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    Volume 9 Issue 34| August 20 , 2010|

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A Bleak Picture

Karina Zannat

The Afghanistan Situation Sinks to an all time low as the US promises to loosen the hold on Iraq

On August 2 President Obama announced that the US military would stick to schedule and withdraw from Iraq by the end of August. Obama garnered much support during elections for his critique of the US occupation of Iraq and promised a quick withdrawal. In office, his administration showed much flexibility with the withdrawal timetable and stated the US would leave when Iraq stable and with a functioning government. Political turmoil and unrest continues in Iraq and the rate of violence has gone up since Ramadan started. In the first half of August, 19 people were killed in terrorist attacks. Insurgent groups are raising their flags in Bagdad neighborhoods and aggressively attacking Iraq's national police force. On August 15, insurgents entered the Abid Wais mosque in Jurf al-Sakh and open fired, killing at least three people. Insurgents continue their campaign to boycott anything set up by US troops, including the government. Political leadership remains shaky as sensitive issues, such as the autonomous nature of the Kurdish region, are put on the table. US response to leaving Iraq in neither a peaceful nor stable state is to leave behind 50,000 military advisers, who will eventually leave as the need diminishes.

The US may be withdrawing from Iraq, but the Afghanistan quagmire continues with little change. On August 15 the top US commander in Afghanistan General Petraeus attempted to shore up waning domestic support in a speech where he said progress in Afghanistan will need time to develop and expand. Petraeus also said the July 2011 withdrawal deadline for Afghanistan will rely on conditions on the ground at the time.

Local successes achieved by the US military barely last, as illustrated by the volatile Kandahar situation where the Taliban and troops have been exchanging the position of influence on virtually a weekly basis since 2001. General Petraeus is seeking to implement the successful tactics he used in Iraq. For example, Defence Secretary Robert Gates to approve $227 million from a discretionary fund that will be used to fund projects (such as providing electrical generators) to earn the trust of local populations.

The situation looks bleak for American troops and ordinary Afghans alike. The majority of US and NATO forces are stations in the Southern and Eastern regions of Afghanistan, leaving the North to insurgents. Insurgents have taken new territory in the Kunduz and Baghlan regions and even massacred a 10 member NGO team in the Badakhshan region this month. Journalists are reporting an increase of Taliban activity where armed fighters are rotating in and out, spreading to remote areas by preaching in Mosques and threatening villagers with death. Afghans have yet to forget how the US abandoned Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet Union to violent warlords and the Taliban, and in the context of decreasing support for the Afghanistan occupation within America during an economic downturn, they have little cause to change their minds and risk upsetting the Taliban.

Despite positive media statements by US officials, insurgents continue to have the upper hand. When the US entered Afghanistan, the Taliban forces escaped to northern Pakistan where the locals were sympathetic or vulnerable. It is worthy of note that Pashtun tribes have been historically spread out over Afghanistan and Pakistan, and tribal bonds matter much more than national borders or government policy to such communities. Pakistan is a whole another story, as the Inter Services Intelligence is alleged to be cooperating with the Taliban. The US responded by increasing drone attacks targeting areas under Taliban control in Pakistan, and the Taliban responded by steadily exchanging their expansion efforts from the south of Afghanistan to the north. July marked the first time troops entered new territory in the northern region in 2010, when 3,000 troops were sent to Kunduz . According to Afghan officials the Taliban ordered their first public execution order in nine years on August 15 in a village north of the Kunduz. Two people were stoned to death. Taliban insurgents have spread to most districts in the Faryab region of the north, where they began establishing a presence in Gormach district and quickly spread through Pashtun communities by intimidation. According to Joshua Partlow and Javad Hamdard of The Washington Post these insurgents travel by unmarked trails through the unsecured desert regions tend to attack Afghan police, kidnap government supporters, shut down development projects, plant Improvised Explosive Device bombs by roadsides, and attack schools with female students. The Taliban have undoubtedly begun a renewed campaign to remind Afghanis of their power and presence.

With the WikiLeaks scandal and growing international criticism of drone warfare in the backdrop, General Petraeus issued a directive on August 4 instilling stricter rules for US troops to decrease civilian casualties and improve public image. The directive elicited anger and frustration amongst US troops, who say they already take measure to avoid hurting civilians and that the new rules place their lives in greater danger. The directive will allegedly result in increased senior approval procedures for air strikes, hot pursuits in populated areas, and night raids on private residences carried out by army units. Soldiers say this limits their ability to secure new areas and capture insurgents, who use guerrilla tactics and know the terrain better. On August 15 General Petraeus went a step further by releasing broader counterinsurgency guidelines to all 135,000 troops in his command and recommended soldiers to be respectful to locals, increase their knowledge of cultural norms, and to bond with civilians by socializing. The military continues the campaign aimed to reduce sympathy for Taliban by publicising the fact that insurgents have caused the largest number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. In retaliation, the Taliban command released their own directive instructing fighters to avoid civilian casualties, with the exception of those who are cooperating with US troops or Afghan government.

In late 2009 President Obama approved sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Now, the Obama administration is rushing to meet their self-imposed deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan. After almost a decade of strategy focusing on securing physical areas failed to have significant impact on reducing insurgent influence, military leadership has formally declared a new approach where insurgents are specifically targeted down. Top officials are also recognising that the Taliban cannot be left out in the future of Afghanistan and that negotiating politically with them to some degree is the only way to attain stability. With around $300 million combined from NATO allies and American funds, US commanders are scheduled to begin the reintegration program where fighters are offered money and safe status in exchange for leaving Taliban causes.

The big picture sums up to this: The US military has learned from mistakes and has intentions of improving their counterterrorism methods, but this positive is outweighed by the negatives in the Afghanistan situation. The Karzai administration is notoriously composed of bureaucrats and politicians seeking profit from the international flow of money into Afghanistan, out of touch with constituencies, and don't stand a chance of retaining power without foreign backing. The Afghan police force, though improving, is comparatively weak and will not persevere against a Taliban takeover if international forces are withdrawn. Without the promise of stability, Afghanistan will fail to attract international business and private development efforts and the majority of citizens will remain in economically disadvantaged positions. It is overly optimistic to hope that by July 2011 Afghanistan will be in the same position Iraq is in currently. As a result the Afghanistan occupation will most likely be extended. Military forces are angry about their operational limits, American taxpayers are frustrated about economic spending, Afghan government officials complain of lack of funds, and the citizens of Afghanistan continue to be weary of daily violence and low standards of living. With the exception of the Taliban, it seems that none of the players in the game have little to look forward to in a bleak situation with a bleaker future.

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