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December 23, 2005

Qanuni Steps Down From Opposition Leadership
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
December 23 2005 -- Mohammad Yunis Qanuni the speaker of the lower house (Wolesi Jirga) of the Afghan National Assembly has stepped down as leader of the opposition block of which he was a chief of. The opposition block, National Reconciliation Front was setup specifically for the parliamentary elections that were held 2005.

Qanuni said at a press conference late Thursday that he cannot be the chief of parliament and at the same time chief of the opposition. Qanuni also said “Several times, I said that if I became head of the parliament…I would resign from being the chairman of the opposition party. Now, I’m abiding by my promise.”

According to Qanuni the new opposition leader would be Burhanuddin Rabbani who was the President of Afghanistan during the 1990s. Rabbani who withdrew his candidacy for the speaker of the lower house made way for Qanuni's victory.

During the press conference Qanuni also spoke about his vision of the parliament. Qanuni said "My belief is that the parliament of Afghanistan should support the positive policies of the government,” Also adding that “It is in the national interest, the parliament, the judiciary and other arms of the government should cooperate. This cooperation will help the people of Afghanistan."

A Leading Afghan Lawmaker Quits the Opposition to Back Karzai
By CARLOTTA GALL The New York Times December 23, 2005
KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 22 - The new chairman of the lower house of Parliament, Muhammad Yunus Qanooni, said Thursday that he would resign as leader of the opposition to support the government of Afghanistan in the interests of the people.

His announcement, at a news conference in the Parliament building, was seen as a peace offering to President Hamid Karzai, whom he has opposed since leaving the government in 2004 to run against Mr. Karzai in the presidential race. Mr. Qanooni finished a distant second to Mr. Karzai in the race, but defeated an ally of Mr. Karzai's and six others on Wednesday for the leadership position.

"I cannot at the same time be chairman of the House of People and the opposition of the government," he said. "Many times in the past, I have mentioned that if the elected representatives of the people trusted me to serve as the head of Parliament, I would resign from the leadership of the opposition party of Afghanistan. And now I am standing on my promise."

Mr. Qanooni has always called himself a "loyal opposition" figure, yet opponents accuse him of having ambitions to set up an alternative base of power in Parliament and do away with the presidency.

Mr. Qanooni said his priority was otherwise.

"Some kind of coordination between the three branches of government, based on the Constitution of Afghanistan, will help us achieve more for the people of Afghanistan," he said. "In the past four years people have not felt an economic change in their lives."

He passed the leadership of his opposition bloc to Burhanuddin Rabbani, a fellow ethnic Tajik and former president, who withdrew from the race for chairman in favor of the younger Mr. Qanooni.

A former minister of tribal affairs, Arif Nurzai, was elected first deputy chairman of the lower house, and a woman, Fawzia Kofi, 30, was elected as the second deputy.

A student of law and political science at Kabul University, Ms. Kofi urged the 68 female delegates, who had markedly failed to support the three female candidates standing for the chairman position, to support a woman for second deputy. She won with 49 votes, defeating nine other candidates easily.

A Kabul court on Thursday sentenced to death two men, Timur Shah and Haroon, who uses one name, for the May kidnapping of an Italian aid worker, Clementina Cantoni, and for killing two businessmen and raping two Afghan girls in separate crimes. A third man received a 20-year sentence for complicity in the kidnapping of Ms. Cantoni.

Afghanistan: ADB approves US $55 million for post-conflict country
KABUL, 23 December (IRIN) - The Asian Development Bank (ADB) on Wednesday approved the first part of a projected US $105 million programme to reform Afghanistan's fiscal management and public administration systems, with an assistance package totaling $55 million.

A loan of $48 million and grant of $7 million comprise the first of two three-year programmes to develop new systems and procedures to improve budget programming, strengthen resource mobilisation, improve the civil service and enhance monitoring of public finance, the bank said in a statement.

"The programme will promote good governance through measures such as participatory and transparent budget formulation and the introduction of merit based promotions in the civil service," ADB economist Bruno Carrasco said from the bank's headquarters in Manila.

