By Zia Ur Rehman

June 6-12, 2012

In the eleven years since the US invasion of Afghanistan, Gulalai Jabbar, 28, has become a graduate from Kabul University and is now working as a computer engineer in an Afghanistan’s leading telecommunication company. But like the ten thousand or so other young Afghan professionals, Jabbar is also worried about the future of his country, especially after the planned withdrawal of ISAF forces. He fears a civil war may start in Afghanistan again.

The withdrawal of NATO-led ISAF forces, the transfer of security responsibilities back to Afghanistan, and the process of peace talks with the Taliban are a concern to most Afghans these days. In 2014, it is expected that the ISAF forces will no longer remain in a combat role in Afghanistan, handing over security responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

Afghan government officials and some security analysts believe the ANSF is capable of handling the country’s security alone. But many in Kabul disagree. The city was ravaged by civil war between 1992 and 1996, and its inhabitants are left with many bad memories. About 65,000 people were killed in infighting between Mujahideen groups during that period in Kabul alone.

In March 2011, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced the first phase of the transfer of security responsibilities, in which the provinces of Panjsher, Bamyan, and Kabul (excluding Surobi district), and four cities, Herat (capital of Herat province), Lashkar Gah (capital of Helmand province), Mazar Sharif (capital of Balkh) and Metharlam (capital of Laghman province) would be handed over to ANSF.

In the second phase announced on November 26, security responsibilities in the provinces of Balkh, Daikundi, Kabul, Takhar, Samangan and Nimroz, and cities including Jalalabad (in Nangarhar province), Ghazni (in Ghazni province), Maydan Shahr (in Wardak province), Fayabad (in Badakhshan province), Chaghcharan (in Ghowr province), Shibirghan (in Jawzjan province) and Qalay-i-Naw (in Badghis province) were to be transferred to the local forces.

“In the third phase, the ANSF will take full control of Uruzgan, Kapisa and Parwan provinces,” presidential spokesman Aimal Faizai told reporters on May 14.

France, the fifth largest contributor to NATO’s ISAF forces with nearly 3,300 soldiers, will begin withdrawing its troops from Kapisa province this month (July) and complete it by the end of the year. “Considering ANSF’s capabilities, there will be no security gap as the French troops leave. The Afghan forces are capable of filling the vacuum when the French troops start withdrawing from Kapisa,” said General Zahir Azimi, the spokesman of the Afghan Ministry of Defence. According to the ministry, its forces will number more than 350,000 by 2015.

A section of tribal elders and analysts have welcomed the withdrawal. “Pashtun communities do not approve of foreign troops operating in districts, especially when it comes to conducting night raids, violating privacy and disrespecting women and elders. Such controversial raids have triggered popular anger that compelled Karzai to strain his relationship with Washington,” said Abdul Hadi, a tribal elder from Helmand province. As a result, both countries signed a deal in April, putting Afghans in charge of night raids by US Special Forces.

“Afghan security forces were once among the world’s top armies, before they broke down into regional militias during the fierce civil war in the 1990s,” said Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan woman parliamentarian. “But now, they’re all set to protect and stabilize their country again.” They are well equipped, trained and “capable of launching special operations against anti-peace elements in the country,” said Barakzai, who headed the parliamentary Defence committee for two years.

But General (r) Abdul Wahid Taqat, a former communist-era intelligence chief and a security analyst, thinks differently. He believes that the US and Britain would not withdraw their troops from Afghanistan in 2014 as announced, because they have geo-political and strategic interests in the region.

Taliban insurgents are waiting to exploit an imminent withdrawal and believe that the Afghan security forces are not capable of fulfilling their security responsibilities. According to newsreports, investors are cautious and many Afghan citizens are considering leaving the country by 2014 because of concerns that the security situation would worsen.

“The key challenge is cleansing the army of anti-western and religious sentiment,” Taqat says, adding that the affiliations of soldiers and officers with the Taliban, anti-Soviet Mujahideen and notorious warlords might undermine the efforts for a unified army, and may lead to a civil war again.

Taliban have meanwhile announced a 2012 spring offensive codenamed Al Farouq. But they also sent a representative to Japan to participate in a peace conference. A few months ago, the Taliban reversed a long-held position and agreed to open an office in Qatar from which they could negotiate, but they stopped the talks over a delayed prisoner swap that would see the US release five insurgent leaders imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

It is pertinent to mention that Hizb-e-Islami, the second largest insurgent group, has also suspended formal peace talks, but in June, they sent a representative to an informal meeting in Paris for talks with members of the three main opposition political parties in Afghanistan and several members of the High Peace Council (HPC).Taliban claimed that they did not attend this meeting.

“A research conference is being organised in Doshisha University of Japan that will discuss Afghanistan among other issues. The Islamic Emirate has also been invited to the conference,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed said in a statement. Former Taliban minister Qari Din Mohammad Hanif will “explain the policies of the Islamic Emirate” in the conference, he said.

“Hanif, who belongs to Yaftali plain district in Badakhshan province, is an important member of Taliban’s political committee and was the minister of planning and the minister for higher education under the Taliban regime,” said Ahmed Wali Mujib, a veteran journalist. The meeting in Japan was attended by Hanif, Dr Ghairat Baheer (in charge of Hizb-e-Islami’s political affairs), Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef (former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan) and Masoom Stanekzai, representative of the HPC. Hanif travelled from Qatar to Tokyo to attend the meeting, according to news reports.

Even in Afghanistan, some analysts and parliamentarians want their government to make peace with Taliban despite their growing dislike for insurgency.

“Our doors are always open for ‘good Afghans’ for peace negotiations, but not for the foreigners -especially Arabs and Punjabis. We have closed our doors for those who don’t belong to us, who don’t approve of the constitution of the country, and don’t respect the Afghan people,” said Barakzai. “Those who do not want to see Afghanistan prosper, whether they are called Taliban or anything else, we will kill them or throw them out.” She said peace negotiations should not come in the form of a deal. They were a process, she said, that should begin from the grassroots. Barakzai is confident the Taliban cannot take over again, and will only carry out hit-and-run attacks.

Some call the ongoing peace talks hypocrisy. “On the one hand, Karzai and the US say that they are fighting against ‘brutal and barbarian Taliban’, calling it a ‘war on terror’, and on the other hand they are negotiating with the Taliban and appeasing them,” said Hafizullah Rasekh, a leader of Solidarity Party of Afghanistan. He said the current Afghan parliament was full of Taliban and Mujahideen leaders who had been involved in war crimes or inhumane killings of thousands of people.

“The president’s policy has emboldened the insurgents. He calls them ‘brothers’ and stopped the night raids by ISAF that were the only effective operational tactic against the insurgents,” Daily Outlook Afghanistan, a leading Kabul-based English newspaper, said in its June 23 editorial. It said the attack on Qargha lake in Kabul should put an end to myth that the Taliban would soften and a political settlement was possible with terrorists who wanted to impose their primitive worldview on the Afghans.

Zia Ur Rehman contributes from Kabul where he is part of the Pak-Afghan Media Exchange Program. He can be contacted at