Afghanistan tops agenda for NATO ministers
Thu Feb 8, 3:49 AM ET
SEVILLE, Spain (AFP) - NATO defence ministers were to study ways to confront an expected Taliban offensive in Afghanistan, amid growing US pressure for the allies to commit more troops and resources.
The ministers, meeting in Seville in southern Spain from 1415 GMT for two days of informal talks, will also discuss developments in Kosovo with tensions quietly simmering over its future status.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and NATO's new military chief US General Bantz Craddock face a baptism of fire with their first official meeting, and both are expected to push the allies to do more.
Gates told lawmakers this week that an objective of his trip was to prod his partners to put up promised troops and other military capabilities for the 35,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
"And one of my requests of those folks, and one of the issues that I'll be pressing very hard, is that they meet the commitments that they made at Riga and help us out in this," Gates said.
A senior US defence official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said Craddock has drawn up a new set of requirements for the Afghan mission that will be discussed at the meeting in Seville.
Afghanistan is the world's leading opium producer and its lawless border regions with Pakistan are the major breeding ground for international terrorism.
NATO has taken a major gamble by trying to help spread the influence of President Hamid Karzai's weak central government throughout the country, faced with ever-bolder Taliban-led fighters.
Some 4,000 people were killed in the insurgency last year and US officials say suicide attacks have increased four-fold since 2005. In recent days, the Taliban has held control of a town in southern Helmand province.
Yet despite the US pressure, NATO officials played down expectations that the 26 allies would come to the meeting with specific troop contributions in mind, even as commanders on the ground call for force increases.
"Neither the secretary general nor General Craddock are going to be handing around the begging bowl looking for contributions," said John Colston, NATO's assistant secretary general for defence policy and planning.
On the eve of the talks, Germany announced that it plans to deploy six jet aircraft but for surveillance and not combat missions.
Discussions on Kosovo -- NATO's other major mission -- come a day after the alliance announced that its forces there would conduct exercises later this month as moves to grant the Serbian province a new status gather momentum.
NATO waged a bombing campaign against former strongman Slobodan Milosevic's regime in 1999 to stop a Serbian crackdown on the separatist ethnic Albanian majority there.
The ministers will also hold a regular council with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, against a backdrop of US moves to widen its anti-missile defence system in Europe.
Also on the agenda is the NATO Response Force -- the flagship contingent maintained on standby for deployment to the world's hotspots -- which has struggled with funding woes and to find troop contributors.
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U.S. defence official says NATO must launch offensive in Afghanistan
Thu Feb 8, 4:24 AM By Lolita C. Baldor
SEVILLE, Spain (AP) - The United States and its allies must launch their own offensive this spring against the Taliban in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. defence official said Thursday, calling this a pivotal time in the nearly five-year-old war there.
Previewing the message Defence Secretary Robert Gates will deliver to NATO allies at a meeting in Seville, Spain, later Thursday and Friday, the official said now is the time finally to defeat the Taliban, who harboured planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that prompted U.S. global war on terror.
The end of winter in Afghanistan has traditionally brought an upsurge in attacks by Taliban militants, and U.S. commanders have already predicted that this spring there will be even more violent than last year when a record number of attacks included nearly 140 suicide bombings.
"We think the upcoming spring in Afghanistan is a pivotal moment in the conflict, and we're encouraging the allies to do as much as they can as soon as they can," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the planned discussions had not yet been presented to allies. "The offensive should be our offensive. That's the offensive we've been communicating to the allies."
Speaking en route to Seville, where Gates will make his first appearance at a NATO defence ministers' meeting, the official said there currently are no plans to further increase the U.S. troop commitment to Afghanistan.
It was not clear, however, whether army Gen. Bantz Craddock, who took over in December as NATO's supreme commander of operations, will seek some additional troops from the NATO allies.
Canada has deployed some 2,500 soldiers to Afghanistan's restive Kandahar province.
Gates has said he believes there is a need for more military trainers to work with the Afghan Army.
Three weeks ago, Gates made his first trip to Afghanistan, which was followed quickly by his decision to increase U.S. troop levels there by several thousand. He ordered a brigade - or about 3,200 soldiers - from the New York-based 10th Mountain Division to extend their tour in Afghanistan by four months.
Gates, who took over the job in late December after the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, will spend about two days at the NATO meeting, then go on to Munich for the annual security conference.
The defence official said Gates has no plans to meet with Iranian leaders who are expected to attend the Munich conference.
"Nothing is going to happen that would be inconsistent with our policy, and we're not pursuing bilateral dialogues with Iran right now," the official said.
However, Gates is expected to meet with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov. The two may discuss current U.S. plans to deploy its missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"We will try to explain, reassure them again, that it doesn't significantly affect them," said the official. "This is an opportunity to explain things."