Afghanistan has made significant progress in achieving macroeconomic stability over the last three years, particularly with public financial management, the bank has noted. The programme aims to assist the government in its reform drive, from addressing its most immediate post-conflict needs to developing a medium-term sustainable development framework.

Establishing a legislative and administrative framework - including reforming and restructuring key agencies, developing human resource management and determining new pay and grade systems - will enhance the effectiveness of the civil service, the bank stressed in the statement.

Edward Haugh, the ADB's Senior Advisor for Afghanistan Operations, said that the scheme would assist the country's efforts to become an effective, accountable state, capable of delivering a range of services to its people, including security and basic social services.

By the end of 2004, the ADB had fulfilled its pledges made at a key Afghan reconstruction conference held in Tokyo in January 2002, of providing $500 million in highly concessional loans, grant-financed technical assistance and private sector investments.

Since resuming operations in Afghanistan in 2002, the ADB has approved seven public-sector loans totalling $513.7 million (to the end of July 2005) and some $40 million in technical assistance.

Death for aid worker's kidnappers
Thursday, 22 December 2005 BBC News
Three Afghans found guilty of the high-profile kidnapping of an Italian aid worker, Clementina Cantoni, have been given 20 year prison sentences.

Two of them have also been sentenced to death for kidnapping and killing an Afghan businessman, Hafizullah Zadran.

The verdicts were handed down after a one-day trial in the capital, Kabul. The three have the right to appeal.

Ms Cantoni was released in June after being held for more than three weeks after armed men dragged her from a car.

Photographs

Ms Cantoni's abduction in Kabul led to street protests by Afghan widows that she worked with.

The court said the three-man gang was led by Temur Shah.

Italian newspapers have reported that Ms Cantoni identified Temur Shah from photographs shown to her by investigators.

The Afghan government had denied at the time that any concessions were made in order to secure Ms Cantoni's release.

But Italian newspapers had said that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been paid to the kidnappers

Ms Cantoni had been in Afghanistan since September 2003, in charge of a programme supporting more than 10,000 widows and their children.

House Passes Defense Bill With 50 Billion For Iraq, Afghan Operations
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
December 23 2005 -- The United States House of Representatives has approved a 453,000 million dollar spending bill to fund America's military.

The measure, which was passed by the Senate earlier this week, includes some 50,000 million dollars for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bill now goes to President George W. Bush, who is expected to sign it into law. The measure also includes some 29,000 million dollars for rebuilding infrastructure on the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coast that was destroyed in last August's Hurricane Katrina.

Afghan fighting leaves three dead
Thursday, 22 December 2005 BBC News
Two militants and one policeman have been killed in eastern Afghanistan after militants clashed with Afghan and US forces, officials say.

The fighting started after militants attacked Afghan police and US forces in the province of Ghazni, they said.

They said six men were detained, three of whom were wounded in the clash.

Meanwhile US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at the main US base at Bagram, has ruled out any rapid pullout of US forces from Afghanistan.

He said while the US was planning to reduce its troops in Afghanistan, withdrawing forces rapidly would impede operations against al-Qaeda fighters and their allies.

"If we were to withdraw from Afghanistan precipitously, or from Iraq, the terrorists would attack us first somewhere else and then they would attack us at home, let there be no doubt," Mr Rumsfeld said.

Violence linked to insurgency has left more than 1,400 people dead in Afghanistan this year - the worst violence in the country since US-led forces ousted the Taleban in late 2001.

Afghanistan: Not Just a Pretty Face
Political sensation Fawzia Gailani dismisses suggestions that her electoral triumph in Herat was down to her looks.

By Wahidullah Amani and Salima Ghafari in Kabul (WP No. 17, 22-Dec-05)
Institute for War & Peace Reporting

The undisputed heroine of Afghanistan’s recent parliamentary elections is a little-known businesswoman from the conservative western province of Herat.

Fawzia Gailani’s success is little short of astounding in a country where, until just four years ago, women were not allowed to work or go to school. She came first out of 162 candidates in Herat – the only woman to take the top spot in any of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. And with close to 17,000 votes, she was, by a large margin, the country’s top woman vote getter.

