Courtesy Reuters

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.

Even those not worried about being punished for collaboration are somber. A fruit seller feared that business would decline sharply when the foreigners left. “We will all have to go back to our villages,” he said, suggesting that they’d be unable to afford the cost of living in the capital. A taxi driver anticipated worse: “When Americans leave, there will be war,” he said “I am trying to get out now.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai often declares the country ready to manage its own security. He even routinely threatens to limit NATO’s operational freedom by preventing troops from targeting private homes, allegedly to avoid civilian casualties, despite intelligence suggesting that some are serving as Taliban safe houses. His bluster has some appeal for Afghans who take pride in never having been defeated by foreign invaders. But, in essence, most Afghans see his rants as delusional. They know that the government is not ready to guarantee their security. Ethnic divisions and seasonal attrition plague the ANA and corruption, illiteracy, and drug abuse plague the police.

Moreover, Afghans are concerned about the economic losses that will come with the U.S. withdrawal. They realize that the country’s strong growth rate is fleeting, mostly a reflection of the billions of dollars and huge quantities of goods shipped into the country to maintain the foreign forces stationed there and heaps of development aid. The armies will take their money with them when they leave and development aid is already on the decline. In 2010, the U.S. Department of State and USAID spent $4.2 billion, but the budget was reduced to $2.5 billion for 2011 and is expected to dwindle even further in the coming years.

For the Taliban, of course, the United States’ upcoming withdrawal is no “drawdown from a position of strength,” as Obama called it. In their public reactions to the speech they used an evocative term, farar, to describe the Americans as “running away” from defeat. Although clearly Taliban propaganda, the idea is not entirely farfetched. In recent months, the Taliban have reclaimed territory in the wild eastern province of Nuristan and they continue to wage a countrywide campaign against district governors and chiefs of police. They also continue to perpetrate frequent suicide attacks in the capital and the country’s south and east, often by attackers dressed in police uniforms. They intend to show -- as indeed they have shown -- that they have infiltrated the Afghan National Security Forces, the institution that is supposed to provide the security that will enable the United States’ timely exit.

In Obama’s speech, the main justification for leaving Afghanistan was that al Qaeda is crippled and compromised -- and this is sufficient from the U.S. perspective. But for Afghans, defeating al Qaeda has never been as urgent as ending the Taliban insurgency, which, in its tenth year, needs a political solution, not just a military one. Obama acknowledged as much, saying, “As we strengthen the Afghan government and Security Forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.” But it is unclear how such a settlement could come about under the truncated timetable of U.S. withdrawal. The reconciliation talks, which have had several false starts, appear to have picked up after Karzai visited Islamabad in early June to pressure Pakistan into taking a more constructive role. Yet progress has been too slow, and the Taliban are unlikely to consider the Afghan government a credible negotiating partner unless a strong U.S. presence can guarantee its promises. At best, then, the United States will be able to contain the insurgency as it leaves and maintain the existing political status quo.

Of course, Obama’s speech had domestic appeal. With Osama bin Laden dead, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaching, and a sluggish economy, withdrawing troops makes some sense. The speech received bipartisan support, with congressional republicans who have strongly supported the war now favoring its end. General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, admitted that the drawdown was more aggressive than he had advised but stated that he fully accepted the plan. Yet Obama will not be judged on how quickly he brings troops home, but by how Afghanistan fares once they have left. By all appearances, it will not do well.

If Obama were intent on alleviating some of the Afghans’ fears, he could have framed the speech differently, focusing on the number of U.S. troops left behind -- in 2012, still a whopping 68,000 -- and the ways they will work to secure gains on the ground, however fragile. He could have talked about the billions of dollars in development aid pledged to the country and how he intends to channel the funds. But even these factors are not enough to save Afghanistan. At a recent dinner in one of Kabul’s luxurious new establishments that cater to Afghan officials and expats, I ran into a friend from the Karzai family. He had recently quit his Afghan Foreign Service job to start a business in Kandahar. Despite all the looming dangers, he was excited about his prospects. “Just in time,” I exclaimed half jokingly, “before the foreign money runs out.” When I described the conversation to an Afghan with links to the insurgency, he gave a knowing shrug. “The government people are collecting the money,” he said, “and we the guns. This clearly shows who will flee and who will stay.”

With Obama’s speech, the United States signaled that it is not in Afghanistan to stay. What is important, then, is to be clear about what the United States commits to delivering on the way out -- in terms of money, security, and the creation of a sustainable future. The administration has so far avoided defining what success in Afghanistan actually means and it cannot be vague any longer. There is much confusion on the ground, and the Afghan girls and women attending school and the others sacrificing their lives fighting against the insurgency deserve a straight answer as much as the people in the United States do.

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