The talks to place a radar system in the Czech Republic and a missile interceptor site in Poland, have raised concerns among other countries in the region, and sparked criticism from Russia.
The U.S. has offered assurances that the installations would be meant to deal with a potential threat from Iran.
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Canadian troops expect increased Taliban attacks
By David Ljunggren Wed Feb 7, 11:41 AM ET
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Taliban militants in Afghanistan will step up their attacks on Canadian troops this year, using a combination of suicide bombers, roadside bombs and ambushes, the country's top soldier predicted on Wednesday.
General Rick Hillier, chief of the defense staff, also played down suggestions that a probe into whether soldiers abused Afghan detainees could alienate the local population.
Canada has about 2,500 soldiers based in the southern city of Kandahar. Some 44 soldiers and one diplomat have been killed in Afghanistan, most in the last year.
"We're anticipating that the Taliban will surge and attempt to surge as much as they possibly can into southern Afghanistan with more of their fighters," Hillier told CBC radio.
Earlier this week a Taliban commander said the militant group would step up suicide attacks.
"We think that their tactics will continue to be (to use) as many suicide bombers as they can convince to give their lives up for no cause, improvised explosive devices ... and ambushes," said Hillier.
He described the Taliban soldiers as tough and "almost natural born warriors" but said most of them fought because they were being paid to do so.
"We don't underestimate what they can do in small groups and what their level of maturity is at implementing improvised explosive devices or executing suicide bomber attacks. So we treat them with respect from that perspective but we also know they're not 10 feet tall," he said.
Hillier, who has called a military inquiry into whether Canadian soldiers abused three local men after taking them prisoner last April, said he did not think the investigation would harm ties with the population in Kandahar.
"We have a hyper-sensitivity to how we handle our detainees ... It's an allegation. None of that will change the relationship with the Afghans. They don't want the Taliban around," he said.
Prisoner abuse is a sensitive topic for the armed forces. In 1993, soldiers based in Somalia as part of a peacekeeping mission tortured and beat to death a 16-year-old boy.
An investigation found that senior military officials had held back information about the case and said witnesses had lied.
The Toronto Star, the country's biggest newspaper, called for a full public inquiry on Wednesday into the Afghan allegations.
"Given the military's history of covering up abuse cases, Canadians have a right to know what happened in Afghanistan and how the military acted, or failed to, when it learned of the case," the paper said in its lead editorial.
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Pakistan says will hold off mining Afghan border
Fri Feb 9, 2007 12:36 AM IST By Louis Charbonneau
BERLIN (Reuters) - Pakistan's foreign minister said on Thursday Islamabad had suspended plans to mine its border with Afghanistan but still intended to build a fence to keep militants from crossing into Afghanistan.
"We wanted to mine the border so that there would be no movement across the border. But as a mark of respect to the sensitivity of our European colleagues, we have decided that we will not mine the border for the time being," Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri told reporters.
Kasuri spoke as current EU president Germany said the bloc would boost relations with Pakistan, adopting what was described as a substantial joint declaration and doubling European support to the Islamic nation.
Germany Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the joint declaration would result in greater efforts to combat terrorism and drug trafficking and increase dialogue on issues such as non-proliferation and human rights.
The European Union had urged Pakistan not to mine the border as the mines could injure or harm civilians.
"We will only fence the border in certain areas," he added at a joint news conference with Steinmeier.
Kasuri, who will attend the annual three-day Munich Security Conference which begins on Friday, said he asked Steinmeier for EU help in fencing and monitoring the border.
Germany holds the current rotating EU presidency.
Pakistan, which has more troops manning the border than Afghanistan and its Western allies, had hoped fencing and mines on parts of the border would end accusations it was not doing enough to stop Taliban militants from getting into Afghanistan.
Kasuri said the Canadians, who had also asked Pakistan not to mine the border, had offered help. They have experience of monitoring the long North American border using satellites and unmanned drones, Kasuri said.
The Pakistani border with Afghanistan snakes 2,500 km through rocky mountains and across deserts and is considered a major front line in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Last year was the bloodiest in Afghanistan since U.S.-led troops ousted the Taliban in 2001. Most of the violence was in provinces bordering Pakistan.
The border was a Cold War front line in the 1980s when Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the West backed Afghan holy warriors and foreign militants battling Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan.
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Eight 'terrorists' captured in Afghan city, two killed in clash
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - Afghan forces arrested eight "terrorists" who confessed to a string of killings in the southern city of Kandahar as two other rebels were killed in a battle, officials said.
The eight, picked up from different locations in the troubled city, confessed to the weekend killing of two senior clerics and several police officers in the past weeks, provincial governor Asadullah Khalid told AFP on Thursday.
