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KABUL (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has replaced the architect of his Afghan war strategy with the general credited with turning around the Iraq campaign.
General Stanley McChrystal, commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, was replaced by his boss, General David Petraeus, just as the nine-year-old war reaches a critical stage.
With the insurgency growing despite more foreign troops, the government making peace moves to the Taliban, and renewed interest in reports of fabulous mineral resources, following are some questions and answers about the situation today:
DOES MCCHRYSTAL'S DISMISSAL SIGNAL SPLITS OVER AFGHAN POLICY?
In short, no. McChrystal was relieved of command after comments, mostly by aides, appeared in a profile of the general in "Rolling Stone" magazine. It wasn't so much about policy differences as it was about insubordination, and that is a domestic affair. The White House is still behind McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy, for now. It entails taking on the Taliban in their spiritual home and improving security -- alongside a push to boost local governance and development -- while training Afghan forces to take more control ahead of a gradual U.S. troop withdrawal from next year. Many U.S. allies in the 150,000-strong NATO-led international force have already planned their exits in coming months and years as domestic appetite wanes for a costly war that has already killed more than 1,850 foreign troops and many, many more Afghans.
Since being overthrown in 2001 and mostly lying low for a couple of years, the Taliban have re-emerged as a formidable foe who have withstood the best military technology in classic insurgency style, with or by intimidating local support, and funded partly by a billion-dollar drugs trade. Despite peace overtures from the government, the Taliban insist they will keep fighting until all foreign forces have left. Even if that happened overnight, there remains the difficulty of accommodating a fundamentalist militant movement in a government modeled on the ideal of a liberal Islamic multi-party democracy. Washington wouldn't mind some sort of accommodation if the Taliban could be split from al Qaeda but the leaders of both groups, probably somewhere in Pakistan, are close and include Osama bin Laden.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for September, President Hamid Karzai won support for modest peace overtures to the Taliban earlier this month at a national gathering of tribal elders and other notables. Parliament has been increasingly fractious, twice rejecting his ministerial choices, and some cabinet posts remain unfilled since last year's fraud-marred election. Karzai is also looking for a new interior minister and spy chief after both quit in the wake of security lapses at the traditional jirga. He is trying to shed one nickname -- the Mayor of Kabul -- by visiting more of the country, particularly Kandahar, his birthplace and the heart of the insurgency. Afghanistan remains deeply divided along tribal lines. While Karzai does enjoy personal popularity in the Pashtun south and east -- from where the Taliban draw their strength -- his kinsmen distrust political alliances he has formed with former warlords and militia leaders from elsewhere.
There has been renewed interest in geological reports that resurfaced earlier this month suggesting Afghanistan is sitting on a treasure chest of mineral riches, including the world's biggest untapped iron ore deposit. The mines ministry begins an international road show in London on Friday in a bid to lure investors. Although China is developing a copper mine, the reality is it will take years, even decades, to tap into a fraction of Afghanistan's mineral potential even if stability returned tomorrow. Most of the minerals are in remote areas without transport links or access to power or water. With no history of mining apart from artisanal gold and gem prospecting, there is also no skilled workforce. Afghanistan's $11 billion economy -- dwarfed by billions more foreign spending on the military and aid effort -- yields a per capita income of just $425, making it one of the poorest countries in the world.
Two parallel and dangerous rivalries have been unfolding in Afghanistan: a proxy war between India and Pakistan and another between Iran and the United States. Pakistan perhaps holds the highest cards in any possible deal with the Taliban to bring an end to the conflict. It has long admitted ties to the group, which emerged as a key strategic asset against arch-rival India in the chaos of post-Soviet Afghanistan. Like other regional players, Pakistan is eyeing an endgame and would rather have a friend in the Taliban in power that it can manipulate after foreign troops withdraw. Pakistan does not want Afghanistan to open separate talks with the Taliban and would have to be involved if any negotiations were to bear fruit. Pakistan is especially concerned about expanding Indian involvement in Afghanistan and has accused New Delhi of funding militant separatists on its own soil. Iran and the United States are also in the middle of a high-stakes game. Like the Pakistanis, the Iranians are telling Washington they will also have a stake in Afghanistan once foreign forces leave. Iran's intelligence services and members of the Revolutionary Guard are also said to be backing elements of the Taliban even though there is no love lost between Shi'ite Iran and the Sunni Muslim Taliban. On top of this, the Chinese and Russians are also pulling on Afghanistan. China's interest is largely commercial, while Russia is concerned in the longer term about instability spilling into central Asia.
For the small, educated middle-class, life is probably better now than it has been for decades. In the capital at least, business is booming -- although some of the new construction is likely funded by the illicit drugs trade. Tens of thousands of Afghans earn their livelihoods supporting the massive foreign military and aid effort in the country. Thousands of immigrants have returned from abroad and, while keeping one foot in their adopted nations, are starting or investing in small businesses. Basic health services are improving and millions of children are attending schools, including girls who were banned from education under the Taliban. Life remains a grind for most Afghans, however, who face endemic graft in almost all dealings with bureaucracy. They all want their economy to flourish and to be able to stand on their own feet, but security is the key.
Writing by David Fox; Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Jonathon Burch; Editing by Paul Tait