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People In The Afghan Capital Kabul Are Uneasy About U.S. Troop Drawdown

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In his final weeks in office, President Trump is moving to end nearly two decades of U.S. fighting in Afghanistan. Under his orders, many U.S. forces are leaving. By January, there will be just 2,500 troops left. NPR's Diaa Hadid just traveled to Kabul last week to find out what Afghans make of the drawdown. And she joins us now to talk about it, along with NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Good morning to you both.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: I want to start with you, Diaa. What was it like? I mean, what did you hear? What did you see as you traveled around Kabul?

HADID: Right. Well, you know, Afghans are really apprehensive. They fear that they'll be abandoned by the United States. And they're already seeing a real uptick in violence and a loosening of government control in Kabul. Like, just yesterday, the deputy governor of the city was killed by a magnetic bomb that was slapped on his car. And he's not the only one. There's been a real uptick in these killings across the city. Journalists, judiciary, police - they've all been targeted. And these people are all considered to be enemies of the Taliban. And you can see that they're sort of creeping back into parts of the city.

In one neighborhood called Kampani, they took over a mosque. And they've been sending threatening notes to their rivals. And that's sort of creating this, like, real unease across the city. People don't know what to expect. And some are even worried about all-out war. So just across from there, like, across the river, there's a neighborhood called Dasht-e-Barchi. And there, men from the Shiite Hazara minority say that they're arming themselves because they don't feel like the government can really protect them. And you see - yeah, this is an area that has been frequently targeted by ISIS. And you see posters of men who've been slain just sort of fluttering all up and down the streets.

But this area historically was targeted by the Taliban. And residents haven't forgotten that. And it's also that you see people just now wanting to leave. And, of course, Afghans have always left. But these are some of Afghans most - Afghanistan's most, like, promising and brightest people...

MARTIN: Right.

HADID: ...So yeah. So in Dasht-e-Barchi, I spoke to one young woman. Her name is Shakira Yazdani (ph). And she had to flee ISIS gunmen about a month ago after they stormed her campus. And she had this to say. Have a listen.

SHAKIRA YAZDANI: We have seen pretty much everything. But this year - especially the attack on Kabul University made this year the worst. This city or this country is no more secure for anyone else.

HADID: So Yazdani was hoping to open a law office in Kabul. But now she's thinking about leaving the country, at least for a few years. She worries that it's going to collapse into a full-fledged civil war.

MARTIN: Tom, what's the Pentagon saying about the timeline for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan? And, really, could the Biden administration just upend that plan?

BOWMAN: Well, Rachel, it looks like that drawdown ordered by President Trump will be completed early. A U.S. defense official says the forces will be reduced from around 4,500 to 2,500 by the first week of January rather than January 15. The bulk of the reductions will come from the 10th Mountain Division. But there'll be cuts in headquarters, staff and elsewhere. Now, officials say that even at that lower level, they can still do everything they have to. Now, the top American officer over there in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, recently talked about that. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT MILLER: We still have a force that's capable of providing the necessary support to the Afghan security forces, in some cases, the direct combat support. We still have our train, advise and assist mission that takes place. And we certainly have the ability to protect our force as well as meet our counterterrorism commitments.

BOWMAN: Now, President-elect Biden has said he'd like to keep a few thousand troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to continue such a counterterror mission, Rachel. But the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February says all troops have to be out by the spring as long as the Taliban agree to certain conditions like, you know, breaking with al-Qaida.

MARTIN: Diaa, is the U.S. - is the coordination between the U.S. and the Afghan government or Afghan defense officials, is that going well right now?

HADID: So two senior Afghan security officials that I spoke to say the Americans aren't coordinating in detail with them. They're being informed in general about what's going on. But frankly, one of them also told me that he is often not sure if the Americans know what's going on because President Trump is an erratic, announce-it-by-tweet decision-maker.

MARTIN: Tom, we heard Diaa earlier in the conversation talk about how there are all kinds of attacks happening in Kabul right now and that Afghans feel very unsafe. I mean, what does that mean about the U.S. investment in the Afghan security forces? The U.S. has invested billions of dollars in training these forces. Are they really going to be able to step up as U.S. forces step away?

BOWMAN: Well, that's still a big question. Rachel, the rank-and-file soldiers need a lot of help and are suffering heavy casualties from the Taliban, even more so in the past few months. The Afghan special forces, their commandos, are quite good. We've gone out with them on occasion. But there just simply aren't enough of them. And there's also a small Afghan air force that's coming along. They can mount bombing runs. They can ferry and evacuate troops. But they, too, need a lot of help, especially with maintaining their aircraft. They're going to need American contractors for many years to come.

MARTIN: Diaa, the U.S. has been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years now. What difference has that U.S. presence made for good and for ill?

HADID: The legacy is really mixed. It's given security bubbles for Afghans in urban centers. And that's given space for women, for instance, to fight for their rights. In rural areas, it's been terrifying. Many Afghans live in fear of the Taliban on one hand. But on the other hand, they're also afraid of special forces conducting raids and air strikes by foreign forces in the Afghan government. But after 20 years of American involvement in Afghanistan, I think the thing that I find most damning is that many Afghans are still desperately poor...

MARTIN: Right.

HADID: ...And they're hungry.

MARTIN: Right, so much food insecurity there. And finally, Tom, how is the U.S. military thinking about this moment as the troop presence is reduced there? I mean, multiple generations have now served in this war.

BOWMAN: That's right. It's meant a lot to the U.S. military. Hundreds of thousands have served and also trained to fight insurgents as opposed to large-scale war. It means the U.S. military has not had the time or money or training to focus on what it sees as future threats, China and Russia, or buy the types of arms and equipment needed. You'll see more of a focus on that in the coming years. But, you know, Rachel, a few years ago, I asked a general if - in Afghanistan - if this mission was worth it, it was worth the human cost. And he said, it all depends on how Afghanistan turns out.

MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, NPR's Diaa Hadid also joined us. She's back at her base in Pakistan after a reporting trip to Afghanistan. Thanks to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

HADID: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "ART IN THE AGE OF AUTOMATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.