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NATO is set to withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. And with the clock ticking, uncertainty has gripped the country. People and money are leaving, housing prices are falling, construction is slowing down. Many Afghans are tying to be hopeful, but even the most optimistic among them admit that Afghanistan after with the withdrawal could be a troubling scene. NPR's Sean Carberry has our story.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: The Panjshir Valley, some 60 miles north of Kabul, is one of the most scenic places in Afghanistan. The Panjshir River winds its way through barren mountains. The valley floor is lined with little villages of mud houses, some still bearing scars of Afghanistan's recent history. It was here where Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary mujahedeen commander, fought off successive assaults by the Soviet army in the '80s and later by the Taliban.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: Today, Afghans from all over the country make pilgrimages to Massoud's mausoleum. The austere monument sits on a hilltop overlooking the valley where the leaves are turning shades of gold as autumn finally sets in.
AHMAD SADUQ: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: Ahmad Saduq is the caretaker of the shrine. The 75-year-old fought alongside Massoud here. And he says the people of the Panjshir hope things will get better in Afghanistan once NATO forces pull out.
SADUQ: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: Every day, we are losing our kids, our men and women, he says. Once the foreign forces leave, we hope we don't see that anymore.
ABUL WAHAB: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: But Abul Wahab, a first-time visitor to the Massoud shrine, voices a fear heard often these days.
WAHAB: (Through translator) We have concerns. Afghanistan could return to a civil war or the Taliban could come back.
CARBERRY: The Afghan government hopes to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. But that sends chills up the spine of leaders like Amrullah Saleh, a former Massoud lieutenant who served as intelligence chief for the Afghan government until he was forced out after a 2010 attack in Kabul. Saleh says there can be no accommodation with the Taliban, and the only option is for the militants to disarm completely and enter the political process.
AMRULLAH SALEH: We as former anti-Taliban fighters, we submitted to the new order. We gave our weapons, we became totally political. But if our enemy is brought to the window back, of course, we will fight.
CARBERRY: There is talk of rearming the Northern Alliance, the former military force of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who fought the predominantly Pashtun Taliban back in the '90s. While no one offered hard evidence, there's plenty of speculation that elements of the Northern Alliance are rearming and preparing to fight should the Afghan security forces fail to defeat the Taliban. Parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi worries about that prospect, and she says the crucial moment will be Jan 1, 2015, the day after the completion of the NATO withdrawal.
FAWZIA KOOFI: Will not be a day that Afghanistan once again changes to a country where different groups fight with each other, where once again the whole world forget Afghanistan.
CARBERRY: She says there are several critical variables that will shape the post-2014 landscape.
KOOFI: I think the role of outsider elements is much more greater than the role of insider elements, basically.
CARBERRY: One outsider element that still has people guessing is the U.S.,. Despite committing to military and financial support post-2014, Afghans say they are wary of U.S. follow-through because they've been abandoned before. And those sentiments are affecting everything from security to economic investment.
DR. DAVOOD MORADIAN: No one bet on a dead horse.
CARBERRY: Political analyst Davood Moradian says the Afghans need reassurance.
MORADIAN: Reassurance to the Afghan people, reassurance to Afghan political community that if they behave responsibly, United States remain engaged.
CARBERRY: The other outside variable affecting the future of Afghanistan is Pakistan.
SALEH: I think Pakistan is the most predictable variable.
CARBERRY: Amrullah Saleh doesn't trust recent signals from Pakistan that it will no longer support the Taliban's return to power.
SALEH: They will continue to support the Taliban. They will continue to deny that they are supporting the Taliban.
CARBERRY: But what many here agree is the biggest variable in the post-2014 equation is the presidential election scheduled just months before the final pullout of NATO troops.
SALEH: If we have fair elections, 2015, regardless of the insurgency, there will be a functioning state.
CARBERRY: Experts at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group recently warned that Afghanistan's election laws and systems are dangerously flawed and need immediate reform. Failure to do so could lead to a fraudulent election or no election, and that in turn could prompt the breakdown of the fragile state and a return to civil war. President Karzai denounced the report and is working to ban the organization from Afghanistan.
SALEH: Karzai rejects everything that doesn't suit him, but it doesn't mean the entire report of International Crisis Group was wrong.
CARBERRY: Political analyst Davood Moradian thinks that Afghanistan is technically capable of holding the election, but he's also suspicious of Karzai who is constitutionally barred from running for a third term.
MORADIAN: He will do his utmost to ensure a degree of his continuing influence in the Afghan politics.
CARBERRY: Dr. Abdullah Abdullah was runner-up in the 2009 presidential election that was widely viewed as fraudulent.
DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: I hope that President Karzai acts with a sense of responsibility from now onward. Based on the previous record, I'm not that optimistic.
CARBERRY: Parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi says a canceled or flawed election would lead to the worst-case scenario.
KOOFI: The alternative for not having democracy is Taliban.
CARBERRY: While many Afghans doubt the Taliban could seize power again, there's no shortage of anxiety about its role in Afghanistan's future.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: That anxiety is front and center as a few men in a small grocery shop in Panjshir ponder the coming years. Their immediate concern is that business is down because of all the uncertainty.
NOMAN RABAH: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: From what we understand when we are watching TV, there is an 80 percent chance of war, and that's what we are seeing, says Noman Rabah, the shopkeeper.
RABAH: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: If we see the Taliban are taking over again and Pakistanis are trying to interfere, then we will fight them.
MUHAMMED NASEEM: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: Muhammed Naseem, a customer in the store, agrees.
NASEEM: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: As the history shows, the people of Panjshir are ready, and they will defend their soil and honor, he says. It's a history that war-weary Afghans are hoping will not be repeated. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.