NANGARHAR PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN — U.S. President Donald Trump never wanted to inherit the Afghan war.
Over the years, he has referred to the 16-year U.S. incursion in Afghanistan as everything from “a total disaster” to “a complete waste” to “a terrible mistake.” It’s no surprise then, that upon taking office last year, the former reality star and his bombast became a lightning rod in the region. Trump’s words have not only highlighted the growing divide between Afghanistan and the neighboring U.S. ally Pakistan, but also threatened the United States’ own relationship with Islamabad.
With the announcement of his “new” strategy for Afghanistan last August, Trump became an unlikely hero for Kabul’s power elite. For Afghan officials, Trump represents a chance for a new direction in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, a war that had so far stumped two prior U.S. administrations despite almost two decades of military and economic aid.
Trump’s harsh stance on Pakistan, whom he accused earlier this month of providing “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan,” has also won their favor. They see his words as a public acknowledgement of the longstanding Afghan belief that Islamabad is aiding and abetting the armed opposition in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.
The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 1, 2018
Afghans question Trump’s intentions
While state officials fawn over Trump, many Afghan civilians question the U.S. president’s strategy for Afghanistan, and by extension, Pakistan. They wonder whether his fiery speeches and tweets will lead to meaningful, positive action on the ground.
Atahullah, a 22-year-old rickshaw driver in the eastern city of Jalalabad, told ThinkProgress that he appreciates Trump’s “obvious” declarations against Islamabad. But having seen the handling of the Afghan war by three consecutive U.S. administrations, he can’t seem to shake his lingering doubts.
“He said what we all, even children, know. But why did he do it,” Atahullah asked as he maneuvered through the city’s traffic in his blue and orange vehicle.
Atahullah, who claimed he doesn’t follow politics, said whatever the U.S. president’s words amount to, it has done little to curb the increasing violence in the provincial capital of the eastern province of Nangarhar.
“Just a few days ago I saw man killed at a roundabout, but nobody, not even the police, batted an eyelash,” he said.
The increasing crime on the streets of Jalalabad was on the minds of nearly all the Nangarhar residents who spoke to ThinkProgress.
Raheb Assad, who runs a wholesale pharmaceutical business in Jalalabad said a recent crime spree in the city has only gotten worse. In fact, a picture of a relative of his carrying a rifle in a pharmacy went viral late last year.
This is reportedly a pharmacy owner in Jalalabad who has to keep a gun for self-protection as security is deteriorated in the city. pic.twitter.com/gwmPYJJf7b
— Modaser Islami (@mmodaser) October 6, 2017
“They had been holding up money exchangers, and then they came for him, that’s when he started to carry the gun,” Assad said.
He added that Trump’s rhetoric has had effects on both sides of the Durand Line, which marks the contested areas that separate Afghanistan from Pakistan.
For Afghan businesses operating in Pakistan, he said, the cost of doing business has gone up at least 10 percent in recent weeks. Pakistani officials say the rising costs are due to falling rupee prices, but Assad said Afghan businessmen seem to be disproportionately affected by the hikes. Last week, Islamabad’s Customs and Food Department banned the import of fresh fruits and vegetables from Afghanistan and stopped at least 50 loaded trucks at the Torkham border crossing.
Earlier in the month, Islamabad announced that they would not renew the residence cards of more than a million registered Afghan refugees, a decision that is believed to be a direct result of Trump’s new policy towards Pakistan, including the temporary suspension of Washington’s military aid to Islamabad.
The threat of expelling refugees has also added to the worries of Afghans who have set up businesses in Pakistan, they fear that a forced expulsion would leave them unable to collect their debts and settle their accounts. Soon after Pakistan announced that it would not renew residency cards, Afghan refugees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province said the Pakistani government must assure that their investments in the country — estimated to be as high as $4 billion — are reimbursed.
Still, Assad said he has seen positive impacts of Afghan and coalition aerial and ground operations. Afghan officials say these operations have targeted hundreds of fighters belonging to the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh, throughout the country.
