Hope and fear for Afghans as US withdrawal looms
Barack Obama is preparing to announce his plans for the departure of US troops from Afghanistan. American voters want their soldiers home, but some Afghans fear they will be abandoned.
Summer in Afghanistan is known as the 'fighting season'. As the weather warms, Taliban fighters move from their secret bases to launch new waves of attacks on the NATO troops who, for a decade, have been trying to bring peace and stability to the war torn nation. US and British commanders are bracing themselves for more lives lost in what many now see as an unwinnable war.
But although the endless routine of bloodshed remains the same, this summer there's a crucial difference: according to a promise made by Barack Obama back in 2009, this July will see the US army begin to pull out of the country for good.
That means that the future of Afghanistan is hanging in the balance; the lives of millions now depend on decisions that will be made not on the battlefield but in diplomatic backrooms in Washington and Kabul. Two major questions dominate the discussion: how fast will the Americans pull out? And will the Taliban agree to any sort of peace deal after they have gone?
The answer to the first question remains a mystery. Sources in the White House say that President Obama has yet to make up his mind, and he's keeping his cards close to his chest.
Some are urging a fast withdrawal. They point to new intelligence that reveals how the al Qaeda terrorist network has been devastated by US operations. The Afghan mission, it is argued, was always about making America safe from al Qaeda. That mission is now accomplished. Osama bin Laden is dead. It's time for the troops to come home.
Others, including David Petraeus, the top US commander in the region, fear that the sudden departure of American forces could allow the Taliban to regain power and take over the country, undoing ten years of effort at a single stroke.
Meanwhile, secret talks are underway to address the second question: can the Taliban be forced to make peace. The President of Afghanistan recently revealed that the US has been secretly negotiating with the Taliban to persuade them to lay down their arms and join a new unified Afghan government.
Many see such negotiations as the only route to a lasting and stable peace. For some Afghans, however, the return of the Taliban as a political force brings back frightening memories of the fundamentalist repression that existed under Taliban rule before the US invasion in 2001.
The lesser evil
Obama could announce his decision as early as this week. He will do so in the knowledge that with Afghanistan, the best he can hope for is to choose the lesser of two evils. If he keeps on fighting, he spends more lives and more money on a war which may never be won. If he pulls the troops out, he might be abandoning the Afghans to endure more years of misery.
- If you were President Obama, what would you decide?
- Some people argue that since western countries invaded Afghanistan, they have a responsibility to stay there until the country achieves peace. Is this a good argument? Why / why not?
- Imagine you were an Afghan and write a letter to President Obama urging him either to remove US troops from Afghanistan or to keep them there for longer.
- Do some further research into the history of Afghanistan and its people. Is this history a cause for hope or for fear? Explain your findings.
Some People Say...
“Leave Afghanistan to the Afghans – the US should pull its troops out tomorrow.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Who are the Taliban exactly?
- That's a simple question with a complex answer. Youcould describe them as a religious movement. The Taliban believe in a fundamentalist version of Islam, with few if any rights for women, a ban on music and television, and oppressive penalties for non-believers or homosexuals.
- But they're also a political force?
- Yes. The Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan from around 1992 until 2001, when US-backed warlords overthrew their government.
- And they remain powerful?
- The Taliban drew much of their support from Pashtun tribesmen in the South-East of Afghanistan and North-western Pakistan. Those tribes still often support Taliban fighters, who can operate from safe havens in Pakistan to strike at US forces across the border.
- A landlocked country in Central Asia, bordering Pakistan to the South and East, Iran to the West, and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the North. It's capital is
- In a military context, 'intelligence' means information that comes from spies, electronic surveillance, or captured enemy documents. The recent operation to kill Osama bin Laden also brought in huge amounts of intelligence, revealing falling morale and high casualties among al Qaeda members.
- 'Fundamentalism' means believing in a very strict or old-fashioned version of some religion or ideology.