Monday, June 11, 2007

Beyond the world of Big Brother and Paris Hilton

News that the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, had a close shave when he was rocketed earlier today has finally galvanised me into writing a post I have been planning for ages: a summary of what's been going on in Afghanistan, highlighting the best of the recent press coverage.

The attack on Karzai reflects the country's growing lawlessness, which was highlighted in a report last week in the Independent. It noted a sharp increase in attacks on UN aid trucks and said that the UN's own security assessment showed a severe deterioration in the south of the country. According to the UN, most of the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan is regarded as "an extreme risk/hostile environment", when last year, the estimate of these areas was that they were "high risk/volatile".

Despite the worsening violence, at this time of year the southern provinces attract men looking for work in harvesting the annual opium poppy crop. This article explains the dilemma itinerant workers face, while this piece reports collusion between the farmers, Taliban and the local police to share the wealth created by the crop.

In the meantime there is a new genre of article on Afghanistan, familiar to anyone following news coverage in Iraq: the article pointing to Iranian involvement. The BBC currently offers two examples. One report says that Iran is exerting increasing influence in the country ; another reports that a "sophisticated bomb" has been found on the streets of Kabul: interestingly, it does not say when. According to the article, this device's similarity to weapons used in Iraq suggests that there is a technology transfer going on between the two war-torn countries and, the author continues, citing unnamed sources, is evidence of Iranian interference in the country's insurgency. Bombmaking experts - one of whom I met a few weeks ago - say that "shaped charge" bombs are nothing new. They certainly are not proof of Iranian involvement.

An interesting article by a former Indian diplomat in the Asia Times suggested a political decision which may help explain the deterioration in the situation in Afghanistan. MK Bhadrakumar charts the decline to the decision at the end of last year by the Afghan Parliament to grant an amnesty to any Afghan involved in any war crime during the past twenty five years. "At a single stroke", he believes, "the December 31 amnesty move deprived the US of the one weapon that it wielded for blackmailing the 'warlords' into submission - powerful leaders of the Northern Alliance groups, the mujhideen field commanders, and petty local thugs alike. The prospect of a war-crime tribunal was held like a Damocles' sword over any recalcitrant Afghan political personality". The Afghans' decision reflects their own belief that the United States government no longer has the willingness to stay the course in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and once they go, dialogue with the Taliban will be necessary.

The parliamentary decision undermines the apparent progress the British are making in the south of Afghanistan. The British have been trying to provide enough stability to enable the renovation of the hydro-electric powerplant at the Kajaki dam in the north of Helmand province, a project designed to win over local support by restoring electricity, but to do so successfully they have to pacify the area between the dam and the regional capital Lashkar Gah, along the Helmand valley, which forms the main artery of communications and the major opium poppy growing district. Since the Taliban feed off the revenue that the poppy crop generates, the towns along the river, including Gereskh and Sangin have been fiercely fought over.

There has been some evidence that the British are making headway. First came the killing of the one-legged Taliban leader, Mullah Dadullah, a brilliant operation that took advantage of a botched hostage swap in which the Taliban were induced to exchange an Italian journalist they had kidnapped for a number of their captured colleagues. One of these prisoners was Dadullah's brother, who was followed on his release by British special forces to Dadullah himself. The swap, which was heavily criticised, itself sheds light on the new dynamic in Afghanistan identified by Bhadrakumar. Then came came a new British offensive to take control of Sangin, one of the major opium markets in the region. This operation was extensively reported in the Daily Telegraph. The article contains a sentiment echoed in another Times piece today, that the soldiers in Afghanistan feel that their efforts are barely being recognised, beyond sporadic reports of the rising British death toll. "There is a lot of hard graft and sacrifice. It means a lot to the blokes for their exploits to be recognised in a world fixated by Big Brother and Paris Hilton", says a British officer quoted in the Telegraph.

The method and the result of the British offensive are reported by Reuters. Whether the peace will hold remains to be seen.

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