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Originally published August 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 5, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Karzai pressed to combat Taliban

As Afghan President Hamid Karzai prepares for a two-day meeting with President Bush at Camp David starting today, his government is confronting...

The Washington Post

KABUL, Afghanistan — As Afghan President Hamid Karzai prepares for a two-day meeting with President Bush at Camp David starting today, his government is confronting contradictory pressures at home and abroad over how to secure the release of 21 surviving South Korean hostages, combat the aggressive Taliban insurgency and rein in Afghanistan's flourishing opium poppy trade.

Bush administration officials have described the meeting as a private "strategy session" between partners and a chance to reiterate unwavering American support for Karzai's beleaguered government. But here, analysts and politicians say that in return for providing $10 billion in aid and more than 20,000 troops, U.S. officials may be pushing Karzai to take or accept harsh actions that many Afghans adamantly oppose.

The most urgent issue is what to do about the Taliban, the once-defeated Islamic militia that has roared back to life as a power-hungry, media-savvy guerrilla force. It is taking ever more audacious actions — such as kidnapping 23 Korean church volunteers on a bus July 19 — while moving ever closer to this tense capital in its campaign to drive out foreign troops and restore Islamic rule.

Karzai, a genial diplomat from a country of tribal traders, has always preferred to negotiate his way out of problems. He has repeatedly called on Taliban fighters to reconcile with his government, and he is attempting to solve the current hostage crisis through tribal mediation.

But U.S. officials say pressure must be applied on the Taliban to secure the Koreans' freedom, including the possible use of force. Two hostages have been killed, and Taliban officials are demanding the withdrawal of 210 South Korean troops and the release of a group of imprisoned insurgents in exchange for the hostages' lives.

In recent months, the Taliban have made their presence felt in widening swaths of territory, moving farther out of its traditional base in the south and into provinces ringing the capital. In the past several months, Taliban fighters seized the Koreans and executed local judges in Ghazni province, killed schoolgirls in Logar province and abducted two German engineers in Wardak province, killing one.

"The government has lost the confidence of our people, and the Taliban are getting more powerful," said Roshanak Wardak, a rural obstetrician and member of parliament from Wardak, a poor region of fields and orchards just southwest of Kabul. "A lot of our boys have no jobs or education. The Taliban pay them and tell them the Americans have come to erase Islam from their country. I am very much worried," she added. "If the Taliban get power again in our province, it is only one leap to the capital."

U.S. diplomats and analysts have expressed repeated concern that the Karzai government needs a stronger presence outside Kabul, providing better services and security in poor areas that are vulnerable to Taliban blandishments.

Much of the U.S. military's emphasis here, however, remains on killing or capturing insurgents. But energetic pursuit of insurgents has caused another problem — mounting civilian casualties, mostly in bombing raids. The deaths have turned many Afghans against the foreign forces and further strained Karzai's credibility.

"Sooner or later, every liberating force becomes an occupying force," one Western analyst here said. "A majority of Afghans were glad to see the coalition arrive in 2001, and most of them still are, but collateral damage and cultural insensitivity are key issues here. Even if the Taliban are using civilians as human shields, in the court of public opinion it is still the foreign forces that killed them."

The third issue in which Karzai faces contradictory pressures is how to stop the spread of opium poppy cultivation and trafficking. The crop has grown to record levels since the overthrow of the Taliban, which had banned it in 2000. The drug trade has now become economically intertwined with the revived insurgency.

The Bush administration, which largely ignored Afghanistan's poppy problem for several years, is now extremely worried about the trade's role in shoring up the new Taliban. Again, U.S. and Afghan officials differ on the solution. The United States endorses aerial crop spraying and aggressive eradication along with alternative agricultural programs and better law enforcement. But Karzai has rejected the harsher eradication methods in the face of threatened revolts by farmers and public opposition.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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