It's been a tough summer in Afghanistan: Foreign troops started leaving. The Afghan president's half brother was assassinated. Suicide bombers keep killing government officials. The Taliban shot down a helicopter, killing 30 Americans. Civilian casualties are up and many Afghans fear their nation will plunge into civil war once the foreign forces go home.
Every chance they get, U.S. officials try to reassure the Afghan people that America is not abandoning Afghanistan. "There will be no rush for the exits," America's new ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, said when he arrived in Kabul just weeks ago.
Yet President Barack Obama's decision to pull out 10,000 troops before December and another 23,000 next year has stoked fear among Afghans convinced that the international community's commitment is coming to a close. Afghans don't share the U.S.-led coalition's confidence that Afghan police and soldiers are ready to secure the nation by 2014, and others worry the Afghan economy will collapse if foreign troops go home and donors get stingy with aid.
Those fears exist despite widespread public fatigue with the war and with the thousands of international troops forces, whose presence offends the Afghans' sense of pride and nationalism.
"Even people who have senior positions in the government or own large businesses in Afghanistan are either leaving the country or transferring assets abroad," said Ahmad Khalid Majidyar, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington who instructs U.S. military officers about terrorism and Afghan culture and politics.
It didn't help that Obama's troop withdrawal announcement came just as warmer weather was triggering a spike in fighting between the Taliban and coalition and Afghan forces, he said. The details of Obama's pullout plan also were released just as Afghan security forces started taking responsibility for security in seven areas _ the beginning of the transition that is making the Afghan public so uneasy.
Syed Salahuddin Agha, a 64-year-old former teacher in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, said the foreign forces never should have interfered in Afghanistan.
"All the people who wanted them here will now be in grave danger from the Taliban because the Taliban have grown stronger than ever. Now, we will all have to face the aftermath," he said. "Mostly, people feel betrayed and used by the foreigners."
Many Afghans don't believe their nation's forces are ready to take the lead. Others worry that once foreign combat troops leave or move into support roles by the end of 2014, civil war will erupt and the Afghan army and police forces will splinter along ethnic lines.
"There are lots of disputes among the people and all those disputes will rise up and everybody will take revenge and kill each other. Basically a civil war will start," said Hayatullah Tawhidy, a 38-year-old shopkeeper in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
"We are not happy with American forces in our country," he added. "But we don't know what will happen when they leave."
History, they worry here, could be about to repeat itself.
Many Afghans felt abandoned by the U.S. after 1989, when the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan. U.S. support to mujahedeen fighters battling the Soviets dried up quickly and Afghanistan sank into civil war. That was followed by the rise of the Taliban and the Sept. 11 attacks by al-Qaida, which used Afghanistan as a sanctuary.
"If America leaves our country, the situation will get worse," said Khaidad Mahmand, a 28-year-old mobile phone seller in Jalalabad. "The Taliban are strong and if the Americans leave, they will get stronger. In a very short period of time, the Taliban will come in and take over the government. Unfortunately, our Afghan forces don't have the capability to handle the situation."
Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, who is in charge of training Afghan security forces, says the army and police are performing better than the Afghan people think. He insists that the Afghan security forces will meet President Hamid Karzai's goal of taking the lead from coalition forces by the end of 2014.
"People's perception of the Afghan forces is two years old," he said.
But positive progress reports from the U.S.-led coalition have done little to curb the fear.
People smile when they are asked about their future plans because so many Afghans, long accustomed to danger and uncertainty, have learned to live for the day.
"Future personal plans? That's funny," said Abdul Hakim Jan, a 34-year-old businessman in Kandahar. "We stopped making plans related to anything years ago. ... We all are just confused right now."
A barrage of negative summer headlines makes it hard to hold onto hope, ranging from "Afghan leader's half brother gunned down in south," to "United Nations: Afghan civilian death toll up 15 percent."
A recent report by the International Crisis Group says the international community must shoulder some blame for the continued turmoil.
"Despite billions of dollars in aid, state institutions remain fragile and unable to provide good governance, deliver basic services to the majority of the population or guarantee human security," the report said.
U.S. officials, though, are quick to list their accomplishments.
In Helmand province in the south, where tens of thousands of coalition and Afghan forces routed insurgents from their strongholds, security has improved enough so that justice centers could be set up in three districts, said Alisa Stack, deputy chief of staff for stability operations at the U.S.-lead coalition headquarters in Kabul.
She said the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission just held an outreach meeting in Helmand and a nonprofit organization called Women for Afghan Women, based in Kabul, has contracted to provide civil law, women's rights and family counseling training throughout the province. Moreover, the first stage of construction on a new Helmand business park is more than half done and already has attracted more than a dozen businesses.
"Throughout Afghanistan at all levels _ the central government, provincial government, district governments and even to some extent in village or small community efforts _ the capability, the capacity is growing in leaps and bounds," Stack says. "Wherever we see security improve, we see the capacity improve."
The nation, however, cannot become self-sufficient unless it can wean itself from foreign troops and foreign aid. According to the World Bank, about 97 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product is derived from spending linked to foreign forces and the donor community.
"Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now," Ashraf Ghani, head of a commission overseeing the transition to Afghan-led security, wrote in a policy memo he sent to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"For Rent" signs have already popped up in Kabul on large houses once occupied by international workers who have finished their work and left, said Mohammad Qurban Haqjo, chief executive officer of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries. The gradual withdrawal of foreign combat troops by 2014 also has spawned fears among investors inside and outside the country, he said.
"When I am encouraging Afghan investors to come invest in Afghanistan, they say `Let's see what will happen after 2014,'" Haqjo said.
Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar and Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.