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Which Afghanistan will it be?

AHMAD NADEEM / Reuters

An Afghan policeman stands guard at the site of an explosion in Kandahar city on Thursday.

By Jim Maceda, NBC News Correspondent

KABUL – What will Afghanistan look like in 2015? That depends a lot on how you see the country – and the conflict – in 2011.

There are basically two camps: unbounded optimists who see great things in Afghanistan’s future and pessimists who see a quagmire that can only get worse.

The billion-dollar question – especially for U.S. taxpayers – is which view will prevail?

Peace, stability and good times ahead
The optimists, and that includes every U.S. military commander and government official I’ve ever spoken to here, believe that the coalition effort at nation-securing and building (aka counter-insurgency) is on track and truly making a difference.


They point out that the 40,000 additional U.S. forces that “surged” in two waves in 2009 and 2010 have largely succeeded in clearing out the Taliban from its staging areas in the insurgent heartlands of Kandahar and Helmand. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even recently dared to use the ‘t’ word when he suggested that this year, 2011, could be a “tipping point” if those battlefield gains are held and expanded.

These same optimists see an Afghan-run nation by 2015 which will have effectively won the war. How can that be?

Maj. Gen. John Nicholson, Chief of Operations for General David Petraeus and a veteran of six years on the Afghan battlefield, put it bluntly. “We will defeat the Taliban in southern Afghanistan this year,” he told me. “Defeat, in military doctrine, means preventing the enemy from obtaining its objectives. In the Taliban’s case, we – and the Afghan security forces – will prevent it from holding on to, or taking back, its safe havens there.”

Bay Ismoyo / AFP - Getty Images

U.S. Marines walk through opium poppy fields during a meet and greet joint patrol with Afghanistan National Police in Habibullah village in Khanashin District, Helman province, on April 24, 2011. Click on the photo to see a slideshow of Afghanistan.

Similar-thinking optimists say that, by 2015, Afghan national security forces will be trained and equipped well enough to have contained, if not defeated, the Taliban and its al-Qaida patrons. To the point where neither is an existential threat – where violence rarely rises above the hit-and-run attack or the occasional Baghdad-style car or suicide bombing.

By 2015, the optimists believe, U.S. forces will have drawn down to a mere 20-30,000 troops, serving in a non-combat, mentoring role, their footprint barely visible. And they believe Afghan President Hamid Karzai will have given up his monopoly on power by then, too.

“By 2015 the rule of law will be the order of the day,” one U.S. law enforcement official working in Kabul recently told me, “and we need to prepare for that now.” Some opponents of the Karzai administration have even said that, once in power, they would set up a kind of “Commission for Good Government,” tasked with finding and recovering the billions of dollars that have allegedly disappeared from the Karzai coffers over the years.

And, given the sweep of the “Arab Spring” not too far away, there’s a lot of wishful thinking these days among Western-run non-governmental organizations and some Afghan think-tanks about the rise of an “Afghan Spring.” A kind of “Pashtun Awakening” in the south and east of the country, where young men of fighting age reject the Taliban’s and al-Qaida’s message of hate and instead stand up and demand reforms and accountability from the Afghan government – be it local or central.

Meanwhile, there’s optimism on other fronts: USAID continues to pump millions of dollars into experimental farming in the rich Helmand River Valley, even during the fighting season. The mostly young, American field agents believe that in the three or four years it will take to produce a crop, Afghan farmers can earn at least twice the profit from their pomegranates, grapes, saffron and cucumbers than they do today by growing illegal opium poppy.

These U.S. officials say that, once Highway 1, Afghanistan’s main artery, is fully secured and repaired, farmers in Helmand’s Nad Ali district will be able to drive their produce all the way to the markets of Kandahar City. By 2015, these “optimists” see that insurgent beltway – currently an improvised explosive devise alley – becoming a bread basket.

Their dreams seem to know no bounds: 
*Afghans across the country will once again feel secure
*Helmand’s Kajaki Dam turbines (still a front line in 2011) will churn out enough electricity by 2015 to make the ubiquitous mom and pop generators obsolete
*International consortia will bid hundreds of billions of dollars to exploit vast veins of lithium and titanium in proven mines, from the moguls of Badghis to the mountains of Zabul
*In the face of such emerging stability, al-Qaida and its affiliates will withdraw from the drone-infested tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border, seeking safety and relevance in the chaos of Yemen and Somalia

I’ve heard it all, including the less optimistic flip-side.

Ezatullah Pamir / AP

Afghans shout anti-U.S. slogans during a demonstration in Taloqan, Takhar province, north of Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday.

Not so fast…
The other vision comes from those who see today’s Afghanistan as an irretrievable and irreconcilable quagmire. For these pessimists, the U.S. effort here is a $120 billion-a-year nightmare.

And by 2015, they believe things will only get a lot worse. According to some Afghanistan-based pollsters, the Taliban already controls or is highly effective in 70 percent of the country. And if, as it promises, the U.S. hands over security responsibility to the Afghans by the end of 2014, these pessimists – others call them “realists” – see a kind of Vietnam scenario playing out. They foresee a re-energized Taliban making a mockery of the corrupt and divided Afghan army and police, who either surrender en masse or go AWOL.

In the face of this rising threat of a meltdown, the pessimists see Karzai trying to hold onto power at all cost, even by cancelling elections in 2014 and offering the Taliban leadership – currently in exile in Pakistan – a prominent role in his government.

Karzai rivals, like former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh see this threat as well and have loudly denounced Karzai’s calls to negotiate with “our brothers, the Taliban.”

Several of my Afghan friends, meanwhile, are very worried about what their lives will be like here by 2015. One is seeking a new life in Dubai; another is looking for an apartment for his family in Istanbul just in case, as he fears, Afghanistan “goes to hell” again.

The optimists shake their heads and blame the fear-mongering on conspiracy theorists, of which there are certainly plenty here. “Give the Afghans some security, and jobs, and they will do the rest themselves,” Gen. Nicholson says.

Something in between?
But is Afghanistan really a tale of just two visions: One of hope and progress, the other of defeat and despair?

There is also a middling “third vision.” That one is of an Afghanistan in, say, 2015 looking pretty much like it does today, somewhere between hope and despair.

A very recent case in point: The death of Osama bin Laden. The optimists saw his demise as a body blow to al-Qaida and a decisive moment to go for the jugular. “Mullah Omar, you’re next,” some declared about the Taliban leader in exile. The pessimists either predicted a massive retaliation against U.S. troops or claimed that killing bin Laden meant the war was over and it was time to get out. But others, like Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the Deputy Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters here that it was just too early to say what, if any, effect bin Laden’s death would have on the war.

And why all this concern about 2015, anyway?

Well, here’s why – on my flight into Kabul from Dubai two weeks ago I was seated next to an elderly Afghan who’d left his country in the 1960’s, married an American woman and became a U.S. citizen. He said he was traveling frequently back to his homeland these days. A retired engineer, he was helping a Canadian company with plans to mine huge iron ore deposits.

By 2015, he said, the company would be making a good profit, hiring many Afghans. But all I could think of as I smiled and listened to this inspiring old man was, “I wonder how long it’ll take for Taliban gunmen to shut down the mine?”

Or – in other words – which vision will prevail?

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in Afghanistan, which he’s covered since the 1980’s.