US commander insists Afghan convoy was legitimate target
Saturday December 22, 8:14 PM AFP
The US forces commander in Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, has insisted that US warplanes were right to launch an attack on a convoy that Afghan reports said killed 65 Afghan elders and tribal chiefs.
"Friendly forces don't fire surface to air missiles at you," Franks told AFP implying that US planes had been fired upon.
"We believe it was a bad convoy. We have reason to believe it was a good target," Franks said Saturday in Kabul just ahead of the inauguration of Afghanistan's new interim government.
"Right now we have people on the ground investigating but we are convinced it was a good target."
US officials said in Washington earlier that the convoy attacked in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday night was carrying al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.
But the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) quoted officials and residents in the eastern province of Paktia as saying it was carrying chiefs, mujahedin commanders and other dignitaries to the government inauguration.
AIP said US warplanes attacked the vehicles on a road at Sato Kandaw, 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province.
Paktia is on the Pakistan frontier and also borders Nangarhar province, where US warplanes have carried out intense bombing raids over the past two weeks to force al-Qaeda fighters of Osama bin Laden -- the main suspect in the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington -- out of their mountain hideouts.
"Several Afghan elders, tribal chiefs and commanders were among the victims of the killings," AIP quoted Sayed Yaqeen, an official of the Paktia tribal council, as saying.
Fourteen vehicles in the convoy were totally destroyed and according to one source quoted in the report, the victims included militia commander Mohammadi Ibrahim, brother of the renowned Afghan commander Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani.
It said bombing of the region continued until Friday morning.
The group had left from the town of Khost near the Pakistan border and was to make a stopover in Gardez en route to Kabul for the inauguration, it said.
"The convoy took an alternative route 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Gardez, which came under US attack several times," Yaqeen said.
But US officials in Washington said they were sure that the convoy was carrying Taliban leaders and senior followers of al-Qaeda chief bin Laden.
"It was a large convoy, and there were a lot of people killed and a lot of vehicles damaged, or destroyed," Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.
General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added: "We had some intelligence indicators that were cross referenced and determined by Central Command that in fact what we had was a convoy of vehicles, about 10 to 12 that contained leadership."
AC-130 gunships and fighter aircraft were launched from US carriers, Pace said, adding the operation took place near Khost. A command and control compound from which the convoy had departed was also hit, Pace said
Afghanistan's young elder takes control
Saturday December 22, 8:11 PM AFP
Hamid Karzai, who has been sworn in as Afghanistan's interim leader, is already a tribal elder and a veteran of an Afghan war and its bloody political battles.
Such experiences may explain why the 44-year-old Karzai, like a lot of Afghan men, looks much older than his years.
And in a country where the average life expectancy for men is just 46, the next six months are likely to bring more events that will speed the ageing process.
The Pashtun royalist took his oath as chairman of a cabinet of a powerful mix of Afghanistan's rival factions that must get the country on its feet again after more than two decades of conflict, including five years of harsh Taliban rule.
The post is partly a reflection of his ability to tackle the tough political landscape and a reward for his backing of the US bombing campaign in his homeland.
As chairman, Karzai will lead a 30-member body for six months, before a "Loya Jirga" grand assembly of elders appoints an 18-month transitional government to organise elections.
To get the post, hammered out at tough negotiations in Germany this month, he had to win the key endorsement of the powerful Northern Alliance.
The alliance took Kabul from the Taliban but is dominated by ethnic Tajiks who have the top posts in the cabinet.
But Karzai, whose main previous government responsibility was a brief stint as deputy foreign minister in 1992, has many of the credentials needed to satisfy the diverse demands of the Afghan factions.
As a member of the Pashtun community, which is the largest single group in Afghanistan, he is acceptable in a way that few Northern Alliance leaders would be.
As a close associate of ex-king Mohammed Zahir Shah, he can hope for royalist support. And his record as a fighter in the war against the 1979-89 Soviet occupation earns him the respect of former mujahedin fighters.
Little over a month ago, Karzai's main concern was to save his life as Taliban troops closed in on him.
Karzai slipped into Afghanistan in mid-October to foment an anti-Taliban revolt. Following a tip off, the Islamic militia raided his hideout in Uruzgan province.
Had he been caught, Karzai would no doubt have suffered the same fate as former mujahedin hero Abdul Haq who had been executed one week earlier while attempting the same mission.
Karzai escaped into Pakistan with help from American forces, according to US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- a claim denied by Karzai's family.
His forces later teamed up with former Kandahar governor Gul Agha to force the Taliban to surrender their main stronghold of Kandahar on December 7, two days after the factions in Bonn agreed he should head the new government.
Karzai originally backed the Taliban when they appeared in 1994 but quickly became disillusioned with their ruthless tactics and the arrival of Saudi militant Osama bin Laden and his followers. Karzai has often expressed bitterness at the presence of "foreign terrorists" in Afghanistan.
He blamed the Taliban for the assassination of his father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, in the Pakistani city of Quetta in 1999.
The killing saw Karzai become head of the Popalzai clan, which has long wielded considerable influence in southern Afghanistan. Karzai's grandfather was a president of the national council which operated during the reign of Zahir Shah until the king's ousting in 1973.
Karzai, born in Kandahar, was educated in Kabul and went to university in Simla, India. His fluent English has further endeared him to western leaders.
However, wary of Afghanistan being unceremoniously abandoned by the west as it was in 1989 after the Soviet withdrawal, Karzai earlier this week warned the international community against repeating its mistakes.
"The international community saw the consequences of neglecting Afghanistan. It should be wise enough not to do it again," he stressed.
It was a message he repeated in his inauguration speech Saturday, appealing for help from the United Nations and "other friendly countries" in reconstructing a country torn apart by more than two decades of war.
"Our country is in need of the support of the UN and friendly countries. We hope they will help us."
Saturday December 22, 7:30 PM
KABUL (Reuters) - Hamid Karzai, the Pashtun tribal chief sworn in as head of the post-Taliban administration in Afghanistan on Saturday, is a tall, patient man who in just weeks has been turned from an unknown exile to leader of one of the most devastated countries on earth.
He is unusually qualified to shoulder the huge task of trying to lead his war-torn country back to normal life.
A mix of traditional ties and modern experience meant he won the support of delegates at U.N.-sponsored talks in Bonn this month even though he was absent, away with his tribesmen negotiating the surrender by the Taliban of their last stronghold in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
That is also a promising basis for the interim government that takes office on Saturday, an early birthday present for Karzai who was born on December 24, 1957.
His personal qualities were obvious to all when he was sworn in as president of the government that will rule for six months at a ceremony in the Afghan capital, Kabul, attended by 2,000 tribal leaders, incoming cabinet members and foreign diplomats.
Looking confident and relaxed in his trademark lambskin hat, he made an eloquent appeal for peace and vowed to rebuild the nation, protect freedom of speech and religion and respect women's rights.
And in a show of diplomatic prowess, he paid respects to late Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masood, paused to welcome Herat Governor Ismael Khan when he arrived late, and granted outgoing president Burhanuddin Rabbani a top academic position.
"In this very important moment when the motherland is looking to us we should put our hands together to be brothers, to be friends, to be together, to forget the painful past and as brothers and sisters enter a new Afghanistan," he said.
In the new government, the Northern Alliance coalition of ethnic minorities has pledged to share power with the dominant Pashtuns to bring peace after 23 years of war.
Karzai's traditional credentials could scarcely be better.
Tall, balding with a trim salt-and-pepper beard, he is chief of the large Popalzai tribal group around Kandahar and scion of a royalist family with a tradition of public service.
During the 1980s Soviet war, he helped fund and arm fighters from his tribe, which lives in southern Afghanistan where Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar launched his fundamentalist Taliban movement and is still believed to be holed up.
Already a tribal elder at the age of 43, he has a string of very modern skills, including fluent English and an easy good-humoured presence.
Karzai was deputy foreign minister from 1992 to 1994 after the mujahideen (holy warriors) defeated the communists. He had spent much of the 1980s in the United States -- where his family ran Afghan restaurants in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Baltimore -- and enjoys strong Western support.
MODERN NORTH AND MODERN SOUTH
A main hurdle for the anti-Taliban camp was a lack of leaders among the Pashtuns, the group that often saw the Taliban as defenders of Pashtun interests against the northern minorities.
Karzai stepped in to fill that void on October 8, one day after the U.S. bombing campaign began, when he entered southern Afghanistan to mobilise Pashtun tribes against the Taliban and survived an attack by dozens of Taliban fighters.
He kept in regular contact with his supporters and the outside world via satellite telephone, including a call broadcast to the opening session of the Bonn conference he had wanted to attend as a royalist delegate.
"This meeting is the path to salvation," he said. "We are one nation, one culture. We are united and not divided. We all believe in Islam but in an Islam of tolerance."
Afghan expert Ahmed Rashid said Karzai shared the view of the Alliance triumvirate -- Interior Minister Yunis Qanuni, Defence Minister Mohammad Fahim and Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah -- that impoverished Afghanistan had to replace its traditional warlord approach with a modern parliamentary democracy.
"If you can link up modern north and modern south, you can form a decent government," he said.
INITIALLY SUPPORTED TALIBAN
When the Taliban started up in Kandahar in 1994, Karzai knew many of their leaders from the Soviet war and supported their drive to end chaos and lawlessness there.
But within a few months, he began to notice strange faces at the meetings he attended. He soon split with the movement and denounced it as manipulated by Pakistan and Arab extremists.
"These Arabs are in Afghanistan to learn to shoot," he said after becoming an outspoken Taliban critic. "They learn to shoot on live targets and those live targets are the Afghan people, our children, our women. We want them out."
Karzai and his father, former senator Abdul Ahad Karzai, began campaigning against the Taliban in 1997 from their exile base in Quetta, the closest Pakistani city to Kandahar.
In July 1999, his father was assassinated while walking home from evening prayers. The murder was attributed to the Taliban.
Born in Kandahar on December 24, 1957, the fourth of seven sons, he went to school in Kabul before going abroad to India to study political science.
He followed his father into politics in the 1980s and dedicated himself to the cause of opposition Soviet occupation. Politics became his passion, and he did not marry until two years ago. He wed an Afghan obstetrician-gynaecologist active in helping refugees in Pakistan.
Another of Karzai's traditionalist qualifications is his love for the national sport buzkashi, a tumultuous game in which horsemen battle for possession of a headless goat.
In late September, Karzai told Reuters he dreamed of the day when Afghans could hold a free Loya Jirga, or traditional assembly, and then celebrate with a wild game of buzkashi.
"We would love to see that," he said wistfully.
Hamid Karzai/Afghan PM -2: Cabinet Ministers Sworn In
(MORE) Dow Jones Newswires 12-22-01
Saturday December 22, 6:01 PM
Cabinet Ministers Sworn In
KABUL (AP)--Hamid Karzai was sworn in as prime minister of Afghanistan's new interim government Saturday amid hopes he can help heal a nation torn apart by decades of war.
Karzai signed the oath of office before Chief Justice Mohammed Qasim in the country's first peaceful transfer of power in decades. He then embraced outgoing President Burhanuddin Rabbani to applause from foreign diplomats and tribal leaders who swarmed to the capital, Kabul, from every province.
"I promise you that I will fulfill my mission to bring peace to Afghanistan," Karzai, wearing a traditional karakoli lambskin hat and an Uzbek robe, said in a speech in his native Pashtu and Dari, Afghanistan's two primary languages.
"Our country, as a result of the long war, has been distracted. We need hard work from all Afghans. Bearing in mind all these difficulties, our country is in need of support from the United Nations and all friendly countries. We should put our hands together to be brothers and friends. Forget the painful past," he said.
As he finished his speech, he smiled, nodded and bowed slightly as the crowd erupted in a thunderous ovation.
He swore in the other 29 members of his Cabinet - including two women - who stood behind him on the dais.
Karzai paid homage to Rabbini, with whom he has sharply disagreed in the past, telling him: "I must say Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar," or God is great, as the audience shouted in unison.
He concluded the formal ceremony by handing Rabbani the written agreement of the transfer of power, a unique scene for Afghanistan where power has been seized in war and coups since the ouster of the monarchy in 1973.
The 30-member government faces the staggering challenge of rebuilding a nation whose citizens are largely unprepared for a long, hungry winter and whose coffers were left empty by the ousted Taliban regime.
Karzai, a 44-year-old Pashtun tribal leader, immediately promised to address the issues of free expression, women's rights and the battered education system.
As a Pashtun, Karzai represents Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group, and his appointment as prime minister was seen as a balancing of the northern alliance's grip on the most important ministries.
The Westernized Karzai is also a figure with whom the Americans are comfortable; he and the U.S. military worked closely in the siege of Kandahar, the southern Afghanistan city that was the Taliban's stronghold.
A drum roll sounded as Rabbani arrived and strode a red carpet past an honor guard of smartly dressed Afghan soldiers and an audience of 2,000 Afghan and foreign dignitaries.
Cleric Barkat Ullah opened the proceedings with Quran recitations in a haunting voice, and everyone then rose to sing the national anthem.
The speakers and crowd repeatedly paid tribute to Ahmed Shah Masood, the legendary guerrilla leader who led the battle against Soviet occupation in the 1980s, then the Taliban, before he was assassinated by a suicide bomb Sept. 9. A huge portrait of Masood was draped behind the podium.
Rabbani called Masood "the great hero of this Islamic jihad," or holy war. He also thanked the international community for its backing, saying his country is "thirsty for peace."
"In this very important moment, our fate is going to be decided," Rabbani said. "I thank the great God, who gave us the power that we could present a united front once again. This is a historic moment that has not been witnessed in the last century."
Underscoring the differences in a country where warlords hold sway over large swaths of territory, some wore traditional deep blue turbans and others were in military garb. While women are starting to emerge from the Taliban's severe repression, the few who were allowed to attend were segregated into a few rows.
Special U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi welcomed the dignitaries by name, struggling to speak in Farsi before switching to English.
"Looking around us, it is all too clear that Afghanistan has been physically and emotionally devastated," Brahimi said. "We all pray that this day will mark the end of the long dark night of conflict and strife."
Describing the suffering of the Afghan people, he said, "Up to 5 million of them are still living outside of their country as refugees, mainly in Pakistan and Iran, whose great generosity" must be noted.
The international community has an important role to play, he said, "and rarely has it been so unanimous" in the formation of a new country.
"We all share the same goal," Brahimi said _ to restore peace, ensure safety and stability and "work hand-in-hand" to rebuild Afghanistan.
"The time has now come for both sides," he said, "to live up to their commitment."
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said that until now, the Taliban had been the face of Afghanistan.
"Today we want to clean this face," he said. "Islamic countries will support you, and Iran as your great neighbor will help you, as it did within the last years of fighting."
Security was extremely tight. Armed British Royal Marines in camouflage uniforms - the vanguard of an international force mandated to protect the new government - patrolled outside the whitewashed Interior Ministry where the inauguration took place.
Afghan police in uniform patrolled the city and watched from rooftops. Streets near the ministry were cordoned off and entire neighborhoods were closed.
Representatives from every province jostled to get through the metal detector and into the hall, and there was a commotion by people who said they were promised they could attend, but weren't allowed in.
Loudspeakers broadcast the ceremony to the overflow crowd milling outside. Old men in graying beards, wrapped in shawls of woolen blankets, listen raptly, standing next to clean-shaven men in topcoats and Western suits and Uzbeks in traditional clothes.
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