Remember Afghanistan? Insurgents bring suicide terror to country
A suicide bomber yesterday rode into town, killing at least 20 in the deadliest insurgent attack since the US invasion. More than 1,600 were killed in 2005, and the murder rate is rising. The rule of law has collapsed. The government is trapped in its own fortified compound in the capital. Soon, Britain will commit another 3,500 troops to a dangerous mission with no clear goals or exit strategy...

By Kim Sengupta
Published: 17 January 2006

At least 20 people died in a suicide attack in Afghanistan when a motorcyclist detonated his explosives-packed vest. In a separate strike, five Afghan soldiers were killed when a 15-year-old suicide bomber threw himself in front of their convoy. On Sunday, a Canadian diplomat was among three victims of a similar blast.

It was the bloodiest 48 hours in what is turning into the most violent month in Afghanistan since the country was "liberated" during the US-led invasion in October 2001. And it is into this increasingly savage insurgency that up to 3,500 more British troops will be sent from March.

The most lethal attack was on the town of Spin Boldak near the border with Pakistan, the birthplace of the Taliban. The relentless rise in violence has been described as the "re-Talibanisation" of Afghanistan.

The new Taliban are deploying tactics that have torn Iraq to shreds, and Afghanistan is seeing a surge in the previously unknown practice of suicide bombings 25 in four months. This is seen as the reintroduction of al-Qa'ida into Afghanistan a devastating example of how over-extending the "war on terror" into Iraq is rebounding on the West with vengeance. Tony Blair declared after the overthrow of the Taliban and the retreat of Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida that "this time we will not walk away" , a reference to how Afghanistan was allowed to sink into its cycle of destruction after the West had used and then abandoned the country in the Cold War against the Soviets.

President George Bush, supported by Mr Blair, the critics say, has subsequently neglected Afghanistan, toppled Saddam, and spawned " al-Qa'ida in Iraq" led by the Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This is the reality on the ground awaiting thousands of British troops being sent in the next few months into Afghanistan a redeployment which in itself is part of the disengagement plan for Iraq.

The British force will be supported by planned contributions from the Netherlands of 1,400 to add to forces already there from the US, Canada, Germany, Italy and Spain. The bulk of the American combat troops are going to withdraw to be replaced by British forces in the province of Helmand and the most dangerous of the frontier areas.

There is, however, rising apprehension that Britain will be forced to take up the vast bulk of the fighting burden. The Nato "commitment" is, however, a matter of intense debate within member countries. The Dutch deployment has been agreed by the government, but not ratified by parliament. Countries such as Italy have refused to send more troops. Francesc Vandrell, the EU's special representative to Afghanistan, warned that it would be "a heavy blow" to Europe's commitment, and Afghanistan's future, if the Dutch failed to agree their deployment.

Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's President, said the attacks were designed to " frighten" off Nato members planning to send extra troops, as well as donor countries who are due to meet in London at the end of the month to draw up a deployment plan.

President Karzai, speaking from his heavily fortified palace at Kandahar, said the attacks showed "desperation". He also warned that the country may once again become a breeding ground for devastating assaults, such as the World Trade Centre attacks in New York, unless steps were taken now to combat resurgent Islamist militancy.

He said: "We are in a joint struggle against terrorism, for us and for the international community. If you don't defend yourself here, you will have to defend yourself back home, in European capitals and America's capitals."

Despite elections last year, presented as concrete steps towards stability, President Karzai's Afghan forces, trained by Nato, are no match for al-Qa'ida and its supporting phalanx of former Taliban. The real fight will have to be continued by Western troops. Heroin cultivation has rocketed in the atmosphere of lawlessness, with 90 per cent of the supplies in Europe now coming from the country.

The attack by the teenager was in the southern city of Kandahar, the heart of the Pashtun belt. Khalid Abdullah, who witnessed the attack, said: " I saw a boy of about 15 with bulky clothes running towards the soldiers in their trucks, then there was a loud explosion. He had blown himself up. People were screaming, there was blood everywhere."

The attack at Spin Boldak took place during a wrestling contest on the holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Years of conflict

By Jerome Taylor
  • October 2001 - US-led invasion of Afghanistan begins
  • December 2001 - Hamid Karzai is sworn in as president of Afghanistan. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and Osama bin Laden survive the war. Taliban and Arab fighters start anti-government insurgency
  • July 2002 - After weeks of guerrilla resistance in the south -east, Haji Abdul Qadir, the vice-president, is killed in Kabul. US air raid kills 48 civilians
  • September 2002 - Karzai escapes assassination attempt
  • June 2003 - Renewed fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters in Kandahar province kills 49
  • September 2004 - Karzai again escapes assassination
  • November 2004 - Karzai re-elected with 55 per cent of votes
  • May 2005 - Details emerge of prisoner abuse in detention centres run by US authorities
  • June 2005 - Three elite Navy Seals and 16 soldiers are killed during combat operations
  • August 2005 - US military says 100 militants are killed this month
  • September 2005 - Bomb attacks fail to stop Afghans voting in the first parliamentary and local elections for 30 years
  • October 2005 - Insurgents renew their attacks on government targets killing a top cleric
  • December 2005 - A resurgent Taliban targetspeacekeeping forces. Al Qai'da says the Taliban still controls large parts of Afghanistan
  • January 2006 - Increasing violence leaves scores of civilians dead including a senior Canadian diplomat