The female stars of the race, political heavyweights such as Kabul’s Shukria Barakzai or Nangahar’s Safia Seddiqi, received just a fraction of Gailani’s impressive total. Seddiqi, a poet who rose to political prominence during the emergency Loya Jirga, came in third in Nangahar, with just over 9,000 votes. Barakzai, a political analyst and editor, came 24th in Kabul’s race with approximately 2,200 votes.

Gailani, a diminutive 33-year-old mother of six, is convinced that it was her unstinting service to the province that secured her a seat. But many in Herat – both supporters and detractors – hint that her looks and her large and ubiquitous campaign posters secured the win.

"Fawzia was not well-known in Herat," said Nahid Baqi, a student at the literature department at Herat University. "Certainly her posters had something to do with it."

Since her victory, Gailani has received a lot of media attention, and some of it has not been kind. Newspaper pieces hinting that her appearance, rather than her intellect or acuity, attracted voters make her angry.

"It is absolutely not true that people voted for me because of the posters," she said. “I established courses for women in Herat to teach them English, computer courses and the Holy Koran.”

She also launched the city’s first fitness centre for women – continuing a line of work she began as a refugee in Iran, where she spent 16 years during the wars and strife that have plagued Afghanistan’s recent history.

But analysts believe that the real reason for Gailani’s surprising success is her last name.

The Gailani family is an illustrious one in Afghanistan, as bearers of a Sufi Muslim tradition. Family members played a prominent role among the mujahedin resistance to the Soviet invastion, and gained more kudos by staying out of the bloody internecine conflict that followed the collapse of communist rule in 1992.

“Gailani is a religious family,” said Fazel Rahman Oria, a political analyst and editor of the monthly magazine Payam. “They command great respect, especially in Paktika, Herat, and Nangarhar.”

In voting for Fawzia, people were giving voice to their trust in the Gailanis, he said, though added that she is accomplished in her own right.

“Fawzia did things for people in Herat,” said Oria. “That is why she got so many votes. But her family name certainly helped her.”

Habubullah Rafi, political analyst and member of the Academy of Sciences, agrees that family connections helped. “The name Gailani is a bright one in Afghanistan. People respect them,” he said.

Faiz Mohammad Gailani, Fawzia’s husband, supported his wife throughout the campaign. He travelled with her on the stump, helping to ensure her safety in a country where women candidates were often intimidated, sometimes even attacked.

In a country where men have enjoyed undisputed dominance for centuries, this makes him quite unusual.

“I am totally satisfied with my husband,” said Gailani with a smile.

She will now sit shoulder-to-shoulder in parliament with some of the most notorious people in her country’s history. The new legislature contains many who have been dubbed warlords or even criminals by domestic and international human rights bodies. But Gailani isn’t fazed by the prospect.

“I am confident that the new parliament will work unanimously for the nation. I am not afraid,” she said. “If there is a dispute in parliament, I will defend issues in the national interest.”

She dismisses the widespread criticism of the elections, saying that overall the process was fair and well run.

“There were some small frauds, but it wasn’t enough to bring the entire process into question,” she said.

Gailani is a high-school graduate in a country where up to 80 per cent of the population is illiterate. And with her fitness centre she is also a pioneer in business.

But she acknowledges that Afghanistan may not be ready for women to take their place alongside men in public life.

“Women received many fewer votes than men,” she said. “This is because of the security situation, because of fear and weakness among women themselves. It is a great accomplishment that women will have 68 seats in the [lower house of parliament], but women need more chances."

Gailani makes her own chances. According to student Nahid Baqi, it was also Fawzia's gutsy and aggressive campaign that convinced voters.

“She was always going to remote areas of Herat,” said Baqi. “She was not afraid to go places where men congregated. She did not restrict her campaigning only to women.

“Most of the people who voted for her were ordinary people, and that was because of her campaign.”

Wahidullah Amani and Salima Ghafari are IWPR staff reporters in Kabul.

