In Afghanistan, Warily Watching the U.S. and Fearing Abandonment

Many Afghans worry that American policy will once again give up on their country.

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Two boys in the Afghan village of Zana Khan. / Michael Hirsh

KABUL, Afghanistan--Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai limped into the room on a cane and sat down with a smile. We inquired about his health. "I am under repair," he said. "It will never be the way it used to be." Stanekzai, the Cambridge University-educated head of the Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Program, was in this same room last September, in the sprawling home of  former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, when a Taliban pretending to be interested in peace talks arrived. The Taliban had a bomb concealed in his turban and promptly blew himself up. Rabbani, the head of the government's peace talk efforts, was killed. Stanekzai was badly wounded.

On Thursday, in a meeting with visiting reporters, Stanekzai sat across from Rabbani's eldest son, Salahuddin, an earnest, English-speaking young man like so many of the elite young men here--more than two-thirds of Afghanistan's population is under 25--whom President Hamid Karzai appointed last month to succeed his father as chairman of the 70-member High Peace Council. The appointment was a message to everyone, but especially to the Taliban: We're not stopping. You can't kill us before we kill the worst of you and reconcile the rest to coming home. We will outlast you.

Afghanistan, like Masoom Stanekzai, may never be fully repaired. But if you were inclined to bet money on the fate of nations, the sounder gamble would probably be on men like Stanekzai and young Rabbani, who is 41 and holds a master's degree from Columbia University. True, Afghanistan is going to be a bloody mess for a long time, maybe decades. But what cynics fail to understand is that it is usually only when backward countries are completely abandoned by the international community that the bad guys win. And it is now clear beyond any reasonable doubt that whoever is elected U.S. president in November, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, the U.S. and international community are going to remain here in a fairly robust way, if not with a large-scale troop presence.

As a result, the mood is "shifting," Stanekzai says hopefully. The psychology has changed in recent weeks with the news of U.S. and Western commitments: first, with Obama's announcement of a 10-year strategic partnership agreement running to 2024; then, in two weeks, with the NATO summit in Chicago that is expected to elicit money for long-term funding of Afghan security forces; and, finally, with the Tokyo conference on economic development plans scheduled for July, when Afghanistan will present its "strategic vision," according to Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal.

Nothing tells that story of hope better than the real-estate market here, notes Nader Nadery, Afghanistan's feisty human-rights commissioner. When Obama frightened Afghans with his announcement that American soldiers would be coming home by 2014, housing prices plummeted, from $200,000 for 100 square meters to $80,000. People and money were fleeing. But in the four days after Obama's speech in Kabul last week announcing the strategic partnership, "prices jumped back up to $120,000," Nadery said.

Only this week, 10 more Taliban surrendered in northern Kunduz province, saying they wanted to come home. About 4,000 have formally done so nationwide, although most are in the north and west, where they and their families are not likely to be as threatened by Taliban retaliation. Although he was nearly killed by a fanatic, Stanekzai says he still hopes the Taliban leadership will see reason.

Many young Afghans fear and mistrust this reconciliation process; they fear that even if the Taliban agree to lay down their arms, they will undermine the government politically. Above all, the Afghans are terrified of abandonment by the U.S., which happened twice with horrific results. It occurred first in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush turned his back after the mujahadeen forced a Soviet withdrawal; and then again in 2002, when Bush's son, George W., turned his attention and resources to Iraq while the Taliban quietly regrouped. (Even though the younger Bush had declared, in a speech in October 2001 after attacking Afghanistan, that the United States "should learn a lesson from the previous engagement ... that we should not just simply leave after a military objective has been achieved.")

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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