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Afghans Fear For Future After NATO Withdrawal

Newly graduated Afghan National Army soldiers attend their graduation ceremony at a training center in Kabul in January
KABUL -- Afghans are preparing to close the book on years of foreign occupation, as international troops prepare to leave and domestic forces assume control of security.

That leaves it up to the Afghan National Army and police force to play a much greater, and possibly total, role in maintaining security and thwarting the resurgence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

The stakes are high and the clock is ticking -- support for the Afghan war is at an all-time low in the United States, and calls for foreign troops to leave grow louder in Afghanistan following the recent Koran burnings and the killings of Afghan civilians.

Many Afghans, however, are divided on whether Afghan security forces are up to the task, according to an informal poll conducted around the country by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

Ill-Equipped And Under-Trained

Some are confident that Afghan forces are more than capable of securing the country; others insist they are ill-equipped, under-trained, and too small in number to take control of security when the majority of the 130,000-strong NATO force pulls out in 2014.

Abdullah is a farmer from southern Helmand Province, which has long been at the center of the Taliban insurgency and opium trade in Afghanistan.

He warns that Afghan security forces -- which currently number 173,000 soldiers and 130,000 police -- will be overwhelmed by militants as support from NATO decreases.

"I don't think the Afghan forces can defend us because they are financially weak and their numbers are still relatively small. They do not have the right weapons so they are not ready on any count," Abdullah said.

"Now we see that the Taliban is being stopped by the air power of the foreign forces. If that threat is removed, the Taliban will reassert their control across Afghanistan very soon."

In neighboring Kandahar Province, where 17 villagers were recently killed during a nighttime attack allegedly carried out by a lone U.S. soldier, opinions are more weighted against the presence of foreign troops.

Locals there say they are better off without them and insist Afghan forces, who already control the main city, can uphold security.

Gul Bibi, an elderly woman living in Kandahar, agrees.

"We do not want the Americans to remain in our county any more. We have our own way of life. We now have an army and we can rebuild our country," Bibi said.

"Our soldiers can protect us. America is not our true friend. They are not here to be our friends. The Taliban are all Afghans and they can live with us and our military in peace."

Some Afghans have said that the Afghan National Army needs to be equipped with more heavy weaponry to be successful.
Some Afghans have said that the Afghan National Army needs to be equipped with more heavy weaponry to be successful.
In eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan, many locals feel that without the support of Western powers, the country will once again descend into anarchy.

Humera, a young woman from eastern Konar Province, which has long been a hotbed for insurgent activity, says Afghan forces will be unable to protect local residents.

She, like others in the area, is bracing herself for the return of the Taliban, which she fears will deny her an education and the opportunity to work.

"If the foreign forces leave our province, the Afghan forces will not be able to protect Afghanistan on their own. This is because our military lacks the resources the foreigners have. They do not have the necessary firepower," Humera said.

"They should be given tanks and other [heavy] weapons. And this way they will be able to better protect our homeland. The Taliban are just waiting for the international forces to leave. And when they return they will stop girls from going to schools and our sisters who now work will also be banned from taking their jobs."

Build-Up Strategy

A cornerstone of NATO's strategy in Afghanistan has been to increase the size and effectiveness of the Afghan security forces.

The Afghan forces, which have long been dogged by absenteeism, corruption, and drug abuse, have improved in recent years and become a more professional, competent fighting force.

As of this year, the Afghan government says roughly 50 percent of the country's population is in the hands of Afghan security forces.

In areas under the control of Afghan troops, many locals say they are cautiously optimistic about the ability of the Afghan army and police force to maintain order and security.

Abdullah Himat lives in Khost Province, in southeast Afghanistan, where Afghan forces control several strategically key areas.

"I can tell you about Khost that we now delegate our security responsibilities to the Afghan forces," Himat said.

"People here now know that they should support their military forces completely. This makes me confident to claim that the Afghan forces could take the responsibility of securing their country next year, in 2013."

Afghans in the country's relatively peaceful north, where many provinces are under government control, say Afghan forces are gradually earning their trust.

Abdul Wali Aresh, from Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh Province, says Afghan forces have made many inroads but insists there is still a long way to go.

"Approaching 2014, Afghan forces have a lot to do before they can take control of the country. In areas where they have taken control, they still don't have full control and the backing from the people," Aresh said.

Written by Frud Bezhan; based on interviews conducted by Radio Free Afghanistan; translations by Abubakar Siddique.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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