WASHINGTON - While attention among policy-makers in Washington remains focused on Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has become an ongoing struggle to keep the country from deteriorating into a failed state.
Afghanistan remains one of the keystones in the United States' "war on terror". According to news reports, the fighting there this year has escalated to the worst level since the Taliban was toppled in 2001. Meanwhile, the Islamic fundamentalist regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 has regained its footing in parts of the country.
As the fighting has intensified, the number of civilian casualties has quickly climbed as well. Human Rights Watch reported in April that more than 900 civilians were killed last year. The first months of this year continued to see a devastating spillover in the violence, with nearly 100 civilians killed in the last two weeks alone.
On Wednesday, it was reported that 21 civilians and one Coalition soldier were killed in Helmand Province in the southern part of Afghanistan when U.S. Special Forces fighting with insurgents in the region called in air strikes.
This incident followed an official apology by an Army commander the day before to the families of 69 civilians who were killed or injured by a Marines Special Operations Unit near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.
Last week, another report of civilian deaths made the news when a U.S. and Afghan Army patrol in western Afghanistan called in air support. Bombing by Coalition forces killed an estimated 40 civilians, including women and children, and wounded more than 50.
The deaths of 19 non-combatants on Mar. 4 had also sparked outrage around the country and initiated an internal Army investigation into the event.
The dramatic increase in civilian casualties over the last year could be linked to the tactics of the U.S.-led Coalition forces and Taliban forces battling for power. According to the Human Rights Watch report, there were 136 suicide attacks in Afghanistan in 2006, more than six times the number of suicide attacks from the year before.
The report also states that, "Insurgent forces regularly targeted civilians, or attacked military targets and civilians without distinction or with the knowledge that attacks would cause disproportionate harm to civilians".
The Coalition forces have also contributed to more civilian deaths.
At the end of last year, NATO forces requested more troops from member nations to help cope with the increasing violence. Instead, some member states are looking for ways to withdraw their troops from the country. The French and Canadian legislatures have both introduced measures to draw down their troops in Afghanistan.
With the limitations of facing a mounting insurgency with too few boots on the ground, NATO and U.S. forces have turned to air power to win battles against insurgents. The United States dropped 987 bombs on Afghanistan between June and November 2006. This air campaign has contributed to the increase in civilian deaths in the country's fifth year of war.
Despite the magnitude of firepower on their side, Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces have not overcome several endemic problems. For one, the dramatic increase in civilian casualties has spurred a fall in public support for the joint U.S.-NATO mission. News reports have recorded Afghans flooding the streets and chanting anti-U.S. slogans following the recent reports of civilian deaths, and a 2006 survey by the Asia Foundation found that just 44 percent of Afghans thought that their country was moving in the right direction, down from 64 percent in 2004.
The frustration with the increasing loss of life extends beyond public opinion. On Tuesday, the upper house of the Afghan parliament approved a bill that could require international forces to stop all operations unless they are attacked or have consulted with Afghan officials. The bill would have to pass the lower house and be signed by President Hamid Karzai to take effect.
Also high on the list of Afghanistan's challenges is the interference that the fragile government faces from its neighbours. U.S. intelligence sources say that Pakistan is the new haven for al Qaeda. Along Afghanistan's southern border, Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area is an ungoverned region from which the resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda are basing their violent insurgency.
The "full spectrum of support for the insurgency is available" in Pakistan, Dr. Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department Afghanistan analyst currently affiliated with the Middle East Institute, said during a panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Pace in Washington on Tuesday. Afghan officials continue to call on Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to stifle the insurgency in the region, he said, noting that there won't be success in Afghanistan without the support of Pakistan.
That's why the Apr. 30 meeting in Turkey between Karzai and Musharraf has been touted as a step forward. At the invitation of Turkey's President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the two governments agreed to deny sanctuary, training and financing to terrorists and vowed to promote peace, security and stability in the region.
But Weinbaum said that while such an agreement may sound great, it "pretends that both governments have the capacity to do things they can't do".
Afghanistan is also facing interference from its neighbor to the west. Iran has been accused in both Washington and within Afghanistan of funding various insurgent groups within Afghanistan. Yet Iran has also invested the equivalent of nearly a billion dollars in infrastructure and aid in Afghanistan.
U.S. and Iranian interests in Afghanistan are closely aligned, and this was once an issue on which the U.S. and Iran were willing to talk, according Teresita Schaffer, a South Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who spoke at the Washington event. But as relations between the two countries have deteriorated, any talks have fallen apart and "Iran has decided that there's no payoff for cooperating," Schaffer said.
Beyond the competing influence of its neighbors, Afghanistan also faces a steep uphill battle against a flourishing opium industry that has taken a firm hold, especially along the country's southern border. Last year, the country was the largest producer of opiates in the world and the southwest Helmand Province has become a stronghold for the Taliban because the poppy cultivation and drug trafficking creates a lawless and cash-rich environment.
Huge profits from the drug trade make conversion to a legitimate economic system even more challenging. NATO forces don't address the narcotics issue and, "We can't look to local government to clean things up because quite clearly Kabul isn't up to it," Schaffer said.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service