Asia Crisis

Afghans sceptical that security's getting better

GHAZNI, Afghanistan, May 19 (Reuters) - The Taliban in Afghanistan are getting weaker, the U.S. ambassador tells local councillors in the eastern city of Ghazni, but he is met by a wall of shaking heads and tutting noises; 'no, no', some reply.

While Afghan government and international forces point to some success in restricting Taliban guerrilla attacks across the south and east, suicide bombs -- 140 last year -- roadside bombs, kidnappings and threats have created an atmosphere of fear.

"We don't want food, we don't want schools, we want security!" said one woman council member.

"Ok, let me ask you," replied U.S. ambassador William Wood. "Are the Taliban weaker now?"

"No," the councillors said, shaking their heads.

"But are these Taliban or criminals?" Wood asked.

"Taliban," they replied.

On the back of military operations, NATO-led forces in Afghanistan aim to "drain the swamp" of the insurgency by promoting development, constructing roads, schools and hospitals and extending the reach of Afghan authorities to remote areas.

But the process is slow and even Western leaders admit reconstruction and development in Afghanistan has been patchy, poorly coordinated and under-funded.

Ghazni is only a two-hour drive down the country's main highway from the capital, Kabul, and while it is not as dangerous or as unstable as provinces such as Kandahar or Helmand to the south, the villages around the historic city have seen a sharp upsurge of Taliban activity in the past two years.

Residents have received so-called "night letters", notes scattered or pushed under doorways by Taliban militants in the dead of the night, threatening to kill anyone cooperating with foreign forces and the Afghan government.

Taliban gunmen kidnapped 23 South Koreans in Ghazni province last July, killing two of them before releasing the others and securing a major boost from a $20-million ransom.

The U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Ghazni has built roads, schools and clinics in the province, but construction workers have what U.S. Lieutenant Jeff Annon called security "involvements" every week.

Road construction sites have been mortared at night, and the PRT has been shot at on numerous occasions. A road worker was killed last week and a foreign civilian working with the PRT was killed by a roadside bomb last year, Annon said.

"The shift from the battlefield to terrorism means that the Taliban have given up any chance of winning the loyalty of the people of Afghanistan and instead seek to intimidate them," said Wood. But, he said, the people of Afghanistan have "never been intimidated".

But at least one Afghan reporter in Ghazni begged to disagree.

"We are scared of the Taliban," he said, asking not to be named. "We are scared of leaving the city. They are living in the villages." (Editing by Roger Crabb)