Armed and dangerous: Taliban gear up
By Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan
Asia Times Online December 22, 2005
KARACHI - Any resistance movement is generally only as good as the weapons it uses, and that is something that has bedeviled the poorly-equipped Taliban-led anti-US forces in Afghanistan for a long time.

The resistance has steadily taken steps, though, to beef up its arsenal to include modern automatic weapons and ground-to-air missiles. This it has done in part by forging closer links with the resistance in Iraq, as well as with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.

According to intelligence sources who spoke to Asia Times Online, al-Qaeda concluded that its attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 was a failure, even though 17 American sailors were killed. As a result, al-Qaeda sent a team to the LTTE to gain expertise in maritime combat operations. The LTTE, as part of its longstanding battle against the Sri Lankan government, has developed a relatively sophisticated maritime wing.

The interaction was brief and inconclusive, and al-Qaeda subsequently rejected the idea of maritime combat, deciding instead to fight the United States on land. Nevertheless, the links established between the two groups were to prove useful in another way.

Pakistani intelligence sources say that al-Qaeda now works with the LTTE to get weapons, including automatic arms and ground-to-air missiles. The weapons are paid for in cash, as well as in drugs originating from Afghanistan, according to the sources. The drugs primarily are sent to Scandinavian countries and Thailand, the latter being a traditional base from which the LTTE has smuggled weapons.

"This is a perfect arrangement as resources are complemented - the Tigers get ideological support, while regular arms supplies on the other hand go to al-Qaeda, which ultimately feeds its fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan," said the source.

"The smuggling channels are the same that the Tamil Tigers have adopted for years [with international arms cartels]. The latest weapons originate through arm dealers, as well as those stolen from arms depots and shipped from South America and Lebanon. They are transferred from ship to ship and sometimes offloaded at small ports, and from there, using various channels, they reach the final destination," the source said.

In the firing line

In the mountains and on the plains of Afghanistan, the resistance operates in several ways, ranging from suicide bombings to attacking convoys and brief pitched battles.

"But an air defense system [ground-to-air missiles] can break the back [of the enemy] in low-intensity conflicts," a top Pakistani security official told Asia Times Online.

"The resistance movement in Afghanistan has now acquired that system in bulk. There are possibilities that some pieces will also have been supplied to Iraq. As soon as this system comes into full action, drastic results will come," he said.

After the Taliban retreated in the face of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, the Afghan resistance was largely scattered. The Taliban did preserve some heavy weapons, but these could not be easily accessed due to the strong US military presence, and many caches were seized.

Furthermore, some of the armory, especially missiles, required special storage facilities to prevent exposure to harsh climatic conditions, but this was not possible, and the weapons were damaged.

Slowly, as the resistance took firmer root and with the help of money from foreign Arab fighters who had fled to the tribal areas of South and North Waziristan in Pakistan, the resistance acquired missiles, guns and ammunition from the indigenous home-made arms industry at Dara Adam Khel near Peshawar.

However, these arms were of poor quality and simply not good enough to take on the US-led forces in Afghanistan. For instance, the home-made M16 rifles were only semi-automatic and the G-3 rifles lacked the original specifications and accuracy which had made the original version of the weapon popular. Locally-made rockets did not fly properly and lacked sensors, which made them all but useless.

Authentic weapons are, of course, expensive. Now the Taliban has solved this problem by tapping into Afghanistan's - and the world's - richest cash crop, poppies. Using contacts among the warlords who control the drug trade, the Taliban are able to divert some of the money, which is then earmarked for weapons purchases.

With the drug money and the networks of the LTTE, the Afghan resistance is now well positioned to sufficiently arm itself to take its war with foreign forces in Afghanistan to a new level.

No Refuge for Afghan Runaways
Women who escape domestic troubles are often forced to fend for themselves on the streets.
By Sadeq Behnam and Sudabah Belqis in Herat (WP No. 17, 22-Dec-05) Institute for War & Peace Reporting 
Sahar was young and in love. Desperate at attempts by her family to marry her off to someone else, she ran away with her boyfriend, hoping they could start a new life together

Instead, she was picked up by policemen who took her outside the city, raped her and put her in jail. Under Afghan law, those who run away from home can be jailed for up to six months. Married women who leave their husband’s home can be imprisoned for a year.

