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REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Oasis of optimism at Afghan college graduation

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Afghan Army soldiers look on during a morning inspection at Chinari outpost in Logar province, east Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 22, 2012. Afghan forces for the first time will take over the lead of the combat mission by the middle of 2013, a milestone moment in a long, costly transition of control. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)AP2012

The clock is ticking toward the end of 2014, when the last foreign combat troops leave Afghanistan.

And there is trepidation here in Afghanistan that when it happens it could signal an escalation in violence with the country descending into chaos and the Taliban even again capturing the capital, Kabul.

That is, of course, the worst-case scenario, but recent events -- from the killing of a senior negotiator with the Taliban to deadly attacks here in Kabul -- have put everybody here on edge and raised doubts about the strategy abroad.

An editorial in the British Guardian highlighted the pessimism about the NATO pullout: “….the exit strategy has become all exit and no strategy”

The French decision recently to withdraw all of its combat troops by the end of the year, as you would expect, didn’t go down well in Afghanistan.

But is it really all doom and gloom?

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that it would take a very strong army to take Kabul

The place is packed full of Afghan security forces armed to the teeth, backed up by NATO forces that even after 2014 will be giving training and support to more than 200,000 members of the Afghan Army and police force.

The real issue is, though, whether the Afghan people, who don’t want the Taliban to return, remain optimistic about the future and are committed to the difficult task of creating a free and prosperous country following the NATO withdrawal.

I put that to a respected Afghan political analyst, who didn’t want to be named because of his new role in helping rebuild the country: “As an Afghan I have no alternative but to be optimistic. If not it would be very difficult a year for me from when Afghan security forces take over.”

“We have lived through difficult times. Three generations have faced conflict now; we are used to this situation. I remember when the Taliban were in power in the early 1990s, when there was conflict, poverty and no hope. We are still in a better position now than then.”

He went on to tell me the real hope for this country is in the new young generation of people that are going through education now.

I thought I would find out for myself what they think of the future of Afghanistan.

The American University of Kabul is an oasis in a polluted city of too many people, too many cars, too many T-walls, too many guns and too many beggars.

I went along there to a recent graduation ceremony for students in business.

When you visit the university campus, which was opened in 2006 and is supported by USAID and wealthy Afghans, you can’t help but notice the stringent security to protect the establishment.

It really highlights the challenges the country faces if the beautiful landscaped grounds of this university where students walk safely are ever to be replicated beyond its walls.

The students who graduated this year are likely to become part of the business and political elite that this country needs if it is to emerge from decades of war.

All of them spoke English perfectly and all were equally positive about the future of the country.

Fatima Behroz, who has benefited from the government’s policies of allowing women to be educated, is going to manage her own business:

“I am optimistic about the current situation. I have a responsibility toward my people, my country.”

There is a worry that there could be a brain drain in Afghanistan with the educated and wealthy people fleeing the country if the fighting continues.

Muhammed Hamid Anwari is one of the students who will continue his education in the U.S. after graduating, but he plans to return.

“When I come back I will definitely work for the future success of my country in order to make Afghanistan a developed country.”

If these young students are ever going to realize their ambitions in this country, then there will need to be some stability after 2014.

Many Afghans drew comfort from the recent signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan that pledges cooperation between the two countries after the withdrawal of forces in 2014.

And there is still optimism here that even as NATO prepares to leave, the U.S. will not allow Afghanistan to again become a bastion for terrorists. As one Afghan put it to me, the agreement “at least gives us hope that the U.S. won’t abandon Afghanistan.”

The killing of a senior Al Qaeda operative here this week by a U.S. airstrike highlights the fact the terror group is still active and will likely only get stronger once the alliance leaves.

There are few details yet on what exactly the Strategic Partnership Agreement means on the ground, but it does allow for the possibility of some U.S. troops staying in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to train and conduct counterterrorism operations to target Al Qaeda.

But as James Brazier from HIS Global Insight told me, the agreement is not guaranteed to happen because, he says, Afghan politicians are trying to attach strings to it -- including a ban on night-time operations and the supremacy of Afghan courts over U.S. personnel in the country. Brazier adds, “Neither is likely to be acceptable to the U.S. military.”

Despite the expected problems of allowing the U.S. military to operate on Afghan territory after the NATO withdrawal by the end of 2014, there is likely going to have to be some kind of military support by the U.S. if the terrorists are to be stopped from using the country again as a safe haven to plan attacks.