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Security situation worsens in Afghanistan

Four years after the ouster of the Taliban the winter has never been so violent in southern Afghanistan.

india Updated: Mar 11, 2006 14:58 IST

Schools burnt, government employees assassinated, soldiers attacked: Four years after the ouster of the Taliban the winter has never been so violent in southern Afghanistan.

Cold winter months that usually see a downturn in violence have witnessed a stream of attacks linked to Taliban loyalists and criminal gangs who have become the face of law in the absence of the authority of the struggling state.

"There were more security incidents in Afghanistan during this winter than the past three winters put together," said a Western security official in the capital Kabul.

"The insurgency right now is a lot more dangerous than two years ago and a lot more clever. It is definitely intensifying and I think 2006 will be hotter than 2005," he said on condition of anonymity.

Even the Americans, until now an optimistic partner in Afghanistan since leading the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban, admit the situation has worsened and threatens the fragile Afghan state still trying to assert itself.

"We judge insurgents now represent a greater threat to the expansion of the Afghan government authority than at any point since late 2001 and will be active this spring," Defence Intelligence Agency director General Michael Maples told a Senate committee hearing last month.

"The Taliban-dominated insurgency remains capable and resilient," he said, noting that last year the number of rebel attacks had increased by 20 per cent and suicide attacks had quadrupled.

Violence, most of it blamed on the insurgency, killed about 1,600 last year, many of them militants, a toll that was double the previous year's.

On Monday the UN mission in Afghanistan also expressed concern about the deterioration of security in the south, where there are near-daily attacks, noting there had been about a dozen suicide attacks since the beginning of the year.

The government and its international allies are also worried by the efficiency of the rebels, who are choosing their targets more carefully and have adopted Iraq-style tactics, including car bombings and assassinations.

"We see a more clever insurgency, installing terror at a local level against personnel representing the reach of the central government," said the Western security official.

In the past year close to 200 schools have been forced to close, some of them torched, mainly in the southern provinces of Zabul and Helmand, and several dozen education staff have been attacked, some of them killed.

The attacks illustrate the weakness of the fragments of the state trying to assert themselves in Afghanistan's regions dominated by Pashtuns -- the same ethnic group as the Taliban and run on tribal loyalties.

On the ground Afghan officials believe the rebels' strategy -- to feed the insecurity to stall reconstruction and discredit the government and its allies -- may eventually succeed.

"We have to improve the security in the next months to respond to the demands of the population," says the governor of Helmand, Mohammed Daoud, barricaded in his residence in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.

But this is difficult when no one knows exactly how many rebels there are and who they are.

There are "a few hundred" in their main strongholds in the south and east supported by illegal trade, notably in drugs, and Isalmist networks in Pakistan and certain Arab countries, say Afghan authorities.

"Insurgent networks hire young jobless Afghans, pay them and arm them to attack the government and its allies," said the Western official.

"Some districts are full of Talibans. In others, they send anonymous letters threatening the population," said Haji Mohammed Qasem, head of Nad Ali district close to Lashkar Gah.

"Insecurity is worsening everywhere and people don't trust the government any more."

British lieutenant Henry Worsley, one of the men in charge of the British contingent of 3,500 soldiers that has started deploying in Helmand, admits there is a lot of work to be done in the province, which has seen among the most severe attacks on police.

"We'll have to regain the confidence of the population and to favour development," he says.

That is also the aim of the Canadians, who have just taken over command of the southern region. But four days after they took over, they had already been the target of two attacks which left a dozen of them wounded.

First Published: Mar 11, 2006 14:40 IST