Why Afghanistan is nervous about the US troop withdrawal

By December 2014 the Afghan National Security Forces that have been built by the US and NATO will be left to largely stand on their own.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
A US soldier secures the area where a suicide car bomber attacked a NATO convoy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday. Next year will mark the end of NATO's combat mission in Afghanistan. By December 2014 the US and other foreign troops still here will be gone.

Afghanistan is suffering a crisis of confidence – and given what’s on the horizon, it's not so difficult to see why.

Next year is shaping up to be a perfect storm of security, political, and economic transition. And many Afghans, from shopkeepers to members of Parliament, are uncertain that their fragile ship can withstand the tossing waves.

After more than a decade of a massive foreign military presence and an associated aid effort that have showered tens of billions of dollars on one of the world’s poorest countries, the US and other Western powers are preparing, if not to say goodbye, then to substantially scale back.

Next year will mark the end of NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan. By December 2014 the 99,000 US and other foreign troops still here will be gone. The Afghan National Security Forces – army and police – will be left to largely stand on their own against a nasty insurgency.

Marking perhaps an even more critical milestone, Afghanistan will hold presidential elections next April, testing the ability of a population deeply divided along ethnic and urban-rural lines to form some level of political consensus, and rally behind a new leader.

On top of the security and political uncertainties, economic activity driven by the large international presence is expected to fall off substantially next year. An economy growing by nearly 10 percent annually in recent years could see the growth tumble by nearly half next year, according to the World Bank.

The coming trifecta of change would challenge almost any of the world’s countries, but for many Afghans – especially urban dwellers who have seen life fast-forward into the 21st century during the past decade, the uncertainty and prospect of regression seem traumatic.

Daydreams of leaving

“We are afraid about our future,” says Fatima Aziz, a surgeon who is a member of Parliament from Kunduz Province. “The ANP [Afghan National Police] is not strong, we don’t know how security will be without the international forces.”

Afghans in and around Kabul reveal anxieties about the US and NATO drawdown, and many say they have daydreams of leaving before chaos sets in – a recent Asia Society survey found that one-third of Afghans would leave the country if they could. Many express fear of the Taliban’s return to power – even though many Afghan experts assert that the country has evolved and modernized too much for that to happen.

Others acknowledge the challenges posed by “the transition,” but they blame the country’s leadership for not addressing the national malaise.

 “People are worried, but I blame the government for not preparing themselves for the worst,” says Mustafa Sadiq, chief executive officer of Afghanistan’s largest privately owned fruit processing company, Omaid Bahar. By “the worst” he says he means “the vacuum that will be created when 100,000 troops withdraw.”

Mr. Sadiq, whose company employs 700 people and collects fruit from 35,000 mostly small farmers, says businesses are closing as the foreign presence shrinks and contracts dry up. Unemployment is rising, and real estate prices are plummeting – down 40 percent or more in Kabul, he says.  

Even some of Afghanistan’s most prominent leaders acknowledge the public frenzy over the specter of 2014, even as they insist that the solutions exist to carry the country through the storm – perhaps even to come out of it stronger than when it went in.

 “There is a problem of confidence – it’s a problem of public psychology, and that public psychology is about 2014,” says Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who came in fourth in Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential election.

Moving on to a national dialogue 

Dr. Ghani, who now heads a national commission focused on the transition (and who swats away queries about whether or not he will again be a presidential candidate in 2014) says Afghanistan needs a “national dialogue” to prepare the country for next year.

That national dialogue would not focus on reconciliation with the Taliban insurgency – a project that has floated around for years without advancing – but rather on creating a national consensus for the April 5 elections.

Ghani rejects the widespread worries about the security transition, citing evidence from the field of the Afghan National Army’s growing effectiveness and surveys showing high public confidence in the military.

“The security piece is largely in place, the key event now is political,” he says.

Some Afghan political and business leaders say nothing could calm the 2014 jitters like an announcement from President Obama of the number of US troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Speculation has swirled for months that the number will be around 8,000 – for a total international commitment of perhaps 12,000. Mr. Obama has said that the troops he deploys to Afghanistan post-2011 will be “narrowly focused” on training and counterterrorism.

But Ghani says Afghanistan’s “key challenge” is to prepare next year’s election. Nothing would go as far in building the country’s confidence as a well-prepared, transparent, and uncontested election able to “give the next government a mandate.”

Part of the angst about 2014 stems from memories of the 2009 election, which was won by President Hamid Karzai but so stained by fraud and discrepancies that many Afghans dismissed the result as illegitimate.

Ghani’s idea this time: to hold well before the election a “national convention” where a broad spectrum of Afghanistan’s political leadership would debate and agree on “the rules of the road” for next year’s election. Pointing out that the early Americans held more than 100 conventions at various levels before settling on the constitution, Ghani says Afghans would be reassured by a discussion that delivers political consensus.

What about traditional elites?

Yet as soothing as a national dialogue might sound, it will do little to address Afghans’ fears if it is limited to the country’s traditional elites, others say.

Any effort to build confidence in the future must include those who have most at stake in it, and that’s Afghans 25 and under who make up 70 percent of the population, says Parwiz Kawa, editor in chief of Kabul’s Hasht a Subh newspaper.

Afghanistan’s economy poses critical challenges for young people, Mr. Kawa says, but he adds that the “other transitions” take a back seat to the overriding importance of a successful political transition next year.

 “We have to have a free and fair election that builds trust and brings back confidence, that’s the most important thing,” he says.

Kawa says he knows many Afghan young people who, though they may be worried about 2014, still see the coming changes, including a smaller foreign footprint, as an opportunity for Afghans to take responsibility for their country.

The challenge will be to convince more Afghans that their country can withstand “the transition,” but accomplishing that will likely require a focused effort from Afghanistan’s leaders.    

As Ghani says, “The test of Afghan leadership is to create confidence in the future.”    

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