Even Trump's fans in Afghanistan are turning against him

Even Trump's fans in Afghanistan are turning against him
Analysis: Afghans once lauded Donald Trump as a breath of fresh air, but his love of airstrikes and rewriting of history have won him few friends, reports Ali Latifi.
9 min read
25 February, 2019
Trump's varied perceived failings have sparked protests in Kabul [AFP]

When Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States in 2017, he also became the third Commander-in-Chief to take charge of the US war in Afghanistan. In his home country, Trump's presidency was met with a mix of shock, disbelief and joy.

Here in Afghanistan, however, elites - those in the government, high-level positions in the security forces, businesspeople, NGO and media workers - stood by the former reality TV star. These people held tight to the belief that Trump would right the wrongs of the Obama administration, namely his announcement of a foreign troop withdrawal in 2014.

That drawdown saw Afghan forces take the security lead in the same year as a presidential election that led to the first peaceful transition of power in decades.

Soon after Trump took the oath of office, Pashto and Dari-language translations of Donald and Ivanka Trump's books were being sold in Kabul bookstores and by street-side booksellers outside the city's Shahr-e Naw park. One family in the central province of Daikondi even named their son "Donald Trump".

For nearly two years, educated Afghans - even those hailing from provinces where US troops have been accused of abuse, torture and drone strikes that led to civilian casualties - would say things like Trump 'may not be good for his country, but he's great for ours'

In the eastern province of Logar, a group of approximately 300 residents gathered to award a $645 gold medal of bravery to Trump for his hardline stance on neighbouring Pakistan, the nation many Afghans accuse of aiding and abetting the armed opposition in their country.

For nearly two years, educated Afghans - even those hailing from provinces where US troops have been accused of abuse, torture and drone strikes that led to civilian casualties - would say things like Trump "may not be good for his country, but he's great for ours".

However, in recent months, Trump's own words and actions have started to cast a shadow over that faith. This is a man who for years has called the Afghan war everything from "a total disaster" to "a complete waste".

In December, reports of preparations for the withdrawal of half of all US troops from Afghanistan sent shockwaves among decision-makers in Kabul. This came as a particular jolt to influential Afghans who were hopeful Trump would continue to increase the number of US forces on the ground, as he had in 2017, rather than prepare for a drawdown.

A month later, the US president rewrote Afghan (and world) history in his retelling of the decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan: "The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there."

That declaration was so egregious it even earned the criticism of the Presidential Palace. In a statement, President Ashraf Ghani said: "After the invasion by the Soviet Union, all presidents of America not only denounced this invasion but remained supporters of this holy jihad of the Afghans."

The statement marked one of the first public disagreements between Washington and Kabul, even as the past two years have seen reports of civilian casualties from US-led operations in Afghanistan increase.

Late last year, the Trump administration started to hold face-to-face talks with the Taliban. The sudden willingness to sit down with the Taliban, something the group has called for since 2001, was in stark contrast to Trump's February 2018 declaration: "We don't want to talk with the Taliban." 

Then, last month, Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington's Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, said a "framework" for an eventual peace deal with the Taliban had been reached. That announcement led many Afghans to fear the complete absence of the Afghan government and civil society in those discussions could lead to a rushed agreement which might jeopardise rights Afghans have regained since the six-year rule of the Taliban.

In 2018, approximately the same number of civilians were killed from airstrikes as in 2014, 2015 and 2016 combined

This week, the United Nations released its annual report on civilian casualties. Though the armed opposition, including the Taliban, accounted for 63 percent of all "civilian casualties", the report also cited the rising number of civilians killed and injured in operations conducted by foreign forces.

According to the UN, in 2018, foreign forces were responsible for 406 civilian deaths and 268 injuries. At least 94 percent of these were the result of aerial operations. In fact, the UN says: "In 2018, approximately the same number of civilians were killed from airstrikes as in 2014, 2015 and 2016 combined."

The rising number of casualties from airstrikes comes after Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, enacted a policy that earned Afghanistan the title of the most drone-bombed country in the world.

Obaid Ali, a Kabul-based analyst, said the initial enthusiasm for Trump was indicative of a lack of foresight by decision-makers in Afghanistan.

"Even before people could properly analyse and evaluate his policies, they started to laud him," Ali said.

Rather than investigating Trump the person or the policy-maker, too many people in Kabul rushed to optimism for something new, he added.

Ioannis Koskinas, a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America, a non-partisan DC-based think-tank, sees things differently. His guarded optimism over Trump's South Asia Strategy is due to achievements he says are worth preserving in Afghanistan.

"We can't forget that Presidents Trump and Ghani inherited a mess created by their predecessors, Obama and [Hamid] Karzai," said Koskinas.

Koskinas says Obama's eight-year mismanagement of the Afghan war "set the conditions for the ballooning insurgency" in Afghanistan. It was in the final years of the Obama administration that groups claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group first appeared in the region. 

