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Second Place
Balazs Gardi VII Network
"Afghanistan - Falling Apart"

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The Taliban is the dominant force in more than half of Afghanistan. Much of the rural areas, the district centres, the main roads and huge territories in between were retaken (or sometimes in fact never lost) by the Taliban since the US led war in 2001. The territory controlled by the Taliban has increased and the frontline is getting closer to Kabul. Despite tens of thousands of NATO-led troops and billions of dollars in aid poured into the country the Taliban effectively blocks or co-opts most positive development. The Afghan opium production has flourished in the past two years and now represents 92 percent of the world's supply. This illegal trade yields an estimated USD 3,000,000,000 that fuels the Taliban, local warlords and their private armies, and "foreign fighters" who travel unchecked across Afghanistan's porous borders. Hardly any of this drug money benefits the larger population. They remain desperately poor, unable to shake off either the Taliban rule, or rid themselves of the dependence on opium production. Opium provides the only viable income in many areas. The central government's Drug Eradication Force is a 600-strong unarmed police agency that cannot possibly take on a problem of this scale. NATO officials have openly described their own counter-narcotics efforts as a failure, and speak of the current approach as one of "strategic patience". The Taliban have set up a professional network of routes for smuggling drugs and weapons and they now move almost freely into and around Afghanistan. Although a ring-road highway was partly built and reconstructed from international aid to connect the major cities and to foster transportation and trade, the roads remain completely insecure, and even heavily armed NATO forces are reluctant to travel on them. Although they are still celebrated as success stories, in reality they are either controlled or regularly raided by the Taliban. Suicide bombings, previously unheard of in Afghanistan, are becoming more and more common. IED incidents have risen eightfold only in the past two years, including several devastating attacks in the capital. At least 1,200 civilians have been killed in 2007, half in operations carried out by international or Afghan forces. The international forces perform now four times as many air strike sorties in Afghanistan than in Iraq. The construction of new schools is widely cited by American and NATO forces as a positive step towards winning the hearts and minds of the local populace, and rebuilding the social fabric of the Afghan society. Yet, in many cases, these are only symbolic gestures, as schools are subsequently burned down, and teachers beaten, murdered, or intimidated by the Taliban. In June 2007, Hamid Karzai was flown in to Ghazni to give a speech to local elders and a wider audience at one of the largest newly built schools, with a possible capacity of several thousand students. He offered help, promised to build hospitals and bring stability to the region. During his 15-minute speech seven rockets hit the area, marking the third assassination attempt President Karzai survived so far. All rockets missed their targets, but the school is still unused today. The teachers were beaten again and nobody dares to defy the extremists who remain in power in the region. Hamid Karzai, for his part, is a weak and unpopular leader, often jokingly referred to as "the mayor of Kabul", and rumors circulate widely that one of his brothers is a key player in the country's narcotic trade. So far, he has managed to hold on to power, but his position remains as unstable as Afghanistan itself. The central Afghan province of Bamian, seen from the air on June 6, 2007 in Afghanistan.


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