Afghan MPs worry over race for exit

Politicians feel the West has washed their hands off and fear the quick withdrawal of foreign troops will plunge the country into civil war.

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KABUL // As the dust settles on the biggest international conference in Afghanistan for decades, politicians here are convinced that the ground is being prepared for foreign troops to make a quick and chaotic withdrawal from the country.

Officially, the message at Tuesday's summit in Kabul was that the US and Nato remain committed to the war effort and will leave behind a relatively strong government capable of defending itself when they do eventually pull out. Reading between the lines, however, members of parliament believe a plan to hand over control of the nation's security by the end 2014 is in fact confirmation that a race for the exit is under way.

Shukria Barakzai said the international community had been trying to wash its hands off Afghanistan and the results of the conference were "like the last drop of the water just fell down". The MP for Kabul said: "Until a few months ago I was optimistic, maybe, maybe, maybe. But right now there is no hope." She added, "In a year's time it will be like a civil war". Delegates at Tuesday's summit included Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, David Petraeus, the head of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general.

The final communiqué that was issued included the plan to gradually handover security until full control is passed on in 2014, an agreement to channel more development aid through the Afghan government and various pledges to tackle corruption. Although the policy decisions were largely agreed well in advance, their formal announcement appears to have confirmed the worst fears of some people. For Ms Barakzai, there was nothing that suggested her country could still be pulled back from the brink. Even a promise to safeguard women's rights was, she said, hypocritical when foreign troops raid houses and terrify the female occupants.

But it is the 2014 handover that has her most worried. She thinks Afghan security forces will not be ready in time and believes the US and Nato understand this but want to leave anyway. As evidence, she pointed to a controversial programme that was approved earlier this month, away from the conference. The brainchild of Gen Petraeus, it will establish what the Pentagon likes to describe as "local police units" across the country and has inevitably been compared to the Awakening Councils that were established against al Qa'eda in Iraq. To MPs, though, they are militias, pure and simple, and a recipe for disaster.

"We are tired of the previous warlordism. New warlordism in a modern American-style way will be unacceptable for Afghans," said Ms Barakzai. A former MP with first-hand experience of fighting the Taliban agreed. Saleh Mohammed Regestani was a close colleague of the former Northern Alliance commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud. He was voted to parliament in 2005, but quit his position before deciding to run again in this year's election.

"It's clear the countries that have soldiers in Afghanistan are under pressure from public opinion and they want to leave," he said. "But how and when, these I think are the questions." Mr Regestani fears that the gradual withdrawal of foreign troops will create a vacuum that Gen Petraeus is trying to fill with the militias. He called it a "step backward" that could lead to the kind of fighting that devastated the country in the early and mid 1990s.

"It could happen; tribe against tribe, Pashtun and non-Pashtun. We have this kind of history in the past," he said. The conference also endorsed Afghan government plans to reach out to the insurgency, giving its support to a reintegration program aimed at winning over low level fighters. This comes at a time when momentum is shifting towards trying to broker some kind of political settlement with the Taliban.

In recent weeks, rebel prisoners have been freed here as part of the reconciliation drive. Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, is also rumoured to have met Sirajuddin Haqqani, a leading militant commander. Fawzia Koofi, an MP for the northern province of Badakhshan, said it was all indicative of a worrying trend towards international disengagement that threatened to ruin the progress made since 2001.

"The reconciliation and reintegration plan, which is paying money and bringing people through undemocratic means to power, is exactly what Pakistan wanted," she said. "So even in two years time I think Afghanistan will be Talibanised, not in terms of individuals but in terms of ideology. And then all these outspoken women, and media and the young generation of Afghanistan will have a much more tough, difficult life.

"We thought we were working in a longer-term partnership with the international community. We really wanted to have a joint partnership with them and now they are leaving. There are talks about leaving [but] I think the train has left the station." Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, did try to address some of these concerns at the conference, when he described the war as "a mission of necessity" and said it would only end "when the Afghans are able to maintain security on their own". Even then, international forces would have a "supporting role" in the country.

The problem is that these words are in danger of being overshadowed by the reality of what is happening on the ground. "You think for yourself," said Mohammad Naim Farahi, an MP for Farah province. "How can a liar president who is cheating you and his own nation bring peace and security in Afghanistan in four years?"