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 Many are concerned about what will happen when the bulk of the 66,000 remaining US troops will be withdrawn by the end of 2014.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."
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.
"Now the big problem is disagreement between Karzai and the US – this can create strategic problems for the US and Afghanistan in the future," says Hilal. "Sometimes the president says the reason for insecurity is America itself.... And the Taliban, the president calls them 'brothers,' but they kill innocent people. How can that be? We have no definition of who is the enemy [so] there is no clear strategy about the enemy in Afghanistan."
Mr. Karzai's visit to Washington comes amid news from Afghanistan of yet another "green on blue" attack of a uniformed member of the Afghan Army shooting dead a British soldier on Monday – a reminder of the uncertainties and eroded trust as the US plans to withdraw the bulk of its troops. US forces are part of a 100,000-strong NATO contingent.
The killing was the latest in a surge of such attacks. During the past year, insider attacks killed 63 US and NATO troops, in 47 incidents.
'We have done so much'
"There is a Western point of view that we have done so much all this time, that we have tried so hard to build up this government, that it's still in such bad shape, that it must be impossible for it to roll on and continue to exist without our help," says Ms. Bijlert.
Yet, "the actual locally relevant governance and politics that went on was often not that visible to the foreigners here. This will probably continue," says Bijlert. Often classified as dysfunctional, that system "has defused a lot of the possible violence."
"The complexity of it might be uniquely Afghan. It's very much a personalized, patronage-based society.... Your relationships are the main capital you have, and also the greatest threat: Who is your friend and your enemy is the most important thing in life," adds Bijlert.
"And with all the turnovers over the decades, things have become ever more complicated, [leaving] you with layers of multiple loyalties," notes Bijlert. "Anyone who's anybody, politically or socially, even on the village level, has to engage in complicated, almost mathematical relational calculations all the time – that's what politics are made of here. Also, it's very brutal: It's easy to get killed or beaten up. So you're constantly engaging in actions to defuse that."
Much of that political dynamic bypassed US and NATO forces as they sought to stamp out an insurgency that leapt up after US forces and intelligence shifted attention in 2002 toward Iraq.
The result has been dashed hopes that were high among Afghans, after the Taliban and Al Qaeda militants were forced from power and out of Kabul by US airstrikes and Northern Alliance fighters in late 2001. Afghans expected dramatic and positive change, spearheaded by American forces, aid, and good intentions.
"People are so disappointed; expectations were normal, but they didn't finish the Taliban," says a former translator for US and British forces, who spoke in Kabul on the condition he not be named because has been threatened because of his previous translation work.
"Before , people thought of the Taliban as a military power, but now they are a political power, because they can play a game and they are doing it," says the Afghan translator.
"To be honest, [the US] lost the war. With all this effort, you expect good results, but they are not there," says the translator. "Now [US forces] are trying to reduce their casualties. If they won the war, why do they want to keep 10,000 troops? It means there are still things to do, and the threats are worse [today] than five years ago. In 2001, it was so easy to finish the Taliban, [but] now the Taliban are in an offensive position."
The translator recalls hearing repeated complaints from Afghan villagers as US troops made patrols in the less-welcoming southern reaches of the country, that it was the US presence that endangered them – not only the Taliban.
"They were hating both sides, they were harmed by both sides," says the translator. "[Villagers] would say: 'Please, for God's sake, leave! You are the main reason for the problem. From the day you arrived, there was bombing.' The American commander laughed and said, 'We are bringing security to you.' They replied: 'No, we feel insecurity with you.'"
An elder from the remote eastern province of Nuristan says he heard similar sentiments.
Yacoub Nuristani, who helped US Provincial Reconstruction Teams choose and fund projects, says there is little left to show for that work besides a few clinic and school buildings.
A key road near Kamdesh is now too insecure to use. Five years ago, the Monitor reported on Taliban killings of elders who cooperated with US forces, which later withdrew completely from the province.
"The people of Kamdesh fought against the Taliban when the Americans were there, they were threatened by the Taliban," says Mr. Nuristani, speaking in Kabul. "Now the Taliban are there, but they don't threaten because there are no US or foreign troops."
Those who supported the government and fought the Taliban, says Nuristani, now have no government support "so they had to flee."
Few say they believe that the Taliban could reimpose their rule on Afghanistan before or after 2014, and some say the spate of suicide bombings in recent years – which have often targeted civilians in mosques and shops – is a sign of weakness.
However, few on the ground here use the word "victory."
"It was just a given, it was going to be a success, and if it wasn't going to be a success, it had to be made to look like a success," says Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "That skewed everything, so it became difficult to say, 'Actually, this is very hard, and maybe we should rethink.'
Thus emerged a pattern of expectation, that a solution was just around the corner, if this step were taken to win hearts and minds, or that troop surge was implemented. Instead, the insurgency continues.
Says Bijlert: "Some of it was almost like an evangelical belief, that something was on the verge of happening that would change everything."