Is Afghanistan a Sinking Boat? Anxiety about the 2014 Withdrawal

Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps on patrol in Sangin, Helmand.

Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps on patrol in Sangin, Helmand. Photo: Al Jazeera English/flickr.

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by 2014 has been the central foreign policy issue of both of Obama’s Presidential campaigns. American citizens seem to generally support the initiative, while both criticizing the timing and questioning the outcome for the U.S. and Afghanistan. Many ordinary Americans have asked why the U.S. should keep engaging with Afghanistan post-2014, or why the withdrawal cannot come sooner so as to avoid the unnecessary losses of American soldiers. Others argue that the United States, as a world leader, should act responsibly to prevent Afghanistan from falling into a devastating civil war, and thus criticize the withdrawal as a product of poor judgment that will lead inevitably to chaos. As an example, they cite the post-Soviet withdrawal, following which the U.S. abandoned the country and it fell under Taliban control.

Serving as political affairs officer for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) last year, I observed – like many others inside and outside the country – that for various reasons the local population did not feel very hospitable towards the international forces, to say the least. Many Afghans, either ignorantly or deliberately, do not see any difference between the ISAF and the international community, referring to all of them as Americans or American puppets. For that very reason, the incident that occurred on 1 April 2011, when the UN compound in one of the regions was attacked by demonstrators infuriated over the burning of the Qur’an. More recently there has been a steady increase in so-called green-on-blue attacks on ISAF soldiers. Instead of going into the details of each incident, we can ask more generally: Do Afghans want Americans in their country beyond 2014?

Last year the transition process from international to Afghan forces began in a number of provinces. Bamyan Province in the Central Highlands region of Afghanistan, where I was stationed, was among the first of these, because it is considered to be one of the most secure provinces in the country. It owes its safety to the fact that it is dominated by the Hazara population, the minority that suffered most during the Taliban rule and thus does not support the insurgency. However, the province has other insecurity considerations, such as the rivalry among the local anti-government elements, seasonal clashes with the nomadic Kuchi over pasture terrain, as well as tensions with other ethnicities over natural resources. In any case, the news about the transition was received by people in the province – including by government officials – as a warning that the international community will soon leave them, and that the Taliban will subsequently return. The increase in insecurity throughout the country, including in Bamyan Province, as soon as the transition was announced spread more panic among the people, who saw this rise in violence as a sign that the Taliban would take over after the international forces failed to defeat them.

The anxiety rose not only among citizens, but also among the security forces. An Afghan general with whom I had several discussions since the beginning of the transition had a view similar to those of civilians. He too was worried that insecurity would probably increase even in safer places, but given his position he expressed optimism that with proper training and equipment, the Afghan security forces should be able to maintain control. Another Afghan general, formerly in the country’s spy agency, was more pessimistic: after the withdrawal, it is most likely that the country will experience chaos and civil war, ensuring the return to power of the Taliban. When asked if he agreed with the prognosis that “things will get worse before getting better,” he responded that that was overly optimistic.

Even though the possible withdrawal of US forces was put on the table in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, there was not a clear idea of how it would happen. The transition was not a long-discussed subject, but rather a quickly evolving process, of which people learned of as it happened and for which they were largely unprepared. To many, the transition meant that not only ISAF but also the UN and other international stakeholders would leave, which they felt was confirmed by the downsizing of UN offices in various parts of the country. As soon as the international community realized the rising panic, it undertook initiatives to raise awareness of what the transition would mean. The local police, with the support of international colleagues and local authorities, organized tours to remote areas to explain that the transition did not mean that the international community was leaving completely or that it would stop supporting Afghans. At various high-level events, the international community pledged that it would not abandon Afghanistan and urged neighboring countries to support the transition process. It is hard to say whether this information campaign had an immediate effect on reducing the anxiety among Afghans, but they certainly appreciated the efforts to keep them informed.

In spite of these promises, I would occasionally hear my Afghan colleagues discussing emigration opportunities. They felt that the assurances of the international community were simply rhetoric and thus they should have an exit plan since they would be among the first potential victims if the Taliban returned. Ordinary people in Bamyan would ask if my country, which is in the same region, accepted immigrants. Since I left Afghanistan in March of this year, I increasingly receive queries from friends in Afghanistan about the migration policies of various countries. Very often these are educated people, professionals. It is worrying that these competent cadres, potential leaders in any effort to keep the peace in their country post-2014, are sending SOS signals as if from a sinking ship. In fact, many of them confided that should they have an opportunity, they would take the risk of getting on boats with migrants to cross the oceans rather than stay and wait for chaos to descend.