Sahar, 22, is now homeless. She has been abandoned by her family, for the twin shame of having run away and having been raped.

“I am tired of this excruciating life. I will wait for a while. If the government doesn’t heed my condition, I will commit suicide and just rest forever,” said Sahar, adding her rapists are still free and working in the police department. No one has even questioned them.

Shegofa, 39, also has nowhere to go after running away from her husband who began beating her after taking another wife. He reported her to the police, and she was jailed for six months.

Now she spends her days sitting at the side of the road in an old dress and shoes, her four-year-old daughter lying beside her. Her parents have rejected her, and the only way she can support herself is by begging.

“If I did not have this little child, I would kill myself just to stop the pain,” she said.

Many Afghan women like Shegofa and Sahar run away from what they see as an intolerable situation, only to find themselves trapped in an even worse nightmare. Rejected by their families, unable to find work, they are forced to resort to begging or prostitution just to survive.

While some complain that assistance organisations and the Women’s Affairs Department have done nothing for them, there is at least a growing awareness among public officials that the situation is reaching a crisis point.

“There are at least 30 women that we know of without shelter in the city of Herat,” said Sima Sher Mohammadi, chairwoman of the Women’s Affairs Department for Herat province. “But if we take into account women with family problems and women in the entire district, this figure could be several times higher.”

She admitted the city has little capacity to help women like Naz Gul, who is just 16 and currently staying with Sher Mohammadi following her release from prison. She was jailed five months ago on a charge of fornication, and, now that she is free, is alone and frightened.

“I have no one,” she said, weeping. “My family has threatened to kill me, because I have become a source of shame for them.”

Soraya Pakzad, head of the Voice of Women Organisation, a non-governmental organisation, puts the blame for Herat’s high rate of suicide among women on the absence of shelters.

“Many women who fall victim to domestic violence kill themselves, because they have nowhere to go,” she said.

Herat has an unusually high number of women who have resorted to self-immolation. Dr Barakatullah Mohammadi, head of emergency services at Herat Hospital, reported that he had seen close to 250 cases within the past six months.

“Of these, about 60 per cent died,” he said. “Most attempted suicide because of family violence.”

The government is trying to help, insists Asluddin Jami, deputy governor of Herat Province. But he said financial constraints mean that without financial assistance from Kabul, the regional administration is hard-pressed to find the funds to build new shelters.

That means that the only shelter that exists in the Herat was built with the help of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. It supports girls and women who ran away to neighbouring Iran, only to be caught by police and sent home.

“We had 30 girls and women living at this shelter,” said Sher Mohammadi. “Most of them were finally reconciled with their families. But nine are still there.”

There are plans afoot to build a new refuge, again with the financial support of the UN, that will house 60 women, she said.

Activists insist that providing a safe haven is the best way to help women like Naz Gul. “Women need a place where they can feel safe,” said VWO’s Pakzad. “That is the only way we can keep them from committing suicide.”

Sadeq Behnam and Sudabah Belqis are freelance journalists in Herat.

Bin Laden niece in glamour shots
Friday, 23 December 2005 BBC News
The niece of Osama Bin Laden has posed for provocative photographs for an American magazine.

Wafah Dufour, an aspiring musician and model, is the daughter of the al-Qaeda leader's half-brother Yeslam.

She appears stripped to ostrich feather lingerie, and in a bubble bath, in photos for American GQ magazine.

US-born, she says she is an American, and distances herself from her uncle. "Everyone relates me to that man, and I have nothing to do with him," she says.

Ms Dufour, 26, took her mother's maiden name after the events of 11 September 2001.

She lived in Saudi Arabia, where Bin Laden is from, until she was 10, before moving on to Geneva and back to the US.

'Like any New Yorker'

She says she never sees any of the extended Bin Laden clan, including her father.

"There are 400 other people related to him, but they are all in Saudi Arabia, so nobody's going to get tarred with it. I'm the only one here," she said.

