Afghanistan more dangerous now, aid groups report

Taliban have a presence in areas once safe

A US Army soldier fired an AT-4 as a combat outpost near the village of Jellawar was attacked by the Taliban yesterday. A US Army soldier fired an AT-4 as a combat outpost near the village of Jellawar was attacked by the Taliban yesterday. (Patrick Baz/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Rod Nordland
New York Times / September 12, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Even as more American troops flow into the country, Afghanistan is more dangerous than it has ever been during this war, with security deteriorating in recent months, according to international organizations and humanitarian groups.

Large parts of the country that were once completely safe, like most of the northern provinces, now have a substantial Taliban presence — even in areas where there are few Pashtuns, who previously were the Taliban’s only supporters.

As NATO forces poured in and shifted to the south to battle the Taliban in their stronghold, the Taliban responded with a surge of their own, greatly increasing their activities in the north and parts of the east.

The worsening security comes as the Obama administration is under increasing pressure to show results to maintain public support for the war, and raises serious concerns about whether the country can hold legitimate nationwide elections for Parliament on Saturday.

Unarmed government employees can no longer travel safely in 30 percent of the country’s 368 districts, according to published UN estimates, and there are districts deemed too dangerous to visit in all but one of the country’s 34 provinces.

The number of insurgent attacks has increased significantly; in August 2009, insurgents carried out 630 attacks. This August, they initiated at least 1,353, according to the Afghan NGO Safety Office, an independent organization financed by Western governments and agencies to monitor safety for aid workers.

An attack on a Western medical team in early August, which killed 10 people, was the largest massacre in years of aid workers in Afghanistan.

The International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, does not routinely release detailed data on attacks around the country, and the Afghan government stopped doing so in mid-2009. UN officials have also stopped releasing details of attacks, though they monitor them closely. Requests for access to that information were denied.

ISAF officials dispute the notion that security is slipping from them, pointing to their successes with targeted killings and captures of Taliban field commanders and members of the Taliban shadow government.

American military officials blame the rise in the number of its forces here for the increased level of violence. The result is more military operations, they say, and more opportunities for the insurgents to attack coalition forces.

That does not, however, entirely explain the increased activity of the Taliban in areas where they were seldom seen before, and where the coalition presence is light.

The Afghan NGO Safety Office says that by almost every metric it has, Afghanistan is more dangerous now than at any time since 2001.

In a separate development yesterday, about 10,000 people protested in eastern Afghanistan against a small American church’s earlier plan to burn the Koran, chanting “Death to America’’ and setting shops and police checkpoints on fire, the Associated Press reported.

Din Mohammad Darwish, spokesman for the governor of Logar Province, said police fired warning shots into the air to prevent the protesters from storming the governor’s house.

Several hundred protesters rallied yesterday outside Bagram Air Field, a major NATO base. The protest ended after about an hour, Afghan officials said.

The protests continued despite a decision by Terry Jones to call off plans to burn copies of the Muslim holy book in Gainesville, Fla. In a country where most people have limited access to newspapers, television, and the Internet, most Afghans were unaware of Jones’s decision.

The most recent US troop buildup comes in response to steady advances by the Taliban. Four years ago, the insurgents were active in only four provinces. Now they are active in 33 of 34, the organizations say.

“We do not support the perspective that this constitutes ‘things getting worse before they get better,’ ’’ said Nic Lee, director of the Afghan NGO Safety Office, “but rather see it as being consistent with the five-year trend of things just getting worse.’’

Despite the spread of the conflict, humanitarian organizations say they are still able to serve Afghans in much of the country. They have to be more careful.

The threat to government workers is also severe. Last month, Afghan police and army officials asked the Independent Election Commission to cancel 938 of its proposed 6,835 polling centers, because it could not guarantee security for those areas.

On Tuesday, the election commission said it would cancel 81 other polling sites, nearly a fifth of the polling places in eastern Nangarhar Province, which was relatively safe during last year’s presidential election. The commission has warned that it may have to close still more polling centers in other provinces.

Only 500 international observers are coming to monitor these elections, compared with more than a thousand last year, according to Jindad Spinghar of the Free and Fair Election Foundation. International observers will be able to go only to provincial capitals, not rural areas, where most of the population lives, he said.

Military officials counter that they are making headway against the Taliban. General David H. Petraeus said recently that NATO forces had killed or captured 2,974 insurgents this summer, 235 of them commanders. top stories on Twitter

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