KABUL // Many Afghans fear that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan beginning next month will plunge the country into civil war.
The US president, Barack Obama, announced on Wednesday that 5,000 of the 100,000 US troops would pull out within the next few weeks while another 5,000 will leave by the end of the year. About 33,000 troops will be out of Afghanistan by September 2012, Mr Obama said.
Analysts consider the troop reduction the first step in ending 10 years of war in Afghanistan for the US, which spends US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) a month fighting Taliban-led insurgents in the country. The US makes up the bulk of the Nato forces in Afghanistan. Other nations quickly announced that they would also start bringing troops home.
The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, yesterday announced the progressive withdrawal of France's troops on a timetable matching the US pull-out. France has about 4,000 troops in the country.
Britain, the second-largest contributor to the Nato force, will bring home 450 troops this summer, Prime Minister David Cameron said.
Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed and his UK counterpart, William Hague, made a surprise three-day joint visit to Afghanistan that ended yesterday.
The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said yesterday that the nation's youth would stand up to protect the country. The Taliban, in an English-language statement to the media, promised to continue their fight.
"The transition of the security and the withdrawal of the foreign troops from Afghanistan means the Afghan forces must be strengthened," Mr Karzai said in Kabul, adding that he welcomed the withdrawals as "a good measure".
Mr Obama and Mr Karzai have both endorsed initiating peace talks with the Taliban in a bid to end the war.
Violence is now at its highest level since the US invaded the country in 2001, and many fear it will only get worse.
Last year was the deadliest for Afghans, according to the United Nations, with civilian deaths up by 15 per cent from 2009 to 2010 as Nato takes its fight to the Taliban in key Afghan provinces.
"The Americans should not leave Afghanistan until 2020," said Zmaray Zalmay, a 30-year-old aid worker in Kabul.
"We have the experience of 1992," he said, referencing the year the Soviet-backed communist government in Afghanistan fell, sparking a civil war. "We have Russia, China and Pakistan to worry about. We need America."
Some Afghans are looking for a way out of the country. For them, Mr Obama's announcement has only solidified decisions to escape.
"I am planning to leave as soon as I can, to western Europe or Canada," said Zabiullah Shadman, the owner of a women's clothing store in Kabul who lived in Afghanistan during both the civil war and under the Taliban regime from 1996-2001.
"Security is bad. Business is bad. We don't trust our government to take care of us."
In addition to Taliban attacks, ordinary Afghans and policymakers alike are worried about the readiness of the Afghan national security forces.
Nato has spent $20bn on training Afghan police and army recruits since 2009, with the goal of boosting both forces to more than 300,000 members by October.
The Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are marred by corruption, drug use and desertion, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a US government oversight body for Afghan reconstruction funds. Coalition leaders are also worried about Taliban infiltration among Afghan ranks.
"Before foreign forces leave, we need to be self-sufficient. We need to be able to stand on our own two feet," said Major Mohammed, spokesman for the Afghan Border Police. "We are still unable to do that. We don't have the right weapons or the right training."
Yet not all are convinced the presence of US or Nato troops ensures security, citing a recent rise in bloodshed across the country and growing resentment of foreign troops in even the most anti-Taliban areas.
A US congressional report on US aid to Afghanistan released earlier this month found that large aid initiatives "fuel corruption" in the country.
Observers also noted that Nato's support for village-level, anti-Taliban militias is contributing to a rise in violence.
"For the past 10 years, with the Americans here, the situation has turned from bad to worse," said Ghulam Habib, a member of a local district council in the northern province of Takhar.
"The presence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda has increased day by day, which shows the US strategy cannot bring security," he said, concluding, "So they can go."
Shah Wali, a money-changer in Kabul, said that with Nato and the US gone, the Taliban and Al Qaeda will no longer use Afghanistan as its primary base for attacks against the West.
"People are happy about the foreigners leaving. Al Qaeda is fighting here because they were," said Mr Wali. "Our demand, as Afghans, is a peaceful environment, whether the foreigners are here or not."