2 Feb 2012

US troops to end Afghan combat role next year

Chief Correspondent

As US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announces an early switch from a combat to a support role, Alex Thomson reports from Kabul on what will become of Afghanistan once the Americans leave?

Let’s leave aside the issue of Native Americans – in foreign policy terms the US has just ended its longest war.

With a whimper not a bang. None of your George Bush Jnr on a warship with the stars and stripes announcing (wrongly) that the war in Iraq was now over. Instead US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta making a low key announcement to journalists en route to Europe.

Fanfare – if fanfare at all – will be for US President Obama to make the noise on some election stage and garner applause from Americans tired of what so many see as another Vietnam. Recent leaked intelligence reports can only enhance that decision with their assessments that the insurgency here in Afghanistan is gaining ground.

So where does it leave this country? The obvious big anxiety – not necessarily true by any means – is that the Taliban will just sit it out, wait for the Americans to disappear, then all hell will break lose with all the weaponry they’ve been able to acquire whilst doing the wait.

Perhaps. Plenty here believe that. A student outside the gates of Kabul University said to me:

“We know from history that our different warlords will fight for wealth and power. We know this. We saw it in this city. ” And yes, he included the Taliban as merely another ‘warlord’ grouping.

And you can still see the ruins left from the days when rival militias turned from being allies ranked against the Soviet Bear- to mortal enemies pulverising Kabul to rubble in their rush to grab the capital.

This morning in Kabul comes another opinion poll suggesting that the institutions of the state are not strong enough to withstand a US pull-out or perhaps even the early ceasefire. Eighty percent of Afghans polled said they do not think the police force is up to the job. They get three months training if they are lucky. 170,000 are men – less than 1000 women.

Their traditional police practice of sexually abusing young boys is still widespread according to a recent Oxfam report. Bacha bazzi they are called – dancing boys. One official from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission is quoted in their report:

“They keep the boys alongside them. You see them sitting beside them in the car.” Ninety percent of Afghan police officers cannot read or write. Watching police officers check ID papers by pretending to read them when they are upside down is commonplace even in the capital.

Alongside this sits the Afghan National Armay aka Nato’s air ticket home from the long war. Few have real confidence that they are up to the job despite the years of monitoring, the bilions of dollars, the endless mentoring and so forth.

Two days ago the general in charge of the Afghan Airforce – painfully short of any aircraft – let alone fighter-bombers – said basically Nato sitll doesn’t trust them to bomb the right side. Again recent intelligence assessments from the CIA and 16 other intelligence agencies show that view is widespread. The army too, stands accused of divided loyalties.

Of course both police and army are certainly improved from the days when we filmed the Afghan Army dealing with aftermath of Afghan policemen looting the bazaar in Sangin down in Helmand Province. But improved enough to take on the insurgent threat, nurtured by the interference of Pakistan and with two years to sit, wait, re-arm and plot?

In the end Leon Panetta’s announcement today of a ceasefire is a nuance. All that matters to most Afghans is the key issue of the Americans leaving. And most want them gone. Afghans – rightly – think only in terms of Americans on the whole since most of them are Americans and it is in reality their war, their occupation with Nato as a kind of figleaf.

But conerns over them going are not just about security. The NGOs – Afghan and International, say already US funding has been halved from its former $4 billion a year. This, according to Oxfam, is now having a real impact. Based, in Kabul, Oxfam’s Louise Hancock says:

“We don’t know what is going to happen and nor do the Afghans of course. Nobody does. But we are really concerned about the impact of the drop in aid already and what may lie ahead after the pull-out in 2014.”

The effect could well make the difference between life and death for Afghans living in remote areas like Badakhshan which have been relatively peaceful for years but where living conditions make Kabul look like Dubai.

And many Afghan women are concerned for what will happen to the gains made in terms of women’s rights in the constitution. Will they end up scuppered because America wants a deal to get out with at least some shred of dignity at all cost? Many fear they will, like Sima Samar, former government minister and now Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission:

“The requirements of politics are harsh here – from our own government and from international partners as well. When they wish to engage they engage all too often with the warlords, not with women here. That is where the money and the energy goes and it is vast compared with any investment in critcal issues like human rights and the position of women.”

All too often the gains in writing in things like the Afghan constitution which says women and men are equal before the law, get savaged in the realpolitik of Kabul. So it is that President Hamid Karzai recently signed into law a bill covering Shia families, allowing men to starve their wives if they refuse to have sex; forcing Shia women to require their husband’s permission to go to work and giving fathers or grandfathers automatic custody over children.

The Taliban are not the only Afghan franchise out to keep women at home.

In Kabul you routinely see women walking two paces behind their husbands, in their burkas. Even at the university gates you will not get any women talking on camera about – well – anything at all. It is in this atmosphere that the changes made in law, in theory, to what a woman can do in Afghanistan, will or will not be safeguarded.

But of course security is paramount. There is some evidence that people are moving back into defined ethnic areas of Kabul fearing civil war. The number of Afghans seeking asylum abroad has, according to the UN, increased 300 per cent in the past three years.

Yes, say the majority of Afghans – we want the foreign invaders out of our country. The disagreement comes on what timetable. Mr Panetta has given a strong sense of advancing the clock even though the final pull-out remains at the end of 2014.