Her father and Osama Bin Laden are among more than 50 children fathered by Mohammed Bin Laden, a Yemeni immigrant to Saudi Arabia, and construction magnate.

Ms Dufour was in Geneva when the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, masterminded by her uncle, were launched.

She said: "I was freaking out, crying hysterically, watching this in horror. I was like 'Somebody's bombing my city, and I wanna go home!'"

"I was born in the States, and I want people to know I'm American, and I want people to understand that I'm like anyone in New York. For me, it's home," she said.

Pakistan: Refugees help quake survivors come in from the cold
BALAKOT/MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan, December 22 (UNHCR) – For Afghan men, Abdul Munaf and Dilawar Khan take an uncharacteristic interest in stoves. They go everywhere with one tucked under their arms and constantly adjust it to see how best to protect it.

But Abdul and Dilawar are no galloping gourmets. They are refugees from Afghanistan's Laghman province who are keen to share their stove skills with Pakistanis in need.

"When we first arrived in Pakistan in 1979, we lived in tents like this one," says Abdul, fingering a UNHCR tent in Hassa relief camp near Balakot in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. "We had to find a way to keep warm in the winter, but stoves were not really safe because the tent could easily catch fire."

To minimise the risk, he built a fireplace – a mud and brick dome – inside the tent and placed a heating stove under it to keep the flames away from the tent's walls. He also made an exhaust pipe for the smoke. "It is much safer for the stove like this," he says.

The two refugees now live in mud houses in Mansehra's Barary camp and have little need for a firewall. But they are still building the fireplace, travelling from camp to camp to suggest to Pakistan's earthquake survivors how they, too, can stay warm in tents while minimizing the risk of fire.

As Abdul moulds the mud for the fireplace, Hassa camp's residents squat in a circle to see the work in progress. The women look on quietly, while the men poke at the structure and ask how it works. The audience has been invited by a camp management support team from Best, a Pakistani non-government organisation contracted by UNHCR to sensitise camp dwellers on hygiene, fire safety and other day-to-day issues in the camp.

Abdul has so far set up these demonstration tents in six camps in the Mansehra and Balakot areas. Fellow Afghan Dilawar is now in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, to build several more. Trained as a tailor in Barary camp, the 27-year-old is taking a break from his sewing shop in Mansehra to spread the word on the fireplace.

"I take two hours to make one," says Dilawar, whose own home was slightly damaged in the October 8 earthquake and who – in an unrelated decision – plans to return to Afghanistan with some 60 families from Barary camp next year.

Shaista, a community mobiliser with the Best team, notes: "The women seem really interested in the mud dome, they say they will use it if the men build it."

The "Afghan fireplace" is just one of several ideas being explored to help quake survivors better winterize themselves. Wary of tent fires, the Pakistan authorities have made other proposals, like designing a stove with a protective metal casing, using hot water bottles or heated platforms.

"No method is fool-proof," says UNHCR's acting emergency coordinator for earthquake relief, Indrika Ratwatte. "It's a matter of prioritising which risk is bigger – hypothermia or fire. Ultimately, it's the government's decision, and we'll try to support it as much as we can."

Regardless of the decision, families will likely continue lighting candles or stoves in tents as temperatures dip. To minimize the risk of tent fires, every military-run camp now has several "fire stops" in prominent places, with information on fire prevention, as well as fire extinguishers and pails filled with sand. Camp management support teams are educating people on the safe use of fire while UNHCR's site planners are encouraging more space between tents to contain fires should they break out.

UNHCR also recommends winterization techniques like pitching the tent in a pit about two feet deep to stay close to the warm ground, using plastic sheets as ground sheeting and to insulate the roof of the tent, and using mattresses and blankets for personal insulation.

The refugee agency is now in its latest round of distributing supplies for winterization, providing each person with three blankets and each tent with two plastic sheets and four mattresses. It has already distributed 20,855 tents, 59,236 plastic sheets, 391,759 blankets, 27,938 jerry cans, 22,453 kitchen sets and 12,519 mattresses in the initial phase, and will supplement these supplies with another 77,000 plastic sheets and 250,000 blankets in this round of distribution.

