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Interesting Article: "Australia to mostly end Afghan mission next year" by LA Times / Kabul published Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

An interesting article mentioned that as the U.S. and its allies refine plans to reduce their troop levels in Afghanistan and turn combat operations over to Afghans, Australia has announced that it will pull most of its forces out next year. Would you like to know more about what is going in Afghanistan?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization plans to finish the transfer to Afghan control by the end of 2014. U.S. officials announced in February that Afghans would take over the lead combat role next year, and that American troops would shift their focus to training and advising the Afghans. That February announcement came just a week after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would remove all of his country’s combat troops next year, a year earlier than planned. Sarkozy’s leading challenger in his reelection bid, Francois Hollande, has pledged to pull troops out even faster.

U.S. officials downplayed the significance of Australia’s actions. But public support for the war is falling in many countries, and in recent months U.S. officials have sought ways of heading off a push by allies to go home. Australia has far fewer troops on the ground than other powers  -- the U.S. has about 90,000 and Britain about 9,500. But experts say its action could threaten the political cover that has allowed countries to commit troops to an increasingly unpopular mission.

Fifty countries are involved in the coalition in Afghanistan, though some have only a handful of soldiers and others have pulled out combat forces completely. Canada bowed out last summer. Dutch troops left in 2010. Britain is under domestic pressure to reduce its troop presence. Even Ireland, with only seven soldiers there, has faced calls to get out.

Internally in Afghanistan, the Taliban is further refining itself, and showing resurgence. For example, at least 140 Afghan schoolgirls and female teachers were admitted to a local hospital Tuesday after drinking poisoned water, said local health officials, who blamed the act on extremists opposed to women's education. The victims range in age from 14 to 30 and were taken to a hospital in Afghanistan's northeastern Takhar province after their school's water tank was contaminated, according to provincial health department director Dr. Hafizullah Safi.

In 2010, more than 100 schoolgirls and teachers were sickened in a series of similar poisonings. During the Taliban's rule from 1996 to 2001, many Afghan girls were not allowed to attend school, though the schools began reopening after the regime was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion.

Observers say, however, that abuse of women remains common in the post-Taliban era and is often accepted in conservative and traditional families, where women are barred from education and commonly subjected to domestic violence. In January 2011, Afghan Education Minister Dr. Farooq Wardak told the Education World Forum in London that the Taliban had abandoned their opposition to girls' education. But the group never offered a statement confirming or denying that claim.

According to other news, Opium farming will increase across Afghanistan in 2012, driven by insecurity, massive corruption and economic fears for the future, spreading to more areas than it has in the past four to five years, the United Nations has warned. Drugs help fund the Taliban insurgency, but Afghanistan's elite is also earning huge amounts from the trade and the government lacks the political will to clamp down on a crop worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, the United Nations' leading drug control official in Afghanistan said. Just 15 of Afghanistan's provinces, or well under half, are likely to be free of opium this year, the report said. In 2009 and 2010 poppy farming was eradicated from 20 provinces. The annual survey looks at poppy planting, and plans to cultivate the crop, so is not an absolute guarantee of production levels. Eradication programs may take out some fields and low rainfall, crop blight or other farming problems can also reduce the actual harvest, later in the year. The World Bank forecasts that Afghanistan's budget deficit after the 2014 deadline for foreign combat troops to withdraw could be as much as $7bn a year.

Opium has a very high value and can keep for years, and impoverished farmers who have survived three decades of conflict in Afghanistan are often acutely aware that it is one of their few forms of insurance against turmoil in coming years.

Afghanistan’s annual opium harvest is coming, and the Taliban are expecting this year’s bumper crop to fund yet another season of political assassinations and coordinated attacks like the ones that struck Kabul and other Afghan cities this Sunday. According to the United Nations’ 2011 Afghanistan Opium Survey, Afghanistan’s farmers earned $1.4 billion from opium in 2011, an increase of 133 percent over the year before. That’s about 9 percent of the country’s G.D.P.

Romesh Bhattacharji, India’s former narcotics commissioner, believes Afghanistan should implement a licensing system like the one used in India. Here, opium is grown by accredited farmers and processed at government factories, such as the one in Ghazipur, a northern city on the banks of the Ganges. From here it is exported or processed into codeine and other medicines.

Conventional efforts to cut opium production in Afghanistan haven’t managed to dampen the heroin trade. Meanwhile, cancer and AIDS patients worldwide are living and dying in needless pain. So let’s cut out the middlemen, the illicit processors and the kingpins, and simply buy Afghan opium ourselves, in bulk, year after predictable year.

Kazai has also stepped up his complaints. Afghanistan's president raised another condition Tuesday for a long-awaited strategic partnership with the United States: The accord must spell out the yearly U.S. commitment to pay billions of dollars for the cash-strapped Afghan security forces.

The demand threatens to further delay the key bilateral pact and suggests that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is worried that the U.S. commitment to his country is wavering as the drawdown of foreign forces nears. The United States already pays the vast majority of the budget to train, equip and run the Afghan security forces and expects to do so for years to come to compensate for Afghanistan's moribund economy. But the yearly congressional budget process, as well as the American public's weariness with the Afghan conflict, would make it difficult for Washington to commit to a dollar figure years in advance.



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