Afghan officials welcome drawdown, others dismayed

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By PATRICK QUINN, Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — President Barack Obama's decision to bring half of America's 66,000 troops home within a year was welcomed Wednesday by Afghan officials who have long agitated to control their country, but was greeted with dismay by Afghans who think America failed to keep its promise of a better and safer life.

A troop drawdown was widely expected, but for the first time, Obama said how many. For some Afghans, Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday underscored the reality that foreign troops were indeed leaving — and sooner than expected.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai viewed the announcement as good news. He has pushed for a faster withdrawal of international troops, arguing that his country is sovereign and should control its own fate.

He persuaded NATO to agree on a 2014 deadline for the departure of foreign combat troops just over two years ago. He and Obama also agreed last month for Afghan troops to take the lead for security around the country this spring — months ahead of schedule — as foreign forces take the backseat and shift to an advisory and training role.

"This is something Afghanistan has wanted for so long now," Karzai's office said.

He also applauded Obama's commitment to speed up the timetable for handing over the lead for security to Afghan forces. "The withdrawal in the spring of foreign forces from Afghan villages will definitely help in ensuring peace and full security in Afghanistan."

Obama said the first 34,000 troops will leave Afghanistan within a year.

So far, no decision has been made about how many U.S. troops could remain in the country after December 2014 when most foreign forces will have left. Administration officials have said they are considering a residual U.S. troop presence of as few as 3,000 and as many as 15,000.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said it was prepared for the responsibility.

"We welcome the decision," Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi told The Associated Press. "We are ready to fill the vacuum and we are ready to take full responsibility for security in 2013."

Some Afghans disagreed and said they were taken aback that so many American troops would leave even before the 2014 deadline. Persistent violence and a spate of so-called insider attacks by Afghan troops against their foreign partners have raised concern about the readiness of government forces to take over their own security.

"I was surprised with this number and I didn't expect that 34,000 U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan," former army Gen. Amrullah Aman, adding that he thinks the Afghan army is too weak to defend the country.

"They don't have equipment, there is no air force," he said.

The Taliban welcomed the drawdown, but said the entire U.S.-led coalition should leave immediately.

Many Afghans, however, fear that any quick drawdown will destabilize a country that is still fighting insurgents more than 11 years after the American invasion.

More importantly, many of those who supported America's intervention think the U.S. has not fulfilled what they perceived was a promise to leave Afghanistan a safe and economically stable country.

"America decided to come to Afghanistan, they decided to stay in Afghanistan, and now they are about to make the other decision to leave Afghanistan," said military analyst Abdul Hadi Khalid, a former deputy interior minister. "Unfortunately, they are leaving us with many challenges."

He said the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001, but have since reasserted control of large swaths of the country. Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, also is mired in corruption.

"The promises were that they will struggle and defeat terrorism and extremism and also help Afghanistan. But unfortunately they have not defeated terrorism and extremism in Afghanistan or the region, and now they are leaving us with more problems," Khalid said.

Mohammad Nahim, a 45-year-old Kabul restaurant owner, recalled the civil war that followed in the years after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, and said he was worried history would be repeated.

"If all the troops leave, the future of the country is dark," Nahim said.

"I don't believe Afghan forces can keep security. ... There is still fighting in the provinces."

Confusion over Obama's claim that the war is over reflects what Afghans perceive as America's changing goals in the war, which has claimed the lives of 2,045 U.S. military personnel.

It invaded after the Sept. 11 attacks to get rid of al-Qaida and the Taliban — which it did with the support of many Afghans. But in the following years when attention and military might was redirected to Iraq, the Taliban came back.

In late 2009, Obama sent tens of thousands of reinforcements to deal with the resurgence. By mid-2010, the United States had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. At the time, the U.S. was also spending billions of dollars on a costly counterinsurgency strategy that had all the hallmarks of nation-building.

In some of the country's eastern provinces, where coalition forces have been fighting a resurgent Taliban with mixed success, Afghans expressed concern.

Aziza Maisam, a member of the provincial council in Ghazni province, said she feared for women if the repressive Taliban should make a comeback.

"The situation is bad and insecure in Ghazni province. It is a premature decision by Obama to withdraw the troops," she said. "The fighting is not over as President Obama said."

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Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report. Follow Patrick Quinn on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PatrickAQuinn

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