Leading Article: Victims at the heart of the struggle

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The Independent Online

Fears that Afghanistan was beginning to slip from the world's attention have been dispelled by a combination of savage reports on conditions in the country and a growing rift between the allies on how to pursue the war.

The reports, from Oxfam and the Presidency Group and Atlantic Council in the US, all paint a picture which has become depressingly familiar to reporters and workers on the ground. Opium production is on the increase; the Taliban is resurgent; the hold of the central government of President Karzai is tenuous over much of the country and humanitarian conditions are worsening. The military effort is hampered by a shortage of troops.

It is partly in response to this picture, and egged on by the imperatives of an election year and a US President determined to leave office on a high note, that the US administration has put the heat on its Nato allies to step up their operations in Afghanistan. No doubt for similar reasons, it has decided to ratchet up its own military efforts by crossing the Pakistan border with attacks on the al-Qa'ida leadership.

The trouble with this aggressiveness is that it could easily backfire. Crossing into Pakistani airspace has brought US forces the scalp of a top al-Qa'ida leader, Abu Laith al-Libi, but such aggressiveness could destabilise Pakistan at a critical election time. Equally, writing to Germany accusing it of backsliding in the "war on terror", as Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, has done, threatens to break Nato apart at a time when another member, Canada, is considering a withdrawal of forces. Public opinion in Italy is exhibiting increasing doubts about their own commitments in Afghanistan.

At the heart of this is a divide between America and its allies over how this war should be pursued and the relative weight that should be given to civilian, as opposed to military, efforts. But the victim, it should never be forgotten, in all this is not high politics but the ordinary Afghan citizen. Which is why The Independent considers it so vital to defend Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the student condemned to death for downloading material on women's rights.

The return of the Taliban would be a disaster for Afghanistan and its people. The trick is to ensure that the President is not so weakened in the struggle for hearts and minds that he gives in to Islamist demands for such intolerable punishments.