Mon, Jul 04, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Afghans fear ‘transition’ buzzword is just an excuse to quit

By Alistair Scrutton  /  Reuters, KABUL

There are gunbattles in the heart of Kabul, dithering about how to engage hardline Islamists, the looming withdrawal of a powerful foreign army, an unpopular president and shifting political alliances between factional leaders.

For many Afghans, the situation in the capital is a gloomy reminder of the turbulent years leading up to the Soviet retreat in 1989 and the chaotic, dirty civil war that followed.

They fear the buzzword on the lips of foreign diplomats and the military, “transition,” is little more than a public relations tactic to cover a polite rush to the exit, that they have seen before.

“If we miss further opportunities in the coming few years there is a serious risk that Afghanistan could go back to the old days,” said Abdullah Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban leader and foreign minister and now opposition figurehead whose life has spanned several dark decades of war in Afghanistan.

US President Barack Obama announced last month a phased withdrawal of combat troops, tied in with a handover to Afghan security forces. Critics warn those forces are not ready, despite years of training and billions in foreign funding.

They also fear that efforts to reach out to the Taliban will be hasty, and any peace deal fragile and half-baked. At stake are the freedoms won since 2001, especially for women. If civil war returns, even more could be lost.

Abdullah, who was Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s main opponent in the 2009 presidential election, boasts a grey-flecked beard he jokes will likely be entirely white by 2014.

“The PR part of it is very different from the real perception and belief, when you talk and engage diplomats who otherwise would endorse the process of reconciliation. In real terms they would admit the chances are very slim.”

THE BUZZWORD

In Kabul, “transition” is the talking point for NATO officials and diplomats eager to show that billions of dollars poured into Afghanistan since 2001 have been well spent, and political change will be lasting.

“There is a lot of wishful thinking going around at the moment,” said one senior diplomat, who asked not to be identified.

A raid last week on the Inter-Continental Hotel, when nine Taliban suicide bombers breached one of Kabul’s most heavily guarded sites, underscored worries Afghan security forces were still weak. Ending the battle required a NATO helicopter.

Politics are volatile, with Karzai accused of autocratic tendencies and former warlords forging an anti-Karzai alliance.

Regionally, neighbors are lining up for a repeat of the “Great Game,” the Victorian-era power struggle over the area. Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian states that border Afghanistan have dealings with both Kabul and insurgents, and much at stake.

Even if security holds, the sheer problems of Afghanistan — poverty, corruption and lack of basic governance and justice — could be just too much for a government that will face a dramatic drop in funding from the West as soldiers depart.

There is also a risk that pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, strengthening the Taliban who know the US is leaving and feeding political turmoil as leaders vie for power, and survival, in a brave, new post-2014 Afghan world.

“One thing is on the record,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network and one of the foremost experts on Afghanistan.

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