Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs

AFGHANISTAN: Taliban Encroach On Karzai’s Turf

Anand Gopal

KABUL, Jul 23 2008 (IPS) - Dozens of civilians were killed over the weekend in Afghanistan, the latest in the trend of spiralling violence that has engulfed the embattled nation. The civilian casualties, Taliban attacks and troop casualty numbers are putting increasing strain on the Western-led coalition, leading some to speculate that the war is unwinnable.

On Sunday, international forces killed four Afghan police officers and five civilians during a fire-fight in the western province of Farah. In a separate incident that same night, coalition-fired mortar rounds killed at least four civilians in the eastern Paktika province. On Monday, in Laghman province, also in the east, Taliban fighters fired a missile into a fuel truck, killing six civilians.

The incidents come as the U.S. is fending off criticism from the Afghan government that coalition forces use excessive and inappropriate force. Last week, a group of Afghan parliamentarians revealed that a U.S. air-strike hit a wedding party in the Nangarhar province, killing 47 civilians. Two days earlier, local officials allege, another U.S. air-strike killed 15 civilians in the Nuristan province.

“Karzai (the Afghan president) should hand over the murderers so we can hang them, or else he should resign,” a local from the affected community in Nangarhar told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) news agency. “If he does not do one or the other, then we will leave our homes and take matters into our own hands.”

The United Nations reported that more than 700 people lost their lives in Afghanistan so far this year, almost two-thirds more than through the same period last year.

Analysts say that U.S.-raids – in the first half of 2008, coalition forces dropped 1,853 bombs and missiles, a 40 percent jump from the same period last year – are in response to the increased strength of the insurgency.

Taliban fighters promised a renewed offensive this spring and have delivered, with a series of high-profile attacks and marked gains in regions across the country. In late April insurgents nearly assassinated President Hamid Karzai, and in June the Taliban staged a daring raid on the main prison in Kandahar, freeing nearly a thousand inmates. Two weeks ago a massive car bomb ripped through the Indian embassy in Kabul, killing over 40 and wounding nearly 100.

The Taliban has also increased its presence throughout the country and particularly in the areas around Kabul. Reports from the Ghazni province indicate that they control most districts after nightfall. In Kunar and Nuristan provinces, police are no longer establishing security checkpoints, giving the Taliban nearly complete freedom of movement.

Meanwhile, a leaked U.S. document obtained by the Canadian Globe and Mail reveals that more districts in Kandahar are controlled by the Taliban than by the Afghan government, although the most populous regions are still under Kabul’s command.

Insurgents have used the expanding influence as a launching pad for attacks against U.S.-led forces.

Last week, close to 200 Taliban fighters stormed an isolated U.S. outpost, killing nine American soldiers – the largest single loss of American personnel in three years. One hundred and thirty eight U.S. troops have been killed so far this year, far ahead of the 2007 pace.

The gathering storm is pushing American lawmakers to consider bolstering troop numbers. U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have said that more than 10,000 combat troops are necessary to quell the violence.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is promising to send two brigades, or more than 7,000 soldiers, while simultaneously decreasing troop amounts in Iraq. His rival John McCain echoes a similar strategy, albeit without affecting Iraq troop levels.

Such an approach assumes that violence is increasing due to inadequate troop cover. However, violence has increased sharply in the last year, despite the fact that the NATO-led force grew from 37,500 in January of 2007 to 53,000 today.

Many Afghans insist that without tackling the underlying problems of poverty and lack of infrastructure, 7,000 more soldiers will do little to stanch the violent trends. Of the 25 billion dollars in total developmental aid pledged by international donors from 2002 to June of this year, only 15 billion dollars has been disbursed. Of this, “a staggering 40 percent has returned to donor countries in corporate profits and salaries,” according to the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, a Kabul-based umbrella-aid organisation.

The Afghan government estimates that 4.5 million Afghans – close to 17 percent of the country – have been pushed into “high-risk” food-insecurity due to recent hikes in food prices, while reports continue to surface that more women are turning to prostitution out of desperation.

A devastating drought has affected at least 19 of the country’s 34 provinces. Afghanistan has the highest fertility rate in Asia and the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world. The official unemployment rate hovers over 50 percent.

Analysts estimate that the government’s popularity is at an all-time low, pointing to the danger that society will become further fragmented and controlled by local strongmen and warlords, not a central government. A recent U.S. intelligence assessment estimated that the Karzai government controls only about 30 percent of the country. The rest of Afghanistan is under the control of the Taliban or local warlords.

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