So why is it that these same Afghans who viewed ISAF as doing more harm than good, are now anxious about the withdrawal?

First, Afghanistan is a patchwork not only of ethnicities, but also of ideologies. Pashtuns make up the majority of the population and are seen as closely linked to the Taliban; thus they may look forward to the withdrawal, which to some of them means the opportunity to gain back control over the country. But opinion varies widely among Pashtuns, often according to tribal affiliation. For the rest of the population, including minorities such as Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara, and others, the withdrawal signals fewer rights, less protection, and the loss of representation in the government and the parliament which was obtained for the first time thanks to the international presence. Their memories of Taliban cruelties on the grounds of ethnic background are still fresh. This also includes the women of Afghanistan, for whom the situation improved markedly after the end of the Taliban rule. Women are afraid that all the positive achievements of the past 10 years might be reversed, and that they will be the most vulnerable group in the aftermath of the withdrawal. Generally speaking, an Afghan who is not an insurgent is of the opinion that security will only worsen after the withdrawal, that the local security forces are too weak, and that the country might return to a full-scale civil war.

Second, the U.S. withdrawal and downsizing of the international community activities translates into a loss of jobs and income for a good portion of the local population. Not enough was done to boost the economy and create jobs; the only available jobs are in the army, police, international organisations, and ISAF – or the insurgency. While ISAF built roads, schools and hospitals, much of that infrastructure had been destroyed or damaged by the Taliban.

Third, with three decades of war, many people inevitably feel pessimistic about the country’s chances at peace; they would prefer “being occupied” to living under Taliban rule. They give various reasons for such feelings, be it neighboring countries not allowing peace, never-ending ethnic and tribal rivalries, or the terribly low education levels of the majority of the population – all of which create favorable conditions for a Taliban return to power.

Thus Afghans are not sorry to bid farewell to “beloved friends,” but instead are afraid of the return of their foes – it is not because of emotional attachment to coalition forces but survival instincts. When interviewing people, it sometimes feels like they have just as many negative sentiments towards coalition forces or “the Americans,” as they have towards the Taliban. However, if asked which they would prefer, they confidently respond that it’s better to have the Americans.

Sadly, throughout three decades of war, the fate of Afghans was always linked to decisions by outsiders. Perhaps things could have been different if the transition goal – to give ownership to Afghans – had been policy since the onset of the 2001 invasion. The policy came late and many, justifiably or not, see it as a desperate strategy to leave without losing face.

The transition also gives Afghans the opportunity to reflect on the positive efforts that ISAF and the international community made to improve their lives and bring peace. Indeed, many Afghans realize that, though they would have wished that coalition forces/Americans were more sensitive to Afghan culture and customs and made more efforts to protect civilians, the international presence had and has advantages as compared to the risks of withdrawal – at least until Afghans are confident that their own security forces are capable of protecting the population.

The UN and other international stakeholders are now stressing the focus on more development activities. Everybody understands that no development is possible without security in place. Without the continued support of the international community, not only will new initiatives fail but past achievements will be destroyed. While ISAF is hastily building the capacity of the security forces, the international community should continue supporting the interaction between civil society and the security forces, thus facilitating the boost of confidence in them and building mutual trust.

And there should be a major investment in education. In spite of many efforts and improvements in the access to education, due to the decades of war, the literacy rate remains low. Only through education can one learn to live in peace with others in spite of the many differences. In a country such as Afghanistan, with its patchwork of ethnicities, it is ever more important that more people have access to education.

A majority of Afghans do not want the withdrawal of U.S forces, but they fear that it is a done deal and cannot be changed. Thus, they need assurances that the world will not leave them once again as prey to the Taliban. Will their pleas be heard?

This is a cross-post from the Diplomatic Courier.


Aidai Masylkanova is a Kyrgyz national, and recent graduate from SIPA of the Columbia University. She has served as OSCE’s counterterrorism network officer, UNAMA’s political officer, and also advises on elections and democracy.

For additional reading on this topic please see:

US-Pakistan Relations and the ‘End-Game’ in Afghanistan

Peacebuilding Efforts of Women from Afghanistan and Iraq

Exploratory Talks and Peace Initiatives in Afghanistan


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