From Afghanistan, the countdown to 2014

April 7, 2012

The dusty streets of Kabul are choked with traffic, restaurants selling American fast food are bustling and there is a crowd of students and parents outside a girls’ school in the centre of town trying to slip through the shuttered gates at the start of the school year.

Returning to Kabul for the first time since December, there was no sense that the mood on the ground had changed significantly. But I couldn’t help wondering how all this might change once foreign troops who have propped up the Afghan state for more than a decade leave in 2014. There is talk of a return to chaos and civil war, although admittedly you hear more of those grim warnings abroad and in the foreign circles of  Kabul than from the people themselves who will be in the middle of it.

The handover is just two years away, the Taliban have extended their operations in most of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces with many parts no-go areas, and yet it is hard to detect signs of panic. Instead, you see a crowd of women clad in black burqas checking out washing machines in a shop called “Life is Good.”

In large part, perhaps, it is because most do not have a choice. What can an ordinary Afghan struggling to make ends meet really do even if everyone’s telling him or her about a possible civil war ? Where do you go? Pakistan?

The affluent are making their arrangements,though, we are told. Money has been moving in suitcases from Kabul airport to Dubai and elsewhere. Businesses are working on Plan B, setting up operations in neighbouring countries such as India that will take over if Kabul goes under. And in the green zones of Kabul where Afghans cannot enter without a pass or work in the foreign institutions there, the blast walls keep getting higher. The number of checkpoints have been increased, as also the speed bumps- all designed to stop or slow down the suicide bomber.

They are, it seems, bracing themselves for 2014.

Already the focus is shifting to bolstering the Afghan state and the aid-dependent economy for a 10-year period beginning 2014. Last week representatives from Afghanistan and Japan met with officials from foreign missions and institutions such as the IMF in Kabul to prepare for a conference in Tokyo that will spell out just much financial aid the international community will commit itself to in the years following the departure of NATO troops.

Separately the Afghan government and the United States are negotiating a security document that will lay out the rules governing a possible U.S. military presence after 2014. The U.S. wants to keep a limited number of Special Operations Forces and advisors to ensure that 1) members of al Qaeda do not reconstitute themselves in Afghanistan and 2) help train the Afghan security forces and at times fight alongside them if things get nasty on an operation.

Afghans themselves are not so inherently hostile to the idea of an American presence beyond 2014 as was the case with Iraq. A series of incidents involving U.S. soldiers in recent weeks including the unexplained massacre of 16 villagers blamed on a U.S. army sergeant has fueled greater resentment against foreigners. But given the weakness of the Afghan forces who are being thrown into battle as soon as they are trained, many Afghans say they are resigned to the idea of a limited foreign presence. The soldiers will hopefully be in the background.

Sensitive to public sentiment at this time, the Afghan administration says it is seeking clear answers from the United States on how many bases it plans to retain in the country after 2014, the number of soldiers there and their mission.

Unlike their counterparts in Iraq, none of Afghanistan’s major political figures have taken a strong position against a long-term U.S. deployment. They criticise every incident involving foreigners, they denounce night raids and they have long demanded that Afghans detained  in U.S. run prisons be handed over to them – a process which has just begun. But they have held back a direct condemnation of U.S. plans for military bases. The Taliban, though, say they are fundamentally opposed to any foreign presence.

 But for ordinary Afghans – at least those not rich enough to  pack up and leave the country – their concerns are more immediate and mundane than American bases.  They worry about a sick child and how they will organise travel to Pakistan or New Delhi  for treatment since their own hospitals are limited in terms of the  resources they can employ.  Or a teenage girl  on a dirty Kabul pavement reading school textbooks while waiting for customers to polish their shoes.

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