Wardak Province, Afghanistan – “If you leave here like you left Iraq, I am a dead man,” says the blunt-speaking district governor. His district chief of police, a newly appointed civil judge and the chief of the Afghan Local Police detachment all nod their heads in assent. None of them is smiling.
We are reminded by the commander of the special operations unit with whom we are living not to broadcast names or faces of Afghan security force personnel. The local district governor is speaking through an interpreter. He doesn’t pull any punches: “You must not abandon us again. You helped us expel the Soviets and then left us to the Taliban and al-Qaida. Look what happened to you. When you came back, we put our lives and our families at risk because you told us you would help us rebuild our country. But now you are leaving before the job is done. We have enemies to our east and west. They are your enemies, as well. But your deadline means we are dead.”
It’s a familiar refrain throughout this trip to Afghanistan. Over the past two weeks, we have heard similar messages from Afghan officials and police chiefs in Kandahar, Kabul, Helmand, Zabul and Wardak provinces. At every location, the story is basically the same: “The Americans left Iraq. Now they are leaving Afghanistan.”
For people here, evidence of the just-completed drawdown is ubiquitous. When the “fighting season” began this spring, there were more than 100,000 U.S. military personnel deployed on bases around the country. The withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. surge troops – leaving fewer than 68,000 American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines on the ground – means scores of these outposts now are manned by Afghan forces or simply abandoned.
But it’s the Obama administration’s well-publicized “exit strategy” that causes the greatest apprehension among Afghan officials and civilians. This week at a conference in Brussels, NATO leaders reaffirmed the Obama plan to end all coalition combat operations next year and withdraw the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in 2014.
In neighboring Pakistan and Iran, anti-American propaganda mills and radical Islamists are exploiting the anxiety about the future. Taliban, al-Qaida and Haqqani network “information ministries” routinely churn out claims that they are “driving out the infidel occupiers” while issuing threats to kill the “puppets who cooperate with them.”
Here on the ground, U.S. and allied commanders express hopes that after coalition combat troops complete the handover for security to the Afghan government, “a sufficient number of our personnel will remain to advise, train and assist” their police and military to ensure stability. But everyone knows that will depend on decisions made in Washington and Kabul. And therein is the greatest source of angst for all who have sacrificed so much blood and treasure in the shadows of the Hindu Kush.
The precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq raises questions about whether a second Obama administration will vigorously pursue a status of forces agreement with Kabul. Absent such an accord, it is highly unlikely that American military personnel will remain here long enough to help their Afghan counterparts build capacity to protect the country from internal and external threats.
Unfortunately, this uncertainty comes at a time when Afghan National Security Forces are experiencing an extraordinary improvement in capability, competence and skill. And no organization here typifies this change better than the ALP – the Afghan Local Police.
Established in August 2010 by a presidential decree, the ALP has more than 16,000 officers and operates under the authority of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior. It is now the first line of protection for the Afghan people. Deployed in 137 rural village stability operations throughout the country, ALP detachments, mentored by 60 special operations teams from 23 nations, are proving to be the most cost-effective measure yet taken in denying the Taliban safe haven and transit.
Candidates for the ALP program are selected by their local village and district leaders. After being vetted for reliability and commitment – and trained for 21 days by U.S., coalition and Afghan professionals in how to “move, shoot, communicate and respect the civil rights of their neighbors” – they become full-fledged members of their “hometown civil defense force.”
“Green-on-blue,” or insider, attacks – in which Afghans wearing military or police uniforms have turned their guns on their U.S. or NATO mentors – have captured the attention of the mainstream media. But only three such events have occurred in two years of the ALP program.
Intelligence reports indicate that Taliban commanders are offering “bounties” for targeting ALP officers. On October 2, while we were embedded with a U.S. Navy SEAL team, two ALP officers were wounded by an IED – one of them seriously enough to be evacuated.
After the helicopter took off, a SEAL veteran of six tours said: “That could have been me. But he wanted to walk point to protect me. He’s a brave man. Hope he comes back soon.”
Realizing the hope that a brave ALP officer will return to the fight may well depend on American credibility. If he fears we won’t keep our commitments, he won’t fight. The precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, exaggerated claims about a “death blow” inflicted on al-Qaida and misrepresentations on what really happened at our consulate in Libya all have been mentioned by those here who put their lives on the line. Those who do not trust us will be afraid – very afraid.