Prominent religious scholar Mawlawi Sayed Imam and Mawlawi Shafi Akhundzada, both members of the local pro-government religious council, were shot dead by unknown men on motorbikes in a Kandahar bazaar on Sunday.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the murders, saying the attackers were "trying to kill the real voices of Afghanistan and must understand that they will never achieve their malicious intentions..."
The governor told AFP: "These terrorists we captured are the enemies of Afghanistan," a reference to the Taliban who have been waging an Al-Qaeda-backed insurgency since being driven from government in 2001.
They were Afghans but were "supported by terrorist elements across the border," he said. Afghan and US officials say Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have secure hideouts in Pakistan.
Khalid said associates of the detained men were believed to be in town and security forces were hunting them down.
Kandahar province is the birthplace of the Taliban and where last summer the rebels carried out their biggest-ever offensive since they lost power.
Hundreds were killed, most of them Taliban, as NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) responded with its full might, saying the rebels were planning to capture Kandahar city.
The city has been the scene of dozens of suicide bombings, roadside explosions and terror attacks on government officials and local tribal and religious leaders.
In other violence, Taliban fighters attacked a US-led coalition convoy in the adjoining province of Zabul, sparking a gunbattle that left two rebels dead and three foreign soldiers injured, the US military said.
Three coalition soldiers, whose nationalities were not revealed, were in a stable condition, it said in a statement.
Last year was the most deadly in the insurgency. More than 4,000 people, most of them insurgents, were killed.
The extremists and Afghan and foreign forces, including the 35,000-strong ISAF and more than 11,000 coalition troops, are said to be preparing for a "spring offensive".
NATO defence ministers gathered in Spain Thursday to hear a United States appeal for more troops and equipment to confront the growing Taliban threat.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was expected to warn that time was running out to blunt the insurgency with the new Taliban offensive likely in the coming months.
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Afghan cleric takes Islamic battle to the airwaves
By Sayed Salahuddin Thu Feb 8, 4:14 AM ET
KABUL (Reuters) - When the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, Sheikh Mohammad Asif Mohseni formed an Islamic force while in exile to fight alongside other holy warriors against the invaders.
But when the communist-backed regime collapsed, the victorious Mujahideen groups began a bloody power struggle, sparking a civil war that killed tens of thousands and he found himself trying to play peacemaker.
Now, the 75-year-old, silver-bearded Mohseni has another mission; this time to save Afghanistan's deeply conservative Islamic society from corruption by alien cultures.
Mohseni is launching a semi-Islamic television channel which does not focus exclusively on Islamic teachings. It will be Afghanistan's first such channel.
Called Tamadon, or "civilization," the network will go on air in a few months. It is the latest in a string of private channels springing up since the Taliban government fell in 2001.
But while some, especially newly returned refugees, welcome the explosion of choice -- there's even a racy MTV-style channel broadcasting from the United States -- others complain the Indian and Western music and programs are vulgar.
"I want to take part in civilizing my Muslim people in the 21st century and the direction (Muslims now) follow has a deviated from its path," he said.
"Our television is the tongue of the silent majority ... These people want bread, water, clothes; these people want knowledge, they do not want Indian culture to govern them," he added when asked if music will be included in his programming.
"The general beliefs of people are being ignored, people are betrayed, our history and culture is played with. We will talk about these to people in order to enable them to find their identity."
Tamadon will broadcast free-to-air 8 hours a day and include debates on improving the economy, education and the betterment of the younger generation, as well as scientific discussions.
"We are backward in all aspects. Economically, we are in the 16th or 17th century, but our televisions air ten times sexier films (than Western countries)," he said.
"This is a scandal and shame for us. We have a thousand calamities and should not be diverted ," Mohseni told Reuters in a cold room at a massive semi-Islamic university he is building in Kabul, called Khatim-ul Nabiyen.
A leading daily, Cheragh, also recently warned the government the foreign-influenced broadcasters and shows could justify the Taliban war against the Western-backed government.
Modestly spoken, Mohseni is a veteran Shi'ite scholar, viewed by some as Afghanistan's Khomeini, in reference to Iran's late Islamic revolutionary.
Because of his age, Mohseni uses a walking cane. He normally dresses in a tight white turban and a robe and is revered both by Shi'ites and Sunnis in mainly Sunni Afghanistan.
Every day, people come in droves to seek his advice on religious matters, disputes and for guidance.
He has spent $1 million setting up Tamadon from his own pocket and from donations. His university, due to be completed this year, will cost about $14 million by the time it is finished. Women as well as men are already studying there.
Mohseni has never served as a government official during the Mujahideen rule or the current administration, but the outspoken scholar has long wielded strong influence.
He completed his Islamic studies in Iraq as a young man and blames Western occupiers for the turmoil and sectarian killings there.
"This bloodshed, violence in Iraq ... has no link with Islam," he said. "The Westerners are behind these."
