KABUL, 18 Oct 2006 (IRIN) - With the fifth anniversary of the initial defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan approaching, Afghans are asking themselves how far the country has come in the intervening period.
The country began to change in October 2001, after the Taliban refused to give up Osama bin Laden, the man the US held responsible for the 11 September terrorist attacks.
Washington began bombing Taliban military sites and aiding the Northern Alliance, a group of anti-Taliban militias. By November the Taliban had lost Kabul and by 9 December had been completely routed.
Half a decade later, and despite widespread international military and financial support, the country teeters on the brink of being a failed state fuelled by insurgency, warlordism and opium proliferation, some officials say.
"Unfortunately, there is a direct link between worsening security, rising opium production and corruption, and they work in parallel with one another in endangering the future of our war-torn people," said Qadam Ali Nikpai, public information officer at the Meshrano Jirga, or Afghan upper house of parliament.
The country is currently going through its deadliest phase of Taliban-led violence since 2001. More than 3,000 people, including militants, security force personnel and civilians, have died in 2006 to date. This compares to 1,600 deaths in 2005, according to figures collected by local media outlets.
Analysts like Barnet Rubin say that the current insecurity can be traced back to fundamental strategy decisions made at the start of the post-Taliban period. "What has gone badly wrong is that the international actors under-invested in providing security for the Afghan people by not expanding the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF - provides security mainly in the capital] earlier," he said in a recent IRIN interview.
Other observers believe that tackling the renewed insurgency could take years and will need firm international commitment if the rebels are to be comprehensively defeated.
"Insurgents are likely to be here for the long haul and the fight against them will also take a long time, therefore sustained international commitment is needed. The current violence must be a wake up call to the government and its international backers for urgent remedial action," said Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst in Kabul working for the International Crisis Group (ICG).
International military officials, representing the some 40,000 NATO and US troops stationed in Afghanistan, admit that development has been slow, particularly in the insurgency-hit south, but blame rebel groups for hampering reconstruction and development in Afghanistan.
"The only purpose of fighting [the rebels] is to create conditions for governance, reconstruction and development and the saying we use is that 'development without security won't start, security without development won't last'," Mark Laity, civilian spokesman for NATO, told IRIN in Kabul.
Some 152 foreign troops have been killed this year, according to the website icasualties.org that tracks foreign troop fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is almost three times the number of deaths in 2003 or 2004.
Afghan officials have repeatedly blamed neighbouring Pakistan for sheltering Taliban militants. Islamabad rejects this accusation out of hand and stresses it has deployed some 80,000 troops along the rugged and porous border to root out rebels.
But more is needed that just military action, analysts say. Strong diplomatic efforts to pressurise Pakistan to eradicate the staging posts and sanctuaries of insurgents are also necessary, ICG's Nathan said.
At the same time, figures on Afghanistan's opium production fail to offer much hope of a brighter future. The country already produces over 90 percent of the world's opium and poppy cultivation has jumped by almost 60 percent this year compared to 2005. Added to this, the area under cultivation has risen from 8,000 ha in 2001 to 165,000 ha currently, according to the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN).
The United Nations, a key player in Afghanistan's reconstruction, is so concerned it is sending a special Security Council mission to the country in November to underline its continued commitment.
"What we need to see is effort not only on the military front, but we need to see more concerted efforts on development and [at the diplomatic level] to improve the situation here in Afghanistan," said Aleem Siddique, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)'s spokesman in Kabul.
The United Nations had earlier called for a new strategy to deal with the booming opium production.
"Nobody can say that we have been successful if poppy production has increased. And certainly the strategy and the effort have to be rethought. The problem has increased and the remedy has to adjust," Tom Koenigs, Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) in Afghanistan, told IRIN in August.
However, some progress has been made in the past five years; millions of Afghans voted for a new president in 2004 and a parliament in 2005, and millions of children, especially girls, enrolled in school for the first time following the fall of the hard-line Taliban. At the same time, 3.7 million Afghans refugees have returned from the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran.
But some of those gains are unravelling: the doors of more than 300 mixed schools have been closed due to attacks and threats from militants. The result is more than 200,000 students are deprived of education countrywide. Refugee returns have been significantly lower in 2006 as many Afghans in neighbouring countries hesitate to take the plunge and return home under current conditions.
Most of Afghanistan's 30 million people still have very difficult lives. More than half the country lives below the poverty line, unemployment is 40 percent, while some 2.5 million people currently face an imminent food crisis. In addition, 6.5 million are seasonally or chronically food insecure in the country. The average life expectancy is only 43 years.
Many warlords, who have been accused of human rights abuses and involvement in the illicit drug trade, still hold high-ranking posts in government, rights activists say.
The lack of action in bringing to justice such powerful people, many of whom are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity during three decades of conflict, has not bolstered support for Kabul's fledgling administration. "The culture of impunity has really disillusioned the Afghan population and also provides recruits for extremist ideologies," Nathan said.
Corruption is also feeding political divisions. Earlier in October the speaker of the upper house, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, warned that he would resign from his post if corrupt officials were not sacked from governmental positions. Recently, the Attorney General, Abdul Jabar Sabet, accused officials in western Herat of embezzling millions of dollars and has ordered an immediate investigation into the matter.
Officials admit that government has suffered failures in tackling insecurity and corruption but ultimately they lay the blame at the door of the international community for providing insufficient resources.
"Our government is not even able to pay the salaries of its own employees or train enough police to maintain security, so how is it possible to tackle the problems of corruption and opium without firm support from the international community?" upper house information officer Nikpai asked.
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