December 15, 2010 / 5:55 PM / 9 years ago

Red Cross paints grim Afghan picture before review

KABUL (Reuters) - Worsening violence across Afghanistan is making it harder than at any time in three decades for aid groups to reach people in need, the Red Cross said on Wednesday, a day before Washington reveals a major strategy review.

An Afghan girl collects empty boxes during a food aid distribution in Kabul May 5, 2010. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

The U.S. review of President Barack Obama’s Afghan war strategy has identified areas of important progress, the White House said, with the decision a year ago to send 30,000 extra troops helping to arrest the Taliban’s momentum.

That may help to allow some U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from July next year, as Obama promised when he announced the extra troops last December.

However, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it expected fighting to increase in the coming year just as it had in 2010, the deadliest year of the war since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001.

“The proliferation of armed groups threatens the ability of humanitarian organisations to access those in need. Access for the ICRC has over the last 30 years never been as poor,” Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC in Afghanistan, told a news conference.

The group rarely makes public comments about its work.

“The sheer fact the ICRC has organised a press conference ... is an expression of us being extremely concerned of yet another year of fighting with dramatic consequences for an ever-growing number of people in by now almost the entire country,” he said.

The White House has said that, apart from noting progress in Washington’s goal of turning the tide against the Taliban, the two-month review will also cite some success against al Qaeda and greater cooperation with the Pakistani government.

Pakistan, facing its own battle with homegrown Islamist militants, has been an integral part of the Afghanistan strategy because insurgents have long been able to find safe havens in its largely lawless northwest near the Afghanistan border.

Violence is at its worst across Afghanistan since 2001, with the insurgency spreading out of traditional strongholds in the south and east into once peaceful areas in the north and west.

Military and civilian casualties are at record highs despite the presence of about 150,000 foreign troops, 100,000 of them Americans. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said nothing in Obama’s review suggested U.S. troops would not be able to start leaving from next July.

No details about the pace or scale of those withdrawals have been released, or from which areas of Afghanistan they would first start to leave.

NATO leaders agreed at a summit in Lisbon last month to accept Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s timetable for foreign combat operations to end and for Afghan security forces to take over security responsibility from the end of 2014.

“INACCESSIBLE”

The ICRC’s Stocker said many areas of Afghanistan, particularly in the north, were now inaccessible not only for the ICRC but for the hundreds of other aid groups.

The ICRC’s assessment followed media reports of two new classified intelligence reports which said there was a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its border.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the National Intelligence Estimates offer a more negative assessment than the Obama administration’s review is about to unveil.

It said the intelligence reports — one on Afghanistan and one on Pakistan — show that there has been progress but Pakistan’s unwillingness to shut down insurgent sanctuaries remains a serious obstacle.

The overall picture has been clouded by the death of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan and one of Washington’s veteran diplomats.

Holbrooke had an uneasy relationship with Karzai after they clashed over election fraud in August 2009 but had built strong ties with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari.

Civilians continue to bear the brunt of the conflict.

On Wednesday, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said its aircraft had accidentally killed an Afghan civilian and wounded two children after a patrol came under attack in southern Helmand province on Tuesday.

Civilian casualties caused by foreign forces have long caused friction between Karzai and his Western backers, although the numbers caused by ISAF troops have fallen since the rules for using air strikes were tightened.

Separately, ISAF said a homemade bomb — the most deadly weapon used by insurgents — killed three Afghan children and wounded nine people on Wednesday in neighbouring Kandahar.

Foreign military casualties stand at 693 for the year, by far the worst yearly toll of the war, according to figures kept by monitoring website www.iCasualties.org and Reuters.

The high casualty figures have made the war increasingly unpalatable in many European NATO members, with governments coming under pressure to withdraw their troops or change from combat to training missions.

On Monday, a government report said Germany aimed to start withdrawing its troops by the end of 2011.

Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Arshad Mohammed, Missy Ryan and JoAnne Allen in Washington; Writing by Paul Tait; editing by David Stamp

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