When the US military handed over the detention center at the Bagram Airfield to Afghan authorities this week, it symbolized an American role that is winding down, and the uncomfortable relationship between the two countries.
The prison — where Taliban and terrorism suspects are housed — has been a sore point for Afghans for years.
At the ceremony, an announcer read the names of Bagram prisoners who the Afghans said were wrongly detained and were now being freed.
But what wasn’t addressed at the ceremony was that America is delaying the transfer of hundreds of prisoners.
Neither side would say why, but a terse statement from President Hamid Karzai’s office warned the United States it was breeching Afghan sovereignty.
Such squabbles are common these days as Afghans grow weary of the Western presence here.
A Critical Period
Afghanistan is entering a critical phase as the NATO-led coalition prepares to ends its mission by the end of 2014. Afghanistan’s political system remains fragmented and corrupt; peace negotiations with the Taliban have stalled, and Afghans are disillusioned with continuing insecurity and economic hardship.
Some say the growing emphasis on pulling foreign troops out of Afghanistan is making things worse. They predict that if the next U.S. administration fails to stabilize the country, both Afghans and Americans will pay the price.
“In the West, I know the thinking of the people: ‘Oh, what are we doing in Afghanistan?’ You are fighting in Afghanistan because the fighters are not in New York, Washington, and California,” says Tamim Nuristani, a former California businessman who is the governor of Nuristan province.
He says the current American approach reminds him of what happened here after Soviet troops left in 1989.
American interest in rebuilding Afghanistan waned once the Soviets departed. Nation-building measures were left to countries like Pakistan, which instead forged deals with various strongmen and warlords, and eventually the Taliban.
Nuristani predicts that without renewed American attention to stabilizing his country this time, al-Qaida and other extremist groups will return to Afghanistan.
“The next administration should see that. Not just leaving and telling the people in the United States ‘everything is good, everything is safe,” he says. “When they leave without any plan they leave a government without anything, then when they come back next time to fight them nobody is going to help them.”
Challenges Facing The US
So what are Afghans seeking from the next U.S. president?
Officials interviewed say they want the new administration take a much tougher stance toward neighboring Pakistan, which is widely accused of harboring militants who frequently launch attacks across the border.
They also call for the U.S. to more aggressively tackle corruption by dealing less with the powerbrokers in Kabul and more with Afghan leaders at the grassroots level.
Nuristani and other governors complain that their people seldom benefit from the billions of dollars spent in their country. They claim most of the money never leaves the various ministries in the capital.
“The entire budget of the American spending in Afghanistan was going through a very limited number of people,” says Tooriyalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar province. “Those people had only guns before, but now they have the economy in their hands as well.”
Reviving Afghan government negotiations with the Taliban should be another priority for the new administration, says Afghan analyst Wahid Mojda.
Mojda says Taliban leaders he met on a February trip to Pakistan accused the Obama administration of stalling.
“They told me every time somebody comes from United States and talks with us about the Afghanistan situation, after this delegation went, another came and the talking started from zero again and again,” he says.
Mojda believes that’s because Afghanistan is perceived as a liability by both American presidential candidates.
But the analyst warns the next administration will have no choice but to deal with the Taliban if it wants stability in Afghanistan.