Afghanistan's Fate Unclear As More Troops Expected To Leave

As President Obama continues to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, some Afghans say they are going to need his help now more than ever. Human rights activists are worried that the government in Afghanistan may be too weak to deal with dramatic changes expected in the next year: the drawdown of U.S. troops, efforts to negotiate peace with the Taliban and elections.

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President Obama drew lots of applause at his State of the Union address when he spoke about withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But Afghans themselves are decidedly more ambivalent about the U.S. departure. Their country was plunged into a brutal civil war after Soviet troops withdrew in the 1980s, and some Afghans are now looking to the U.S. to try to keep the country from descending into lawlessness and civil war after U.S. troops depart. NPR's Michele Kelemen sat down this week with several human rights activists from Afghanistan to hear their concerns.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A woman's rights activist, Nargis Nehan, says this is shaping up to be a big year for her country: 34,000 U.S. troops are pulling out, the Taliban has an office in Qatar in preparation for peace talks and Afghanistan is to hold elections in 2014.

NARGIS NEHAN: We have to have political settlement because end of every fight is a peace. So, we have to move towards that. Military withdrawal should happen because we have to take more responsibility of managing our own affairs ourselves.

KELEMEN: Nehan is just not convinced Afghanistan can pull all of this off.

NEHAN: What actually we fear a little bit is giving all these three major challenges at the same time to Afghan people to manage them with all these weak institutions that we have, with the trust deficit that we have, with weak leadership that we have.

KELEMEN: Nehan runs a nonprofit in Kabul called Equality for Peace and Democracy. She came to Washington with other activists to meet officials at the State Department, Pentagon, White House and Congress to urge them to stay involved even after U.S. troops leave. Musarat Hussein, who works with a German Green political party foundation, says he's hopeful the U.S. can help protect some of the accomplishments Afghans have made and institutionalize reforms.

MUSARAT HUSSEIN: There should not be one-man show. Now, I think that most of the issues were manipulated by President Karzai and his team.

KELEMEN: These activists are looking beyond Hamid Karzai's role, which is set to end after next year's election. Masood Karokhail, who runs a nonprofit that works on governance issues, says the U.S. and Europe need to help Afghanistan get through that vote.

MASOOD KAROKHAIL: This is a very key milestone for our people because usually power transfers in our country have been very bloody, either to coups or through civil war or foreign invasion. And this goes even back to the 1800s.

KELEMEN: To change that course in history, he says, Afghans need outside support, and it's not just about security. Karokhail says Afghanistan need economic support and civil society groups need help to hold their government to account.

KAROKHAIL: We were given very high expectations to begin with of solidarity and support to Afghanistan in the long run. And it is suddenly a very quick change in that tone. I think it does have a big impact.

KELEMEN: President Obama says while he expects the war to be over in 2014, the U.S. will remain committed, he says, to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But the nature of our commitment will change. We're negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al-Qaida and their affiliates.

KELEMEN: While the president didn't mention democracy or women's rights when he spoke about Afghanistan in the State of the Union, Masood Karokhail argues it is in U.S. national security interest to make sure his country succeeds. That's especially true, he says, at this time of turmoil throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

KAROKHAIL: Failure in Afghanistan will sort of resonate through all of this, that such a large investment of NATO, I would say, or international community in the nation, led again to civil war or our people were not able to fulfill their hopes and dreams. I think it has a direct relationship to the U.S. national security and also other Western capitals. So, therefore I think it's a very mutually bond relationship that we have.

KELEMEN: He and his colleagues have high expectations of Secretary of State John Kerry, who as senator often played the part of troubleshooter on Afghanistan for the Obama administration. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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