Koskinas says the doubling of the Afghan Special Forces and tripling of the Afghan Air Force - made possible as part of Trump's South Asia Strategy and initially proposed by President Ghani - have dealt a major blow to forces claiming allegiance to IS, which the UN said was responsible for 20 percent of all Afghan civilian casualties in 2018. 

In August, the governor of Jowzjan province, one of the northern strongholds of allegiance to IS, said the group "no longer exists" in his province. The past six months have also seen considerable security improvements in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which was subject to some of the most egregious and deadly IS-claimed attacks.

The events of the past few months have forced Afghan officials and influencers to get creative in their efforts to dissuade Trump from making any rash decisions regarding Washington's longest-ever foreign incursion.

Hoping to appeal to Trump's reported background as a businessman, Ghani wrote a letter to the US president, proposing ways to cut Washington's $45 billion annual expenditures on the Afghan war, a cost Trump has repeatedly said was too high.

"Since President Trump has spent his entire life in business, it should not come as a surprise that he places huge value on return on investment," said Koskinas.

But Koskinas also pointed out that demonstrable progress rather than just a sheer economics, "cost savings" calculation will be a key factor in Washington's Afghanistan strategy going forward.

"We must be able to demonstrate a considerable return on investment to retain the enduring support by President Trump," said Koskinas.

Ghani has yet to receive a response to his letter.

In an interview with CNN, former parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi implored First Lady Melania and First Daughter Ivanka to think of Afghan women when formulating US strategy on Afghanistan.

"I would like to call on... First Lady Melania Trump [and] Ivanka Trump to look at the situation of Afghan women as a human rights issue. We cannot have double standards," Koofi told Christiane Amanpour.

Earlier this month, Roya Rahmani, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, raised the issues of women's rights and the peace process in her meeting with Ivanka.

The effectiveness of Koofi and Rahmani's appeals to Trump's wife and daughter are highly questionable given the criticisms both women have faced for not doing enough to disavow the claims of sexist behaviour and sexual misconduct that plagued Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.

When reports of Trump's potential troop withdrawal first surfaced, Javid Faisal, a parliamentary candidate, evoked the words of former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley as a way to appeal to Trump's sense of morality.

"Lets remember what @NikkiHaley said: 'US has no moral duty to be neutral between right & wrong. On the contrary, we have a moral duty to take sides, even when that means standing alone'," Faisal tweeted.

This too seemed like a strange tactic, as Haley gained international notoriety after she publicly threatened any UN member-state that voted against Washington's controversial decision to relocate their embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

The Kabul administration itself has continually mentioned their conversations with Vice-President Mike Pence as a sign of Washington's continued commitment to their country. In 2017, Pence visited officials in Kabul. Trump has yet to make the journey himself.

However, the US constitution grants no direct power over military or foreign policy matters to the vice-president.

A lack of progress

Ali says, despite the optimism and outreach by influential Afghan figures, the facts on the ground show that very little has changed since Trump inherited the Afghan war: 

"On a fundamental, foundational level, nothing has changed, and if it has, it certainly hasn't been for the better."

Last month, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the top US watchdog on the country, reported that the Afghan government had control or influence over just 53.8 percent of the nation's 407 districts. That's down two percent from the previous quarter.

"If things are getting better, how come we still have statistics like this? No-one is paying attention to the actions and their effects," says Ali, who has conducted extensive research on the insurgency in Afghanistan's northern provinces.

Trump's tenure has also seen the US engage in increased aerial operations, which were already seen as leading to increasing numbers of civilian deaths under the Obama administration. The United Nations says 2018 saw the number of children killed in coalition airstrikes increase by 57 percent, to at least 280.

In May, Human Rights Watch accused both Kabul and Washington of "not adequately investigating possibly unlawful airstrikes in Afghanistan, which may contribute to rising civilian casualties".

Ali says though Trump's policies may have gained support in some Kabul circles, one doesn't have to venture far to see that the Afghan people's mistrust of US policies has not changed under the Trump presidency.

In the autumn of 2017, Friday sermons at several mosques in the Afghan capital were filled with anger and resentment at a leaflet that the US military rained down upon the homes of residents in the northern province of Parwan, 55 kilometres outside Kabul. The leaflet, dropped in Bagram district, bore the image of the Islamic declaration of faith on a dog, an animal that is seen as unclean by Muslims.

That faux pas came shortly after the Kabul government faced renewed criticism for its lack of condemnation of a US airstrike that killed at least 11 civilians in the eastern province of Logar.

Ali says all this adds to the belief among the Afghan people that "US policies on their soil remain ineffective" no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office.

Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-based freelance journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Qatar, Turkey, Greece and Washington, DC.

Follow him on Twitter: @alibomaye