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As foreign troops plan pullout, a number of people is leaving Afghanistan

 By Syed Nazakat/ Kabul & Mazar-e-Sharif

When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in the 1970s, Mohammad Mohaqiq formed a militia on his own and made his hometown, Balkh in the northern part of the country, impregnable. The charismatic leader of the Hazara ethnic group did not lower his guard till the invaders were ousted from the country. The freedom, however, was brief, as the Taliban rose to power in 1996, promising security to the Afghans who were tired of the civil war between ethnic warlords.

Most warlords and local leaders struck deals with the Taliban. Many others escaped to Iran and other neighbouring countries. Mohaqiq was among the very few who stayed put. He was part of the legendary Northern Alliance, which played an important role in the US campaign that threw the Taliban out of power in 2001.

The Hazaras are Afghanistan’s third largest ethnic group, comprising about 9 per cent of the population. Mohaqiq says many of them, including the community’s tallest leader Abdul Ali Mazari, were killed during the Taliban regime. “We want an end to this war. We support negotiation to win peace,” says Mohaqiq, a former vice-president of Afghanistan. “But if the situation is not properly dealt with we are heading towards civil war.”

Mohaqiq says the people have recognised the US failure in Afghanistan. “Where do we stand today after 11 years of war? We stand nowhere,” he says. As the withdrawal of foreign forces in Afghanistan has started, uncertainty occupies every mind. Will the ill-prepared Afghan army be able to defend the country against the Taliban? Will the Taliban recapture Kabul? Will the US keep some troops in Afghanistan?

During my last two visits to Afghanistan the people had looked and sounded optimistic. This time, however, the mood was gloomy. Although people moved freely in cities, enjoyed music and films and did good business, many are planning to leave the country. These are people who had stayed on during the civil war. Many are heading to Iran and Pakistan, and some are sending their families to India. The rich are getting their money and families out to Dubai and other Gulf states. Many have put their houses on sale. Property dealers say there are more sellers than buyers.

Abdullah Mir of International Organisation of Migration, however, says the country will not fall apart even after the NATO troops withdraw in 2014. The international community will not abandon the country, he says. The exodus, however, will continue. “We will see more exodus in 2013 because there is anxiety. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future,” he says.

Most of the projects in Afghanistan are funded by foreign aid agencies. “If funds are curtailed we’ll face a surge in unemployment, as a vast number of people, like translators, drivers, cooks, workers and contractors, are employed by foreign aid and security agencies,” says Mir. Afghans say government officials have creamed off much of the aid money, and the western donors are doing nothing to check corruption.

While Afghans are generally happy to see foreign troops depart, many are concerned about the vacuum they will leave, despite the international promises of billions of dollars of aid for the next decade. Most are worried about the capability of the Afghan army and police to ensure security. The plan is to hand over the responsibility to them by the end of this year.

Both the army and the police are illequipped and undertrained to take up the task. There have also been many incidents of friendly fire. Some 50 foreign soldiers were shot by Afghans in uniform in 2011. More alarmingly, the Taliban claims that it has infiltrated the police force.

In the northern province of Mazar-e-Sharif, the German army is having a tough time training the Afghan police. Even after 12 years of partnership with the NATO forces, the Afghan police are known for their indiscipline and corruption. As a result, the Taliban is expanding its reach in the otherwise peaceful northern areas.

In 2008, the foreign troops could freely move around in the region. It is unthinkable today. Though Governor Atta Mohammed Noor, a former warlord, is still powerful and has control over the north, the Taliban is camping outside his doorsteps. In provinces where the US has closed forward operating bases, the Taliban has moved in to fill the gap.

The security of Mazar-e-Sharif was transferred to the Afghan government last summer, but today the surrounding areas of the province are dominated by the Taliban. The situation is similar across northern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is not really flourishing but stubbornly persevering. The trend is likely to continue throughout 2013. “I don’t think they will be able to capture Kabul,” said General Ali Shah Khan Paktiwal. “But yes, they may take some areas in the Pashtun-dominated south and east.”

The Taliban’s spread has alarmed many in Afghanistan. Ismail Khan, a powerful warlord, has asked his followers to reorganise themselves and defend the country against the Taliban. By announcing that he is remobilising his forces, Khan has stoked fears that other regional leaders and warlords would follow suit, weakening the support for the government and increasing the likelihood of another civil war.

Khan, who is minister of energy and water in the Hamid Karzai government, is not the only one calling for a renewed alliance of the mujahedeen against the Taliban. Marshal Fahim, an ethnic Tajik commander who is Karzai’s first vice-president, is keen to arm his men. Another prominent leader, Ahmad Zia Massoud, is worried about the post 2014 situation, and has been telling his followers to make “preliminary preparations”.

Without mentioning Pakistan by name, Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister and member of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, says Pakistan’s interference is causing many problems. He calls the neighbour Afghanistan’s brutal enemy. Abdullah, like many other Northern Alliance leaders, seveerly criticises Karzai for corruption, bad governance and secret talks with the Taliban.

Mohaqiq, however, says there is a visible change in Pakistan’s approach towards building peace in Afghanistan. “We have visited Pakistan as part of a peace initiative. We had talks with the leadership there and we have made good progress,” he said. “The talks [with the Taliban] in Paris were part of that initiative.”

While NATO says the Taliban must be defeated if stability is to be restored in Afghanistan, Mohaqiq and many seasoned Afghan leaders say that is impossible. That leaves the US and its allies with Plan B, which involves negotiation with the Taliban, allowing it to open office in Qatar and releasing its commanders from the US military base in Cuba.

(January 13/2012, THE WEEK)

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