Afghan conspiracy theories as US drawdown begins



Kabul: As NATO troops begin to pull out of Afghanistan, conspiracy theories abound among locals suspicious of what they believe are the foreign coalition's real plans and ulterior motives.

News that a first batch of 650 American troops left last week made a splash and was broadcast by the dozen or so local television stations that have sprouted since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban.

But some Afghans believe that the public departure of American troops in a withdrawal process due to end combat missions by the end of 2014 is merely a front.

"The Americans will never leave Afghanistan," said Mohammad Ali, a 36-year-old shopkeeper in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, one of seven areas due to move to Afghan security control this week.

"They are withdrawing a few thousand of their soldiers as a cover for their long-term plans... They have invested a long time in Afghanistan and will not leave that easily."

NATO says all foreign combat troops will leave by 2015, handing control to Afghan security forces in a process that began this week, as President Hamid Karzai urges the Taliban to reconcile and find a political settlement.

On Sunday, New Zealand troops handed over responsibility for the anti-Taliban province of Bamiyan, probably the safest in the country. On Tuesday, a similar ceremony is scheduled in the volatile town of Mehtar Lam.

But some Afghans are deeply suspicious about US war aims, believing that the conflict has always been part of a conspiracy aimed at robbing Afghanistan of its natural mineral wealth, which remains largely untapped.

Afghan and US officials have estimated the mineral wealth could be worth more than $1 trillion, with the sector seeing some Chinese investment so far.

"The Americans have achieved all their goals over the past 10 years. They took all our minerals and now nothing is left so they leave. They don't need us any more," said grocer Mohammad Zahir, also in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Like or hate the foreign presence, many Afghans fear the NATO withdrawal could lead to a bloody return to the civil war that gripped the country when rival warlords fought each other for control in the 1990s.

With grave doubts lingering over the ability of the national army and police to maintain security, Afghans worry that a civil conflict could be every bit as brutal as it was when Soviet forces left in 1989 and tens of thousands of people were killed.

"My big fear after the withdrawal of the US forces is the return of the former armed groups," said shopkeeper Ahmad Jawed in the western city of Herat.

"They will come back and destroy everything that has been built over the past 10 years."

US President Barack Obama has announced that 33,000 troops sent to bolster counterinsurgency efforts in late 2009, mostly in the volatile southern region, will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2012.

The decision was made as Western voters tire of the long war that has cost the lives of thousands of soldiers and billions of dollars in funds, amid a global recession that has hit the US economy hard.

But for many Afghans, the United States and its allies are withdrawing for a simple reason: they lost.

"I think they're escaping," said Jamal Ahmad, an English teacher in Kabul.

"After 10 years they have realised that they can't gain this country so they are leaving. All this transition process, reconciliation and talks with the Taliban are excuses to get out of here."

Back in Mazar-i-Sharif, university student Sayed Rohullah agreed.

"The Americans could not stay any longer, they lost the war and are leaving," he said.

For other Afghans, the killing in Pakistan of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden by US Navy SEALS in May marked the real end of the war, and they reject publicly-stated aims to bolster the national government and security forces.

"They killed Osama, their war is over, they don't need to stay here," Kabul resident Ghulam Haidar said.

Bureau Report