Afghan Security Personnel Fear US Withdrawal

Some policemen and soldiers say they have quit because of concerns about what might happen to them if the Taleban take over when American troops leave.

There are signs that some members of the Afghan security services in Tagab district are deserting because they fear Taleban retribution should the Americans start withdrawing from Afghanistan next summer.

Many locals believe that if United States military leave without defeating the Taleban or ensuring Afghan forces are capable of taking over, the insurgents will seize power and punish Afghans who resisted them.

The Taleban control much of Tagab district, part of Kapisa province, 50 kilometres from Kabul, and working for the Afghan government is already considered dangerous.

Asadullah, not his real name, was reluctant to admit that until recently he was a soldier in the Afghan National Army, ANA. Leaning against a tree in his village in the mountains of Tagab, he recounted how he came to desert after US president Barack Obama announced late last year that troops would begin to leave Afghanistan in July 2011.

“I served for two years in Helmand province in very tough conditions,” he said. “I always thought that this country will be rebuilt and peace will come… but when the president of America announced his decision to pull out troops, it had a huge negative effect on the morale of a lot of the soldiers.

“It became evident to us that our dreams will not be realised and that when the Taleban come we will have to face trials [for treason]. Four of us quit our duties.”

As the insurgents were already strong, it was inevitable they would overthrow the Afghan government if US troops left, Asadullah continued, adding that he has since kept quiet about his military service.

“No-one in my village knows that I have been serving with the army, I told everyone I was working in Iran,” he said.

A strong and stable Afghan security service is key to Washington’s plan to leave Afghanistan, and the US has invested heavily in the recruitment, training and equipping of both the ANA and the Afghan National Police, ANP. The ANA currently consists of around 134,000 active service troops, a number which Kabul and Washington hopes will double within the next two years, and the ANP has around 90,000 officers with a projected figure of 190,000.

Both services have struggled to deal with problems such as poor discipline, illiteracy and desertion. The US has insisted that it will not withdraw until the Afghan armed forces are able to deliver security, with suggestions that 2014 might be a more suitable date.

In Tagab, even some high-ranking officials in the army appear to have doubts over the ANA’s ability to maintain order.

A former colonel in the defence ministry, who did not wanted to be named, said, “The Americans are saying they will leave and I am sure once they are gone the Taleban will come back to power. This compelled me to leave my post because I have a lot of land and orchards in Tagab district and I cannot give them up because of a job with an uncertain future.”

There have also been reports of deteriorating morale within the Tagab police force.

A young man from the eastern part of Kapisa province, who gave his name as Jameel, said he had served in the Kabul police for four years, despite constant pressure from his family to leave. US plans to withdraw were the last straw.

“I preferred serving my country rather than going to another country and working there as a labourer,” he said. “But since the announcement by the American president to take his troops out of Afghanistan I quit my job, because if the Taleban return to power our lives will be in danger. We have no trust in foreigners - the moment they don’t have any interest here they will not stay for another minute.”

It’s not only those with jobs in the security services who feel at risk.

A young man in Kapisa province, who requested anonymity, said that he had been working as a journalist for the last year but has now quit to become a farmer.

“My mother heard about the withdrawal of the Americans,” he said. “She called me and asked me in a worried tone, ‘Son, leave this job and come back home, I am very concerned for you. The people here are saying that the Americans are going to leave and the government will be once again taken back by the Taleban - forget the job and come back, what good will your salary be to me if you are taken from me?’”

But government officials remain bullish in the face of such fears.

Colonel Mohammad Akbar Stankzai, head of the recruitment section of the ANA, said US withdrawal plans had had no impact on army enrolment.

“The plan given to us by the ministry of defence is being smoothly implemented; the numbers of new recruits are exceeding the target given to us by the ministry as more people are coming to the recruitment centres,” he said, although he acknowledged that desertion was a problem.

“It is true that some people with low morale are abandoning their duties and these are the people who are affected by the campaigns of the enemy. But overall, the morale of the ANA is very strong. If the Americans and the foreigners leave, the army and police of Afghanistan have the capability to defend the country.”

Zemarai Bashiri, the spokesman for the ministry of interior affairs, also told IWPR that the anticipated American withdrawal had not affected police force morale.

“If the foreign troops leave Afghanistan it will be according to a proper and logical withdrawal plan,” he said, “in which the responsibility for security in every area of Afghanistan will be handed over to the Afghan forces.”

Desertion from the police, he added, was not due to fears of Taleban retribution “but because of the pressure of work in which they often encounter anti-government forces, smugglers and other criminals which has made them tired. We have a plan to decrease this pressure on them but we don’t have any proof that the police are abandoning their duties.”

Foreign officials argue that fears regarding a US withdrawal are premature because the exit date had not been finalised.

“We are discussing the possibility of postponing this withdrawal to 2014 so that the Afghan security forces would be able to maintain security themselves,” Lieutenant Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman for the Nato-led International Assistance Force to Afghanistan, ISAF, said. “Until the Afghan security forces themselves are able to provide security, we will stay in Afghanistan.

“We have a proper plan for this which considers the security situation of each and every district and village in Afghanistan and [once] security improves in these districts and villages - and the Afghan forces are able to maintain security - we will have a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

However, local political analysts believe that the planned US departure has unnerved both the Kabul government and the population.

Nasrullah Stankzai, a law lecturer at Kabul university, said, “The continuous talk by the American officials about the withdrawal has put pressure on all of the institutions in Afghanistan,” he said.

Parliamentarian and commentator Kabeer Ranjbar agreed, “[It] has put a strain on the government of Afghanistan and worried the public, because people have not yet got full confidence in their police and army and they know that they cannot keep security in the country.”

For their part, Taleban leaders have made it clear to locals that they will hold anyone working with the foreigners to account once the US military leaves.

“There is no doubt about the fact that the Americans are defeated and are now seeking ways to get of this country,” said a Taleban leader in Tagab district, who did not disclose his name. “For us, the Americans and those who have been helping with them are the same and each one will be punished in accordance with the crimes they have committed.”