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Still, civilians are increasingly caught in the middle of the fight against insurgents. Last year was the deadliest on record for civilians in the Afghan war, with 3,021 killed as insurgents stepped up suicide attacks and roadside bombs, according to the United Nations.
In the south, where the Taliban have their strongest roots, the governor of Helmand province praises the security gains. In 2008, the provincial capital Lashkar Gah was surrounded by militants and the Taliban controlled a number of districts. There was only one brigade of the Afghan army in the province, and the police forces were plagued by drug addiction, Gov. Gulab Mangal told Pentagon reporters recently.
But after years of operations by coalition and Afghan forces, insurgents have been pushed back. Today, 80 percent of the Helmand police are trained and equipped, he said, declaring Helmand is "open for business.’
Aftab Jan, a 35-year-old who runs a hotel business in Lashkar Gah, agrees. "We used to be scared to even go out of our homes to work as we might never return alive, but now we can walk around and do our business safely."
But, he said, "If the foreign forces leave us on our own now, then we are going to go back to zero all at once."
"It will mean being under the same old Taliban hold," he said. "All these years would mean nothing. The war and struggle over bringing peace to this land would mean nothing."
Even in Kabul where there are more jobs and educational opportunities than in the outlying provinces, it’s difficult to be positive. Every day, people in the capital are confronted by scores of penniless Afghans — men without limbs and women clutching soiled babies — who beg from motorists idling in traffic.
Regwida Neayish, a 19-year-old in her second year of college in Kabul, wants to leave Afghanistan to study abroad to become a doctor — although she promises to return.
"I don’t think there is a future for us," Neayish, a soft-spoken woman in a baby blue headscarf, said at a new women’s only Internet cafe.
"It’s in our hands to study and work hard, but there are no jobs for the people of Afghanistan. ... There is nothing, nothing," she said.
Her mother, Frozan Marofi, who was checking her email across the room, had a more positive outlook.
Instead of wringing their hands about what might happen in 2014, Marofi said, Afghans should be thinking about how they can improve life now.
"Maybe after 2014, we will have a very, very nice life."
Unconvinced, her daughter giggled into her headscarf and said, "I just want to go to another country."
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