What happens when troops - and money - leave Afghanistan?

The drawdown of foreign troops – now slated for 2013 – could destabilize Afghanistan's economy – or, according to some, help stem rampant corruption.

By , Correspondent

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    A US soldier keeps watch near the site of a car bomb blast that killed at least seven people on Sunday in the city of Kandahar, Afghanistan.
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After three decades of conflict, Afghanistan has a complicated relationship with war.

No one wants the fighting to continue. But many are worried what will happen if the foreign aid, social opportunity, and, in some parts of Afghanistan, relative security the fighting has brought ends. 

As the international community accelerates its withdrawal from Afghanistan, many here say they'll be fine. As long as foreign spending continues, they say, security and the new status quo will remain. If the US and its allies cut development spending as their troops leave, however, many Afghans and aid workers worry that it could have a devastating affect on everything from women's rights to the stability of the entire economy.

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“There will be much corruption on one side, and on the other, there will not be enough troops to secure the country, especially the rural areas,”  says Mahmood Khan, a member of parliament from Kandahar Province.

Still, reflecting the view of many Afghans, he doesn't think that Afghans or the international community will give up on the development work they have started. “Something has been done in the last 10 years, and we have spent lots of money which has come from foreign sources.”

Shifting war timetable, shifting money

Last week, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that American troops would switch from a combat role to a support role in Afghanistan by mid- to late-2013, with all provinces in Afghan control by the end of 2014. The news came after French officials announced that all 3,600 of their troops stationed here will be completely withdrawn by mid-2013.

Initial estimates indicate that it will cost $6 billion annually to maintain Afghan security forces, following the drawdown – about three times Afghanistan’s current national tax revenues.

Currently, 90 percent of the Afghan government’s budget comes from foreign sources, and about 97 percent of the country’s GDP has come to depend on foreign aid and international military spending as well. The World Bank has even warned of economic collapse in Afghanistan if international donors pull funding too fast. 

Indeed, the mark of foreign spending is clear. Over the past decade, NGOs and companies working with or for foreign organizations have grown, especially in the nation’s capital. As NATO looks to cut back, many of those that depend on foreign funding to survive – as well as those that are self-sustaining – are concerned.

“If the security decreases in this country, women will be the first victims. They will go back to their homes,” says Najiba Ayubi, the managing director of the Development Humanitarian Services for Afghanistan at the Killid Group.  “No family will give the women their right to work. It will affect women’s rights.”

Ms. Najiba is one of many Afghan women who have benefited from the presence of foreigners. She not only has a job outside her home, but a high-level one.

Her organization has been self-sustaining since mid-2005, but she says that without foreign organizations holding the purse strings for many lucrative contracts and pressuring companies to hire women, it’s unlikely that Afghanistan would have as many women in the workplace as it does now.

Najiba says she does not think the new time table gives Afghanistan enough time to prepare.

Indeed, there are daily reminders that the country is far from secure. On Sunday, a car bomb left at least seven people dead and another 19 injured in the restive city of Kandahar. The southern region of Afghanistan has seen the largest concentration of foreign troops, yet remains one of the more troubled spots in the country.

News of the bombing came just one day after the United Nations released a report indicating that civilian causalities increased for the fifth consecutive year in 2011. The number climbed 8 percent, from 2,790 civilian deaths in 2010 to 3,021 last year.

Some say it's best that foreign military presence ends

Still, there is a population of Afghans who think they may ultimately be better off without any foreign military presence.

While it's true that his organization benefited from the help of foreign organizations, says Lal Gul Lal, who has run the Afghanistan Human Rights Organization since 1997, AHRO can survive on donations from wealthy Afghans as it did when it first began.

“After almost 11 years, they [NATO] didn’t do anything to create a permanent solution to Afghanistan’s problems,” says Mr. Lal. “I think if they leave Afghanistan there will be no effect.”

There is even some hope that cuts in foreign spending could ultimately lead to less corruption in Afghan society – a major concern in a nation ranked the second most-corrupt in the world by Transparency International.

Already, the US has determined that more than $60 billion has been lost in Afghanistan and Iraq contracting due to fraud, mismanagement, and lack of oversight.

“If we get less money than now and we have a transparent administration, I think that will be better than we are now. We have NGOs working in different sectors, but they are corrupt and grabbing money and no one knows where all the money goes,” says Ismattuallh Shinwari, a member of parliament from Nangarhar Province.

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