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.
Afghanistan is suffering a crisis of confidence â€“ and given whatâ€™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 worldâ€™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 NATOâ€™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 â€“ army and police â€“ 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 worldâ€™s countries, but for many Afghans â€“ 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
â€śWe are afraid about our future,â€ť says Fatima Aziz, a surgeon who is a member of Parliament from Kunduz Province. â€śThe ANP [Afghan National Police] is not strong, we donâ€™t know how security will be without the international forces.â€ť
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 â€“ a recent Asia Society survey found that one-third of Afghans would leave the country if they could. Many express fear of the Talibanâ€™s return to power â€“ 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 â€śthe transition,â€ť but they blame the countryâ€™s leadership for not addressing the national malaise.
Â â€śPeople are worried, but I blame the government for not preparing themselves for the worst,â€ť says Mustafa Sadiq, chief executive officer of Afghanistanâ€™s largest privately owned fruit processing company, Omaid Bahar. By â€śthe worstâ€ť he says he means â€śthe vacuum that will be created when 100,000 troops withdraw.â€ť
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 â€“ down 40 percent or more in Kabul, he says. Â
Even some of Afghanistanâ€™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 â€“ perhaps even to come out of it stronger than when it went in.
Â â€śThere is a problem of confidence â€“ itâ€™s a problem of public psychology, and that public psychology is about 2014,â€ť says Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who came in fourth in Afghanistanâ€™s 2009 presidential election.
Moving on to a national dialogueÂ
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 â€śnational dialogueâ€ť to prepare the country for next year.
That national dialogue would not focus on reconciliation with the Taliban insurgency â€“ a project that has floated around for years without advancing â€“ 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 Armyâ€™s growing effectiveness and surveys showing high public confidence in the military.
â€śThe security piece is largely in place, the key event now is political,â€ť 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 â€“ for a total international commitment of perhaps 12,000. Mr. Obama has said that the troops he deploys to Afghanistan post-2011 will be â€śnarrowly focusedâ€ť on training and counterterrorism.
But Ghani says Afghanistanâ€™s â€śkey challengeâ€ť is to prepare next yearâ€™s election. Nothing would go as far in building the countryâ€™s confidence as a well-prepared, transparent, and uncontested election able to â€śgive the next government a mandate.â€ť
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.
Ghaniâ€™s idea this time: to hold well before the election a â€śnational conventionâ€ť where a broad spectrum of Afghanistanâ€™s political leadership would debate and agree on â€śthe rules of the roadâ€ť for next yearâ€™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 Afghansâ€™ fears if it is limited to the countryâ€™s traditional elites, others say.
Any effort to build confidence in the future must include those who have most at stake in it, and thatâ€™s Afghans 25 and under who make up 70 percent of the population, says Parwiz Kawa, editor in chief of Kabulâ€™s Hasht a Subh newspaper.
Afghanistanâ€™s economy poses critical challenges for young people, Mr. Kawa says, but he adds that the â€śother transitionsâ€ť take a back seat to the overriding importance of a successful political transition next year.
Â â€śWe have to have a free and fair election that builds trust and brings back confidence, thatâ€™s the most important thing,â€ť 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 â€śthe transition,â€ť but accomplishing that will likely require a focused effort from Afghanistanâ€™s leaders.Â Â Â
As Ghani says, â€śThe test of Afghan leadership is to create confidence in the future.â€ťÂ Â Â