Leading article: One victim of the Taliban's advance in Afghanistan

The fate of Pervez Kambaksh mirrors the destiny of his country

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As so often, it is the single telling case that testifies more eloquently to the broader reality than any number of generalisations. Sayed Pervez Kambaksh's experience of Afghanistan's justice is one such case. Almost 18 months ago he was arrested for allegedly circulating an article about women's rights. After a judicial process riddled with irregularities, he was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death.

At the time, it was possible, just, to explain the verdict as the action of an overzealous and probably corrupt provincial court – something so clearly excessive and wrong that it would surely be overturned once an appeal was lodged with the higher court in Kabul. And so it was, after a spate of public protests abroad and representations through diplomatic channels. Last October, Pervez Kambaksh's death sentence was commuted to 20 years' imprisonment.

The commuted sentence prompted two further appeals: one from the prosecution, which wanted the death penalty reinstated, the other from the defence, demanding that the sentence be quashed. The result of that appeal, in so far as it happened, is now known. A secretive hearing, which took place before Mr Kambaksh's defence counsel had even submitted the evidence to make his case, determined that the 20-year term should stand. By any possible measure, 20 years for circulating an article about women's rights – likely to be served in Afghanistan's most notorious prison – would make a mockery of any judicial system. That this system has been lavishly funded, and supposedly reformed, by Western assistance shows, at very least, how very limited the effects of that help have been.

The only avenue now open to Mr Kambaksh is a personal appeal to President Karzai for a pardon. It is an appeal that Mr Kambaksh must lodge, for the sake of all Afghans who see their future in a law-governed state. As such, it is bound to test Mr Karzai's will and his vision for Afghanistan's future. But it will also test his political credibility. With his government coming under increasing pressure, both political and military, from Taliban forces, he could find it hard to resist the encroachment of fundamentalist forces.

It is not only President Karzai, however, who faces a dilemma. The visible decline of his power as the Taliban recovers more and more ground confronts the West and the Nato forces operating in Afghanistan with some equally delicate decisions. The new US President has already announced the dispatch of 17,000 more American troops in an immediate effort to improve security. But his administration is also nearing the end of a review of the whole Afghan operation.

It is expected that its recommendations will include requests for a greater contribution from the European allies, including Britain, but not necessarily of a military nature. The emphasis, it is already becoming clear, is likely to shift from combat to the building of infrastructure and institutions. And a key aspect of this shift, as recent statements from US administration officials have indicated, could be talks at some level with the Taliban.

The idea seems to be that those members of the Taliban whose prime objective is peace and security can be split from extremists whose aims are religious and ideological. How feasible this will be in practice remains to be seen. But the fate of Pervez Kambaksh will inevitably be a harbinger of where his country is heading – the very human face of the predicament now facing Afghanistan and the West.

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