Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, Afghans have been wary of the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan. They remember bitterly the aftermath of the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, when the West — led by the United States — left Afghanistan to the mercy of local powers, resulting in the reign of the oppressive Taliban regime. When the Taliban were overthrown, the Afghans, although fiercely independent, welcomed the presence of U.S. troops, which they perhaps naively considered to be liberators. Their fears of being abandoned once again were rekindled when the United States sent troops to Iraq in 2003.
Recent developments have intensified those fears. Last week, Washington signaled that it is reducing its military presence in Afghanistan. U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking on January 4 at the Pentagon, confirmed that American forces in Afghanistan would be reduced from 19,000 to about 16,500 during 2006.
Although the reduction is not significant in absolute numbers, the fact that it coincides with the other news that Washington will reduce U.S. assistance to Afghanistan from $1 billion to $600 million this year creates fear and uncertainty among Afghans. The U.S. seems to be stepping back at a time when the fight against insurgents continues unabated. The most recent attack came in the central province of Uruzgan when the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann was visiting the area. Ten Afghans died and 50 others were wounded (Eurasia Insight, January 1).
The statements about troop drawdowns and reduced economic assistance to Afghanistan could hardly come at a worse time. The new Afghan parliament — the first in over 30 years — is not yet fully functional; the drug trade continues; the Afghan national army is still in its early development (only about 27,000 troops are trained so far); disarmament is far from complete; and, worst of all, the insurgency is growing deadlier as suicide bombings increase.
Contrary to recent comments by NATO military commander Gen. David Jones, the realities on the ground in Afghanistan suggest that U.S. forces should stay. Jones insisted that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not regrouping: “There’s a knee-jerk reaction that wants to say: ‘Oh, the Taliban is coming back’ or ‘al-Qaeda’s coming back.’ I don’t know of any commander or any estimate that can say that with certainty” (AFP, January 6).
More than 30 people have been killed in more than a dozen suicide attacks in the last three months. Most bombings have been blamed on remnants of the Taliban, who are thought to be copying the tactics of insurgents in Iraq (see EDM, December 8). In 2005 the Taliban increasing became a security threat to the Afghan government. Insurgent attacks claimed the lives of some 1,500 Afghans and 90 Americans troops.
U.S. forces so far have been unable to wipe out the insurgency, capture Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, or bring a sense of security to the area. They have, however, lent psychological support to Afghans. According to a recent poll a large majority of Afghans view the U.S. presence favorably. Polls by the nonpartisan Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland show “overwhelming popular support for U.S. and international troops in the country and huge opposition to Islamic militants linked to the former Taliban regime” (VOA, January 11).
Afghan popular fears are twofold. First, Afghans believe that NATO is not as strongly committed to fight terrorism in Afghanistan as is the U.S.-led coalition forces because, in their view, that is not a NATO mission. The NATO troops are peacekeeping forces and thus could perform as a fighting force in one part of the country and as a peacekeeping force in another. Besides, most NATO members are “refusing to allow their troops to conduct combat operations aimed at containing the Taliban insurgency”(AFP, January 6).
Second, Afghans fear that if the United States gradually pulls out of the region or reduces its forces to an ineffective fighting level, then the Taliban — with the help of Pakistan — will step up their activities and the country will be once again engulfed in turmoil. Already, there are reports that some districts in the volatile south and southwestern provinces are controlled by the government forces by day and the Taliban by night.
Insurgent violence continues to increase. Taliban militants set fire to three schools in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces on January 8. In another case, “Taliban militants beheaded the headmaster of a school in the southern Zabul province last week.” According to local reports, the Taliban regularly distribute threatening papers in Kandahar, a former stronghold of the Taliban regime. They call on students and teachers to give up going to school, since they do not want anyone to learn about religions other than Islam (Xinhua, January 9).
News that Washington is cutting its financial aid is also cause for concern. The U.S. decision comes ahead of a conference scheduled in London later this month about aid to Afghanistan, and the donor community usually takes its lead from the United States.
While on a recent trip to Afghanistan, U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) argued that Afghanistan needs more help, not less. “The persistent issue I’ve seen here and also in my trip to Iraq is the lack of robust resources [for] reconstruction and personnel to assist the Afghanis in developing their capacities.” Reed continued, “Once again you have to ask yourself, given the discussion of reductions in our military forces and difficulty in getting key experts, whether we’re [prepared] for this long haul” (Boston.com, January 8).
Reed’s comments sum up Afghans’ lingering concerns about how soon the international community will leave them to fend for themselves.