Letter From Kabul

Fear and Abandonment in Afghanistan

U.S. President Barack Obama’s June 22 speech on withdrawal from Afghanistan made an already tense situation on the ground tenser. He called for an accelerated withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. troops from the country over the next year. The Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan police are stronger than they were before the U.S. troop surge, he said; Afghans have returned to markets and other public places; and women are starting to seize new opportunities to get an education or a job. But where Obama touts success, Afghans see fragility.

In fact, most striking for Afghans, Obama’s speech was not about “transition,” the euphemism for withdrawal the United States typically favors, but about abrupt disengagement, with no convincing commitment to seeing Afghanistan through to peace. The speech was clear on the plan to bring U.S. troops home but vague on the specifics of how to leave behind a stable Afghanistan, beyond asserting that the Afghan government would now have to take the lead. But Afghanistan’s weak government and embattled president do not inspire confidence. Afghans seem convinced that the country will relapse into all-out civil war after the United States withdraws.

Many Afghans understandably fear for their lives. During a large international development agency’s recent meeting in Kabul, an Afghan employee asked “What is the plan for evacuating local staff when the United States withdraws?” Amid charts illustrating dwindling aid deliveries, she foresaw Kabul becoming another Saigon. An Afghan colleague of mine, who has worked for years on development projects with foreigners comes to work every day in his shalwar kameez (the baggy pants and long shirt that many South Asians wear) and changes into Western attire at the office. He drives a beat-up car and routinely moves his family to different rental apartments in Kabul. “If the Taliban comes back, and people know I worked for foreigners, I will be found hanging from a lamppost,” he said. The Taliban lynched Afghanistan’s last communist president, Mohammad Najibullah, that way in 1996.

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