KABUL, Afghanistan — The start of the U.S. troop drawdown and a raft of overlapping security, political and economic crises are fueling fears that Afghanistan could sink into wholesale turmoil and even civil war as the U.S.-led international combat mission winds up at the end of 2014.
Such an upheaval could spread insecurity across Afghanistan's borders and see it revert to an al Qaida sanctuary — the very outcome that President Barack Obama's war strategy seeks to avert.
"My focus is preparing for the worst," said Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan's former intelligence chief who fought for the ethnic minority-dominated Northern Alliance against Taliban rule in the 1990s.
The litany of crises include political gridlock, instability in a corruption-hit private banking sector, high-level assassinations, record-high bloodshed and ethnic minorities' fears that they will be cut out of a peace deal that the U.S. and President Hamid Karzai are seeking with the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.
"People are sizing up their options," said a Western official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. He added that he thinks Afghan political and ethnic leaders will make deals among themselves that avert a "worst-case scenario" and allow Afghanistan's growing security forces to continue fighting the insurgency.
However, he added, "I'm not at all confident that we'll reach a peace deal with the insurgents."
The situation contrasts sharply with the Obama administration's assurances that conditions are stable enough to withdraw by next summer the 33,000 U.S. troops surged last year into the Taliban's southern strongholds, and replace them with Afghan security forces.
The new U.S. envoy to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, acknowledged the uncertainty, saying at his swearing-in ceremony Monday that the U.S. and its allies "must proceed carefully" as they withdraw most of their 130,000-strong forces.
"There will be no rush for the exits. The way we do this in the months ahead will have consequences far beyond Afghanistan and far in the future," Crocker warned.
But reassuring Afghans battered by decades of war will be hard.
"We have so many problems now, imagine what will happen when the foreign troops leave," said H. Mahdood Niazi, who sells pricey jewelry and semi-precious stones to foreigners and the Afghan elite in an upscale mall.
"I am thinking of just shutting up my shop and going anywhere because I know this country is not on the right track," Niazi said.
The value of the national currency, the Afghani, has fallen by 10 percent in the last three months, said Amin Jan Khosty, head of the Shahazda Exchange Market in the capital, Kabul. Businessmen said that the flight of foreign cash abroad is accelerating, and prices in Kabul's overheated real estate market have dropped by up to 40 percent in some areas.
The property value fall began after the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, which many people realized could lead to a U.S. troop withdrawal, said Haji Abdul Haq, a real estate dealer in Kabul's Kolola Pushta district.
The U.S. drawdown and the "transition" of seven provinces and districts to Afghan responsibility that began this month coincide with a crippling power struggle between President Hamid Karzai and the opposition-dominated parliament.
Lawmakers have impeached the attorney general and five Supreme Court justices and are threatening to impeach Karzai for what they charge is an illegal bid to oust 62 lower house members for alleged ballot fraud. The house members' elections last year were confirmed by the Afghan election commission.
The parliament has responded by refusing to approve Cabinet ministers, respect Supreme Court rulings or pass bills, including an initial $73 million installment of a bankruptcy bailout of the corruption-shattered Kabul Bank, the largest Afghan private bank.
The International Monetary Fund is refusing to bless Afghanistan's annual economic plan until the bailout passes, prompting international donors to withhold tens of millions of dollars in aid.
"Any delay" in international donations to Afghanistan's main reconstruction fund "will have an impact on the speed and success" of the U.S.-led process to complete the transfer of security for the country to the government by the end of 2014, said a World Bank assessment obtained by McClatchy.
The central bank chief has fled the country, alleging that his life is in danger.
"Everyone is after everyone," said Ali Jalali, Karzai's first interior minister. "If this situation continues, it will undermine the very foundations of democracy in Afghanistan."
Western powers hope for a compromise soon. But the standoff has compounded the damage to public trust in Afghanistan's Western-style democratic system, which has seen consecutive presidential and legislative polls that were rife with fraud.
An end to the constitutional gridlock, however, doesn't assure an end to the banking crisis.
It's uncertain if the central bank, which seized Kabul Bank in September to avert its collapse after panicked depositors withdrew more than $600 million, will recoup more than $800 million in fraudulent loans. So far, only $64 million has been recovered. The two former top executives have been arrested, but two major former stockholders, a brother of Karzai and a brother of his first vice president, remain free.
Lawmakers also charge that the second-largest private bank, Azizi Bank, is primed to collapse. That likely would be a mortal blow to the nascent free-market private financial sector of a country whose citizens traditionally have kept their cash under their pillows.
Afghan officials insist Azizi Bank is solvent. But the IMF has made an internal audit of the bank another condition of approving the country's annual economic plan, igniting a rancorous feud with Karzai's government, which says it will begin the review at the end of August.
Violence, meanwhile, is soaring to levels unprecedented since the 2001 U.S. invasion.
The U.S. troop surge into the south and U.S. special forces "night raids" have dealt "a huge beating" to the Taliban and allied groups, said the Western official. And in his July 18 farewell speech as U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus asserted that the number of attacks over the previous two-and-a-half months was lower than the same period last year.
But a July 21 analysis by the respected Afghanistan Analysts Network said Petraeus was citing only attacks on U.S.-led forces, pointing out that the guerrillas have stepped up suicide strikes, bombings and intimidation against Afghan officials and civilians.
The Afghan NGO Safety Office, which provides security reports to aid groups, issued a report this month charting a "staggering" 119 percent rise in insurgency attacks — and a nearly 106 percent rise in civilian casualties — during the 12-month period ending in June.
Five power brokers, including Karzai's half-brother, have been assassinated this year, raising concerns about the security they helped maintain in their regions.
As the U.S. and Karzai try to start peace talks with the Taliban, who have shown no readiness to accept, leaders of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities — comprising around 60 percent of the estimated 29 million people — are warning that they'll fight any deal that they aren't allowed to approve first.
"If they enter into a deal with our enemy, a non-transparent deal, we will reject it," said Saleh, who is a Tajik, the country's second-largest ethnic group, which dominated the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
The Western official said the goal is "an Afghan-to-Afghan peace" that respects all ethnic communities' interests. But the convergence of all of these developments is terrifying many Afghans.
"People are afraid that Afghanistan will go back to the pre-9/11 days," said Haq, the property dealer.
The 2001 U.S. invasion reversed the course of a seven-year war that saw the Pashtun-dominated Taliban overrun most of the country. The Northern Alliance, backed by U.S. air power, drove the Taliban and al Qaida across the border into Pakistan's tribal area.
Those ethnic divisions never really healed, and Kabul is rife with rumors that former Northern Alliance commanders are reorganizing their militias.
Mohammad Mohaqeq, the leader of the Islamic Unity Party, which represents Hazaras, a Shiite Muslim minority, said that some of his supporters asked him if they should begin rearming. He said it was too early for that, because U.S.-led international troops have until the end of 2014 to contain the insurgency.
"I think there will be some time, maybe one to two years," Mohaqeq said. "Then we can rearm."
(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report.)
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