Afghans Ponder the End of ISAF

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Afghans Ponder the End of ISAF

Afghan views on the end of the international combat missions in the Hindu Kush.

Afghans Ponder the End of ISAF
Credit: REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Kabul – The end of 2014 marked also the end of international combat missions in Afghanistan. Only a small number of foreign troops will remain in the country, mostly to train and advise the Afghan Security Forces with a much smaller counter-terrorism mission. No one is talking about a victory against the Taliban. Rather, officials reiterate the enduring international engagement in Afghanistan and insist that the Afghan Security Forces are, in spite of the tense security situation, up to the task of combating the insurgents. The Afghans themselves neither seem to know what they should make of all this nor what exactly they want for the future of their country. 

More than 13 years after the invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 and the overthrow of the Taliban regime, an official ceremony on December 28 marked the end of the U.S.-mission Enduring Freedom as well as the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, which had seen up to 150,000 foreign troops stationed in the Hindu Kush. Under the new NATO Resolute Support Mission approximately 12,000 soldiers will remain in the country to train and advise the Afghan Security Forces. A separate U.S. counter-terrorism mission, also new, will involve about 1,000 troops. However, according to U.S. President Barack Obama nearly all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

Clearly, then, responsibility for the security in Afghanistan rests on the shoulders of the approximately 380,000 members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the Afghan National Police as well as the substantial but unknown number of agents of the National Directorate of Security, the infamous Afghan intelligence agency.

In a speech on New Year’s Day at another ceremony for the transition of responsibility to the ANSF, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani emphasized that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is ready and determined to secure peace and fight terrorism, but that the support of international troops will be needed. Ghani added in an interview with the American channel CBS that it would be wrong to be dogmatic about deadlines and that the decision on the timing of the complete drawdown of international forces should be open for re-examination. 

No Clear Opinions…

Asked about their opinion of the end of the international combat missions and the withdrawal of the majority of foreign troops from Afghanistan, Afghans in Kabul almost never have a clear answer.

In the restaurant of the Hotel Pashtunistan, which overlooks the dirty trickle that is the Kabul River, Jalal, a sturdy man with a wavy beard and traditional clothes including the Afghan round woolen hat, says that there were only 128 Americans on the ground when they, together with the resistance fighters of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, better known as the Northern Alliance, overthrew the Taliban. The thousands that have come to Afghanistan since then have, on the other hand, not been able to defeat the insurgents. Nonetheless, this former Northern Alliance fighter thinks that the troop withdrawal is premature, and that the security situation will deteriorate. Jalal’s companion, a gaunt, greying doppelgänger of the legendary former Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, interjects that the Afghan Security Forces have enough men. The international community has only to supply them with equipment and weapons.

Another man, clean-shaven with a dark green Afghan robe, seems – like so many of his fellow countrymen – to generally oppose the presence of international troops in Afghanistan, only to concede seconds later that Afghanistan needs the help of international troops. However, he insists that the British and the Americans have to leave; Germans and French on the other hand are welcome. The reason for this selectivity is the grudge that the Afghans still bear against the British for the Anglo-Afghan Wars of the 19th century; the Americans are, at least in the view of this man, to blame for the intensified civil war of the 1990s.

By contrast, Ahmad Jawed, who for years worked as an interpreter for U.S. Special Forces and is known as AJ, says that 80 percent of Afghans, himself among them, supports the continuing presence of international troops in Afghanistan. Afghans would strongly favor a long-term stationing of international troops, he argues, if it could bring security and development to their homeland. In this context, Jawed says that the Afghan Security Forces are dependent on the support, especially the air support, of international troops. The 13,000 foreign soldiers remaining are, in his opinion, far too few to ensure security. He believes that at least 50,000 would need to be stationed all over Afghanistan. Should there be a complete withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan in the near future, AJ is convinced that the country would again fall under the reign of the Taliban or terrorists like Al Qaeda or, like Iraq, be overrun by the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Members of the ANSF themselves are also split in their opinions. Some are convinced that they will defeat the insurgents; others agree with the acting NDS Director, Rahmatullah Nabil, who argues that the ANSF lacks the necessary personnel and equipment.

… And Many Conspiracy Theories

However, asked about their opinions on the withdrawal of international troops, Afghans will often drift off into conspiracy theories that have almost nothing to do with the withdrawal. For example, one man states that the majority of Afghans think that 9/11 was a scheme cooked up by the Americans themselves. Another, Nasrullah, recounts in a teahouse near the local bazaar that Americans have no interest at all in a peaceful Afghanistan. According to him, the American all along just intended to use Afghanistan as a base for possible operations against Iran. But instead of explaining why the Americans would in that case be pulling out of Afghanistan, he prefers to talk about the martyr Ahmad Sha Massoud, as if he could step out of the tapestry on the wall of the teahouse and save Afghanistan.

Back in the Hotel Pashtunistan another group explains that the Americans not only support the Afghan government and Security Forces, but also, through the Pakistani government, the Taliban and the insurgents. Why the Americans should do this intentionally, as the men claim they do, remains unclear, but this group is convinced it is true. Two old men with grey beards and turbans are not going that far. However, they say that Afghans are brothers and would never fight and kill each other. According to them, the insurgents are all fanatic foreigners, mainly Chechens. Listening, one wonders how Afghanistan’s bloody civil war could ever have happened.

Finally, the old bearded tea brewer just looks wearily to the ground and says, slightly shaking his head, that with the withdrawal of the international troops things in Afghanistan will not get better. For all their diverse opinions, distaste for foreign troops on their soil, and absurd conspiracy theories, this is a feeling that many of his war-weary countrymen seem to share. Maybe a reason for hope is the fact that the majority of international troops left months ago and the situation has not really changed much. And perhaps some international troops will stay on beyond the end of 2016, especially as this is what Afghan President Ashraf Ghani seems to want. His countrymen would not, it seems, be all that troubled by the prospect.

Franz J. Marty is a Swiss freelance journalist currently based in Kabul, Afghanistan.