KABUL (AFP) — Seven years after the attacks on the World Trade Centre, Afghanistan is again the frontline of the US-led "war on terror" with extremist unrest intensifying and a new focus on Pakistan's tribal areas.
Less than two months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States and its allies had ousted the Taliban regime which had refused to hand over Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
But today bin Laden is still on the run, the Taliban have regrouped -- notably in the south and in border tribal areas of Pakistan -- while the government in Kabul struggles to assert its authority.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is among those who say the United States was distracted by its venture into Iraq and did not finish up in Afghanistan.
"One of the biggest mistakes we've made strategically after 9/11 was to fail to finish the job here, focus our attention here," Obama said recently.
"We cannot win a war against the terrorists if we are on the wrong battlefield," hesaid, calling, as does his Republican rival John McCain, for more US reinforcements for international forces in Afghanistan.
The rise of violence in Afghanistan and relative calming of Iraq have opened the way for such reinforcements, and the Pentagon has already spoken of a first deployment of 4,500 soldiers by the end of the year.
A US commander in Afghanistan, General Jeffrey Schloesser last week called for extra soldiers, warning of a possible "winter offensive" by the Taliban and said the militants were preparing "spectacular attacks".
Admiral Michael Mullen, the most senior US military officer, also warned last month of the growth of the Taliban and attacks that would get "more and more sophisticated", as seen with recent ambushes on foreign soldiers.
"We saw that just this month (August) near Kabul, where French troops were attacked, and we saw it last month in the Wanat Valley, where nine of our own troops were killed," he told reporters.
"The safe havens in the border regions provide launching pads for these sorts of attacks, and they need to be shut down," he said, referring to militant sanctuaries along the border in neighbouring Pakistan.
US forces have increasingly turned their focus on the lawless frontier belt, stepping up missile strikes and this month helicopters even dropped ground troops into a village, angering Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, which has a long history of resistance to outsiders, international forces are making steady progress but "victory is slow," Schloesser acknowledged.
US allies are meanwhile concerned about their own growing casualties, and the difficulty of winning "hearts and minds" as Afghans grow weary of reports of civilians killed in error by military air strikes.
An Afghan investigation found that one such strike late August in the west of the country killed more than 90 civilians. The US military has said only five to seven civilians were killed along with 30-35 Taliban, but agreed Sunday to reopen an inquiry.
Human Rights Watch said in a report released Monday that the number of Afghan civilians killed by air strikes had tripled between 2006 and 2007, from 116 to 321.
And nearly 200 were killed by foreign troops, including during air strikes, in the first seven months of this year, it said.
The killings are alienating locals and helping the Taliban to recruit, said the watchdog's Asian director Brad Adams.
They are also fodder for Taliban propaganda aimed at eroding support for the government and its allies.
"The enemy routinely exaggerates the number of civilian casualties as propaganda, just pure and simple," said Schloesser.
"They use lies and deceit ...They seek to wear away our partnership with the international community, with NATO and with the Afghan people."
But the security situation is not the only problem facing Afghanistan seven years after the ouster of the Taliban.
Presidential elections in 2004 and a parliament set up in 2005 have not succeeded in uniting the country, which is smaller than Texas but divided among several ethnic groups and tribes.
Corruption fed by drug trafficking -- Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium -- is rampant, and aid promised by the international community has not always been been delivered.
According to a report by the British charity Oxfam, for every 100 dollars the international community spends on maintaining the military in Afghanistan, it spends only seven on aid.
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