behavior of the ground forces when they came to meet people.”
Many Afghans felt deserted by Americans in the early 1990s, following the end of a decade-long Soviet occupation. Washington had waged what was in effect a proxy war against Moscow in Afghanistan from 1979-89, but as soon as Soviet troops departed the country, US officials lost interest with helping their Afghan allies stabilize the country. Eventually civil warfare erupted, paving the way for the Taliban conquest of much of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.
“The United States left Afghanistan alone after the Soviets. The subsequent problems were a result of the US intervention to bleed the Soviets. We had expected they would help rebuild the country, but we were left alone and factional fighting erupted,” said Akmal Dawi of the Afghan Rights Monitor, a human rights group.
Battlefield actions are not the sole source of Afghan resentment for foreign troops. The United States, prior to the arrival of US forces, was viewed by many, perhaps looking through an idealized prism, as a beacon of stability, justice and prosperity. The reality of the last 10 years has prompted some to grow embittered by what they see as American moral ambiguity. An Afghan working at an international organization, who asked to be called Mariam for fear of losing her job, summed up her feelings this way: “They came in 2001 promising to bring us democracy, and they will go out with negotiations with the Taliban, and after providing millions of dollars to the warlords. … If the Taliban or warlords cut off the ears of girls, they [the Americans] say, ‘it is not my business.’”
Other Afghans say Washington lacks willingness or the understanding to work effectively with Afghans. “They have the world’s biggest institutions for civil diplomacy, but they don’t use the human to human resources,” said Dawi. Contact for the most part “is only between Karzai and the White House or military to military.”
“The United States never tried to understand us,” added Manalai, the Finance Ministry official. “They have played the kind of politics which cannot work in Asia.”
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.