Afghanistan on brink after decade of war

Many Afghans see the 140,000 foreign troops as occupiers not liberators

 

A decade of war costing thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars has left Afghanistan with a corrupt government, a widely criticised Western troop presence and only dim prospects for peace.

The United States and Britain launched an air assault on October 7, 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, followed quickly by a ground invasion aiming to topple the Taliban and destroy Al-Qaeda safe havens.

Initially, there was euphoria among many Afghans oppressed by the Taliban's brutal regime, which banned girls from going to school and women from working outside the home as well as music and most sports for all.

A decade on, high-rise buildings, shopping centres and modern technology have transformed parts of Kabul, but many Afghans now see the 140,000 foreign troops under US command as occupiers not liberators.

President Hamid Karzai, once hailed in Western capitals, has become one of the international community's harshest critics, particularly over civilian casualties, and his government is seen as corrupt and weak.

When the Taliban were ousted, they fled, badly weakened, to Pakistan and violence was low for several years. But they rebuilt and 10 years later, 2011 is on track to be the deadliest year yet for civilians in Afghanistan.

"Since I've known my right hand from my left hand, we have had war in Afghanistan," said Sharif Siddiqui, a 35-year-old engineer in Kabul.

"When the Taliban were overthrown, we believed that the international allies would bring good security to our country but that didn't happen. Instead, they have killed our civilians rather than killing Taliban militants."

Efforts to broker peace with the Taliban had made scant progress even before Karzai's peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated last month, fanning ethnic tensions and threatening to further weaken the president's government.

With US-led foreign combat troops due to leave in 2014, some experts fear the country is sliding back towards the kind of civil war that killed and displaced thousands of people in 1992-96.

"The fear that many people have here is that if the politics aren't dealt with, what we will see is when the international forces pull out, there will be a proper civil war," said Kate Clark from the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Research from Brown University says at least 33,877 people -- foreign and Afghan troops, civilians, insurgents and others -- have died overall.

So far, the conflict has cost the United States alone at least ê444 billion.

Operation Enduring Freedom drove the Taliban from power in just two months with help from Afghan fighters in the Northern Alliance.

Schools reopened, Karzai was appointed and some -- although by no means all -- women shed their burqas, while American attention switched increasingly to war in Iraq.

Today, NATO's US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) admits that early complacency may have helped the Taliban rebuild.

"Nobody thought they could ever revive. Perhaps blinded by success, we made a mistake then," ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson told AFP.

It took 10 years to track down and kill Osama bin Laden in a suburban home in the shadow of Pakistan's top military academy in May this year.

The killing handed the United States a victory, but it also showed that the invasion designed to wipe out Al-Qaeda safe havens had simply pushed them across the border into Pakistan.

Some say that was not the only mistake at this stage.

Experts cite a disconnect between the US's lofty ambitions for nation-building in Afghanistan and realities on the ground.

"The veneer of success was intoxicating; it encouraged an expansion of US ambition and rhetorical commitments even as the war in Iraq preoccupied the Bush administration...

"The resulting mismatch of sweeping, noble American aims with meager resources was disastrous," said Daniel Markey, senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think-tank.

Violence flared back up in earnest in 2007 and 2008, after the Taliban had regrouped in rear bases in Pakistan's tribal belt.

Seventy foreign soldiers died in 2002. By 2008 the figure had risen to 295 and to 521 in 2009, according to the independent website iCasualties.org.

When US President Barack Obama took over from George W. Bush in 2009, he made ending the war in Afghanistan a foreign policy priority.

His answer was to send an extra 50,000 troops into Afghanistan and appoint the American credited with bringing peace to the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke, as his special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With surge forces fighting to defeat the Taliban, last year was the deadliest on record with 711 foreign military deaths.

Holbrooke died last year and the United States is preparing to withdraw 33,000 of its 100,000 troops by mid-2012. Britain and France will also lower troop levels by next year.

The crux of the entire strategy is handing over security to the fast-growing Afghan army and police.

Local police and soldiers are due to number 352,000 by November 2012 under a huge programme costing ê11.6 billion this year alone, but concerns over retention, capability, literacy and human rights standards remain.

The head of the training mission, US Lieutenant General William Caldwell, concedes that up to 3,000 international trainers may have to stay in Afghanistan until around 2020.

Yet despite American claims to be winning, the Taliban have exacted a series of stunning assassinations and headline-grabbing suicide attacks increasingly focused on the Afghan capital.

The United Nations has said violent incidents rose 39 percent in the first eight months of 2011 on the same period last year. ISAF disputes these figures.

Efforts to wipe out Afghanistan's drug trade which helps fund the insurgency have also had limited success with the United Nations predicting only a small drop in poppy cultivation this year.

Regardless who is winning, experts say military might alone will not bring stability unless widespread official corruption is also addressed.

"If you look at where and how the insurgency has grown and has been supported, there's been a reaction to a very, very predatory Afghan state," Clark said.

Rabbani's death has also led some to suggest that the Northern Alliance -- of which he was political leader -- could rearm in revenge.

"The likelihood of civil war has been rising for years but it may have leapt upward significantly," after Rabbani's death, said Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank.

kah/jm/emb

AFP 020336 GMT OCT 11

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