Charlottesville's Afghan community reflects on 18 years of war

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- As the United States marks 18 years since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, a group of Afghan citizens now living in Charlottesville is warning about the dangers of an American troop withdrawal.

Hamidullah Ibrahimkhail grew up in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

"The schools were just for boys, not girls," Ibrahimkhail said. "There was a lot of problems, and you did not have a lot of opportunities. But when U.S. military forces come to Afghanistan, everything changed. Girls, boys, everyone got to go to school."

When he grew up, Ibrahimkhail worked as a translator for U.S. soldiers, even though it put him in danger.

"If you work with U.S. military forces, you are a big target," he said. "Your life is in a big threat."

That threat convinced Ibrahimkhail to leave Afghanistan and come to Charlottesville a few years ago when he qualified for a Special Immigrant Visa given to Afghan citizens who were helpful to the U.S. He enjoys his life here, but it's not the same as being home.

"I miss everybody back there," he said. "I miss the school, my family, my friends. But mostly I miss my mom."

Mohammad Nasim Qasem is in a similar situation. He served with the Afghan military when the country was under Soviet rule in the 1980s. Then he moved to the United States about a decade ago. He still has several family members in Afghanistan, and he says he fears for their safety.

"My brother works in the military area," Qasem said through a translator. "There is always a threat for them every day. Suicide attacks happen there. The only thing we can do is to pray for them."

Qasem now has a job with the U.S. military, training soldiers for what they will face in Afghanistan.

"We teach them that every person that has a turban is not Taliban," Qasem said. "Every young person is not a suicide attacker. This training really helped bring better understanding of the situation there."

And Qasem said American and NATO troops have made a big difference.

"After 18 years of help from the USA and NATO, we have almost half a million security forces," he said.

The U.S. operation quickly overthrew the Taliban and established a new government in Afghanistan, implementing democratic elections. Javid Safi knows that firsthand. He was recently elected to the Afghan Parliament.

"I'm thankful to my people that they trusted me," Safi said during a visit to Charlottesville.

He said he has witnessed improvements brought by U.S. forces in the past 18 years.

"We have seen a lot of positive changes," he said. "You can go into every province and you will see different like buildings, taller buildings. Afghan people and Afghan citizens are happy for that, and they appreciate what NATO and the U.S. did."

Afghan political analyst Khalil Roman echoed those same sentiments.

"The reality is that the Afghan people really appreciate and count very precious the help and support of the USA and the international community," he said through an interpreter. "The people of Afghanistan want it to be continued."

The number of American troops in Afghanistan has dropped dramatically from its peak nearly ten years ago. About 14,000 American troops remain in the country.

As those troop levels fell, Safi, Ibrahimkhail, and Qasem said they witnessed an increase in violence in Afghanistan. Safi said a complete withdrawal would put the country more at risk of terrorist activity.

"If the U.S. leaves, then we wouldn't be able to defeat them alone," Safi said. "There is the possibility that terrorists can come back and they can make their hideouts."

"U.S. forces will be better to bring peace for this country," Qasem said. "If they withdraw all their military forces from Afghanistan, those experiences will be repeated again."

Ibrahimkhail acknowledged that Afghanistan may take a long time to adjust to the new government structure.

"We have a lot of religious people and traditional people," he said. "They have their very deep ideas that they never want to change. Democracy doesn't mean much to them."

But he said the younger generation is taking to democracy, and he expects that to only improve.

"I hope the education system gets better and people get more educated because that's very important," he said.

Safi said he hopes the U.S. continues to pursue peace talks with the Taliban, as long as the Afghan government is also included in the talks. He also says it is important for U.S. officials to "keep eyes on Pakistan."

Safi is hopeful that terrorism will be rooted out in Afghanistan. And he says the tactics of terror groups will not succeed.

"If they threaten us, if they kill us, if they give us injuries, we still are going to go forward and make a future for the country," he said. "This is a big achievement, so I don't want to see these achievements to be lost."

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