By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 24, 2007
Conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated markedly since 2005, with rising violence, government corruption and misguided U.S. efforts contributing to growing unease among the population, according to a report released yesterday based in part on 1,000 interviews with ordinary Afghans.
Although there were bright spots -- a better overall economy and more rights for women -- the report's authors found diminishing security as the Taliban steps up its attacks, a discredited justice system and a severe lack of basic services such as electricity. The report, produced by the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies and funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, also found that Afghans tend to be more negative in their outlook than official statistics or media accounts would suggest.
"Public fear and frustration are on the rise in Afghanistan. As a result, Afghans are beginning to disengage from national governing processes and lose confidence in their leadership," according to the report. "Dramatic changes are required in the coming weeks, or 2007 will become the breaking point."
That statement echoed remarks made earlier this month by the departing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, who told a congressional panel that "a point could be reached at which the government of Afghanistan becomes irrelevant to its people, and the goal of establishing a democratic, moderate, self-sustaining state could be lost forever."
A year ago, U.S. officials were speaking much more optimistically about Afghanistan. But an especially violent summer, fed by an increasingly aggressive insurgency, has convinced many policymakers that Afghanistan is at a precarious moment more than five years after a U.S.-led military campaign knocked the Taliban from power. Last week, President Bush pledged $11.8 billion in aid for Afghanistan over the next two years and said U.S. forces would be increased by 3,200 to 27,000, the highest level of the war.
Among the report's recommendations are to shift the focus away from eradicating poppy fields and toward interdiction, to give local communities more control over aid money, and to abandon major military sweeps that inflict damage on civilians in favor of rapid-response forces that can protect Afghans in emergencies. "NATO and the United States' 'big army' military operations and emphasis on foot soldier 'kills' are doing more damage than good," the report said.
Lt. Col. Todd Vician, a Pentagon spokesman, said he could not comment on the report's recommendations because he had not seen them, but he said part of the reason the United States is committing more troops to Afghanistan is to improve response times. Britain said yesterday it would also be sending additional troops.
The report's release came on a day when thousands of people rallied in Kabul to support a bill in the Afghan parliament that would provide amnesty for Afghans accused of war crimes. It also came as a man who claimed to be senior Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah told Reuters in a telephone interview that "this year will prove to be the bloodiest for the foreign troops." The man claimed that "6,000 fighters are ready for attacks."