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Afghans fear chaos will return when US leaves

Hope and high anxiety as a war winds down

The forensic investigation staff at Afghan National Police headquarters.

Colm O’Molloy for The Boston Globe

The forensic investigation staff at Afghan National Police headquarters.

KABUL — Colonel Muhammad Ayaz Qayum is worried. The December 2014 deadline to withdraw all American combat troops from his country is approaching, and the nation’s central crime lab — like so many other basics of a modern state — is far from ready.

Within the drab complex of dusty courtyards and squat buildings, DNA analysis is so primitive that when a blood sample comes in, the best that technicians can do is determine whether it is animal or human. Unsolved cases sit stacked head-high in cardboard boxes that stretch for dozens of yards along the lab’s narrow main hallway.

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“If equipment and facilities are provided, we can be on our feet very quickly,” says Qayum, a commander with the Afghan National Police. “Without that, expecting to stand on our feet is not realistic.”

The US military says help is on the way for this and many other needs, but pledges made in good faith at one point can be altered or abandoned. And at a time when global attention is riveted on Syria, another troubled land far from US soil, Americans appear to have little stomach for extended overseas commitments.

It’s a form of battle fatigue, reflected in national polls, that has been forged in large part in the crucible of Afghanistan, a place where America’s longest war is testing its pledge to a country that desperately needs its help.

That help has been immense, and immensely costly, but its impact has been mixed.

Afghan soldiers now lead all combat operations across their violence-racked nation, but government agencies such as the central crime lab are often unable to perform more than the basics. When Afghans investigate a roadside explosion, for example, the case often takes six to 12 weeks to close, US military officials said. By comparison, the investigation into the death of an allied soldier by US and NATO officials usually wraps up in three days.

All they need are the tools, Afghan leaders say, and they will do as well themselves.

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“There’s a saying: If you bring me into this world, just give me a rope and I will find the necessities of life,” Qayum said.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in US spending and 2,286 American military deaths have made this a somewhat safer, more stable place, and led to better schools, public works improvements, and new respect for women’s rights. But even American military officials concede that much remains to be done.

“This has been a monumental undertaking,” said Colonel Altrus “Ace” Campbell, who heads the allied effort against roadside bombs. Campbell, the Army’s top electronic warfare officer, was referring specifically to bringing the crime lab up to modern standards. But he could have been referring to the US effort in Afghanistan as a whole.

Despite the promise of progress, interviews with dozens of ordinary Afghans reveal a concern bordering on conviction that improvements across the country will rapidly disintegrate after the Americans leave.

“Afghanistan is like a baby. We need more time,” said Sayed Mohammad Yasin Najafizada, 53, a former provincial official who lives in Kabul.

More time is unlikely, but top US commanders argue that the 55,000 American troops here will make the most of the 15 months ahead.

“The Afghans are in the lead. They’re in the fight. The casualties reflect that,” said Marine General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., who commands allied forces in Afghanistan. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we can move to a train, advise, and assist role in 2015. They will be successful. I’m very confident of that.”

Continued success, however, probably will depend on continued American help — both on the ground and from a war-weary, spending-wary Congress. The legislative push-back against airstrikes in Syria, for example, shows that the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made US policy in the region much less predictable.

Another unpredictable component is reaching an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the size and role of US forces after 2014. American leaders would like a deal by this month, but talks continue amid speculation that a breakdown would trigger the so-called zero option: no US troops in 2015 and beyond.

Such a scenario, Dunford said, would imperil the difficult and precarious gains made in Afghanistan.

“What we need to do is ensure that all our sacrifice actually has meaning well into the future,” said Dunford, who grew up in South Boston and Quincy. “I am absolutely sure that if we don’t stay here past 2014, that those networks that we have been suppressing here over the past decade will return.”

The ‘Y2K effect’

US commanders and analysts say that an American force of about 10,000 advisers, as well as continued financial and military aid, should be enough to help the country repel new threats and consolidate past gains.

But there is no such confidence when the “zero option” is discussed. Dunford and others, including Army General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledge that the Afghan military has significant weaknesses — including air power, medical evacuation, planning, and logistics — that will need help beyond next year.

“The last thing we want to do is view post-2014 as a cliff,” Dunford said in an interview at his Kabul headquarters. “I do recognize that there are some who are very concerned. They characterize December 2014 as kind of the Y2K effect, that all of a sudden things will stop.”

The country has come too far, at too great a cost, to walk away and watch those gains evaporate, Dunford and other generals said.

“When I first came to this country, Kabul was a city in ruins. It looked very similar to the cities of World War II, those photos of Dresden and Hamburg” in vanquished Nazi Germany, said Army Lieutenant General Mark A. Milley, a native of Winchester, Mass., who commands day-to-day operations in Afghanistan for the allied coalition.

“They had at that time been through 30-plus consecutive years of unrelenting warfare,” said Milley, who arrived in 2002 for his first of three tours. “There were no schools, very little electricity, and very little potable water. Roads were in very, very poor repair. No health care to speak of. Then you flash forward 12 years.”

Now, Milley said, about one-third of the country’s population of 30 million is enrolled in school, and about 40 percent of those students are female. Under the Taliban, whose extreme Islamic rule ended after US intervention in 2001, girls were barred from the classroom.

