In Afghanistan, the war on terror is anything but over

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The Independent Online

Afghans are not easily shocked. Repeated invasion, decades of civil war and centuries of poverty harden a place. Yet the latest atrocity to hit this nation was stunningly brutal, even by their dismal standards.

It happened early on Monday afternoon, a multiple execution by men determined to render it impossible for the international community to reconstruct or stabilise the country under the control of a US- supported government.

Five local workers from the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghanistan (Dacaar) were bumping along a dirt road in an unmarked pick-up truck, just as they had many times before.

They were returning from a mission to supply water to one of the country's thousands of miserably poor villages - a task to which Afghan employees were assigned as the area is deemed too dangerous for international staff. Their executioners were waiting. They held up the truck and ordered the men to line up by the road.

They tied their hands. They lectured them on the evils of local Afghans collaborating with international organisations and accused them of ignoring a previous fatwa banning them from doing so. Then they opened fire, spraying them from close range.

By the time the echoes of the Kalashnikovs had stopped bouncing around the stark landscape, four of the Afghans - an engineer, a driver, a mechanic and a drilling contractor - lay dead. The fifth man, badly injured in the legs, feigned death and was later rescued by villagers and taken to hospital.

Yesterday the news of the killings, in the south-eastern province of Ghazni, was made public in the capital, Kabul. Several aid agencies had warned that the security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating, citing a sharp rise in attacks on workers from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and United Nations staff - 16 last month - and the steadily rising death toll among soldiers in the fledgling Afghan army. The latest horrors seemed to confirm their case.

After learning of the killings, the charity Care International said it was considering suspending its operations in Afghanistan for the first time since the fall of the Taliban.

Dacaar, one of the biggest NGOs operating in Afghanistan, was expected to cease working in areas of Taliban activity. Gorm Pedersen, director of Dacaar, said that matters were "certainly getting worse".

The terms al-Qa'ida and Taliban are catch-alls that fail to reflect the assortment of anti-government militia in operation in Afghanistan. But in this case, the killers were explicit.

They told their victims that they were Taliban, supporters of the Islamist regime that the Americans sought to destroy after the twin towers of New York's World Trade Centre were brought crashing down two years ago.

Though ousted from power, the Taliban are not destroyed. Far from it. While their forces typically comprise groups of several hundred men, the Talbian have become more active and - in large parts of south and south-east Afghanistan - more popular.

This month, the US military launched one of the biggest of many anti-insurgency missions by its 9,000-strong forces. They claim to have killed more than 100 fighters in Zabul province over nine days. This will not be the last battle. The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, remains as elusive as Osama bin Laden. It seems the Americans no sooner arrest or kill one batch of guerrillas than another appears on the horizon. A US general said last week that the Taliban were "pouring in" from Pakistan, though he said they were not a serious threat. Reports abound of new Taliban training camps in border areas. His comments came as world attention was focusing again on Afghanistan two years after the terrorist attacks in America. The picture is far from rosy. True, there has been substantial rebuilding and economic growth in Kabul, where there is a large international presence and 5,000 Nato-led peace-keeping troops.

Residents interviewed yesterday expressed relief that the repressive Taliban government was gone, and genuine appreciation at the presence of the peace-keepers and the US troops. But that is the capital, an island of prosperity when compared with the rest of the country.

Take Surkhab, a village 35 miles south of Kabul. Yesterday the whiff of hashish hung thick in the air among the mud homes, having wafted up from a sweep of verdant-looking crops in the valley below the village. The 500 residents are hoping for a bumper harvest.

Mohammed Nabi, 40, said: "In a few months' time the smugglers will come and buy the hashish to sell to you in the West." A good crop should fetch $40 (£25) a kilogram, he said. Then the village will plant their rotation crop - opium poppies.

The village does not appear to oppose Afghanistan's transitional government, but they do find it remote and powerless. "The government never comes here," said Wali Jan, 44 , "They can't do anything about what we are growing. We need to eat, so we will go on growing this stuff until someone provides us with an alternative source of money."

Such places have helped to restore post-Taliban Afghan-istan to its position as the world's number one producer of opium, providing 90 per cent of the heroin in London.

Criticism abounds among aid agency officials in Kabul of the part played by the Americans in this process. The US military is widely accused of supporting warlords who are profiting from the booming narcotics trade, some of whom are within the interim government of Hamid Karzai.

To this should be added a deeper concern. Faced with a disaster in Iraq, the Americans are pressing hard for Afghanistan to stick to its agreed timetable of holding elections next June. Their critics say that a fair poll is impossible until the country's security situation is improved - a move that many believe would only be possible if the peace-keepers' mandate is expanded beyond Kabul, a move being contemplated by Nato.

They fear that the US will force elections through to claim a success, and lay the ground for pulling out before the job of reconstruction is close to completion. Paul O'Brien, from Care International, said: "This is not being driven by a realisation of the long-term needs of Afghanistan, but by short-term political considerations in the West."