Ordinary Afghans’ anxiety about future grows as security deal with U.S. remains in limbo


A money exchange merchant counts a stack of bills at his shop in Kabul on Dec. 11. (Nikki Kahn/Post)
December 13, 2013

Habibullah Hassanzada, a father of six, made a decent living running a grocery store. During the past decade of war, he only fleetingly contemplated leaving Afghanistan.

But in recent months, his calculus has changed. A personal dispute with powerful warlords made him feel increasingly unsafe in his home town. And with growing concerns about whether U.S. and allied forces will remain in Afghanistan after next year, he has decided it is finally time to find a way out.

“My whole family knows the risk of leaving the country, but we don’t really have another solution,” the soft-spoken Hassanzada, an ethnic Hazara, said in his living room on a recent cold morning. “These warlords will become more powerful.”

With U.S. officials and President Hamid Karzai deadlocked over the signing of a security pact that would keep American troops and foreign aid in the country, the anxiety here is palpable. The gradual withdrawal of international support has long been a source of concern here, but the prospect that support could now be yanked abruptly at the end of 2014 has heightened fears, ordinary Afghans say.

One-way, outbound flights have become the backbone of the beleaguered Afghan travel industry. Real estate prices are plunging along with faith in the future. In one of the most dramatic signs of worry, the nation’s currency has lost value month after month this year as Afghans stock up on dollars and euros.

“Afghans are losing hope,” said Ahmed Shafiq, a manager at one of Kabul’s most popular currency bazaars. “They are not keeping bundles of afghanis on hand or in the bank. They are changing them into foreign currencies.”

Concern in Washington

Officials in Washington have become increasingly concerned that the standoff over the bilateral security agreement is taking a psychological toll on Afghans, who have the most to lose if the impasse isn’t resolved and the least power to do anything about it.

The deal would pave the way for a small international military contingent to stay beyond 2014, a condition the West has set for delivering billions of dollars in pledged aid. A full U.S. pullout would starve the frail Afghan state of foreign funding, almost certainly triggering an economic crash and throwing into question the viability of the country’s fledgling security forces.

James F. Dobbins, the top U.S. diplomat overseeing Afghanistan policy, testified on Capitol Hill this week that for the first time since 2001, the number of Afghans leaving their homeland appears to be exceeding that of returning refugees. Capital is fleeing the country, inflation is rising and real estate prices are dropping, he told lawmakers.

“The longer this uncertainty about the future international commitment to Afghanistan continues, the more anxiety will increase, potentially dominating the upcoming presidential elections, threatening to turn these into a polarizing rather than a unifying experience for the country,” Dobbins said.

‘There’s a lot of anxiety’

At a small travel agency in a bustling part of Kabul, the effect has been profound. Abdul Hai, who opened his office six years ago, said business had grown steadily over the years, peaking around 2010, when the agency raked in as much as $150,000 a month in sales.

This year, monthly sales have averaged $50,000. More than 70 percent of recent clients are buying one-way tickets, Hai said. The only travel business that is flourishing, he said, is the black market for visas, which most Afghans struggle to obtain. Forged Turkish visas, which a year ago sold for $4,500, are now going for $6,000 or more, he said. Leisure travel has all but dried up.

“Now people want to keep their money,” Hai said in an hour-long interview during which only beggars entered the office. “They want to have cash in case something happens and they have to save themselves.”

The housing market, which soared along with an influx of foreign aid after President Obama’s 2009 troop surge, has become anemic. Real estate agents easily rented out properties for $10,000 a month in 2010. Now they are hard-pressed to get $3,000 for the same large villas, said Asadullah, a Kabul real estate agent who has been in the business for seven years.

Afghan homeowners are so eager to have cash on hand, he said, that they’re increasingly looking for tenants willing to pay a year in advance, even if that means settling for a fraction of the money the properties yielded just a few years ago. Asadullah, who goes by one name, said he wouldn’t think twice about renting out his home and leaving Afghanistan if the opportunity came.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and concerns about criminality, kidnappings and blasts,” he said. The impasse over the security agreement has deepened those fears, he added. “We trust God, but not our leaders.”

Economic troubles
Hamidullah Farooqi, an economist who served as minister of transportation and aviation in 2009 and 2010, said the country’s economy has softened over the past year as wealthy Afghans have left or shipped their money abroad. The prices of staples have increased and those of luxury items have soared, he said. Afghanistan’s currency has depreciated gradually, losing nearly 15 percent of its value against the dollar over the past year.

“These are all normal reactions of the market given the uncertain situation,” said Farooqi, who argues that a signed security pact would have a powerful psychological effect. “People would stay around to see whether the international community can keep its promises. If not, we’re facing a very hard landing for the economy.”

In a recent interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Karzai said the United States was waging “psychological war” by threatening to cut aid if the security pact is not concluded. Karzai, who has said he will sign the deal after the presidential election here in April if Washington agrees to a new set of demands, told the newspaper that his country would weather a full exit of international troops.

“We will not cease to be a nation if that were to happen,” he said. “It will be harsher for us, it will be more difficult, but we will continue to live our lives, we will continue to be a nation and a state.”

Mohammad Sharif and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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