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Pakistan probes claims of NATO shooting
By ABDUL SATTAR, Associated Press Writer
QUETTA, Pakistan - Pakistani authorities are investigating claims by residents of a remote border village that NATO and Afghan forces crossed into Pakistan to search for suspected Taliban militants and killed a local tribesman, officials said Thursday.
Afghan troops entered the village of Qamar Din early Wednesday and began shooting, killing one villager, said Abdul Raziq Bugti, spokesman for the government of Baluchistan province, citing claims by residents.
Villagers reported that the Afghan border security forces also wounded two Pakistani tribesmen and detained 11 villagers who were taken to Afghanistan, Bugti said.
The Pakistani government has ordered authorities in the area to investigate the alleged incident in the village, about 130 miles northeast of Quetta, Baluchistan's capital, he said.
A spokeswoman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force said no ISAF forces were involved in such an operation. Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan do not operate under ISAF's chain of command, and a Special Forces spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
Pakistan — a close ally of the U.S. in its war against terrorism — has repeatedly said it will not allow foreign forces to operate on its soil in the hunt for militants.
Maulvi Mohammed Sharif, mayor of Zhob district where Qamar Din is located, said Thursday that NATO forces also entered Qamar Din along with the Afghan government troops, citing reports by villagers and security officials.
Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said he had read about the incident in newspapers but had no confirmation of it. Pakistani military and Foreign Ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.
The Urdu-language newspaper Jang, citing villagers, said NATO and Afghan troops riding in three pickup trucks and three armored personnel carriers entered Qamar Din on Wednesday morning and began firing heavy and small weapons at several houses, killing one villager.
Thousands of NATO and U.S. forces are based in Afghanistan to hunt down militants from al-Qaida and the Taliban militia in regions along the border with Pakistan.
The Pakistan-Afghan border straddles rugged mountains and desert regions and it is not clearly demarcated in places.
Pakistan has announced plans to build a fence and lay mines along sections of its border to stop militants from crossing into Afghanistan following accusations that Taliban militants were operating out of Pakistan.
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Pakistan to close four Afghan refugee camps
Thu Feb 8, 3:54 AM ET
ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan will close down four Afghan refugee camps this year as part of its bid to stop Taliban militants launching cross-border attacks in Afghanistan, officials said.
The decision to wind up the camps, with a population of 236,000, was taken for "security and development reasons" at a meeting of Pakistani, Afghan and UN refugee agency (UNHCR) officials held on Wednesday, UNHCR said in a statement.
Girdi Jungle and Jungle Pir Alizai camps in southwestern Baluchistan province, and Katchagari and Jalozai in North West Frontier Province had already been slated for closure as far back as 2004, it said.
"We understand that security near the border is a top priority and stress that refugee camps must retain their civilian nature," said Guenet Guebre Christos, the UNHCR representative in Pakistan.
"At the same time, the authorities should recognize genuine humanitarian needs, as they have done in the last 30 years, and offer options to Afghans affected by camp closure."
Pakistan's minister of states and frontier regions Sardar Yar Muhammed Rind later told a joint press conference that the four camps would be closed this summer.
Katchagari and Jungle Pir Alizai will close by June 15, while Jalozai and Girdi Jungle will wind up by August 31, Rind said.
Afghan refugees would be given a choice between voluntary repatriation assisted by the UN and, for those who cannot return in the immediate future, relocation to existing camps in Pakistan, he said.
Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, under international pressure to stop the infiltration of Taliban militants into Afghanistan from his country, last week said that many of the insurgents were Afghan refugees.
Taliban rebels crossing the long and porous border that includes Baluchistan and North West Frontier Province have been blamed for an escalation of the insurgency in Afghanistan that claimed around 4,000 lives last year.
More than 2.8 million Afghans who fled a quarter-century of instability in their homeland have returned from Pakistan since 2002 under a UN-assisted voluntary scheme, but almost the same number remain here.
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Afghanistan handed reprieve after Olympic no-show
PATTAYA, Thailand, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Afghanistan have been handed a reprieve by soccer's world governing body after heavy snow prevented their team from attending a pre-Olympic qualifying match with Vietnam, FIFA said on Thursday.
Vietnam assumed victory on Wednesday after the Afghan no-show, but after receiving a letter from the war-torn country's soccer authorities, FIFA decided to allow the match to rescheduled for next week.
"In view of the unforeseen circumstances, FIFA have decided the match between Vietnam and Afghanistan will be postponed until February 14," a FIFA spokesman told Reuters.
FIFA said they would assist the Afghan team with visa arrangements to ensure they were able to attend the match in Nam Dinh outside the capital Hanoi.
Their plane was unable to take off because of heavy snow storms, officials in Kabul said.
Vietnamese newspapers had originally reported that the Afghans had conceded the match after discovering at the last minute that there were no flights scheduled for that week.
