Afghans are growing increasingly nervous about what comes after the 2014 exit.
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - Nobody wants a repeat of the bloody ethnic fighting that followed the Soviet exit from Afghanistan in the 1990s -- least of all 32-year-old Wahidullah who was crippled by a bullet that pierced his spine during the civil war.
Yet as the Afghan war began its 12th year on Sunday, fears loom that the country will again fracture along ethnic lines once international combat forces leave by the end of 2014.
"It was a very bad situation. People could not find bread or water, but rockets were everywhere," said Wahidullah, who now hobbles around on crutches.
Fed up with the bloodletting, the Afghan people longed for someone who would restore peace. The Taliban did so.
But once in power, they imposed harsh Islamic laws that repressed women and they publicly executed, stoned and lashed people for alleged crimes and sexual misconduct. The Taliban also gave sanctuary to Al-Qaida in the run-up to the Sept. 11 attacks. When the Taliban refused to give up the Al-Qaida leaders who orchestrated 9/11, the U.S. invaded on Oct. 7, 2001.
Eleven years later, Afghanistan remains divided and ethnic tension still simmers.
The Taliban, dominated by the ethnic Pashtun majority, have strongholds in the south. Ethnic minorities such as Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks live predominantly in central and northern Afghanistan. The fear is that when international forces leave, minority groups will take up arms to prevent another Taliban takeover and that members of the Afghan security forces could walk off and fight with their ethnic leaders.
Anxiety and confusion about what will happen after the foreign forces leave permeates every aspect of society. Political debate about an Afghanistan post-2014 is getting more vocal. Some political leaders threaten to take up arms while others preach progress, development and peace. Young Afghans with money and connections are trying to flee before 2014.
There also is growing uncertainty about the upcoming transfer of power. At the same time that foreign troops are to complete withdrawal in 2014, Afghans will elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who is barred by the constitution from running again.
The Afghan people already view their government as weak and corrupt and those doubtful of a peaceful future say that if the upcoming presidential election is rigged and yields an illegitimate leader, civil war could erupt between ethnic groups backed by neighboring countries.
"Unfortunately in Afghanistan, we do not have any political unity," said Gen. Sayed Hussain Anwari, a former governor of Kabul and Herat provinces who led fighters during the civil war.
Speaking at his Kabul home, Anwari said that the Taliban have a right to participate in the political process. "But if the scenario changes and they come to power by force, there will be groups that won't go with the Taliban and the fighting will continue."
Ghairat Baheer offered an even gloomier prediction. Baheer is a son-in-law of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a key civil war leader in the 1990s whose fighters attack foreign troops today. Baheer warned that the current Afghan government will collapse with the international troop withdrawal and says civil war is likely.
"Anti-Americanism and anti-Western sentiment is increasing daily in Afghanistan, and the resistance is spreading day by day across the country."