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Afghanistan: Resurgent Taliban Slows Aid Projects, Reconstruction

British troops search for militants in the Kajaki district, site of a key development project (epa) November 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The past year has been the deadliest for U.S. and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime fell in late 2001. But while the number of suicide bomb attacks and civilian deaths has risen, perhaps the most disconcerting development is that the violence has set back major reconstruction projects aimed at significantly improving the lives of millions of Afghans.

Of more than 14,000 reconstruction works under way, NATO officials have described the Kajaki hydroelectric dam in Helmand Province as the project with the most strategic and psychological significance. NATO announced in early 2007 that its key objective in the south was to secure the area around the Kajaki dam.

In March, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer even suggested that progress on security in Afghanistan in 2007 could be measured by NATO's ability to keep Taliban fighters away from Kajaki to allow workers to build a new road to transport a giant power turbine to the dam site. "When the turbine in that dam is [installed], it will give power to 2 million people and their businesses" from Helmand Province to Kandahar, de Hoop Scheffer said. “It will provide irrigation for hundreds of farmers. And it will create jobs for 2,000 people. The Taliban, the spoilers, are attacking this project every day to [try to] stop it from going forward."

By the beginning of June, when NATO declared that a combined U.S.-British assault called Operation Axe Handle had killed most Taliban fighters in the Kajaki valley or forced them to withdraw, reaching that goal still appeared possible. U.S. civilian officials working on the Kajaki project had also told RFE/RL that they hoped residents of Kandahar city would start receiving electricity from Kajaki's new turbine by early 2008.

But despite NATO's declarations of battlefield success, Taliban fighters have been able reinfiltrate the area -- causing enough havoc to delay construction of the road meant to link Kajaki to the town of Gereshk.

By late November, the road still was not complete. Without the road, workers have not been able to transport the power turbine to Kajaki -- leaving British and U.S. forces unable to claim success on that key objective of 2007.

Emboldened Insurgents

Still, security for the reconstruction of the Kajaki dam is not the only measure by which foreign troops have failed to meet their stated objectives.

A secret White House report leaked to the “Washington Post” in November concluded that the 2007 war effort in Afghanistan had not met the strategic goals set by the U.S. military. That National Security Council document reportedly says that while U.S. and NATO-led troops have been successful in individual military battles against the Taliban, the militants still appear able to recruit large numbers of fighters. It also says that while many foreigners, especially Pakistanis, are joining the Taliban, the main source of new recruits seems to be unhappy Afghans.

“At this moment, the Taliban and insurgent groups are feeling very emboldened -- they feel a momentum behind them,” Joanna Nathan, the Kabul-based director of the International Crisis Group's Afghanistan program, told RFE/RL. “That then drives many other factors in conflict. For the most part, those involved in the fighting are joining in because of disillusionment and disenfranchisement. They are feeling left out of government or administration, or they feel that their tribal community is [being left out] and they are not being heard. They feel they haven't seen the international assistance that was offered. All these other things now feed into [the problem]. And the Taliban are very clever at working on local fissures and conflicts."

Nathan added that the Taliban's resurgence does not mean that it has the ability to capture and control cities. But its guerrilla tactics have slowed reconstruction and humanitarian projects.

"I'm really hoping now that the world is beginning to wake up to the seriousness of what is happening in Afghanistan today,” Nathan said. “We really are seeing almost half the country -- in the south and east now -- being terrorized. These are guerrillas. It's not some sort of large standing army that is controlling and administering those areas. But they are making those areas largely inaccessible to humanitarian assistance and to development -- which stops the government's outreach."

Public Outrage

Officials in Kabul say ordinary Afghans are becoming increasingly angry about the hundreds of civilian deaths caused by NATO or U.S.-led coalition air strikes that have gone awry. Authorities say their anger makes it easier for the Taliban to recruit new fighters. On the other hand, Afghans also are put off by more than 140 suicide bombings carried out by extremists in the past year that have killed more than 200 civilians -- the worst year of suicide bombings in Afghan history.

Christine Fair, a researcher who studied suicide attacks in Afghanistan during 2007 for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, says recruitment for suicide bombers extends across the border into the tribal areas of Pakistan, and that madrassahs play a major role. “But there is a larger point that most Afghans are not familiar with," Fair said. "There are Afghans who are involved, not only in the capacity of suicide attackers, but they are also involved obviously in safe houses. They are obviously involved in the production of bombs. They are involved in getting bombers to targets. At every point of the provision of suicide attacks, an Afghan is necessary. This is something the Afghans...need to deal with."

Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said during a visit to Kabul in November that both the Taliban and foreign troops in Afghanistan are responsible for mounting civilian deaths. Arbour accused the Taliban of deliberately targeting civilians in suicide bombings -- including teachers and humanitarian workers -- in a bid to destabilize the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Arbour also said the number of civilians accidentally killed by NATO or coalition air strikes had reached "alarming levels" during 2007. "In my discussions with ISAF commanders, I am persuaded that they are well aware of the significance of this problem [of civilian casualties] and were receptive to the call that they should have methodologies that will act as preventive measures so as to diminish the civilian exposures to their activities," Arbour said.

Foreign Casualties

Meanwhile, casualties in 2007 among foreign troops in Afghanistan climbed to the highest level since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001. More than 240 foreign soldiers were killed during the first 11 months of this year.

The NATO Secretary-General admits that one of the biggest failures of the alliance during 2007 was in the area of training and equipping Afghan government troops, who are meant to eventually take over security operations from U.S. and NATO-led forces.

"We are not doing enough as NATO allies and NATO partner nations in what should be one of our main priorities,” de Hoop Scheffer said. “And that is training and equipping the Afghan National Army."

With some NATO countries showing reluctance to increase troop deployments to Afghanistan, military commanders of the alliance now say they would like predominantly Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East to help train Afghan security forces.

As for reconstruction, NATO is now taking a new tack. Major General Garry Robison, the NATO-led ISAF mission's deputy commander for stability, said today that the Western military alliance is now seeking to distance itself from the reconstruction projects that it carries out.

Partly, he said, the tactic is aimed at increasing an Afghan "sense of ownership" in the work, and partly to avoid the projects being blown up by the Taliban.

Robison, who has overseen ISAF's reconstruction work for the past 12 months, said foreign aid works best when it has an "Afghan face" and responds to real local needs.

"What we're wanting to do is to help and deliver in line with local priorities,” Robison said. “And by engaging local development councils for their priorities, by engaging local employment and contractors, we try and give the community a sense of ownership."

(RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas contributed to this report from Brussels.)

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