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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 January, 2004, 08:50 GMT
Afghanistan's security nightmare

Lyse Doucet
BBC Afghanistan analyst

A car bomb that injured 10 Afghans in Kandahar in December
Attacks in the south-east have sparked an extension of security
Security, security, security - the mantra has been repeated almost daily in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taleban two years ago.

2004 began with a double bombing in the former Taleban stronghold of Kandahar in the south.

It again underlined how some Afghans remain determined to try to undermine, if not wreck, this process.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's stark warning that the peace process has reached a critical stage reflects the view of many that unless security improves it would be unwise, indeed impossible, to prepare and hold planned parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.

There has been a growing number of attacks in recent months, principally in southern and eastern provinces.

Afghan officials are quick to blame them on Taleban forces going back and forth across the border with Pakistan, although it is not always clear who is behind the violence.

Afghans are [carrying out attacks] for money, not because they support the Taleban
Engineer Pashtun,
Kandahar governor

In December 2003, to keep the loya jirga (grand assembly) at which the constitution was adopted on course, US-led coalition forces launched their heaviest offensive yet in south-eastern Afghanistan.

Operation Avalanche was, in the words of a senior American officer, meant "to keep them on the run".

But the Taleban has not run away.

Getting the message

In a recent interview, a senior UN official warned darkly that "they want to carry out an August 19th" - a reference to the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad last year that cost many lives and provoked a shocked UN to pull its international staff from the Iraqi capital.

President Hamid Karzai opens the Kandahar-Kabul highway in December
Karzai insists "terrorist" attacks are not undermining stability

In Afghanistan, the murder in broad daylight of a foreign UN worker in November pushed the UN to withdraw its international staff from rural areas in the south and east.

Anne Wood, director of Mercy Corps, one of the few non-governmental agencies still operating in Kandahar, said her agency was still trying to carry out field work as discreetly as possible.

"But we can't travel with armed guards as if we are combatants, " she said, reiterating the demand repeatedly raised by the UN and the aid community for an expansion of the International Assistance Force [Isaf] outside Kabul.

The United States now seems to be getting the message.

General David Barno, the new commander of US-led coalition forces, which now operate separately from Isaf forces under Nato command, has just announced a significant shift in policy.

Small units of military and civilian officers, known as provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs, are to be expanded across Afghanistan, and in particular to provinces along the border with Pakistan.

Aid agencies have often criticised the PRTs, which carry out a mix of reconstruction work, as an inadequate response to deteriorating security - an "Isaf effect" without the means or the mandate.

But there now seems to be a growing recognition that something more must be done to stop Taleban and other almost daily attacks against Afghans, foreign aid workers, and American troops.

Election officials - Afghan and foreign - would be the next targets.

"There is little doubt there is support for destabilisation in Afghanistan in some quarters in Pakistan," said UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in an interview last month in Kabul.

But who these elements are remains uncertain.

Afghans and foreigners express frustration and confusion about Pakistan's policy.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf insists his government is not involved in arming and supporting the Taleban.

But for some observers, the increasing Taleban activity suggests this is the work of more than just "rogue elements" in the Pakistan intelligence agency, the ISI, which has long played the key role in Pakistan's Afghan policy.

In recent months, Pakistan has blamed the deteriorating security situation in southern and eastern provinces on the Afghan government's own failure to meet the needs of the area's majority Pashtuns.

Frequent kidnappings

Kandahar's governor, Engineer Yousuf Pashtun, concedes that "50% of the problem is ours".

In an interview in Kandahar, he told me the Afghan government still did not have the means to provide services and jobs in rural areas.

Anti-Taleban forces
Anti-Taleban forces try to keep order in areas around Kandahar

A province like Zabul, bordering Kandahar, is virtually off limits for the government.

It is said to be run by Taleban sympathisers.

Engineer Pashtun said Taleban supporters were paying Afghans to carry out attacks.

"Afghans are doing it for the money, not because they support the Taleban and want them back."

There has been huge pressure to complete high profile projects like the road from Kandahar to Kabul, which was opened with great fanfare a few weeks ago.

It is the first major reconstruction project to be completed since the fall of the Taleban.

When I travelled with a Japanese mission to inspect work outside Kandahar, half of the eight-vehicle convoy was jeeps carrying armed Afghan guards.

President Hamid Karzai insists the attacks, by "terrorists", are not threatening the stability of his government or the new system.

An injured Afghan child receives medical attention
An Afghan child is treated after Tuesday's bombing in Kandahar
His successes at the loya jirga may help bolster his support in the largely Pashtun south.

And insecurity in the former Taleban stronghold is concentrating minds.

The United States, with a new ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, speaks of accelerating progress on all tracks - the delivery of more aid, including more trained Afghan police and troops and greater government capacity to reach people, in the south-east and other areas too.

There are also moves to try to bring in some members of the former Taleban regime, although the idea is still controversial with some Afghans. The US would like to see elections in Afghanistan before its own in November.

So would Afghans, if the conditions are right.

In his closing speech to the loya jirga, Mr Brahimi spoke of "the fear that is in the heart of practically every Afghan because there is no rule of law yet in this country".

During his two-year posting, which is now coming to an end, Mr Brahimi repeatedly appealed for an expansion of Isaf forces.

"We were told there were no troops," he said with some bitterness.

"But then they found 150,000 troops for Iraq... they do have troops."

Annan issues Afghanistan warning
07 Jan 04  |  South Asia
Constitution: Key points
04 Jan 04  |  South Asia
Who are the Taleban?
16 Dec 03  |  South Asia
In pictures: Afghanistan's loya jirga
18 Dec 03  |  Photo Gallery
Afghan city shaken by bomb blast
06 Dec 03  |  South Asia
Threats and fear in Kandahar
23 Dec 03  |  South Asia
In the shadow of the Taleban
20 Aug 03  |  South Asia
Country profile: Afghanistan
08 Nov 03  |  Country profiles

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