KABUL, Afghanistan • Asadullah Ramin has lost all hope in his homeland — he's so worried about what will happen when U.S. and international troops leave that he's ready to pay a smuggler to whisk his family out of Afghanistan.
It would cost Ramin, 50, a self-employed electronics engineer, tens of thousands of dollars to leave his middle-class life in the Afghan capital and start a new chapter with his wife and their three daughters. He has done OK in recent years, even getting contracts from foreign forces, and he has warm memories of Kabul from his teens — before Soviet forces invaded the nation.
But he wouldn't hesitate for a moment. He already paid to have his two sons smuggled to a European country he won't disclose.
"If I could go in the next hour, I would leave everything — the house, my shop," Ramin said, tears welling in his eyes as he spoke in his dusty workshop.
"I have no hope, no hope," he said, opening his palms as if pleading to be understood.
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The United States and its allies have tried to reassure Afghans that they are not abandoning the country when international combat troops leave by the end of 2014. Donor nations have pledged billions to bankroll Afghan security forces and billions more in development aid. Country after country has signed a long-term partnership pact with Kabul.
But the promises have done little to buoy the hopes of Afghans who are in despair about the future of their nation.
Among Afghans around the country interviewed by The Associated Press, the worry is pervasive. Many are deeply skeptical that Afghan police and security forces, which the U.S.-led coalition has spent years trying to build, will be able to fight insurgents and militants without Americans and NATO fighting alongside. Worst-case scenarios that some fear: The Afghan forces could splinter along ethnic lines and prompt civil war; the nation could plunge into a deep recession; or the Kabul government — plagued with corruption and still fragile despite efforts to establish its authority — would remain too weak to hold off a Taliban takeover.
Just a 45-minute drive south of Kabul, residents of Wardak province directly feel the tenuousness. The province is a battleground for Afghan and coalition forces trying to quash hotbeds of the Taliban. Residents quickly warn visitors that it's dangerous just to go past a checkpoint less than a half-mile outside the provincial capital, Maidan Shahr.
"We don't know if the government has been successful or not," Mohammad Ashaq, 17, said, chatting inside a tiny pharmacy in the city. "Most people think that after 2014, the government will not exist."
Hanging over the fears is a sense that history could repeat itself. 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 as militias and warlords battled for power. That was followed by the rise of the Taliban and years under their repressive regime.
In one sign of the lack of confidence, the number of Afghan asylum seekers in 44 industrialized countries went up 34 percent in 2011 over the year before, according to the latest figures issued by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. In 2011, 35,700 Afghans sought asylum, compared to 26,000 the year before.
'They are all hopeless'
Another sign: the real estate market in Kabul.
Broker Mir Ahmad Shah says this is the worst of his seven years selling properties in the capital. No one wants to buy. A piece of land that went for $100,000 last year now is priced as low as $60,000, but even at that cut-rate price, buyers aren't tempted. It's in part because of increased security worries the past year, but it's "especially because of the announcement about the coalition leaving," he said.
"I'm not hopeful for the future, and it's not just me," he said, waving his hand toward small shops across the street where a vendor was selling live chickens. "The shopkeepers, the businessmen — they are all hopeless." One of his listings is the home of a man selling to move to Canada, he added.
The Americans insist that the pledges of international support going forward will prevent the worst from happening. The pledges make the possibility of another civil war or deep recession "unlikely scenarios," according to Ryan Crocker, who just stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
At a NATO summit in May in Chicago, NATO members agreed to help the Afghan government bankroll its security forces post-2014. This month in Tokyo, the international community pledged $16 billion in aid — at least through 2015 — to further help rebuild.
"We are not even imagining abandoning Afghanistan," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a stop in Kabul en route to the Tokyo gathering. She announced that Afghanistan was the newest "major non-NATO ally" — a statement of political support for the country's long-term stability and close defense cooperation.
Afghan, U.S. and coalition officials believe Afghan forces are getting more capable day by day. They boast that while insurgents remain a threat, they have been forced out of population centers. Seventy-five percent of the Afghan population lives in areas where security is being transferred to Afghan forces, they said.
Afghan army struggles
The Afghan army and police force suffer from low levels of literacy, corruption within their ranks and lack of equipment and experience but are showing themselves to be increasingly capable on the battlefield — and there are still two years to go, Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the AP in a recent interview.
"It's gaining experience. It's gaining leadership," Allen said.
Still, civilians are increasingly caught in the middle of the fight against insurgents. Last year was the deadliest on record for civilians in the Afghan war, with 3,021 killed as insurgents stepped up suicide attacks and roadside bombs, according to the United Nations.
In the south, where the Taliban have their strongest roots, the governor of Helmand province praises the security gains. In 2008, the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah was surrounded by militants, and the Taliban controlled a number of districts. There was only one brigade of the Afghan army in the province, and the police forces were plagued by drug addiction, Gov. Gulab Mangal told Pentagon reporters recently.
But after years of operations by coalition and Afghan forces, insurgents have been pushed back. Today, 80 percent of the Helmand police are trained and equipped, he said, declaring Helmand is "open for business."
Aftab Jan, 35, who runs a hotel business in Lashkar Gah, agrees. "We used to be scared to even go out of our homes to work as we might never return alive, but now we can walk around and do our business safely."
But, he said, "If the foreign forces leave us on our own now, then we are going to go back to zero all at once.
"It will mean being under the same old Taliban hold," he said. "All these years would mean nothing. The war and struggle over bringing peace to this land would mean nothing."
Even in Kabul where there are more jobs and educational opportunities than in the outlying provinces, it's difficult to be positive. Every day, people in the capital are confronted by scores of penniless Afghans — men without limbs and women clutching soiled babies — who beg from motorists idling in traffic.