As lead agency of the camp management cluster, UNHCR is supporting the Pakistan authorities and non-government organisations in 36 planned camps. The agency is also improving living conditions in an increasing number of self-settled camps by sending its technical mobile teams to build latrines, communal kitchens and other infrastructure to provide basic services in these camps.

By Vivian Tan in Balakot, Babar Baloch in Muzaffarabad

Chief ousted as British troops head for Afghan drug region
By Ahmed Rashid in Kabul
Britain has had a feudal chief removed from the region at the heart of Afghanistan's drug trade in an effort to calm the violent region before some 3,000 British troops deploy there next year.

Sher Mohammed Akhunzada was removed from office as governor of the south-western province of Helmand, bordering Pakistan, last week. His family, who have governed the province for more than 25 years, has long been suspected of heavy involvement in drug trafficking.

The combination of drug and Taliban activity in the region has made it one of the most volatile in Afghanistan. The US formally announced on Tuesday that it would withdraw 3,000 troops from southern Afghanistan, including Helmand, by next April.

A 6,000-strong Nato force, led by the British, is supposed to take over in the region. But deployment plans have been delayed because of concerns over the levels of violence.

A British Army reconnaissance mission in Helmand has reported back far higher levels of violence and instability in the province than previously thought.

"The Taliban, the drugs mafias and just ordinary criminality have created a totally insecure environment - much worse than we thought possible," said one Western military officer.

British officials in London said that Britain had made clear to the Afghan government that its troops would struggle to provide effective back-up in the country's fight against drug trafficking as long as the feudal chief remained.

Akhunzada confirmed yesterday that he had been removed and given a seat in the Afghan senate, which was inaugurated on Monday.

"It was the decision of the President to move me to the upper house of parliament," he said. "Of course I am a little upset but I respect his decision."

Akhunzada said he was aware that Britain had wanted him out because of his family's alleged involvement in Afghanistan's huge and violent heroin trade.

"We have nothing to do with drugs. I have been the one who reduced opium production in Helmand," he said. An engineer who is virtually unknown in local politics, Mohammed Daud, has been appointed in Akhunzada's place.

But the Akhunzada family has by no means lost its role in the province: his younger brother, Amir Mohammed Akhunzada, has been appointed as the new deputy governor.

The Akhunzadas are known in Afghanistan for their fierce resistance to Soviet occupation troops in the 1980s, which made the region a violent, lawless zone. At the same time they are credited with introducing large-scale poppy farming to Afghanistan, importing seeds and expertise from Pakistan.

Today Helmand still remains Afghanistan's centre for heroin production and farming expertise - which is being transferred to all of the country's 34 provinces.

Several of Sher Mohammed's relatives have been murdered by rivals. The US has a total of 19,000 troops in Afghanistan and is keen to replace as many as possible with Nato troops.

Nato agreed earlier this month to boost its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to about 15,000 next year from around 9,000 troops, with Britain commanding in the south, alongside Canadian and Dutch forces.

Dutch diplomats' concerns have mounted over the wisdom of contributing more than 1,000 Dutch troops to the Nato force, particularly since a high-level Afghan official advised them, jokingly, to bring enough body bags with them to the south. The Dutch economy minister, Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst, insisted yesterday that the Netherlands intended to go ahead with the plan.

The planned mission has revived memories in the Netherlands of the massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces in the Srebrenica enclave in 1995 when they were ostensibly under the protection of lightly armed Dutch UN troops.

The Dutch government won security guarantees for its troops from Nato allies earlier this month as well as an agreement with the Afghan authorities that no detainee handed over to them by ISAF would face the death penalty.

Information appearing on telegraph.co.uk is the copyright of Telegraph Group Limited and must not be reproduced in any medium without licence.

Dutch to send more troops to Afghanistan
By Wendel Broere Thursday, 22 December 2005
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The Dutch government said on Thursday it planned to send up to 1,400 additional troops to Afghanistan for expanded NATO peacekeeping; but opponents of deployment could mount resistance in parliament.

