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JALALABAD, Afghanistan, Aug 13 2013 (IPS) - What happens after 2014? That is the question people on Afghanistan’s streets are asking as the deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops draws near.
Diplomatic talks are just about recovering from the freeze they went into following the brazen manner in which the Taliban opened its office in Doha in June.
As of now, the country is divided over the question of American troops staying on beyond 2014. There are those who see the prolonged presence of American soldiers as “a necessary evil” to protect their nation against interference from neighbouring countries, prevent new internal clashes and to guarantee international commitment.
“If they leave completely, our country will risk a new domestic clash,” Khalilullah Hekmati, head of the NGO Better Afghanistan based in the northern city Mazar-e-Sharif, told IPS. “The American military bases and soldiers can ensure stability. We had a horrible war in the past, we don’t want to go back to that time.”
There are others who firmly believe that the continuing foreign military presence will destabilise the country further, provoking major external interference and corroding the already precarious sovereignty of the country.
For Asif Samin, a well-known poet in the eastern city Jalalabad, the very presence of foreign soldiers on Afghan soil is the reason for all the conflict. “The issue is very simple,” he told IPS. “The foreign – mostly American – troops are in Afghanistan, and this fact generates and fuels the insurgency. The only way to reach peace is a complete and immediate withdrawal.”
There are currently about 90,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 66,000 Americans. About half the remaining U.S. soldiers will return home by early 2014.
The Pentagon itself has so far expressed its reluctance to discuss the “zero option” – the idea of withdrawing all American troops from Afghanistan in 2014 – mooted by U.S. deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes in January this year.
Both James B. Cunningham, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, and General Martin Dempsey, chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, have clearly dismissed the possibility.
What the U.S. hopes for instead is progress on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which was envisaged under the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries to supersede the existing Status of Forces Agreement.
The agreement provided for the possibility of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, and committed the United States to support Afghanistan’s social and economic development, security, institutions and regional cooperation.
Addressing Americans on May 1 last year from the Bagram air base, about 40 kilometres north of the capital Kabul, U.S. President Barack Obama had expressed satisfaction with the signing of a “historic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that defines a new kind of relationship between our countries,” a future in which “war ends, and a new chapter begins.”
Soon after, U.S. emissaries reached Kabul to discuss the terms under which U.S. troops would operate after the end of 2014, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-led International Security Assistance Force would be replaced by “Resolute Support”, the new mission to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces.
This is where things have been stuck for some time. Turmoil continues in the country, the U.S. military is counting its 12th year without any definitive idea about its future, and talks on BSA have been in a limbo.
It was precisely to jumpstart stalled dialogue that Dempsey was in Afghanistan in late July, urging the government to agree to an October deadline for the BSA. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai assured him that he was ready in principle to let American troops stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
It is a prospect that has brought relief to Sher Alam Amlawal, a professor of law and political science at the private Ariana University in Jalalabad.
“Our geographical location and our history teach us that we need some kind of assistance,” he told IPS. “If the foreigners abandon us, Iran and Pakistan will not let us live in peace. They should know that, in case of an attack, there would be an international reaction.”
What Amlawal advocates is “indirect support by the United States, without any interference and any ground presence.”
History, however, has very different lessons for Bilgees Attaye, head of the Developing and Education Organisation for Women in Maimana, the capital of Faryab province near the border with Turkmenistan. “History should teach us: when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, many countries began to plot against them from our soil. What is going to happen if the Americans stay longer?
“By accepting American soldiers, we obtain the help of a strong country, but we provoke many regional hostilities,” she told IPS.
For Mawlawi Ruhal Ahmad Rohani, head of the Department for Hajj and former leader of the Shura-e-Ulema (the Council of the Religious), this is precisely where the risks lie. Rohani, who is based in the western Afghanistan city Farah, told IPS: “Following a 2014 withdrawal, there are two major risks: a new internal war and further interferences by our most ‘bulky’ neighbours, Iran and Pakistan. I believe the second risk is the most challenging.”
On the eastern side, in Nangarhar province of which Jalalabad is the capital, another view is on offer. Aziz Rahman Saddiqi, president of the Nangarhar Association for Solving Community Problems, told IPS: “The presence of foreign troops is the pretext the Taliban uses to justify the war. When they say they don’t want any foreign soldiers here, people in rural areas agree. Once the Americans leave, there will be no reason to fight, and the Taliban will automatically lose their support.”
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