KABUL (Reuters) - People in Afghanistan were surprisingly optimistic on Tuesday about NATO’s plan to pull combat troops out of their war-ravaged nation by the end of 2014, but warned Western leaders to stick to aid and security promises.
A Chicago summit meeting of the 28-member bloc, attended also by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other world leaders, endorsed an exit strategy on Monday that calls for handing control of Afghanistan to its own security forces by the middle of next year.
But it left unanswered questions about how to prevent a slide into chaos and a Taliban resurgence after the pullout.
Despite the sense of combat fatigue in Chicago and frustration that nearly 11 years of military engagement had failed to defeat Taliban Islamists, Afghans were surprisingly upbeat. They said the agreement showed Western nations would not abandon their nation after a decade-long war and a massive aid and reconstruction effort.
“I don’t think foreign nations will leave us as easily as they say. The international community has spent billions of dollars here now,” said university student Tawab, speaking to Reuters at a park near a mosque in central Kabul.
“The conference has decided that some foreign forces will stay in Afghanistan, so it’s like back-up support.”
Housing prices in Kabul have jumped 15 percent since U.S. President Barack Obama, who declared on Monday that the 10-year war was “effectively over”, visited Kabul to sign a long-term security deal with Karzai on May 2.
Donor nations have been negotiating agreements with Karzai’s government committing to ongoing aid and reconstruction support, as well as government and agricultural advisers, for at least a decade beyond the two-year NATO drawdown ending in 2014.
Since a U.S-led coalition helped Afghan forces topple the Taliban government in late 2001, Afghanistan has been one of the world’s largest aid recipients, with more than US$57 billion spent on development to help counter support for insurgents.
In volatile southern Helmand province, one of the most violent parts of the country and the scene of several major clashes between the Taliban and Western troops, villagers said their lives had improved.
Ezatullah, a shopkeeper in the town of Marjah where NATO troops fought one of the bloodiest battles of the war, said a 35-km (22-mile) paved road connecting to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah had nearly been completed, cutting costs and travel time to prevent vital food supplies spoiling in the area’s searing summer heat.
“And now we have a health clinic built three years ago which provides most services to people. But still people are facing problems, as it’s not enough. There should be at least a clinic in every big village,” he said.
Security had also improved since 15,000 U.S. and British surge troops ousted around 2,000 insurgents from the area, said Marjah resident Nisar Ahmad, draining support from the Taliban.
“Now this district is fully protected by Afghan Local Police. Almost all of our schools are open and boys and girls attend schools. But we still face a lack of electricity despite the billions of dollars spent,” Ahmad said.
In the Arghandab district of neighboring Kandahar province - where U.S. troops suffered heavy casualties in 2010 - local resident Hajji Shah Mohammad Ahmadi said economic progress had been spurred by roads, schools and new health clinics.
And even in restive eastern provinces, where Western troops are still fighting to choke off insurgent supply routes across the mountainous Pakistan border in one of the last major offensives of the war, local people counted improvements.
Abdul Naser, from Chapa Dara district in Kunar, said where once there had been no roads, water canals, electricity, schools, clinics or security, now there was vehicle traffic, power generators, doctors and education.
“We got two clinics during the past months with female doctors. We have paved roads. But some projects were not well built and people still face some security threats,” he said.
However, an April poll by the privately-run Tolo TV channel found just over 50 percent of Afghans though civil war would break out again after foreign troops withdrew, while 26 percent saw no change and 23 percent thought security would improve.
Still, property dealers in the capital Kabul - once convulsed by civil war but where cars have now replaced bicycles and some high-rise apartment buildings have sprung up - say business is thriving despite worries.
“People’s morale and economic morale have gone up,” said Mohammad Nader Faizyaar, the owner of the high-end Faisal Business Centre mall that retails everything from women’s fashion accessories to furniture.
“People feel that the future of this country is stable and everyone can hopefully invest.”
Sarwar Akbari, 38, a Kabul resident in the Wazir diplomatic district, said international backers had to now honor their promises not to abandon the country amid pressure on aid budgets, particularly in cash-strapped Europe. He also said they had to reach some kind of agreement with the Taliban.
“If they don’t fulfill their promises, and if they don’t stop neighboring countries from interfering in Afghanistan and reach a peace with the Taliban, then this conference and any others will be useless,” he said.
Additional reporting by Jack Kimball; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan