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US Envoy Faces Daunting Task in Reversing Afghan Decline

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, is visiting both countries this week, taking stock of a region increasingly threatened by the growing strength of the Taliban. U.S. and NATO officials are broadly rethinking a strategy that has failed to provide security or build a strong central government.

On a winter morning in Kabul and for millions of Afghans, it's another day trying to scrape together a living in a country riddled with corruption and insecurity.

Unemployment now stands around 40 percent. Each day, laborers like Farhad wait on street corners looking for odd jobs to earn money. He says his situation is now so desperate he would do nearly anything to support his family.

"If someone gave me thousands of dollars to go and kill someone, I would do it because my family is living in such a bad poverty," said Farhad. "The government and the international forces have done nothing for us."

The Afghan government blames a resilient Taliban for the situation. Loosely organized militant factions now exert influence over much of the largely rural country. In major cities, there are regular assaults on soft targets. This week, eight suicide attackers raided three government buildings in the heavily fortified capital, killing more than 20 people.

But the Afghan government has also come under scrutiny for the deteriorating situation. Old political rivalries stall lawmaking, and rampant corruption has hobbled government authority beyond Kabul.

With a crucial presidential election scheduled for August, President Hamid Karzai is defending his record and blaming international forces. He says the killing of civilians by foreign troops is undermining support for his government and provoking a public backlash against the international community.

"These days we are receiving criticism about the situation," said President Karzai. "But we continue to talk to the international community. It is a kind of gentle wrestling match between us and, God willing, Afghanistan will be the winner."

Veteran diplomat Holbrooke is no stranger to tough negotiations, but acknowledges facing a daunting challenge in Afghanistan. U.S. officials say Holbrooke is mainly listening this week in his meetings with Pakistan and Afghan leaders. But a former Afghan diplomat to Pakistan Ahmad Saeedi says Holbrooke faces steep obstacles in finding a solution.

"The problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan are even wider than a regional problem; it needs a broader solution," said Saeedi. "Bringing peace will need the participation of Iran, Pakistan and Russia. Right now it is difficult for the United States to accomplish this."

U.S. officials face crucial decisions in the coming months on issues such as military strategy and whether to support President Karzai's re-election bid. In the meantime, a new poll of Afghan civilians published this week indicates declining support for both President Karzai and foreign troops.