Afghanistan had earlier agreed to cancel their home leg in Kabul because of security concerns, reducing the tie to a single leg.
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GOP lawmakers press Bush on Afghanistan
Four leading House members call for new tactics to turn the tide in the fight against insurgents and drugs.
By Josh Meyer, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer February 7, 2007
WASHINGTON — Four ranking Republican lawmakers on a committee with oversight of U.S. policy in Afghanistan are calling on the Pentagon and State Department to dramatically change their tactics in that country to better contain its growing insurgency and flow of opium to the rest of the world.
In a letter dated today, the GOP House members are urging the Bush administration to act quickly to counter a host of problems in Afghanistan that they say are being made worse by mismanagement and misplaced priorities. They are calling for the appointment of a special coordinator of overall narco-terrorism policy for Afghanistan to prevent losing the fight against insurgents and drug traffickers.
The letter describes in detail how various U.S. agencies such as the Pentagon, State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration are not working together and essentially are fighting separate wars against insurgents and drugs even though they believe that the booming heroin trade is fueling the insurgency and financing terrorist attacks.
"As we will soon face another massive opium harvest in Afghanistan, and a related spring offensive by anti-coalition militants (ACMs), it is time for some new thinking to ensure that Afghanistan does not fall into a failed narco-state status and become, once again, a safe haven for Al Qaeda. We need to act now to prevent that," wrote Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), all members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
The letter was sent late Tuesday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, with copies delivered to the White House, DEA, Office of National Drug Control Policy and the British government, said a senior congressional staffer who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the letter.
The four Republicans say they may introduce legislation to enact and fund some of their proposals, but urge the White House to quickly implement other policy changes on its own. Democrats in Congress also have complained about rising drug trafficking and the growing insurgency in Afghanistan.
White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said he had not seen the letter and could not comment on the lawmakers' requests. But he said the administration had been actively reassessing its policies in Afghanistan in recent months as part of a comprehensive "strategic review," which prompted senior officials to call for at least $10.6 billion in additional funding for Afghanistan over the next two years.
The new funding was a recognition "that we needed to make a larger effort … so that we can help the Afghan government succeed and we can defeat the Taliban," Johndroe said. "But obviously our counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics programs in Afghanistan work hand in hand. This is something that our people are coordinating on the ground."
The additional funding, though much needed in Afghanistan, is virtually worthless without a coordinated policy that ensures that all U.S. counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics agencies are working together, and not against each other, the senior congressional official asserted. "We have so many different views of narcotics within our own government and with our allies that somebody has to bang everybody's heads together and get something done on this," the staffer said. "We are out of time, and losing Afghanistan."
The Republican House members also said the United States must resolve a growing dispute with Britain over how to best fight the booming opium trade. British authorities who are now in charge of much of the counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan are refusing to go along with a controversial U.S. policy to eradicate entire fields of poppy by aerial spraying.
Britain, as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which leads the forces battling the insurgency in Afghanistan, believes the U.S. policy is dangerous because it alienates farmers and the population at large and undermines Western efforts to turn them against the narco-traffickers and the Taliban, several U.S. and British counter-terrorism officials said.
The senior congressional staffer said the four lawmakers didn't want to get into the middle of the dispute over whether poppy eradication should be stopped. Instead, they want the U.S. government and its allies to more forcefully go after kingpins who preside over global narcotics trafficking enterprises that together bring in more than $2 billion a year in wholesale drug profits.
They are urging the Bush administration to force the Pentagon to provide more operational assistance to DEA agents operating in Afghanistan and to order the arrests of senior-level drug traffickers under a provision of the Patriot Act passed last year that allows such suspects to be extradited to the United States for prosecution.
A similar campaign has worked well in Colombia and is urgently needed in Afghanistan because that country has no judicial infrastructure to prosecute drug traffickers, the lawmakers say. "We must establish deterrence where none now exists," their letter says.
They also are urging the Pentagon to make good on a promise to provide at least eight Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters to Afghan authorities and their U.S. counter-narcotics advisors for the drug war, along with qualified pilots and maintenance and operational support.
"We have waited long enough to get this vital air lift…," the lawmakers' letter says. "We need someone put in charge of getting this done now, enough time has gone by already."
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This is holy war. There is no room for fatigue, says Taliban warlord
The Telegraph (UK) February 8, 2007 By Tom Coghlan in Helmand province
The Taliban commander arrived by taxi.
Oozing confidence he stepped out of the battered car and into the southern Afghan desert with no visible fear that he might be targeted from above by the Predator drones or Nato aircraft that patrol the skies.
Days earlier, a precision Nato air strike had killed his fellow commander Mullah Ghafoor. Flanked by 15 bodyguards, their faces covered up like their master, Haji Aghar Mohammad made light of the aerial threat.
