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Picking up the pieces in Afghanistan

With Taleban insurgents poised to pounce, Washington and Kabul must iron out their differences over the long-term security pact

Relations between the United States and Afghanistan have hit a sour note once again after Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused American forces of killing eight civilians, seven of them children, in an air strike meant to support coalition troops under Taleban attack.

The coalition force said the operation in question was carried out jointly with Afghan troops, who were fired upon from two directions by Taleban insurgents. The Taleban had recently launched attacks on Bagram, the largest US military base in the country.

As expected, Karzai's office was quick to deliver a strongly worded statement. The president and Washington have been at loggerheads over an elusive long-term security pact. The US wants to sign it soon, but Karzai is playing hard to get. The pact offers the Afghan leader a political card, and without it he will have nothing much to bargain for with Washington.

The final draft for the agreement was completed in November, allowing up to 15,000 coalition troops to remain in Afghanistan for another 10 years. An assembly of the country's elders has also endorsed it. But Karzai is still holding out.

The US wants to keep a residual force in Afghanistan for counter-terrorism missions and to provide technical advice to the Afghan military.

The pact follows 12 disastrous years for the US-led multinational forces in Afghanistan. Billions of dollars have been spent on development and on establishing a system of governance for a country mostly ruled by warlords and tribal leaders who play for keeps.

But all that money has done little to enhance understanding and sympathy between foreign forces and the local people. And the wishy-washy Karzai has done little to help that cause. He has suggested that security might have been better had foreign troops never entered Afghanistan in the first place. But without them, he would certainly not be where he is today.

Afghan officials talk of "reconciliation" in terms similar to those used by Thai security officers in dealing with our country's southern insurgency: Put down your guns and go back to your villages and be good and productive citizens. It hasn't worked in Afghanistan and it hasn't worked in Thailand.

Afghans are due to vote in a presidential election in April, but none are holding their breath. Seven of the 11 candidates have been accused of war crimes - so much for good governance. But, if the next government can prevent a resurgence of the Taleban, it could at least be claimed that this experiment in democracy in a tribal society was worth something.

Right now, with the US-led coalition pulling out by the end of this year, Afghan leaders need to think seriously about the future. The Taleban is getting stronger every day and the government will likely have to negotiate with them.

Few believe that the Kabul administration will survive for long in the absence of coalition troops. Without adequate security, the billions of dollars sent in aid is likely to go down the drain.

The US has little choice but to continue building its policy around the truculent Karzai, even though his tenure is coming to an end. And, if it wants to pick up the pieces of this broken experiment, Washington must have a working relationship with the next government. Both countries must work towards mutually beneficial solutions. The consequences of doing otherwise are too bleak to contemplate.


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