Afghans anxious over Obama plan to end troop presence by 2016


An Afghan police officer keeps watch at the site of an attack on a U.S. consular vehicle in Herat. For Afghans, President Obama’s troop pullout plan means security risks and financial uncertainty. (Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images)

For Americans, President Obama’s announcement of a rapid military drawdown in Afghanistan, due to conclude in 2016, means an end to the United States’ longest war.

For Afghans, including those fighting the Taliban, it means they will soon lose their greatest asset: a U.S. military that has poured money and manpower into a war that is far from over. They knew that the support would fade but not that it would happen so quickly.

For years, men and women here have been assured that the United States and its allies had a long-term interest in Afghanistan. That assurance came in capital-letter terms from military and diplomatic leaders. They were promised an Enduring Presence, a Strategic Partnership, and a Decade of Transformation, which was supposed to begin in 2015.

But the lifeblood of those commitments was never articulated, leaving Afghans to posit questions to one another: How many U.S. troops would stay? How much financial assistance would endure?

Tuesday’s announcement that the U.S. mission would end in 2016 revealed the disjunction between the White House’s plans and the hopes of many here.

A bilateral security agreement crafted by top U.S. officials and released to the public last year outlined an American military mission that could remain active “until the end of 2024 and beyond.”

Although that agreement has yet to be signed, many Afghans interpreted it to mean that the United States would maintain a troop presence here until at least 2024. And if the troops were here, their financial pipeline would remain intact, too.

“That was the general perception,” said Najib Mahmood, a professor of political science at Kabul University. “But if Americans leave in 2016, we will be in full crisis.”

Many here worry that the two-year drawdown could mean the loss of some foreign aid, with the U.S. Congress reluctant to approve funding if no troops remain in Afghanistan to monitor how the money is being spent.

Others worry that the end of the U.S. counterterrorism mission here could lead to a resurgence in hardened militants, particularly in Afghanistan’s rugged east. As U.S. troops draw down from 9,800 in early 2015, it is likely that the counterterrorism effort will end long before the overall mission concludes, lacking sufficient troop strength to conduct those operations.

The rapid withdrawal also means that American air support — both in terms of combat assistance and medical evacuation — will fade.

“The Afghan army will not be prepared in terms of quality and quantity,” said one Afghan colonel who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media. “The withdrawal of American forces is risky for Afghanistan.”

But as Afghans listened to bleak assessments of Obama’s announcement on television and radio, U.S. military officials were quick to argue that the post-2014 mission is a testament to America’s long-term commitment here.

“I believe that decision was good news for the Afghan people. It eliminates the uncertainty about the future here in Afghanistan, in the region and within the coalition,” said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Dunford added in a news conference that the two-year mission would give the U.S. military time to “further develop the institutions, the systems and the processes that will allow the Afghan forces to be sustainable.”

But Afghans wonder what will happen if those institutions and systems remain dangerously undeveloped in 2016, when troops depart. Already, it seems, that date has taken on a grim meaning.

“Those who have invested in Afghanistan will decide to leave the country, fearing instability will worsen in a couple of years,” said Nahid Ahmadi Farid, a member of parliament.

“As long as groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda are active, the withdrawal of American and NATO troops will have very bad consequences,” said Abdul Rahman Shahidani, another lawmaker.

The Taliban said the announcement would only galvanize its fighters.

“Even if one American soldier remains in Afghanistan . . . jihad is incumbent and our nation will continue its righteous jihad,” the group said in a statement.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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