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Afghan Soul Searching

Author: Greg Bruno
October 23, 2007

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Violence in Afghanistan has reached its highest level since the ouster of the country’s Taliban rulers six years ago, marked by a worrisome rise in suicide bombings. Attacks have also increasingly spread beyond the restive south to central and eastern provinces, which have been far more stable. The Associated Press estimates insurgency-related deaths topped 5,000 this year, up by 1,000 from 2006. Most of the dead have been militants (3,500), but soldiers are also dying at a higher pace (including eighty-five Americans and nearly one hundred international troops), the AP says. The United Nations has also seen a spike in violence targeting civilians countrywide. Kidnappings, shootings, and suicide bombings—a tactic rarely used in the war’s early stages—are on the rise, particularly in Kandahar, Kabul, and Khost. A September 2007 analysis (PDF) by the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan says seventy-seven suicide bombings were reported in the first six months of the year, killing 183. Between 2001 and 2005 there were only five such attacks nationwide.   

The surge in violence comes amid growing signs of domestic unease about the country’s post-Taliban course, experts say. An October 2007 Asia Foundation survey (PDF) found 42 percent of Afghans feel their country is “moving in the right direction,” a slight decline from a year earlier. Concerns over security and government ineptitude were the biggest factors for pessimism. Seth Jones, an analyst for the Rand Corporation, tells CFR.org an unpublished report conducted for the U.S. military indicates another trend: a near-doubling of support among Afghans favoring a return to power by the Taliban. In May 2007, Jones says, 15 percent of Afghans favored a return to Taliban rule, up from 8 percent in November 2006. Says Jones: “I think the primary reason is the inability of the Afghan government to protect its population and provide services.” The September UN report goes further, suggesting frustration with the Afghan government may be a motivation behind the spike in suicide strikes.

The increase in violence has forced some NATO partners like Germany and Canada to consider scaling back or pulling out, prompting Defense Secretary Robert Gates to consider shifting U.S. forces from Kosovo in 2008. The United States contributes (PDF) 15,100 of the 41,000 NATO forces in Afghanistan . Yet an increase in the U.S. contribution might not stem the surge of violence. John Kiriakou, a former CIA anti-terrorism official based in the region, tells CFR.org Afghan officials need to stabilize their capital before real progress can be made.

But getting there will require stepped-up global cooperation. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a “more comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy” to stem the violence, a plan he says will require stronger local leadership, increased international engagement, and tighter regional partnerships. Clamping down on militants holed up in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is also crucial. The UN report on suicide attacks notes that an increased “Talibanization” of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan threatens the stability of Afghanistan. So far, however, Pakistan’s efforts to crack down on cross-border attacks have failed. Finally, a more sophisticated approach to stemming illicit opium production—an important funding source for insurgents—is called for in a new U.S. government strategy paper issued in August. It emphasizes dramatically increased development assistance to lessen dependence on opium as a cash crop.

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