KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Nobody wants a repeat of the bloody ethnic fighting that followed the Soviet exit from Afghanistan in the 1990s — least of all 32-year-old Wahidullah, who was crippled by a bullet that pierced his spine during the civil war.
Yet as the Afghan war began its 12th year on Sunday, fears loom that the country will again fracture along ethnic lines once international combat forces leave by the end of 2014.
“It was a very bad situation,” said Wahidullah, who was a teenager when he was wounded in the 1992-1996 civil war.
“All these streets around here were full of bullet shells, burned tanks and vehicles,” he added, squinting into a setting sun that cast a golden glow on the bombed-out Darulaman Palace still standing in west Kabul not far from where he was wounded.
“People could not find bread or water, but rockets were everywhere,” said Wahidullah, who now hobbles around on red-handled crutches. He goes by one name only, as do many Afghans.
The dilapidated palace is a reminder of the horror of the civil war when rival factions — who had joined forces against Soviet fighters before they left in early 1989 — turned their guns on each other. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed.
Fed up with the bloodletting, the Afghan people longed for someone — anyone — who would restore peace and order. The Taliban did so.
But once in power, they imposed harsh Islamic laws that repressed women and they publicly executed, stoned and lashed people for alleged crimes and sexual misconduct.
The Taliban also gave sanctuary to al-Qaida in the run-up to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. When the Taliban refused to give up the al-Qaida leaders who orchestrated 9/11, the U.S. invaded on Oct. 7, 2001.
Eleven years later, Afghanistan remains divided and ethnic tension still simmers.
The Taliban, dominated by the ethnic Pashtun majority, have strongholds in the south. Ethnic minorities such as Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks live predominantly in central and northern Afghanistan.
The fear is that when international forces leave, minority groups will take up arms to prevent another Taliban takeover and that members of the Afghan security forces could walk off the government force and fight with their ethnic leaders.
Anxiety and confusion about what will happen after the foreign forces leave permeates every aspect of society. Political debate about an Afghanistan post-2014 is getting more vocal.
There also is mounting uncertainty about the upcoming transfer of power.
At the same time that foreign troops are scheduled to complete their withdrawal in 2014, Afghans will go to the polls to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who is barred by the constitution from running for a third term.
The Afghan people already view their government as weak and corrupt and those doubtful of a peaceful future say that if the upcoming presidential election is rigged and yields an illegitimate leader, civil war could erupt between ethnic groups backed by neighboring countries trying to influence Afghanistan’s future.
“Unfortunately in Afghanistan, we do not have any political unity,” said Gen. Sayed Hussain Anwari, a former governor of Kabul and Herat provinces who led fighters during the civil war.
Speaking in emotional, rapid-fire sentences at his home in Kabul, Anwari said the Taliban have a right to participate in the political process.
“But if the scenario changes and they come to power by force, there will be groups that won’t go with the Taliban and the fighting will continue,” he said.