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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 November 2005, 06:05 GMT
Doubts grow over US Afghan strategy

Andrew North
BBC News, Kabul

American soldiers patrol in Khost area, near the Pakistani border
Even after nationwide elections there is no respite from violence

It is four years since the fall of the Taleban regime. The United States has spent billions of dollars on its operations in Afghanistan - but what does it have to show for it?

With no end in sight to the insurgency led by remnants of that regime and insecurity still holding back development in large parts of the country, it is a question that many more people are asking.

There has been significant political progress, with the election of President Hamid Karzai last year and a new parliament due to convene next month after September's vote.

But it is almost as if this is happening in a parallel universe, some say. There is no sign of it translating into peace.

As the year nears an end, bombings and shootings continue almost daily in the south and east.

Such incidents have claimed at least 1,400 lives in the past year - the highest toll since 2001.

New terror tactics

A rise in suicide attacks, for which Afghan officials believe al-Qaeda is partly responsible, is causing particular concern.

Soldiers at the scene of a second apparent suicide car bomb which exploded in Kabul
A spate of suicide bombings have rocked the country

Since the spring, evidence has been mounting of a renewed drive by Osama Bin Laden's network to revive its influence here - particularly in eastern Afghanistan.

But it is only when the violence reaches Kabul - such as two recent suicide bombings - that the situation gets any significant attention from outside.

The official US view is that things are on track. "Security is getting better every day," is a line that frequently emerges from the "talking points" American spokesmen use in their briefings.

Last week, the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was holding Afghanistan up as a model for Iraq, in terms of its progress.

"Iraq is several years behind", he said. But people on the ground here - in official Afghan circles, as well as in the myriad different international bodies involved in the rebuilding effort - are far less confident about Afghanistan's "model potential".

Weak institutions

The BBC spoke to a number of Afghan police and security officials around the country and in Kabul, as well as to international workers in different fields.

Mullah Mohammad Omar
Mullah Mohammad Omar turned down an amnesty suggestion

All those in government positions requested anonymity.

"We are very worried now," said one senior police officer in eastern Afghanistan.

"The Taleban and al-Qaeda tactics are getting more threatening."

An Afghan ministry of interior official said: "It does not help that the police and Afghan military institutions are still weak. Police salaries are still very low."

One senior UN official said: "We never imagined we would still be talking about a Taleban insurgency four years on.

"We have got to admit the current approach is not working."

Vulnerable targets

Concern is especially high among humanitarian workers.

"The aid community loses more people here than in any other crisis area of the world," said a senior representative of the Afghan NGO Safety Office, which provides security advice to such agencies across the country.

A young Afghan girl, injured in the 2002 earthquake, being treated by a doctor from Medecins Sans Frontiers
Aid workers are often targeted

Unlike many other places, he said, NGOs here were often specifically targeted.

So far this year, 30 people involved in aid projects - either as direct employees or as contractors - have died in violence, according to Anso figures.

That compares to 24 last year.

And these statistics do not include people involved in road building projects.

"The security situation is slowly deteriorating," Paul Barker, country director for aid agency Care International, told the BBC.

He has got a longer view than most, having worked here for the past seven years.

He says his colleagues have continued to run operations in areas of the south and south-east where they were already established, but security concerns hold them back from expanding further.

"It is kind of a Catch 22. As long as people do not see benefits of the aid, they may be more amenable to hosting or tolerating anti-government elements."

Tricky rules

What is more, the security measures many organisations put in place to protect staff make it ever harder for them to actually do their work.

A man rides his horse-drawn cart through a market in the old city of Kabul
The people live with violence and are unsure of their future

"Security is a constant work in progress," said Lt Col Jerry O'Hara, chief spokesman at Bagram, the US military's main base north of Kabul, when asked to comment on these concerns.

He rejected claims that things were getting worse, but said "the long term solution for security in Afghanistan is Afghan security forces.

"Day by day, Afghan security forces are going to have to take a greater and greater role."

The question is when that point will come. More than 30,000 troops for a new Afghan national army have been trained by the US, French and British, and many have been operating with the US forces for some time.

But it is a long way from being a force that can operate independently. The Pentagon has aired plans to start withdrawing up to 4,000 US troops next year.

A soldier of the Afghan National Army getting training from British forces (photo by Johnny Green/PA)
Afghan soldiers are still being groomed to take over security duties

It may not be able to do so if things continue this way.

The other concern Afghan officials still raise - but more quietly now, after the public slanging matches that broke out over the summer - is over the role of Pakistan.

Officials insist militants continue to come over the border.

They say there needs to be much more pressure on Islamabad from the Americans.

It is not a subject the Americans here want to talk about much in public either.

The official line is that Pakistan is a key partner in the US war on terror and co-operation has improved.

But so sensitive has the issue become that even in private, US officials are reluctant to be drawn on their views.

Four years after the US military arrived here, doubts are growing about its ability to defeat the insurgency.

"Next spring, we'll all be listening again to the coalition saying the Taleban are finished and on the run," said one aid worker.

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