KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - NATO’s planned withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 will likely mean a Taliban takeover and civil war, residents in the heartland of the insurgency fear, echoing a worrying recent report.
Afghans in the southern city of Kandahar said Afghanistan’s security forces would likely collapse when foreign combat troops left, even if they continued providing training and equipment.
Kandahar province is the birthplace of the Taliban and has long been the focal point of Afghanistan’s bitter insurgency.
“It’s 100 percent possible that there will be a civil war,” said Pida Muhammad, a worker at the Kandahar governor’s palace.
“Afghans cannot have union among themselves. That could only happen by a miracle, only Allah can do it. It’s beyond our comprehension,” the 26-year-old said.
Kandahar is one of Afghanistan’s most fertile areas and is an important element in the rich, illicit opium poppy trade that helps funds the insurgency, as well as a major road trade hub.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has 25,000 troops fighting in the province, mostly American, alongside about 10,000 Afghans.
Security in Kandahar city has improved dramatically, U.S. and NATO commanders say, especially after the bulk of 30,000 extra U.S. troops ordered by President Barack Obama last December were sent to fight in the south.
Residents say bombings have tapered off in recent weeks but, even though thankful for security gains, Kandaharis worry that Afghanistan could again be plunged into escalating fighting.
“It will take at least 15 years or more for the Afghan security forces to stand on their own,” said Nadeem Akbar, a project officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Earlier this month, a report by the International Council on Security and Development policy think tank found that 92 percent of Afghan men surveyed in Kandahar and neighboring Helmand knew nothing of the September 11, 2001, attacks that precipitated the war.
It found that the lack of awareness contributed to high levels of negativity toward ISAF. Violence is at its worst across Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, with military and civilian casualties at record levels.
The ICOS report found 61 percent of the 1,000 men surveyed in Kandahar and Helmand thought Afghan forces would not be able to provide adequate security when foreign forces withdraw, and 81 percent thought al Qaeda would return to Afghanistan if the Taliban regained power.
With Obama to review his Afghanistan war strategy next month, attention is now focused on a withdrawal timetable. U.S. and NATO leaders agreed at a summit in Lisbon this week to accept Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s timetable for a 2014 security handover.
The readiness of Afghan forces, which now number about 258,000 and are to be ramped up to 306,000 by October 2011, is a crucial part of that equation.
There was also deep-seated suspicion between those in Kandahar city, which was the focus of security efforts over the past year or more, and rural areas like Panjwai and Zhari were such efforts began more recently.
“If you’re from Kandahar and you go to a district like that, you’ll be slaughtered,” said Pida, from the governor’s office.
Kandaharis blamed neighboring Pakistan, where most of the Taliban leadership fled in 2001, and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency for fuelling the insurgency.
“The Taliban are a creature of the ISI. If America wants to bring peace in Afghanistan, they should ask Pakistan to control the ISI, but America is not asking Pakistan to do it,” said Ahmed Bashir, a 57-year-old baker.
Others also blamed Pakistan but said security forces still lacked a clear-cut strategy to fight the insurgency.
“Our forces aren’t strong enough or capable enough to defend the country. We have foreign political interference in our internal affairs,” said Abdul Waris, 19, a computer worker.
Abdul Jabar, who sells fruit from a handcart, said things had improved in Kandahar city but security outside the city and the slow build-up of Afghan forces were still worrying.
“They have to increase the number of Afghan recruits and they have to be better equipped. If our own government forces are strengthened enough, maybe the Taliban can’t take over,” he said.
Some supported bringing the Taliban into the government, or creating enough economic opportunity to lure young Afghans away from the insurgency. Others said cash was the answer.
“If the Taliban are paid off, that could be a solution, Afghans love money,” said appliance shop owner Haji Muhammad.
Editing by Paul Tait and Andrew Marshall