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," said Wahidullah, who was a teenager when he was wounded in the 1992-1996 civil war. "All these streets around here were full of bullet shells, burned tanks and vehicles," he added, squinting into a setting sun that cast a golden glow on the bombed-out Darulaman Palace still standing in west Kabul not far from where he was wounded.
"People could not find bread or water, but rockets were everywhere," said Wahidullah, who now hobbles around on red-handled crutches. He goes by one name only, as do many Afghans.
The dilapidated palace is a reminder of the horror of the civil war when rival factions – who had joined forces against Soviet fighters before they left in early 1989 – turned their guns on each other. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed.
Fed up with the bloodletting, the Afghan people longed for someone – anyone – who would restore peace and order. 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, 2001 attacks on the U.S. 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 the government force 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 the country before 2014.
There also is mounting uncertainty about the upcoming transfer of power. At the same time that foreign troops are scheduled to complete their withdrawal in 2014, Afghans will go to the polls to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who is barred by the constitution from running for a third term.
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 trying to influence Afghanistan's future.
"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 in emotional, rapid-fire sentences at his home in Kabul, Anwari says 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," he said.
Ghairat Baheer offers an even gloomier prediction. Baheer is a representative and son-in-law of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a key civil war leader in the 1990s whose fighters attack foreign troops today. He warns that the current Afghan government will collapse with the international troop withdrawal and says civil war is likely without a peace agreement.
"The realities are that the government is not sustainable," he said in a telephone interview. "Anti-Americanism and anti-western sentiment is increasing daily in Afghanistan and the resistance is spreading day-by-day across the country."
Fahim Dashti was with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic Tajik leader who commanded the Northern Alliance of minority groups, when he was fatally wounded by two terrorists posing as journalists two days before the Sept. 11 attacks. Dashti's face and hands were burned when one of the journalists blew himself up as the interview began. Even now, Dashti's hands are not strong enough to twist the cap off a bottle of water.
Despite his experience, Dashti, who now directs the National Journalists' Union in Afghanistan, doesn't think his country is headed toward a civil war.
"I do share the concerns of the people, no doubt. But there are some positive points such as the [growing] capability and the ability of the Afghan security forces," he said in his office.
Donor nations have pledged to continue supporting the Afghan forces, which will avoid civil war and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for international terrorists again, Dashti said. He's more worried about the upcoming presidential race.
"There is no one-man solution," he said, adding that a team of leaders from all ethnic factions needs to be assembled to lead the nation forward.
Gen. Majid Rouzi, who also commanded fighters in the civil war and is now an adviser at the Afghan Interior Ministry, agrees.
"Nobody has any justification for rearming," he said, sitting cross-legged on a rug in his home in Kabul. "The Taliban coming again? It is not possible. A factional war is not coming."
However, Gen. Sahki Dad Ghafel, who led 1,500 troops fighting under Hazara commander Abdul Ali Mazari during the civil war, says civil strife is inevitable unless a peace can be reached with the Taliban before 2014. And he's not optimistic that the Taliban will renounce violence, moderate their hardline ways and participate in the political process.
"Maybe if there is a deal between America, Pakistan and the Taliban, the Taliban might come with the tie instead of the turban," Ghafel, a round-faced military man with a small black mustache, said snacking on green grapes and melon in his office. "If the foreign troops leave, there will not be a good result. I am not confident about the future. I'm not optimistic."
Karzai has called for national unity and has tried to reassure his people that Afghanistan will not collapse when the troops leave.
"If the foreigners are not here, we are nothing?" he asked sarcastically at a news conference last week: "We were not a nation before NATO and the Americans came?"
Karzai claims there has been a decline in violence in areas where Afghan troops are taking over from U.S. and NATO forces and that Afghan policemen and soldiers will be strong enough to provide security in the future. He blames the media for scaring Afghans into thinking they have no future once the international coalition leaves. Those who share Karzai's optimism argue that despite reports of drug use and unprofessionalism, Afghan security forces – now 352,000 strong – will be capable of securing the nation by international troops leave.
Coalition officials claim they have battered the Taliban and that while they are capable of staging suicide bombings and insider attacks, the insurgents cannot defeat the Afghan forces on the battlefield. They contend that keeping up the pressure on insurgents will push Taliban leaders to the negotiating table and that the international community's pledge to bankroll the Afghan army and police force in coming years will support the Afghan government as it works to provide better governance.
The more pessimistic view is that the Afghan forces won't be up to the task.
The joint international and Afghan force is fighting a losing battle, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement marking the 11th anniversary of the start of the war. Mujahid claims the Taliban have infiltrated the Afghan forces and are responsible for the rash of insider attacks that have left more than 50 U.S. and NATO forces dead at the hands of their would-be Afghan partners so far this year.
"Right now, the foreigners are in a position where they are just trying to escape," Mujahid said.
Associated Press Writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.