The most notable change, he said, came to the districts of Achin and Shinwar, which had become hubs for fighters claiming allegiance to Daesh, he said. Suddenly, the districts began to open up.
“I can see the effects on my business. For years I couldn’t get my goods to the people, and now I can,” he said, “Clearly, something is changing, people feel safe to go out again.” Resolute Support, as the international military coalition in Afghanistan is known, said they killed 1,600 Daesh fighters in 2017.
Afghan officials share the belief that increased operations have largely yielded positive change, but questions remain over who is being targeted.
Wahidullah, an employee at a copy store in the main market of the Daronta district, expressed concern over the increasing violence.
“Every day the government claims to have killed this many Taliban or that many Daesh, but who are they really?” Wahidullah said.
“You think it’s just Pakistan supporting these groups, could they really wreak all this havoc with only Pakistani support?” he added. Wahidullah was referring to the belief that Washington has somehow aided fighters in Afghanistan who claim allegiance to Daesh. The conspiracy of U.S. collusion with Daesh fighters in Afghanistan is one largely espoused by former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.
In an interview with Russia Today last October, Karzai claimed to receive “daily reports by the Afghan people that unmarked military helicopters supply Daesh in many parts of Afghanistan.”
These rumors have become so prevalent, that last week, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass had to come out in clear objection to the claims. “The United States has not ever supported Daesh, its creation, its horrible attacks in any form, or fashion,” Bass said at his first press conference in Kabul.
Citing the spread of groups claiming allegiance to Daesh from their base in the East to the country’s northern provinces, Wahidullah expressed his doubts about the effectiveness of a heavy-handed military policy led by Kabul and Washington.
Next door, in Pakistan, Trump’s threats and Islamabad’s reactions to them highlight the fissures developing in the relations between the two long-time allies.
Pakistanis speaking to ThinkProgress said they are angry that their country, which has made many sacrifices in the “war on terror,” is being singled out by a hostile U.S. administration.
Zille Huma, a 27-year-old a housewife from the eastern city of Lahore, called Trump “a mad man. He is a joker.”
Huma said the recent spat boils down to the fact that both Pakistan and Afghanistan do not trust one another, adding that this mutual distrust is what led Kabul to seek Washington’s assistance on pressuring Islamabad.
“Both countries should stop placing the blame on each other,” she said.
Washington added further fuel to that fire this week, when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders once again referred to terrorist safe havens in Pakistan while addressing the Taliban-claimed attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul.
At a press briefing on Monday, Sanders called on Pakistan “to immediately arrest or expel the Taliban’s leaders … [and] prevent the group from using Pakistani territory to support its operations.”
After this, she added, Pakistan and the United States could never return to friendly relations. The sentiment is shared by Muhammad Bahsarat, a 35-year-old barber in Islamabad.
Basharat predicted that if Trump continues to act erratically, Islamabad will simply turn to China for help. This month, Beijing spent billions on an economic corridor connecting the two nations, as Afghanistan has worked to limit its economic dependence on Pakistan. There have even been reports of Chinese plans to build a military base in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar.
“Our friend China will be there. America has never been a trusted friend while China supports Pakistan openly against India,” Basharat said.
“I have heard he tweeted something really nasty about Pakistan. I do not know much about Twitter, but one thing I do know is that Trump cannot push Pakistan to the wall,” he said.
Amanat Raza, 22, who recently completed his Masters degree in Pakistan’s largest province Punjab, believes Afghanistan has fallen under the influence of India, a common belief in Pakistan, which maintains a decades-long rivalry with India.
“They should stop taking dictation from India and America and behave like a sovereign country. Most of the terrorists’ activities in Pakistan are being carried out by terrorists based at Afghanistan,” Raza said echoing a popular sentiment in Pakistan, that it is Kabul, not Islamabad, which is offering safe haven to armed opposition groups.
Raza foresees no good coming from Trump’s South Asia policies. He said instead of turning to foreign nations, the leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan must start to look inward for solutions.
“Both countries need to take responsibility instead of putting it on each other,” Raza said.