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World effort in Afghanistan under strain

By Lyse Doucet
BBC News, Kabul

British troops in Afghanistan's Helmand province
UK troops are among those on the front line in Helmand province
In 2001 when world leaders promised Afghans they would "be with you for the long run", no-one realised then just how long this run would be - or where it would take them.

More than six years on, this demanding marathon is testing the resources, although not yet the will, of the runners.

"A few bridges have been blown," said one foreign diplomat. "It will take some time to build them again."

All the relationships are under strain.

Tensions mounted between President Hamid Karzai and some Western governments over his last-minute reversal on the choice of a new "super envoy" to co-ordinate the aid and military effort with his Afghan government.

Britain's well-regarded Lord Paddy Ashdown was suddenly seen as someone coming to "sort out" the Afghan government.

Those Nato countries whose armies are taking growing casualties on the front line are very publicly accusing other member countries, deployed in quieter provinces, of not fully sharing the burden.

And Afghans who welcomed their country's return to the international fold after the fall of the Taleban, are asking where the billions of dollars have gone and why the rebels' reach is growing.

New deal

The Taleban now control swathes of land across south-west Afghanistan and mounted about 140 suicide attacks last year, including some in the capital Kabul.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
We know we have to make changes in our own house
President Hamid Karzai

"Afghans want a good relationship with the international community," insists Afghan Member of Parliament Shukria Barakzai.

"But the assistance isn't going to the right address because we aren't the decision makers. We're a very young government but we're a sovereign government."

"The bargain must be struck anew," underlines Chris Alexander, the Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General.

"The problem is not our commitment. But the Afghans now have a larger 'footprint' and so do we, so there's a need to restructure this relationship."

The size of the 'footprint' has been shorthand for an approach meant to put Afghans in the driving seat, not outsiders.

Afghan leaders, including President Karzai, now bristle when Western envoys suggest changes to discredited provincial governors and police chiefs

But there is also criticism the president has not always made effective choices and there is frustration his government has at times been unable, and sometimes unwilling, to keep its promises.

"We know we have to make changes in our own house," the president told me in a recent interview.

'Help tsunami'

But he is also under growing pressure from his Afghan allies and adversaries as he heads towards a presidential election set for next year.

Relief distribution by Unicef in Kabul.
Many Afghans remain dependent on aid
"The international community also has to get its house in order," says Joanna Nathan, a Kabul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think tank.

"We need to speak with one voice, not multiple voices that sometimes contradict each other."

Mechanisms are in place to achieve better co-ordination, including the "Afghanistan Compact" signed two years ago in London between the government and major donors, kept on track by a Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board which has been meeting this week in Tokyo.

But as one foreign consultant put it, there has been a "tsunami of well paid retired professionals", and little coherence, and sometimes contradictions, in the programmes of aid agencies.

One hundred different organisations are each spending more than $100m in Afghanistan every year.

Fatalistic

A wave of recent independent reports has highlighted the urgency of getting a grip on the situation.

I am staying - there is work to be done.
Asif Rahimi, Deputy Rural Development Minister

The US Afghanistan Study Group, headed by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and General James Jones, pointed to the serious threat of resurgent violence and the real prospect of a "failed or failing state".

And Afghans, who pride themselves on their resilience, are starting to express doubt.

"There is a sense of fear," said Ahmed, a young Afghan professional who returned to his country after the fall of the Taleban.

"Afghans with money are starting to look for ways out. Those who can't feel trapped or they're just fatalistic."

Others have not lost hope.

"I am staying," declared Asif Rahimi, who ended his exile in Canada in 2005 and is now the deputy minister of rural development, regarded as one of the most effective ministries. "There is work to be done."

There is much talk of an early "euphoria" that's now swung to "doom and gloom".

Challenges

Afghan expectations, born of the pain of a quarter century of war and the promises of the world, may have been unreasonably high at the start.

Their country remains one of the world's poorest and its biggest producer of opium poppies.

Three-quarters of the population are illiterate, and even the capital has only a few hours of electricity a day.

But a vast amount has changed in the six years since the end of the Taleban.

Six million children are in school; there is an elected president and Parliament; and thousands of kilometres of roads have been built across the country.

"I can tell you Afghans will eventually build their country, once they unite, and there's a focus on the right priorities," said Nasrullah, a very earnest 20-year-old who expressed hope he would one day work in the finance ministry.

The priority is to improve the quality of the aid effort and the effectiveness of the battle against the Taleban and other groups - both criminal and political - opposed to the new order.

That demands a more coherent approach by foreign and Afghan forces that also more effectively draws in neighbouring Pakistan to tackle what is now, more than ever before, a cross-border problem.

That means that, in this long run, everyone has to pull in the same direction.

ISAF REGIONAL COMMANDS AND RECONSTRUCTION TEAMS
Map showing regional commands and lead nations in Afghan reconstruction areas
Countries contributing more than 1,000 troops (6 February 2008):
Australia - 1,070
Canada 2,500
France 1,515
Germany - 3,210
Italy - 2,880
Netherlands - 1,650
Poland - 1,100
UK - 7,800
US - 15,000
Figures approximate
Source: ISAF





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