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A ray of hope amid the bomb smoke

Afghanistan is reeling under the Taleban's spring offensive, but its people are fighting back with a determination to protect their fledgling democracy

Sunday saw the Afghan Taleban strike at the heart of the country, launching a deadly gun attack in the major city of Jalalabad and raining rockets down on the airport in the capital Kabul.

Just days before, a car bomb killed four people and injured 22 others in Kandahar province. The attacks mark the start of the militant group's annual spring offensive.

The targets of the offensive include any foreigner or Afghan official anywhere in the country, the Taleban warned in a chilling statement.

The International Crisis Group recently reported a 15-20 per cent increase in the number of insurgent attacks over 2012 to 2013. That upward trend seems to be continuing this year.

More disturbing still is that foreign troops will pull out of Afghanistan by the end of this year. That doesn't mean, however, that they are throwing in the towel and calling it quits. Some 15,000 troops are expected to stay behind to continue training domestic security forces.

It goes without saying that the long-term commitment of overseas powers is crucial to achieving peace in Afghanistan.

Just as important are the Doha peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taleban, though these have broken down. To repair them and to prevent the criticism of favouritism that has dogged the talks so far, the next phase should be chaired by a neutral non-Afghan party agreeable to both sides.

It's also vital that Kabul authorities respect the rule of law as they struggle to contain the growing insurgency. Rights violations perpetrated by government security forces will only feed the Taleban's popularity and claims to legitimacy.

The insurgents will almost certainly use the absence of foreign forces to test the government's military capability and strength. As such, the incoming government must act quickly to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with US-led forces, which will ensure some degree of continuity of foreign troops' mission after their official mandate comes to an end in December.

Outgoing president Hamid Karzai has declined to sign the agreement, which would permit a foreign force to stay on in the country. But both frontrunners in the presidential election have said they would sign. Let's hope they keep their word.

Signing the agreement would give the government breathing space to focus on immediate challenges that need to be addressed to secure long-term stability.

Afghans, beset by war and insurgency for generations, still face a future clouded with uncertainty.

A ray of hope came on April 5 when they went to the polls to elect a new leader. The Taleban, despite its threaten to disrupt the election, failed to prevent the masses from coming out to exercise their right and take some control of their destiny.

But peace in Afghanistan is not a zero-sum game. The many and varied voices of the electorate, whatever their political leaning and affiliation, must be taken into consideration if the country is to move forward as one. Time is short. Foreign troops will soon leave. Then it will fall to Afghans, and Afghans alone, to decide the direction their country takes.


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