Uncertainty is gripping Afghanistan as the clock ticks toward the withdrawal of NATO combat troops by the end of 2014.
People and money are leaving the country. Housing prices are falling. Construction is slowing down. Many Afghans are trying to be hopeful, but even the most optimistic admit that a number of troubling variables could determine what post-2014 Afghanistan looks like.
The Panjshir Valley, some 60 miles north of Kabul, is one of the most scenic places in Afghanistan. The Panjshir River winds its way through barren mountains.
The valley floor is lined with little villages of mud houses, some still bearing scars of Afghanistan's recent history. Here, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary mujahedeen commander, fought off successive assaults by the Soviet army in the 1980s, and by the Taliban later.
Today, Afghans from all over the country make pilgrimages to Massoud's mausoleum. The austere monument sits on a hilltop overlooking the valley, where the leaves are turning shades of gold as autumn sets in.
There are a range of opinions about Afghanistan's future.
Ahmad Saduq, the shrine's 75-year-old caretaker, fought alongside Massoud. He says the people of the Panjshir hope things will get better in Afghanistan once NATO forces pull out. "Every day we are losing our kids, our men and women," he says. "Once the foreign forces leave we hope we don't see that anymore."
Hamid, a construction worker from Panjshir, has faith in the Afghan security forces, but he still wants NATO troops to provide training and support beyond 2014.
"I don't believe Afghanistan will turn to war again because most people are trying to get educated and fight with their pens and not with weapons anymore," Hamid says. "I hope the commanders and warlords won't arm people again."
Abdul Wahab, a first-time visitor to the Massoud shrine, voices a fear heard often these days.
"We have concerns: Afghanistan could return to a civil war or the Taliban could come back," he says.
The Taliban Threat
The Afghan government hopes to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. But that sends chills up the spine of Amrullah Saleh, a former Massoud lieutenant who served as intelligence chief for the Afghan government until he was forced out after a 2010 attack in Kabul.
Saleh says there can be no accommodation with the Taliban, and the only option is for the militants to disarm completely and enter the political process.
"We as former anti-Taliban fighters, we submitted to the new order," he says. "We gave [up] our weapons, we became totally political. But if our enemy is brought ... back, of course we will fight."
There is talk of rearming the Northern Alliance, the former military force of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who fought the predominantly Pashtun Taliban in the '90s. While no one has offered hard evidence, there is plenty of speculation that elements of the Northern Alliance are rearming and preparing to fight should the Afghan security forces fail to defeat the Taliban.
Fawzia Kofi, a member of Parliament, worries about that prospect; she says the crucial moment will be Jan 1, 2015, the day after the completion of the NATO withdrawal.
She hopes that it "will not be a day that Afghanistan once again changes to a country where different groups fight with each other, where once again the whole world forgets Afghanistan."
Kofi says there are several critical variables that will shape the post-2014 landscape. Particularly, she says the role of "outsider elements" is one of the main question marks.
One outsider element that still has Afghans guessing is the United States. Despite the U.S. commitment to military and financial support post-2014, Afghans say they are wary of U.S. follow-through because they've felt abandoned before.
And those sentiments are affecting everything from security to economic investment.
"No one bets on a dead horse," says political analyst Davood Moradian.
He says the Afghan people — and the Afghan political community — need reassurance that "if they behave responsibly, [the] United States remains engaged."
The other outside variable affecting the future of Afghanistan is Pakistan.
Saleh, the former Massoud lieutenant, says he thinks Pakistan is "the most predictable variable." He doesn't trust recent signals from Pakistan that it will no longer support the Taliban's return to power.
"They will continue to support the Taliban. They will continue to deny that they are supporting the Taliban," he says.
But what many here agree is the biggest variable is the Afghan presidential election, scheduled just months before the final pullout of NATO troops.
"If we have fair elections ... regardless of the insurgency, there will be a functioning state [in 2015]," says Saleh.
Experts at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group recently warned that Afghanistan's election laws and systems are dangerously flawed and need immediate reform.
Failure to do so could lead to a fraudulent election, or no election, and that in turn could prompt the breakdown of the fragile state and a return to civil war. Afghan President Hamid Karzai denounced the report and is working to ban the organization from Afghanistan.
"Karzai rejects everything that doesn't suit him, but it doesn't mean the entire report [of the International Crisis Group] was wrong," Saleh says.
Moradian, the political analyst, thinks that Afghanistan is technically capable holding the election. But he's also suspicious of Karzai — who is constitutionally barred from running for a third term.
"He will do his utmost to ensure a degree of his continuing influence in Afghan politics," Moradian says.
Abdullah Abdullah was the runner-up in the 2009 presidential election that was widely viewed as fraudulent.
"I hope that President Karzai acts with a sense of responsibility from now on," Abdullah says. "Based on the previous record, I'm not that optimistic."
Kofi, the Parliament member, says a canceled or flawed election would lead to the worst-case scenario.
"The alternative for not having democracy is Taliban," she says.
Preventing A Repeat Of History
While many Afghans doubt the Taliban could seize power again, there is no shortage of anxiety about its role in Afghanistan's future.
That anxiety is front and center as a few men in a small grocery shop in Panjshir ponder the coming years. Their immediate concern is that business is down because of all the uncertainty.
"From what we understand, when we are watching TV, there is an 80 percent chance of war, and that's what we are seeing," says Noman Rabah, the shopkeeper.
"If we see the Taliban are taking over again and Pakistanis are trying to interfere, then we will fight them," he says.
Muhammed Naseem, a customer in the store, agrees.
"As the history shows, the people of Panjshir are ready and they will defend their soil and honor," he says.
It's a history that war-weary Afghans are hoping will not be repeated.
NPR's Aimal Yaqubi and Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.
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