By Khan Mohammad Danishju

Despite President Obama's surprise visit to Afghanistan last week to sign a far-reaching agreement committing the United States to long-term support of the embattled nation, many Afghans remain fearful about what will happen after the last of the foreign security forces depart at the end of 2014.

One indication of this growing concern is the increasing number of Afghans leaving the country.

According to Mohammad Nader Farhad, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 30,000 Afghans sought asylum in Europe in 2011, a 30 percent increase over the previous year. Experts say the actual number is probably much higher, with many Afghans illegally entering Western countries and choosing not to formally seek asylum once they reach their destination. Afghanistan is one of the three top sources of refugees in the world, along with Iraq and Somalia, according to U.N. figures.

More than five million Afghan refugees live in neighboring Iran and Pakistan and are reluctant to return because of continuing security concerns, Farhad said. Only about half the Afghans in Pakistan and Iran are living there legally, according to Islamuddin Jorat, spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation.

Dark and terrible

Refugees began leaving Afghanistan in waves in the 1980s, first because of the Soviet invasion and occupation, then due to the brutal civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, and, finally, when the Taliban came to power.

Since U.S. forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, about 5.7 million Afghan refugees have returned, according to the Associated Press. Many of those returned shortly after the Taliban's ouster.

By 2010, however, the number of refugees returning annually had fallen to about 60,000.

Now, with foreign security forces due to depart by the end of 2014, the number of those leaving is rising.

"They are worried that wars will break out among the various factions which were responsible for the civil war, and which remain in power just as they did in the [early] 1990s," Jorat said.

Kabul resident Wahidullah said his brother, Hamidullah, left for Greece five months ago, along with his wife and two children. "He was worried that a civil war would start and the Taliban would return," he said.

Shah Wali, 60, a former soldier, said he has encouraged his son, Sekandar, to leave. "We all know that the situation is going to deteriorate after foreign forces withdraw, and that businesses will collapse," he said. "We have lived through very hard times, and the future looks dark and terrible."

Part of the problem

Leaving Afghanistan, however, is neither easy nor cheap. Relocating to Europe can cost a family up to $25,000, requiring many to sell their homes to cover the expense, Jorat said. Real estate agents in Kabul say property values have tumbled in recent months as residents rush to raise the needed cash. "Five months ago, a house would sell for $300,000 to $450,000 in some sections of Kabul, but prices have fallen to $200,000 to $250,000," said Yuma Sadat, a real estate agent.

And while U.S. officials say they are committed to building up Afghan forces to provide security once international troops depart, few here have confidence that the country's army or police will be up to the task. Some, like Rahimullah Malekzai, a Kabul resident, worry that Afghan security forces could end up being part of the problem.

"If NATO leaves Afghanistan, these forces will be the first to attack people and property," he said. "The public doesn't have faith in the security forces' abilities, integrity, or adherence to the law. If they believed these forces could protect their lives and properties, they wouldn't be forced to emigrate."

Khan Mohammad Danishju is a reporter based in Afghanistan who writes for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in conflict areas. For more information, see www.iwpr.net. This was distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service.