No relief in sight for war-ravaged Afghanistan

Afghanistan won commitments of additional aid and more troops from the international community in 2008, but a deadly Taliban insurgency, rampant crime and an unchecked drugs trade show no sign of abating.

With more than 270 foreign soldiers — most of them American — killed already this year, 2008 has been the deadliest since the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime in 2001 for the 70 000 international troops deployed here.

General David Petraeus, who now commands US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, admitted that “in certain areas of Afghanistan clearly there has been a spiral downward that all involved … want to arrest”.

This month, the International Council on Security and Development went as far as to say that Taliban insurgents had established a “permanent presence” in roughly three-quarters of the country — a claim denied by Kabul.

“The increase in their geographic spread illustrates that the Taliban’s political, military and economic strategies are now more successful than the West’s in Afghanistan,” the London-based think-tank said.

The report suggested that Taliban fighters were posing an increasing threat to the capital — an assertion dismissed by the Afghan Foreign Ministry, which said the think-tank had been hoodwinked by the Taliban’s spin doctors.

But the insurgents staged a few spectacular attacks in Kabul this year — a suicide attack at the luxurious Serena Hotel in January left eight dead, while a car bombing at the Indian embassy in July killed more than 60 people.

And in April, militants targeted US-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a military parade with explosives and gunfire, but he escaped the assassination attempt unharmed.

Nearly 1 000 police and 260 Afghan soldiers have been killed since March in insurgent violence but civilians have paid the heaviest price, with 1 445 killed between January and August, more than half of them in Taliban attacks.

“The insurgents use human shields in most of their operations, hiding behind women and children to heighten the risk of civilian casualties,” says Brigadier General Richard Blanchette, a spokesperson for the Nato-led force in Afghanistan.

The US military says the number of combat incidents in the volatile east of the country near the border with Pakistan — dotted with Taliban weapons depots — has increased by 40% in 2008 compared with last year.

But the Islamist fighters, thousands of whom were killed in 2008 in US and Nato-led operations, are not the only forces wreaking havoc on the war-ravaged country, which is one of the world’s poorest.

Rich Afghans and foreigners have been kidnapped in broad daylight in Kabul, and forces loyal to al-Qaeda-linked commander Jalaluddin Haqqani have staged brazen attacks, some of them in the heavily fortified capital.

The drugs trade is also still running rampant. The United Nations says Afghanistan produces 90% of the world’s opium and heroin. Some of the $4-billion a year it generates ends up in the hands of the Taliban.

In October, Nato member states — especially Britain and the United States — pledged to tackle the drugs trade. Earlier, donor nations offered $20-billion in reconstruction and development aid.

“Afghanistan is still in a very difficult situation but there are areas where we have seen some cautious signs of progress,” says Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the UN mission here.

US president-elect Barack Obama has promised to revamp the US strategy for Afghanistan by shifting troops away from Iraq and into Afghanistan and working on better coordination with Nato’s International Security Assistance Force.

“We’ve got to really ramp up our development approach to Afghanistan. Part of the problem that we’ve had is the average Afghan farmer hasn’t seen any improvement in his life,” he said this month.

He will also need to work to win over the Afghan people, who have become increasingly angry at the number of civilian casualties caused by foreign air strikes — the UN says nearly 400 were killed this year alone.

Blanchette says he feels “cautiously optimistic” about Afghanistan’s future, noting simply: “No one wants to see the Taliban back in power.” — AFP

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