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Britain May Be Left to Hold the Fort in Afghanistan
Published on Wednesday, July 27, 2005 by the Guardian (UK)
Britain May Be Left to Hold the Fort in Afghanistan
by Simon Tisdall
 

Parliamentary elections this September in Afghanistan are intended to provide the next showcase moment for the US-led "global war on terror". But according to new independent assessments, security surrounding the polls is threatened by a new wave of insurgent attacks and the stability of the country remains on a knife-edge.

British defence officials are concerned the US could prematurely declare "mission accomplished" once the national assembly and provincial council votes are over.

The worry is that Pentagon pressure to cut US troop levels could leave Britain holding the baby when it assumes command of Nato's security assistance force next spring.

A report this week by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington questioned whether current US military and financial commitments would endure beyond the polls.

Afghanistan had reached "a pivotal moment", the study said, but its problems were immense. "Three years of steady reconstruction progress have yet to jumpstart the country's ability to function without significant international involvement.

"Warlords continue to play a destabilising role ... Taliban attacks persist, many refugees and internally displaced lack shelter, and only the early foundations of political, economic, and social infrastructure have been established."

A report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, entitled Endgame or New Beginning? criticised a "lack of strategic planning" by the UN and Kabul in the electoral process.

Human rights abusers would be able to stand for office and the failure to extend "robust" peacekeeping operations to many parts of the country had allowed warlords to entrench power.

"Little groundwork has been laid for legislative or locally devolved bodies. Instead all the eggs of state have been put in the basket of one man, President Hamid Karzai," the group said.

"International security forces will have a particularly crucial role before, during and after the elections ... The international community must not regard the polls simply as a convenient exit strategy," it warned.

Elizabeth Winter, an Afghanistan specialist writing in Chatham House's World Today, said Afghans needed more time to secure their country's recovery after a quarter of century of conflict and natural disaster.

"They hope the international community will stay the course but fear it does not know how to help a country make this transition or does not have the will to do so."

Security was deteriorating due to "a combination of criminality and insurgency", she added.

But US commanders have taken a rosier view. General Jason Kamiya, the US operational chief, said the insurgency was in its death throes, despite a rise in armed attacks, suicide bombings and kidnappings of poll workers.

"The Taliban and al-Qaida feel this is their final chance to impede Afghanistan's progress to becoming a nation," he said.

The possibility the US may declare a democratic triumph in September even if the polls are flawed, and begin withdrawing troops, is worrying for Afghans, the UN and NGOs.

But Tony Blair, who is set to send an extra 4,000 British troops to Afghanistan next year, seemed to have no misgivings about being left in the lurch by Washington when he hosted Mr Karzai at Downing Street last week and pledged open-ended support.

The government simultaneously published figures revealing the UK had spent more than £1bn on Afghanistan since 2001, including £405m in military and security support. The new troop deployment and ongoing nation-building assistance will add further.

Even as Mr Bush may be backing off, Mr Blair seems determined to charge ahead.

© 2005 The Guardian Newspapers Ltd.

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