While media attention has been focused on the US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan – where the US still has some 20,000 troops – has been pushed far into the background.
That was made painfully clear when President Hamid Karzai, resplendent in his trademark peacock-green cape, received virtually no media attention during a visit to the US in June – despite his address to a joint session of Congress and an appearance at a press conference with President George W Bush himself. Karzai remained largely silent.
Officially, Washington is upbeat. Ambassador William Taylor, the State Department co-ordinator for Afghanistan, insisted that UN officials had registered more than four million voters for elections due in late September or October, and that as many as 100,000 were being registered each day. The UN estimates the total number of eligible voters at a little more than 10 million. ‘If we get at least six million voters registered,’ said Taylor, ‘that will be a critical mass.’
At the same time, the envoy admitted that the security situation left much to be desired and could easily interfere with the election. ‘This is not going to be pretty,’ he said, noting that local militias, many of them fuelled by revenues from the opium trade, would be likely to intimidate voters.
The lack of security was all too evident when the Karzai-appointed Governor of Ghor province was chased from his capital after clashes between the provincial army chief and rival militia. The incident was the third where a governor had been forced to flee his post by warlords.
US military casualties, although minimal compared to Iraq, rose sharply as Washington increased the number of troops devoted to fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the mainly Pashtun south and southeast, particularly along the border with Pakistan.
Warlords and resurgent Taliban forces have become stronger – and more aid workers have been killed – in recent months in Afghanistan than at any time since the Taliban was ousted at the end of 2001. Many aid agencies have withdrawn their staff, bringing reconstruction efforts to a standstill.
In addition to the US, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has some 6,500 troops in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). All of them are confined to Kabul. Just 250 German-led troops make up a ‘provincial reconstruction team’ assigned to Kunduz, a relatively quiet northern city. The NATO summit in Istanbul at the end of June agreed to increase troop numbers by 2,000.
Neither the US nor NATO/ISAF is tackling opium production, which has hit all-time highs and now accounts for as much as half the country’s income. Among other things, the opium trade funds the warlords, some of whom the US still relies on as ‘allies’.