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Afghans Dismayed At Future Without Foreign Forces

Afghan security forces near the main gate of the National Directorate of Security, where an accidental explosion in an arms depot shook central Kabul in December
Afghan security forces near the main gate of the National Directorate of Security, where an accidental explosion in an arms depot shook central Kabul in December
The Afghan government might have hailed the United States’ early timetable for a complete withdrawal from the country. But behind the scenes, many in Afghanistan are dismayed by the prospect of being abandoned by Washington -- the country’s key ally and benefactor.

Kabul assumed that a foreign presence was likely to continue for a further decade after the NATO-led combat mission ends this year -- as specified in the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) both countries have agreed to but Afghanistan has yet to sign. Washington needs the agreement in order for its troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond this year.

But U.S. President Barack Obama caught many off guard when he announced this week that Washington would keep only 9,800 troops after this year, then swiftly withdraw virtually all of those by the end of 2016.

In Afghanistan, the announcement has reaffirmed doubts over America’s military and financial commitment. Many Afghans worry that the country’s fledgling security forces will struggle to fend off the Taliban without foreign funding and assistance, and say a complete withdrawal would send the country spiraling into chaos.
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“There is real anxiety among the political elite in Afghanistan,” says Abdul Waheed Wafa, the director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. “The main concern is whether there is any reason left for the Americans to support Afghanistan, especially the country’s security forces,” says Wafa, referring to the $4 billion the American military says is needed to sustain the national army and police forces.

Omar Samad, a senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation and a former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, says Washington’s two-year withdrawal plan for Afghanistan indicates that the scope of U.S. engagement will be much narrower than previously anticipated.

“The message is that the Americans are no longer as serious about Afghanistan and this part of the world as they have been over the last decade,” says Samad.
Afghan schoolgirls walk past a damaged military bus after a May 26 suicide attack in Kabul.
Afghan schoolgirls walk past a damaged military bus after a May 26 suicide attack in Kabul.

The 9,800 U.S. soldiers that will remain are expected to continue training Afghanistan's 350,000-strong security force and conduct limited counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda remnants. By the end of 2015, half of them will leave. By the end of 2016, most of them will be gone, save a handful that will remain to secure the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

U.S. military leaders have rushed to assuage concerns that Washington is abandoning the country. General Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. and coalition commander in Afghanistan, said during a May 28 press conference in Kabul that Washington would continue to “provide for sustainable Afghan forces.”

The remaining U.S. contingent is expected to be bolstered by several thousand soldiers from NATO and non-NATO countries with troops in Afghanistan. An unspecified number of private contractors is also expected to remain in the country.

That, however, has failed to calm fears in Afghanistan, where many say far too few American soldiers are being left behind for too short a time. Many say the quick drawdown will further destabilize the country and put Afghanistan’s weak economy at greater risk of failure.

"If foreign forces stay, it would be positive because they can maintain security,” says Razaq, a resident of Kabul. “If they leave, there could be civil strife like the past.”

“We all know better than anyone what happened 25 years ago,” says Ahmad, a student in Kabul, referring to the American decision to leave Afghanistan on its own after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989. The CIA had supported and funded mujahedin groups fighting the Red Army.

Afghans see this as an American betrayal that ultimately led to the devastating civil war and the rise of the Taliban. And many say they feel history is repeating itself after Washington announced its plan for a complete withdrawal.

Shukria Barakzai, a female member of Afghanistan's parliament, said the speed of the American drawdown and the number of troops that would be left behind was “worrisome,” saying at least 15,000 American troops should remain in the country.

Fawzia Koofi, another female lawmaker, tweeted on May 27: "We are proud of the [morale]/self-esteem of our security forces, however, I had expected more than ten thousand troops to continue post 2014."

Koofi also lamented the “message” the timetable for the drawdown sent to the insurgency which, she said, could simply wait it out until foreign forces leave for good.

The two candidates vying to replace President Hamid Karzai in a second-round presidential election on June 14 -- former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani -- both responded cautiously to the planned complete U.S. withdrawal.

Abdullah called for a “responsible exit” in an interview with France 24 on May 29. “Nobody would like to see a situation that can have the potential to lead to the earlier situation before the [2001] intervention by the U.S.”

Abass Noyan, a spokesman for Ghani, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on May 28 that the U.S. plan was “not a matter of concern” and that Obama’s insistence that Kabul sign the BSA was an “encouragement.”

Still, some Afghans say they are happy for the country's security forces to be in control, but only if the international community continues to provide them with funding, weapons, intelligence and other help.

“If our army is given modern weapons, it can secure the country. Otherwise it will face big problems,” says Daud, another resident of Kabul.

Others say international forces could not leave soon enough.

“The quicker they leave, the better it would probably be for all of us,” says Jawed, who refers to controversial U.S. night raids and NATO air strikes that have killed Afghan civilians.

Karzai's response was in stark contrast to the apprehension felt by many Afghans.

In a May 28 statement, he said that the end of the U.S. military presence was “a main desire of both the president, the government and of the people of Afghanistan.”

He added that a complete withdrawal offered a “historic opportunity” to end the war by giving the Taliban a “reason” to end its insurgency.

Washington’s post-2014 troop presence still hinges on Afghanistan's next president signing the BSA. A deal is expected to be inked, as both Abdullah and Ghani have publicly said they will quickly sign it.

Karzai, whose relationship with the U.S. government has soured considerably during his final term in office, has refused to sign the deal.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.