Karzai meets Obama: How will they shape a post-2014 Afghanistan?
Few appear to believe the Taliban can regain power after 2014, when the US withdraws most of its troops. What's key, some say, is developing a US-Afghan partnership that will survive.
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After more than a decade of war and costly efforts to build infrastructure and train Afghan security forces that now number 350,000, the view from Kabul is still mixed. Many are concerned about what will happen when the bulk of the 66,000 remaining US troops will be withdrawn by the end of 2014. Others believe that Afghanistan is ready to stand on its own.
Yet worries about a collapse or a reignited civil war after the US pullout may be overblown, just as similar doomsday predictions about Iraq after the final US withdrawal in December 2011 have not come to pass.
"There is now a sense [among foreigners] that the lights are going to go out in 2014, that the sun is going to stop shining," says Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. "In the early years, they had this overly rosy picture, but since then there has been this decline and increasing pessimism. Both are over-estimations of the international role."
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Some fear a return to the dark days of the late 1990s, when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan with a centuries-old, unbending Salafi Islamist worldview. Others fear a breakdown of central government and return of warlordism, competing militias, and civil war.
A number of analysts, however, say Afghanistan has come too far since 2001 to disintegrate again into past eras of violence and lawlessness, and that those who fought over Kabul in the 1990s today have vested interests in keeping the peace in the capital.
"It's not important for us, the physical presence of Americans in Afghanistan, the numbers beyond 2014," says Hilaluddin Hilal, an Afghan Air Force general and deputy Interior minister for security until 2005.
"The important thing is a strong partnership and the existence of the US as an ally. We don't want the Americans to take part in the frontline fight against insurgents; we have enough [troops]," says Hilal.
He ticks off a list of complaints voiced by many Afghans: rampant corruption, poor governance with limited capacity, and billions in Western reconstruction aid that often lined pockets instead of creating sustainable, tangible results.