"There are many air strikes from Nato but they are only rarely on target," insisted the commander, who goes by the nom de guerre of Haji Mullah.
"They may kill two or three people, but it is not as you people report."
Earlier, with the help of local contacts, The Daily Telegraph had arranged a rare interview with a senior insurgent leader, only weeks before an expected spring offensive planned by the Taliban.
We were met by an unarmed young Taliban fighter on the edge of Lashkargar, the provincial capital of Helmand, the southern Afghan province where British forces are deployed. He guided us to where a motorcycle waited near a main road.
The driver, his face all but covered by a black turban, then led our car to a desert rendezvous where we were searched, before the commander himself arrived. As we sat inside a disused mud building with two gunmen standing over us, Haji Mullah began to talk.
A white haired man of around 50, he was the police commander for the town of Gereshk under the Taliban regime until the US invasion of 2001. He is now a senior insurgent commander, leading his force of about 100 fighters in operations against British troops in Helmand, in towns with increasingly familiar names such as Musa Qala and Sangeen.
His son Mullah Toor Jan is the group's tactical level commander. Haji Mullah was arrogantly dismissive about the British presence in his country.
"The British are not such tough fighters," he said. "They tend to sit in their bases and not move outside. Even with all the technology they have at their disposal they only control a 2km radius around Gereshk. They have lost control of all the rural districts of Helmand. This area for instance is under our control. You can see that the local people know us."
He boasted that he would use Saturday's launch of the British-organised poppy eradication programme to drive a wedge between local people and Nato forces. British soldiers could be called in to support Afghan police if they are attacked as they clear the fields. Haji Mullah wishes to exploit this, siding with locals in a cynical attempt to draw local people into the Taliban's camp.
Rumours running through the villages around Lashkargar say that Mullah Dadullah, the most feared of the Taliban's frontline commanders, is in Helmand to lead the fight against the eradication force. There is no way of authenticating the claims, which are ridiculed by the police chief of Helmand, Gen Nabi Jan Mullah Khail.
"This is just fake news, propaganda put about by drug smugglers," he said. "We will implement eradication. We won't allow any resistance."
But Haji Mullah's men appeared all too ready to lead local resistance.
One fighter said there had been hard fighting around Musa Qala and Sangeen. He claimed that there had been British casualties.
"We faced a British attack in Sangeen recently," he said. "The British began to shell us and advance on us. We held our front line and then we attacked them and they withdrew."
Details of the incident remained vague. When pressed for a fuller account the commander declined to say how many of his men had been killed in the fighting.
Haji Mullah said: "Around Gereshk we have had many clashes with the British. The British technique is that they like to fight very quickly; to strike us suddenly with artillery and their planes and helicopters. But really they are not doing very well."
He bemoaned the Taliban's lack of an anti-aircraft capability against British helicopters. "We are not financially strong, otherwise we would buy some anti-aircraft missiles," he said. He claimed they had an abundant supply of ordinary weapons, but said that these came from old stocks stored from previous conflicts. The weapons they held seemed to bear this out — Soviet-era Kalashnikovs. He was studiously vague about Pakistani funding or militant support, insisting that his fighters were all local men.
Despite his claims of toughness in battle, a Taliban victory did not appear to be an inevitability in Haji Mullah's thoughts. "We are strong Muslims. If Allah wills us victory, then it will happen," he said. "When I started fighting, it was against the Russians. Since then I never stopped. This is my ideology. I will fight till the end of my life."
A trial of strength is now days away in Helmand, pitting the Afghan government and its British backers against the province's poppy farmers. The Taliban, it appears, is keen to stir up trouble.
"This is a holy war. There is no room for fatigue," said Haji Mullah.
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Taliban warlord's threat to troops
The Telegraph (UK) February 8, 2007 By Tom Coghlan in Lashkargar
A Taliban commander has told The Daily Telegraph of his plans to sabotage a British-backed operation to eradicate the poppy crop in southern Afghanistan due to start this weekend.
In a rare interview with a military leader of the Islamist group, conducted as Nato warplanes hovered overhead, Haji Aghar Mohammad claimed that he intends to defend the poppy fields of Helmand province to exploit dissatisfaction among locals over the eradication programme.
"We are obeying the orders of our leaders who have told us to defend the farmers," he said, surrounded by armed fighters. "The Taliban will support the local people, because the people's support will make it impossible for the government and foreign forces to defeat us."
Afghan police will start to plough poppy fields on Saturday. British officials will supervise the operation while British forces will stand by in case of a Taliban attack.
Nato sources said attacks on the eradication police would force British troops to intervene. Tribal elders have threatened a violent backlash if eradication takes place.
