Sun, Jul 03, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Afghanistan may quickly become `a mirror of Iraq'

AP , KABUL

Just three months ago, Afghanistan was proudly held up as a poster-child of US-led nation-building. But near-daily ambushes, execution-style killings, suicide bombings and this week's shooting down of a US special forces helicopter have quashed much of that optimism.

From US and UN officials down to Afghan villagers, there is growing fear that this country may be at a seminal moment with three years of state-building in danger of succumbing to the barrage of violence.

"After the presidential elections last year, everyone was optimistic that we were heading toward a stable, peaceful democracy. But it no longer seems that way," said Malalai Juya, a female candidate in September's elections from western Farah province. "Everyone is scared now. Security has been getting worse and worse by the day."

The resurgence of the Taliban insurgency could not have come at a worse time -- with just 10 weeks remaining before key legislative elections that are the next step toward democracy after a generation of war.

The downing of the chopper on Tuesday -- and a missing team of US soldiers -- reinforce concerns that while US casualties here are far fewer than in Iraq, the rebellion may be fast becoming a mirror of the insurgency there.

Stability has also been threatened by a rise in criminality, such as gangs kidnapping foreigners in the capital, Kabul, a booming trade in opium and heroin that threatens to turn Afghanistan into a "narco-state," and increasing resentment toward the presence of US forces, which erupted into deadly riots in May.

But it's not all bad news. The first democratically elected president, Hamid Karzai, took office after relatively peaceful elections last October. The economy, at least in cities, is doing well. Construction is booming in Kabul, cellphones are spreading and trade with neighbors Pakistan and Iran is lively.

One of the most significant developments is the emergence of the US-trained Afghan army, which now numbers 26,000 and regularly fights alongside troops from the 20,000-strong US-led coalition.

A separate NATO-led force of 8,000 soldiers is responsible for security in Kabul and the country's north and west. It plans to expand into the volatile south next year, freeing up American forces to go after Osama bin Laden, who is still thought to be hiding in the rugged mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier.

The government has warned that bin Laden's al-Qaeda fighters and the Taliban rebels have launched a campaign of violence to subvert September's elections. It started with a suicide bombing inside a mosque in the southern city of Kandahar on June 1 that killed the Kabul police chief and 19 others, officials said.

A purported Taliban spokesman, Mullah Latif Hakimi, who claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter this week, vowed that rebel attacks will increase.

"This uprising will rage on until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan. We are going to break the back of these foreign troops," he said. "Our fighters are strong and our leader Mullah Omar is in charge."

Hakimi's exact tie to the Taliban leadership is not clear and his claims often prove exaggerated or untrue. The loss of the helicopter follows three months of unprecedented fighting that has killed about 477 suspected insurgents, 45 US troops, 47 Afghan police and soldiers and 134 civilians.

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