KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan's president on Thursday welcomed U.S. plans to withdraw 33,000 troops over the next year as a chance to show his nation can defend itself, but many of his countrymen worried it would bring more violence to a country that's known decades of war.
President Hamid Karzai, who has warned the U.S. and NATO they risk becoming occupiers after nearly 10 years of war, called the plan "a good measure" and asserted that the Afghan youth would guard their nation against Taliban and other insurgents who have just begun a new offensive.
Outside the capital, in the Taliban heartland of the south and in the increasingly volatile north, local government officials and Afghans feared a speedy exit by U.S. and foreign troops could leave the nation headed once again toward civil war.
"At this time when they are leaving, Afghans will be caught up in civil war again and will not be able to rule the county without Americans," said Hakimullah, a 20-year-old living in the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.
The hard-line Islamic movement said Thursday a U.S. pullout would be a step toward ending "this pointless bloodshed."
Driven from power in 2001 in response to their sheltering of al-Qaida, the Taliban have regrouped in recent years. They have led an insurgency that has battered Afghan towns and countryside with roadside bombs, suicide attackers and complex assaults on NATO bases and the headquarters of Western-allied Afghan forces.
The "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan once again wants to make it clear that the solution for the Afghan crisis lies in the full withdrawal of all foreign troops immediately and until this ... happens, our armed struggle will increase from day to day," said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a rare statement in English.
Some Afghans wondered how the U.S. could leave while the Taliban is still able to stage such attacks.
"The Americans are just thinking about themselves," said Saddu Khan, 28, of Kandahar city. "The Taliban will never accept those people who didn't support them and now a new cold war will be started between Afghans."
Obama announced late Wednesday he would bring 33,000 U.S. troops home by next summer in the opening phases of a withdrawal that is to be completed by 2014. There are currently about 100,000 U.S. troops in the country.
They make up the bulk of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, and other nations quickly announced they would start bringing troops home too.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Thursday the progressive withdrawal of France's troops on a timetable matching the American pullout that starts this summer. France currently has about 4,000 troops in the country.
Britain, the second-largest contributor to the NATO force, will bring home 450 troops this summer, Prime Minister David Cameron said. The overall pace of U.K. troop withdrawals will be determined by conditions on the ground, British officials said.
Karzai sounded confident that Afghanistan's NATO-trained police and army could take control of the country from the departing forces, which he has increasingly criticized for night raids and aerial bombings that have killed civilians.
"At the end of 2014, the Afghans, for their homeland, for their protection, for the security of their people, completely should be in control," Karzai said in a televised address from the presidential palace. "The responsibility will be given to the Afghans."
"We are welcoming (the U.S. decision) and it will be a good measure for them and Afghanistan," he added.
Afghan security forces, however, still appear unready to protect the nation from insurgents able to strike at will and even in force in some remote, mountainous regions of the country.
The war has killed at least 1,500 members of the U.S. military and wounded another 12,000 since it began in late 2001. The financial cost of the war has passed $440 billion and is on the rise, jumping to $120 billion a year.
In announcing the pullout plans, the Obama administration used the argument that Afghanistan, training ground for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., is no longer a launching pad for exporting terrorism and hasn't been for years.
Pressure for a withdrawal has grown in war-weary America, especially after the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan last month. Obama said Wednesday that materials recovered during the raid to get bin Laden showed that al-Qaida was under deep strain.
With the war becoming increasingly unpopular, the U.S. and Afghan government have reached out and talked with Taliban emissaries. However, with the Taliban publicly saying fighting won't stop until foreign troops leave, it remains unclear if peace talks could be possible.
Critics of Karzai also wonder if he can lead the country effectively without the backing of significant American power.
Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister, said the Afghan president's increasing hostility toward Western powers and closer ties with Iran and Pakistan were signs of poor judgment.
"He mixes the enemy in place of a friend, a friend in place of the enemy and confuses the nation," said Abdullah, who lost to Karzai in the 2009 presidential election. "That has deprived our country of its main strength, which is will, and the strength of our people. The people are confused, the people are disenfranchised, the people are resentful."
In northern Afghanistan, Kunduz provincial Gov. Mohammed Anwar Jigdalik said he supported a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, but warned that fear and uncertainty have caused the country's ethnic minorities to rearm.
"Barely 10 percent of all the weapons were ever handed to the government," Jigdalik said. "Now people are rearming. All of Afghanistan would welcome reconciliation but people are afraid and people are thinking the south is coming with weapons to take them over so they are rearming."
In violence Thursday, armed men stole $3.5 million from a truck near the U.S. Embassy in downtown Kabul, setting off a gunbattle that killed one man and injured three security guards, said Mohammed Zahir of the Kabul police.
In Kandahar province, NATO troops killed two Afghan border police officers whom they mistook for insurgents late Wednesday, said Abdul Ghani, the governor of Spin Boldak district. NATO said it was aware of the report and was investigating.
Associated Press writers Solomon Moore, Kathy Gannon and Ahmad Massieh Neshat in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP