The confusion that passes for Washington's Afghanistan policy was once again in evidence in the statement by United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the drawdown of American combat troops is expected to begin sometime in 2013, a year ahead of the earlier timetable. The statement created a stir from D.C to Delhi, and has added to the uncertainty that hangs over Afghanistan. With the Obama Administration balancing domestic calculations in an election year with international concerns about stability in Afghanistan, several U.S. officials have scrambled to explain Mr. Panetta's statement not as a change of the 2014 deadline, but an underlining of it: that the transition process would have to begin next year in order to meet the deadline. What impact these confusing signals will have on the proposed negotiations with the Taliban, in which the first steps are said to have been already taken, can only be guessed. The “reconciliation talks” are predicated on the premise that the Taliban are now a weakened force, and would therefore be willing to make a compromise agreement with other Afghan political stakeholders. The reality is that the Taliban are nowhere near defeat and the Afghan government forces are nowhere near capable of maintaining peace and security. With regional players such as Pakistan, India and Iran and international big powers all jostling to position themselves in the so-called Afghan endgame, the situation can only get more muddied.

In all this, only one thing is clear: Afghan civilians have borne the worst of more than a decade of war, and they will continue to do as long as that country is viewed more as a geo-strategic piece of real estate rather than as a nation with real people. The latest United Nations report on civilian casualties provides the depressing information that 3,021 civilians were killed in Afghanistan from January to December 2011, an increase of eight per cent over 2010 (2,790), and 25 per cent over 2009 (2,412). Of last year's toll, 77 per cent, or 2,332 deaths were attributed to the Taliban and other militants, such as the Haqqani network and the Hizb-e-Islami. Tellingly, civilian deaths from aerial attacks by security forces increased in 2011, despite the decrease in the number of such aerial attacks and the fewer number of civilian deaths attributed to the security forces. Afghanistan's tragedy today, much of it scripted by the U.S., is that civilians are bound to die as long as western troops remain on its soil, but there is no guarantee of their security if and when these troops depart, as there are no institutions or mechanisms strong enough to maintain the peace — a double jeopardy to which as yet there is no end in sight.

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