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Even the school playground has been turned into a poppy field
The Telegraph (UK) February 8, 2007 By Tom Coghlan
Poppy cultivation is rampant in Helmand province of Afghanistan.
On the edge of the provincial capital, Lashkargar, The Daily Telegraph visited one Western-funded school which has been closed for eight months due to Taliban intimidation. An enterprising local has turned the playground into a poppy field.
"Everyone in the province is cultivating," said Niaz Mohammed, 35, whose three hectares of poppies, will earn him up to $30,000 from the traffickers.
"If my poppy crop is destroyed I am finished." For their "eradication area" the authorities have chosen an area in the centre of the province with good irrigation from the Helmand River. Those being hit might reasonably be expected to have an alternative choice of livelihood — "the greedy rather than the needy" in the words of Western officials.
However, Niaz Mohammad argues that the poor will inevitably fare the worst.
"Last year I worked with the government eradication team," he said. "Those farmers with money bribed the eradication commanders so they just destroyed one jirib [a fifth of a hectare] of poppy out of every 10. But those without money lost everything." Poppy cultivation exploded in Helmand last year, rising by 162 per cent to 69,324 hectares. Only a few thousand hectares were wiped out by the eradication effort.
This year the British-backed force is aiming to plough up 22,000 hectares, although managing half that amount will be deemed satisfactory.
However, if they do not succeed then pressure from the American government to introduce aerial spraying, which British officials have long argued against, would probably become irresistible.
Only five minutes outside Lashkargar, in an area called Bolan, the poppy fields stretch to the horizon and the local police retreat to the relative safety of the city when dusk falls.
The local people have broken all the culverts leading to the poppy fields, hoping to block the passage of the 500-man eradication force now gathered in Helmand.
With Britain the lead nation in the international counter-narcotics effort, British drugs officials are heavily involved in the planning of the operation's launch this week.
The tense stand-off in the province has been going on for almost two weeks with the eradication team forced to relocate its base after it was twice attacked with rockets.
"The Taliban have already established defensive positions to the west of here in Nad Ali. They are asking all the communities to fight the eradication force," said Mohammad Jan, a local man who claimed he would not take up arms.
British counter-narcotics officials also stress that they will not be intimidated by Taliban threats.
"The British government is very serious about supporting the Afghan eradication effort," said one official.
"The Afghans may not be able to eradicate all the poppy, but they are certainly going to take down some very big lumps."
The official added: "The problem is if you just eradicate you force people on to the breadline and possibly into the arms of the Taliban. There has to be development too.
"This is a problem that could get worse before it gets better but we will turn the corner."
With government control negligible outside the towns, the promised redevelopment work is very limited and constantly hampered by security conerns. This creates a vicious circle, with poppy cultivation the only certain way to break away from poverty.
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Profits are vast but only the big fish survive
The Telegraph (UK) February 8, 2007 By Tom Coghlan
On the dusty, run-down streets of Lashkargar, ostentatious mansions boasting neo-classical columns mark out the homes of Helmand's drug smugglers.
One of them is owned by Mohammad Nabi, not his real name, a mid-level smuggler in his 30s who drives a Land Cruiser and boasts a diamond studded watch on his wrist.
A dapper figure, Nabi runs several shipments of around half a ton of opium each month to the Iranian border. There he passes it on to Iranian middlemen operating on behalf of European syndicates who refine it into heroin and speed. From there it goes onwards via Turkey to the back streets of London and other European cities.
"The international smugglers send their people to Iran," he said. "They have Iranian contacts who come to the border, but we don't deal with the foreigners directly. They are Europeans, Americans, Africans, all from different mafias."
The drugs trade in Helmand is evolving quickly, said Nabi yesterday.
"There are fewer smugglers than there used to be — and only the bigger fish can swim. You need a lot of capital. It is not like it was three or four years ago."
The Helmand poppy trade, and Afghanistan's £1.5 billion-a-year drugs pyramid, is streamlining itself. Gone are the open markets for small-time opium traders that used to operate just across the Pakistan border.
The trade has been forced underground thanks to the international counter-narcotics effort, now led by Britain. Western officials believe a class of super smugglers is emerging, estimated by the United Nations to number 25, who are protected by figures in the political establishment.
"The big guys are pricing us out of the market," said Nabi. "They can buy huge quantities and so sell for smaller profit margins. And there is a lot of politics involved. Many of the smaller guys have got frightened. Now they sell cars or go to Dubai and start legitimate businesses. It is just a few people making all the money."
Nonetheless, Nabi does very nicely from his trafficking. Each shipment earns him around $10,000 profit, which can be set against average Afghan income of around $250.
Counter-narcotics officials in Helmand have lists of smugglers under investigation, several of them well known figures. But Nabi remains, for the moment, unconcerned.
