Fear, relief in Afghanistan at US withdrawal plan

FILE - In this June 15, 2011 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks in Pensacola, Fla. Nearing a critical benchmark in the Afghanistan war, President Barack Obama is considering both how many U.S. troops to bring home next month and a broader withdrawal plan to give Afghans control of their security in 2014. But there are deep divisions over how to achieve that, with military leaders favoring a gradual troop reduction and other advisers pushing for a significant decrease in coming months. (Charles Dharapak, File)

June 23, 2011 7:00:27 AM PDT
Afghanistan's president welcomed Barack Obama's announcement that the U.S. would bring home 33,000 troops over the next year, with the Afghan leader asserting his forces were ready to take over as the U.S. moves toward a full withdrawal of combat forces.

President Hamid Karzai, who has warned the U.S. and NATO they risk becoming occupiers after nearly 10 years of war, called the drawdown "a good measure" in a speech Thursday and asserted that the Afghan youth would guard their nation against Taliban and other insurgents who have just begun a new offensive.

Outside the capital, in the Taliban's former southern heartland and in the increasingly volatile north, local government officials and Afghans were more fearful that a speedy U.S. exit could leave the nation headed once again toward civil war.

"At this time when they are leaving, Afghans will be caught up in civil war again and will not be able to rule the county without Americans," said Hakimullah, a 20-year-old living in the southern city of Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban.

The hard-line Islamic movement said Thursday a U.S. pullout would be a step toward ending "this pointless bloodshed."

Driven from power in 2001 in response to their sheltering of al-Qaida, the Taliban have regrouped in recent years. They have led an insurgency that has battered Afghan towns and countryside with roadside bombs, suicide attackers and complex attacks on NATO bases and the headquarters of Western-allied Afghan forces.

The "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan once again wants to make it clear that the solution for the Afghan crisis lies in the full withdrawal of all foreign troops immediately and until this ... happens, our armed struggle will increase from day to day," said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a rare statement in English.

Some Afghans wondered how the U.S. could leave while the Taliban is still able to stage such attacks.

"The day they stepped on this land, they declared that until they wipe out the Taliban they will not leave us," said 30-year-old Atta Jan in Kandahar. "When I heard the news I was not shocked as it was feared already. I do not know what will happen."

Obama announced late Wednesday he would bring 33,000 U.S. troops home by next summer in the opening phases of a withdrawal that is to be completed by 2014. Americans make up the bulk of the NATO forces in Afghanistan and other nations quickly announced they would start bringing troops home too.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Thursday the progressive withdrawal of France's troops on a timetable matching the American pullout that starts this summer. France currently 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. The overall pace of U.K. troop withdrawals will be determined by conditions on the ground, British officials said.

Karzai sounded confident that Afghanistan's NATO-trained forces could take control of the country from the departing forces, which he has increasingly criticized for night raids and aerial bombings that have killed civilians.

"At the end of 2014, the Afghans, for their homeland, for their protection, for the security of their people, completely should be in control," Karzai said in a televised address from the presidential palace. "The responsibility will be given to the Afghans."

"We are welcoming (the U.S. decision) and it will be a good measure for them and Afghanistan," he added. Afghan security forces, however, still appear unready to protect the nation from insurgents able to strike at will with suicide bombings, rocket attacks and even in force in some remote, mountainous regions of the country.

The war has killed at least 1,500 members of the U.S. military and wounded another 12,000 since it began in late 2001. The financial cost of the war has passed $440 billion and is on the rise, jumping to $120 billion a year.

In announcing the pullout plans, the Obama administration used the argument that Afghanistan, training ground for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., no longer is a launching pad for exporting terrorism and hasn't been for years.


Associated Press writers Solomon Moore, Kathy Gannon and Ahmad Massieh Neshat in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.