JALALABAD, Afghanistan— U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry spent Thursday visiting a province in eastern Afghanistan, hoping to reassure local officials, tribal elders and shopkeepers that President Obama’s announced troop withdrawal “does not mean the United States is abandoning Afghanistan.”
“For nine years, the international community has been in front. Beginning now and over the next three years, the Afghan people will be in front,” Eikenberry told a group of elders in the Mohmand Dara district of eastern Nangarhar Province.
Although Afghan police and soldiers are expected to take full responsibility for security in the country by 2014, he said, “if you still want our support, we will still be here to help.”
In Kabul, the capital, President Hamid Karzai said Afghanistan would “always be thankful” to the international community for its assistance, but would be ready to stand on its own by 2014.
“This soil can only by protected by the Afghan sons, and it has to be protected,” Karzai said at a news conference. “The people of Afghanistan, by help of their sons and youths, will protect their soil and people.”
America’s European allies also welcomed the drawdown announcement and made their own withdrawal promises Thursday. But the reaction of Karzai’s political opponents, and the Taliban, ranged from skepticism to disdain.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the approximately 4,000 French troops in Afghanistan would engage in a “phased withdrawal” mirroring that of the United States.
Britain, with more than 10,000 troops, has previously said it will not be engaged in combat in Afghanistan by 2015. In a statement Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron said that, “where conditions on the ground allow, it is right that we bring troops home sooner.”
During the past week in Britain, there has been an unusual back and forth between Cameron and military leaders over the high cost of continuing military efforts in Afghanistan and Libya, especially at a time of wide austerity measures in Britain, including deep defense cuts.
“There are insufficient resources and everyone — the U.S., Britain, NATO — is very stretched,” said Xenia Dormandy, a senior fellow at Chatham House, a think tank in London. “British and Americans are questioning if the gravest threat in the world is from Afghanistan or if the gravest threat is elsewhere.”
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle praised the American plan and said Germany hoped to begin a withdrawal of its 5,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of the year.
“We’ve already spent nearly 10 years in Afghanistan with our troops,” Westerwelle said Thursday. “Not only the Americans, but also the Europeans, and we Germans, will begin gradually pulling out our troops in Afghanistan this year.”
In Kabul, Abdullah Abdullah — a political opponent of Karzai’s and former foreign minister — voiced concern over the government’s ability to stave off extremist groups.
“The presence of a leader without a vision, without a sense of direction, without a sense of purpose ... [has] prevented most of the goals of the Afghan people to be achieved,” Abdullah said. “Our concern is that in the coming few years, [with] less resources, less troops available, we might miss further opportunities.”
The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan and provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda before the U.S.-led invasion, dismissed Obama’s speech as symbolic, and said “our armed struggle will increase from day to day” until the international coalition is gone.
“The solution for the Afghan crisis lies in the full withdrawal of all foreign troops immediately,” the Taliban’s English-language statement said.
Eikenberry, at a news conference in the provincial capital of Jalalabad, said some Afghans have asked what will be different in Afghanistan as a result of Obama’s announcement.
“I tell them nothing has changed,” he said. “We have a continuing commitment to Afghanistan and the Afghan people ... we seek a long-term partnership and an enduring friendship.”
Several time, he mentioned concern over the continued existence of havens for Taliban and other insurgents inside Pakistan. Nangarhar is a border province, and its inhabitants are especially vulnerable to insurgent attacks from across the boundary.
“Afghanistan cannot enjoy security and stability until the terrorist threat from sanctuaries in Pakistan has been addressed,” Eikenberry said. “The United States remains absolutely committed to working with Afghanistan and Pakistan to address this threat.”
Local leaders at several of Eikenberry’s meetings expressed worry that their root problems — poverty, unemployment and lack of electricity — would worsen once the U.S. begins to reduce its aid programs and presence here as well as its military role.
“We stopped growing poppies and now we are growing vegetables, but it is hot here and we have no way to keep them cold,” one community leader in Mohmand Dara told Eikenberry, asking whether the U.S. would help finance a refrigeration plant for onions there.
The envoy demurred on that request, but also sought to reassure his audience, saying most U.S. aid would now be shifted to Afghan government programs rather than ended.
“I hope the next time I come here, we will be talking about onions instead of insurgents,” he said.
Wilgoren reported from Washington. Correspondent Michael Birnbaum in Berlin and special correspondents Sayed Salahuddin and Javed Hamdard in Kabul and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.