Eighty percent of the population lives within an hour of medical care, he said, and thousands of miles of road have been paved in a country whose harsh geography has hindered travel and communication for thousands of years.

The ranks of the Afghan army and national police, which did not exist after the Taliban’s defeat in 2001, now number 350,000.

And perhaps most crucially, Milley said, is the exposure to new ideas from social media and technology. In 2001, one television station existed in Afghanistan. Now, the country has 50.

“Television, radio, the Internet, cellular phones, Twitter, Facebook — all those vehicles of communication have literally exploded in this country in the last 10 years,” Milley said. “And when you get a proliferation of information, then you no longer have to rely on a single source of information for how you view the world or the community.’’

The country also is increasingly populated by younger people, particularly in the cities, who did not grow up in the shadow of a Taliban government. About 55 percent of Afghanistan’s population is 25 or younger and has been exposed to Western values for much of their lives, Milley said.

There is little doubt that, in many respects, Afghanistan is a country transformed. But progress is not uniform, and some observers take issue with the US military’s talking points.

For example, about half of the children who enrolled in Afghanistan’s schools did not show up for classes in 2012, according to UNICEF.

Although four-fifths of Afghans live close to hospitals, that is because they already live in cities, critics say. And the Afghan army, according to the Pentagon, has lost 2 percent to 2.9 percent of its soldiers to desertion and attritioneach month — a total of about 54,000 between September 2011 and September 2012.

To Stephen Biddle, a George Washington University professor who advised General Stanley McChrystal when he commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan, the key to success here will be whether Congress continues to send money to the Afghan military after US combat forces depart. As the months and years pass, Biddle said, support from lawmakers might be tougher to obtain.

But even without US advisers, Biddle said, the Afghans probably can hold the territory they control. But they won’t be up to much more than that. “The Taliban probably won’t be able to drive into Kabul in their pickups again,” Biddle said.

However, he added that the two big goals of the war — that Afghanistan not be a base to attack the West or destabilize its neighbors — could be badly undermined if the standoff continues.

“The war is going to be going on after 2014,” Biddle said. “And as long as the war is going on, you can’t say you’ve achieved either of those two objectives.”

Apprehension and hope

Off a dirt street cratered by potholes and strewn with garbage, dozens of young people gather under the shade of apricot trees to peer at their laptops and chat.

This is the Afghan Cultural House, a lush, manicured oasis in chaotic Kabul where university students — men and, now women —prep for exams, troll the Internet, and look for romance. It’s the kind of forward-looking place that American policy makers, and the young people who animate the Cultural House, hope will represent the inquisitive, searching face of a new Afghanistan.

“I had a chance to study abroad, but I chose to stay here. I want to play my part,” says Sahar Fetrat, a 17-year-old who studies law at the American University of Afghanistan. Sunglasses perch atop her head, which is covered by a stylish blue hijab. She wears a T-shirt that proclaims, “I Love Kabul.”

She stands beside her sister, Sadaf, a 20-year-old music student who is breaking down gender walls with her work playing in bands at wedding receptions.

The gigs are high-profile affairs in a city where gleaming, Las Vegas-style halls are sprouting to accommodate families who often empty their savings to pay for $10,000 wedding fetes.

But behind their smiles and optimism, the sisters concede that the future is a huge worry. If the country descends into factional fighting, Sahar says, women’s rights will be the first to be negotiated away.

“It’s a big fear,” Sahar says. “We have been fighting so hard to go to school.”

Across the garden, three men sit in folding chairs and compare notes from engineering class. Afghanistan needs plenty of engineers, but the men have little confidence that the Afghan army will provide enough protection to allow the country to develop.

“The government has power only in the cities. There will be civil war in the countryside,” says Mohammad Khalid, 22, a student from Wardak province, west of Kabul. “In my village, for example, there is no security.”

And where there is no security, the students say, there is corrosive fear.

“I used to work with the British army, but I have abandoned my job as an interpreter,” says Mohammad Nassool, a 24-year-old from Kabul. “I left my village for my safety. The Taliban are aware of each interpreter in Afghanistan.”

The men say they want a democratic future for Afghanistan but acknowledge with sighs that most of their countrymen do not know what democracy means or requires. And Karzai, they say dismissively, is not the leader to nurture the concept.

“Sometimes, he’s with the Taliban; sometimes, he’s with the international forces,” Khalid says of the president, throwing up his hands. “We don’t know what he is,” adds Zadihullah Safi, 32, from Kunar province, near Pakistan.

To Dunford, the coalition commander, the presidential election in April will be critical. If a peaceful transition of power occurs, with robust participation and little violence, a key psychological hurdle will be cleared for the many Afghans worried about the withdrawal of American troops.

But if elections are delayed or riddled by fraud, a year of transition could become more unsettled — or worse.

“The Afghan people at the end of the day are going to get the kind of government they demand. They are going to get the kind of security forces they demand. And what has to take place over time is developing a culture of accountability,” Dunford says.

Time, however, is not a friend.

As December 2014 approaches, Afghans such as Sahar Fetrat continue to relish the higher education and political participation that were denied the country under the Taliban. But they also realize that good intentions need muscle and national willpower to back them up. “I try to be optimistic,” Sahar says, “but only being optimistic is not good enough.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

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