Sun, Oct 07, 2007 - Page 4 News List

US brings Kabul mixed blessings

LONG WAY TO GO Kabul has become `loud and lively' in the six years since US-led forces arrived, but frequent suicide attacks mar the progress that has been made

AFP , KABUL

On the evening of Oct. 7, 2001, planes from US-led forces started bombing Kabul: radar installations, telecommunications posts and the airport were among the first targets.

The flashes and explosions -- after weeks of suspense that had built since the Sept. 11 attacks by the Taliban regime's al-Qaeda allies -- brought mixed feelings.

"I was scared, at the same time I was happy because I knew those bombs were to oust the Taliban," satellite telephone trader Mohammad Akram Akbari, 46, recalled.

"It was even harder to live under the Taliban than living under a US bombardment."

In a few weeks, the Taliban fled in the capital under cover of darkness -- as they had arrived five years earlier.

Akbari said that from his apartment he saw Taliban tanks roar across a river eastwards on their way, presumably, to Pakistan where many Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders took shelter.

The extremists who had imposed their own austere version of Islam -- outlawing music, movies and kite-flying and forcing women to wear head-to-toe burqas in public -- had gone.

Within a few weeks, they had been defeated across the country.

Six years later Kabul is loud and lively, colorful and clogged with traffic and people; cinemas and music stores are open; blue-glass skyscrapers and ostentatious mansions are going up.

There is a new democracy; a constitution that in theory gives equal rights to men and women; a parliament and an elected president.

Around half of children are in school; nearly 80 percent of the population has access to health care; the number of women dying in childbirth has dropped; there are new roads, clinics and schools.

But overshadowing all this is insecurity. The Taliban's insurgency has grown beyond expectations, especially over the past nearly two years. Some might say they are back.

Attacks this year are at least 20 percent higher than last year, a report to the UN Security Council said last month. "The boldness and frequency of suicide bombings, ambushes and direct fire attacks have increased," it said.

Suicide blasts have soared from five between 2001 and 2005 to already more than 100 by August this year, according to UN figures.

The violence has killed more than 5,000 people, most of them insurgents but also more than 1,000 Afghan security forces and civilians, as well as 180 international troops. Around 4,000 were killed last year.

"We have had good tactical success against them [insurgents] in engagements as well as attacking them," said General Dan McNeill, head of the 39,500-strong NATO-led military force that is helping to tackle the rebellion. "But they are still out there and they are still in the fight for sure."

The US general says though that roughly 60 percent of the country is more-or-less stable, experiencing on average less than one significant attack a week.

These areas, away from the hard fighting of the south and east, need good policing, he says. A weakness of the post-Taliban transition has been the failure to establish a decent police force.

UN special representative Tom Koenigs says some of the positive changes do not show up because of the unrest in the south -- where violence and production of illegal opium financing the militants is the strongest.

"Beyond all the bad news from the south, one must see that two-thirds of the country is developing in a way which could have been expected with such an effort and such a poor country," he said.

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