Jonathan Steele in Kabul Guardian/UK 10 December 012
Eleven years after the west's military intervention, the withdrawal of US, British and other international forces has started, but no one knows whether their departure will lead to more or less instability for a country that has been mired in civil war for almost 40 years. Most Afghans say they are happy to see foreign troops depart, yet many are also concerned at the vacuum they will leave, in spite of international pledges of billions of dollars for the next decade. In seven visits to the country since the Taliban were toppled I have never found the Afghan mood so febrile and gloomy.
Disappointment and bitterness are widespread. Long gone are the high hopes sparked by regime change in 2001. The foreigners delivered far less than they promised. Kabul was transformed into a canyon of concrete blast walls and watchtowers shielding enclaves from which foreign diplomats only emerge in armoured vehicles for official contacts. Journalists, NGO staff and independent westerners who have lived here for years sense a rising mood of anger, and most have stopped going around Kabul on foot for fear of hostile looks, insults hissed in Dari or Pashto, or stones being thrown.
While Afghans blame government officials for creaming off much of the aid money, they blame western donors for doing too little to reduce corruption. US military commanders who handed out cash for "quick impact" projects are accused of encouraging it.
Most diplomats still peddle cautious optimism about "progress, albeit fragile", as the US and UK hand military responsibility to hastily trained Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Few Afghans share it. The new rich are getting their money or their families out to Dubai and other Gulf states. Many are putting their houses on the market so as to acquire the cash to leave.
In many instances US commanders no longer provide close air support or medevac facilities to embattled Afghan units – a dramatic sign that Afghans are on their own. Afghans direct experience of the difference in facilities and "culture". They resent the brutality of raids on family compounds in which they are asked to take part.
A massive surge in unemployment is approaching. The vast army of translators, drivers, cooks and bottle-washers who serve the occupation forces will shrink throughout next year. The provincial reconstruction teams – the bases where foreign advisers and consultants sit and monitor aid delivery – will close. The result will be a dramatic curtailment of projects, since foreigners will no longer be able to supervise them.
Optimists in the Afghan elite believe there is still a chance to win popular support for the government in the two years remaining before foreign troops leave. They want to ensure that the elections, due in 2014, are clean this time. This would weaken the Taliban claim to provide justice more effectively than the predators and brigands who now dominate local and central government.
Outside Afghanistan, public interest has collapsed. In Europe and the US, people want out, and care little whether the whole adventure is seen as a defeat. It was remarkable how minor a role the war played in the US election. There will be less demand for a grand reckoning of policymakers' blunders than there was for Iraq.
The American and British people were largely complicit, since the revenge attack on Afghanistan after 9/11 had widespread approval, and certainly more than the invasion of Iraq. In Kabul there was a greater welcome for the foreign occupiers than in Baghdad or Basra. The Taliban had less of a support base than Saddam Hussein. But western armies cannot remain popular for long when they invade Muslim countries, Bush and Blair are guilty of as great a folly as they were in Iraq. [Abridged]