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All unquiet on the western front

Zero-tolerance for civilian casualties is a must to win the larger battle against extremism, one that must be fought politically, writes Amit Baruah.
By Amit Baruah | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JUL 13, 2008 10:37 PM IST

There’s no parking space in the city, as all parked cars are potential bombs, but it would be simplistic to view the Afghan capital as a death-trap. Heavy traffic and big, slow-moving vehicles present easy prey for would-be suicide bombers. Western embassies and homes are well-protected, but parts of the city look like military garrisons and some roads are closed to traffic.

Heavily-armed private guards and mean-looking SUVs are a common sight but shops are full and hotels are booming as aid money continues to pour in. Beards are now optional, and a first-time visitor to the city could be forgiven for thinking that everything is ‘normal’.

Over 50,000 international troops, 12,000 US and 50,000 Afghan forces are engaged in keeping the Islamists at bay but the dance of death and destruction continues unabated. Foreign troops are confined to their well-equipped bases as it’s too risky for a trip to the market to buy a kilim. The Taliban exists in pockets and many analysts believe they control more than a handful of the country’s 34 provinces.

The good news is that the Taliban are no longer roaming the streets of Kabul.

Overall, six million children have been enrolled in schools and basic healthcare is now available to 85 per cent of the country’s estimated population of 32 million, a figure that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Per capita GDP has gone up by 70 per cent and economic growth has averaged 14.8 per cent in the last six years, albeit with a massive infusion of foreign development assistance.

The bad news: the political structure remains brittle and foreign forces cannot leave Afghanistan for a long time, as the Afghan army can’t yet be trusted with major security operations. Afghanistan ranked 172 out of 179 in Transparency International’s list of most-corrupt countries in 2007, and almost 10 per cent of (398) districts, mostly in the south and the east, are inaccessible to officials and aid workers. Nato spokesman Mark Laity told me that the situation was stable in the sense that “we are fighting in the same places with the same results”. According to him, governance, reconstruction and security have to go together. Civilian deaths continue to dog Afghanistan. Over 8,000 people were killed in 2007, including 1,500 civilians and 1,000 policemen, with 250 civilians killed since this July 4, according to the Red Cross. Clearly, civilian deaths have provided propaganda material to Islamists trying to turn the country into an emirate again.

In turn, the jehadis think nothing of killing civilians in ‘targeted attacks’ like the July 7 suicide blast at the Indian embassy. Indians have long been specifically targeted. “All those countries helping Afghanistan are targets,” says Hussain Yasa, editor of Outlook Afghanistan, a daily newspaper. He holds the same “out of control” jehadis responsible for blasts both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Zero-tolerance for civilian casualties is a must to win the larger battle against extremism, one that must be fought politically. There is little doubt that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border belt is the epicentre of global, militant Islamism. The stakes are high and the world can only succeed in Afghanistan if that country’s leadership stands firm on its feet.

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