Afghan Government's Weak Hold Outside Kabul

President Bush made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Thursday, where he praised the Afghan government's progress. Madeleine Brand speaks with Declan Walsh, Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent for London's Guardian newspaper, who says that — despite President Bush's remarks — the government's control of the country doesn't extend far beyond the borders of its capital city, Kabul.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Before heading to India, President Bush paid a surprise visit to Afghanistan this week. He refocused attention on the country that has largely slipped from public view. The Bush Administration considers the invasion five years ago, and the subsequent democratic elections, a success. Eighteen thousand U.S. Troops still remain in the region.

Declan Walsh is a correspondent from London's Guardian newspaper. And he just returned from Afghanistan.

And Declan, you write that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's control ranges from minimal to nonexistent. What do you mean by that?

DECLAN WALSH reporting:

President Karzai has quite a lot of influence in the capital, Kabul. The problem is that when you move into the countryside, the situation varies greatly depending where you are. When you're in North Afghanistan, there certainly is relative peace. When you move to the South of the country, there's an entire swathe of southern and eastern provinces which are racked by immigrant security problems at the moment. The Taliban has launched a rather fighting offensive in the last six or eight months that have seen an increased number of suicide bombs. There's been the highest number of American casualties since 2001.

Generally when you leave the main town, as I did last week in Helmet(ph) Province, you find that people are terrified. They say that the Taliban come and visit them at night. They pin threatening notices called night letters on their front doors warning them not to cooperate with Central Government.

BRAND: Now one of the goals of the 2001 invasion was to rid the country of the Taliban. Has that not been a success?

WALSH: No, it hasn't been a success. The strength of the Taliban has ebbed and flowed over the last number of year. Central Government considers that the Taliban as a political force is effectively finished, and many analysts would agree with that. It's very difficult to know what the strength of the Taliban is at this stage. Most people say that they're certainly in the hundreds, possibly in the thousands. But they seem to, for a relatively small force, they do seem to be able to impose quite a lot of insecurity and a lot of fear in these rural areas. And they only need to explode a relatively small number of suicide attacks to really clamp down on certain Southern cities and to, more importantly, cut off the international aid presence which the Central Government agrees is essential to convincing people of the merits of the new government and bring stability to the region. Aid just hasn't reached large parts of the South because the security situation is so perilous.

BRAND: Well, what does the state of affairs mean, this control in the South and Eastern part of the country by the warlords, by the Taliban? What does this mean for the future of Hamid Karzai's government?

WALSH: It's raised a lot of questions about the stability of President Karzai's government. I mean it doesn't appear that the President Karzai's government is in any imminent danger of collapse or anything near that. But it does underscore is that he's still heavily reliant on the presence of foreign troops to maintain his authority or some authority in these provinces.

The violence in the South and the East has also raised tensions dramatically with neighboring Pakistan. President Karzai and many Afghan officials strongly believe that the Taliban are based across the border in Northern Pakistan, and have free reign effectively to cross into Afghanistan to carry out these attacks and return to Pakistan. And this indeed one issue that President Bush is expected to bring up with President Musharraf when he visits Islamabad Saturday.

BRAND: Declan Walsh of the Guardian newspaper, thank you for speaking with us.

WALSH: You're welcome.

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