"The cabinet today decided to further help Afghanistan build a safe and peaceful country," Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told a news conference after meeting his coalition cabinet.

He said heavily armed troops could expect to be sent in June for a period of two years.

The smallest governing coalition partner, the centrist D66 party, as well as the opposition Green and Socialist parties are against the deployment. Parliament does not have the power to veto deployment but a vote against could undermine the plan.

The planned mission has revived memories in the Netherlands of the massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces in the Srebrenica enclave in 1995 when they were ostensibly under the protection of lightly armed Dutch U.N. troops.

"It is up to parliament to decide whether to let Afghanistan slide back to the Taliban and al-Qaeda or to continue rebuilding the country," Defense Minister Henk Kamp told the news conference.

"I think this is the most important mission for Afghanistan and for fighting terrorism in the world," he said.

NATO agreed earlier this month to boost its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to about 15,000 troops next year from around 9,000, with Britain due to take command and deploy troops in the south alongside Canadian and Dutch forces.

But Dutch concerns have mounted about the plans to send extra troops to the more dangerous south in addition to some 600 Dutch troops already serving in the country.

The government won security guarantees for its troops from NATO allies earlier this month as well as an agreement with the Afghan authorities that no detainee handed over to them by ISAF would face the death penalty, but doubts persist.

Kamp said the Dutch military unit would be "robust" and ready to fight if necessary. The Dutch contribution would include six f16 fighter jets, six Apache combat helicopters, armoured vehicles, mortars, and armoured sleeping containers.

A U.S.-led invasion force overthrew, in 2001, the hardline Islamist Taliban government that supported al Qaeda -- a militant network believed to be behind attacks culminating in the assaults on New York and Washington earlier that year.

Afghan Daily Report
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty [ 22 December 2005 ]
Afghan Opposition Leader Narrowly Elected Parliamentary Speaker
Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, who leads the main opposition to President Hamid Karzai, was elected chairman of the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), the lower house of Afghanistan's National Assembly, on 21 December, AFP reported. Qanuni, who finished a distant second to Hamid Karzai in the September 2004 presidential election, was elected by a vote of 122-117 over Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, and thus also becomes speaker of the National Assembly. In accepting the new position, Qanuni, head of the New Afghanistan Party and the unofficial leader of the National Understanding Front, said his role as chairman precludes him from leading an opposition faction. "It is for the members of the opposition parties to elect someone new," he said. Former President Sibghatullah Mujaddedi was elected chairman of the upper house, the Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga), on 20 December. MR

U.S. Says Troop Reduction Will Not Hurt Counterterrorism Efforts

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on 21 December that the withdrawal of some 3,000 U.S. troops won't affect counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2005), AFP reported. "Of course, the United States will be continuing their contribution to NATO...as well as our individual role with respect to the counterterrorism effort and the training and equipping of the Afghan security forces," Rumsfeld told reporters during a surprise visit to Afghanistan. "We look forward to continuing in those activities and we will continue to be focused on rooting out the Taliban and Al-Qaeda that still exist," he said. Afghan President Karzai said his administration was not worried about the U.S. drawdown, despite a persistent insurgency in the country. "Afghanistan has the total assurance of the United States that it would remain committed to help Afghanistan in all spheres of life including security," Karzai said. MR

Afghan President Voices Sympathy For Poppy Farmers

President Karzai said on 21 December that many poppy farmers have no choice in growing the crop because they are so poor, Tolu Television reported. "There might be people who either cultivate poppy because they are very poor and have no other option and there might be people who do it to gain more money," Karzai told reporters during an appearance with U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. "But farmers are not to be blamed for this," he added. "The people of Afghanistan destroyed their pomegranate gardens and cultivated poppy to produce opium because they had no hope for the future." Karzai also noted that "When we asked them to stop cultivation, a UN survey showed a 21 percent reduction in the level of poppy cultivation all over Afghanistan, while a recent U.S. survey showed a 48 percent reduction in cultivation." Afghanistan remains the world's leading producer of opium. MR


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