KABUL, Afghanistan — As NATO leaders met Monday in Chicago to discuss the alliance’s exit from Afghanistan and their commitment to the restive nation afterward, Afghans expressed a mixture of optimism, cynicism and fatalism about the future of their country.
Sitting under a tree in central Kabul’s Shar-e-Naw park, Khair Mohammad, a 52-year-old truck driver from the troubled province of Paktia, which borders Pakistan, dismissed the Chicago summit as “just another conference.”
“I’ve seen too many conferences on Afghanistan in my life – from before the Russians, during the Russian occupation and after the occupation, and in the time of the Americans,” Mohammad said.
Mohammad, who told McClatchy he worked for a local company delivering supplies to the U.S. military but hadn’t been paid for six months, said he saw little hope for his country.
“Afghanistan is not going to get better,” he said. “With the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan the situation is getting worse day by day.”
Asked whether he was concerned that the international community would abandon Afghanistan after U.S. and other NATO troops withdrew in 2014, he pointed to the sky and said, “Only God knows. I’m just waiting for my death to come.”
Hakim Khan Ahmadzai, 49, an accountant for the government of northern Kunduz province, was more positive.
“We have high hopes for the NATO conference,” he said, as he took a break from listening to his radio on a blanket in the park. The people of Afghanistan had seen a lot of misery in the past 10 years, Ahmadzai said, “especially in terms of the security situation.”
His message for the NATO delegates? “We hope they will put pressure on our neighboring countries, because they’ve been interfering in our country and this interference has to stop. “If the conference can apply pressure to Iran and Pakistan, it will have had a good result.”
Ahmadzai said he was “not worried at all” about the departure of international forces. “Afghanistan has a capable army and police force, and I think it can defend the country,” he said. He said he doesn’t believe the international community will abandon Afghanistan. “I’m sure of that,” he said.
Mahdi, 21, a Kabul resident originally from the central province of Bamiyan, wasn’t so sure. A member of the Hazara ethnic group, which suffered badly under the Taliban regime, Mahdi – who like many Afghans goes by one name – was adamant that U.S. and NATO troops needed to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
“Their presence is essential for the security and stability of our country,” he told McClatchy.
Mahdi was quietly confident that the international community would remain committed to Afghanistan and might even keep troops here long term, not for any altruistic reasons but out of self-interest.
“I think they’ll stay because they are fearful of terrorism returning to this country, of fighting breaking out between Afghans, and of Afghans going to the West as refugees,” he said.
But 18-year-old Gul Alam, a high school student from central Baghlan province, said he was worried. His message to NATO leaders was simple: withdrawing their troops would see the Taliban return to power, “and we will have the same disaster that we had before.”
Alam said it was essential that Afghan security forces continued to receive equipment, training, and funding. “If Afghan security forces are left on their own after 2014, I don’t think they will be able to defend the country,” Alam said.
Nemat Khan, 40, from the restive city of Kandahar – the birthplace of the Taliban – begged to differ. Sitting with a group of friends and their fighting birds in the park, Khan said the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan had brought “only destruction and misery” to Afghanistan.
“I don’t consider road-building an advantage,” Khan said. “The most important thing is unity, and that the foreign forces have not brought.”
Instead, he said, U.S. and NATO countries had caused disunity.
“The foreigners supported various Afghan groups during the jihad against the Russians, they supported different parties during the civil war and now they are supporting the Karzai government against other Afghans,” he said.
Mohammad Yasin, 35, a Pashtun bank employee from Nangarhar, also had low expectations. “Since 2001, 50 nations have come to this country and even they haven’t been able to bring stability,” he said. Drawing on a cigarette and slowly exhaling, he acknowledged that he was hardly in control.
“Whatever is written in our fate, in our destiny, that will happen to us, and I will accept it,” he said.
Stephenson is a McClatchy special correspondent.