Afghan police recently stumbled on half a ton of opium after firing at a vehicle that ran a checkpoint. When the Afghan army arrived on the scene, the two sides fought a pitched gun battle for the drugs. A deal was struck and 100kg eventually went to the police and 400kg to the army. When Western drugs officials heard of the incident and approached the Afghan army, 15kg of the drugs were handed back.
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Tough steps on road to Afghan peace
Analysis By Alastair Leithead BBC News, Kabul Thursday, 8 February 2007
The move towards peace in Afghanistan is involving some difficult decisions for international forces in the country.
Musa Qala is one small place in one Afghan province, but it is at the heart of a controversial British strategy to try to end the fighting and get on with the task of rebuilding and developing Afghanistan.
Last week the Taleban drove in and took over control of the town and their flag is flying over a compound that British troops once defended for months.
Last summer it was a town in northern Helmand at the centre of the fighting, where the Taleban were strong and where British troops held off wave after wave of attack.
They were under siege, and the small government compound was almost overrun by Taleban fighters as it became increasingly difficult to re-supply the troops with rations and ammunition.
Major operations were launched simply to keep them going, bombs were dropped close to the front gate, a huge number of hand grenades were used - in all, seven British soldiers died in Musa Qala district in the long and bloody summer.
In October the troops pulled out of the town in a peace deal, which began with the commander of British forces flying in for a desert meeting, and ended with an exhausted group of soldiers hitching a lift out on the back of local trucks.
The deal was that Taleban fighters and British troops would move out of a 5km exclusion zone around the district centre, and the local elders who brokered the deal would provide security for the town and for the aid agencies who would bring in redevelopment projects.
For four months there was peace, but the deal split British and American views in Afghanistan.
The Taleban propaganda said the British had been forced out and had retreated.
Nato said it allowed them to "redeploy" their forces to be more mobile and to take the offensive.
Many Americans said it was a deal with the Taleban and it would simply store up problems for later.
So with the Taleban flag flying over Musa Qala who was right?
That is still unproven, with Nato hanging on to the hope that the elders will make the Taleban leave, but it is looking increasingly likely that military action will be required.
The new Helmand governor Haji Asadullah Wafa has big plans for his province. He does not support the Musa Qala deal, but only because it does not go far enough.
He calls his proposal "protocols" - plans which local elders must sign up to and be responsible for.
Essentially it is the same idea but it demands more from them and includes the right of the Nato forces to enter a district centre whenever they want, unlike the deal in Musa Qala.
He plans groups of auxiliary police being trained from each district to become a local security force and give the elders a chance to recommend who they want as their district police chief.
But it mainly comes down to where the mission is going from here.
Many worry the new American general Dan McNeill may have more emphasis on force and less on deal-making or reconstruction.
However, outgoing International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) commander General David Richards gave the approval for a huge number of air strikes in his nine months - force was a major part of his strategy even if the mission was to create the conditions for more development and better governance.
Talking appears to be the most sensible way of bringing peace but critics of these deals ask if soldiers really know who they are talking to - and with the tribal nature of Afghanistan it is really difficult to know what other agenda people may have.
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Afghanistan kicks off first drive to register births, deaths
(AFP) 8 February 2007 via Khaleej Times Online
KABUL - Afghanistan on Thursday launched a drive to register births and deaths for the first time in the war-shattered country.
The interior ministry signed an agreement with the United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF, that would see the process launched ”very soon” in six provinces and then extended to others, Deputy Interior Minister Abdul Malik Sidiqi told reporters.
Religious leaders and village elders would help authorities to register newborn babies in villages that may be inaccessible due to insecurity or rugged terrain, he said.
Only about 10 percent of births in Afghanistan are registered, according to UNICEF.
War-scarred Afghanistan was in tatters by the time the backward-looking Taliban was forced out of government in 2001.
Internationally-backed efforts to rebuild have been slow, dogged by insecurity linked to a Taliban insurgency, inefficiency and corruption.
Plans to conduct the first proper census and issue identity cards are underway.
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Lower house approves Czech field hospital mission to Afghanistan
Ceské noviny - Feb 08 1:48 AM
Prague- The Czech Republic will send a field hospital to Afghanistan as the Chamber of Deputies gave the green light to the mission today, in the wake of the upper house's approval of the plan.
Nothing prevents the hospital's departure now.
The Czech military doctors are to leave for Afghanistan in March. The mission is to involve some 70 soldiers and it should last one year.
The 6th Czech military hospital will joint the ISAF peacekeeping mission under NATO command.
It will operate near the Kabul airport.
Prague originally did not reckon with sending in a hospital. NATO allies asked for the mission last November and the Czech government complied with the request.
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Afghanistan: NATO Struggles With Security, Rebuilding In Helmand
By Ahto Lobjakas
LASHKAR GAH, AFGHANISTAN; February 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Once referred to as Afghanistan's "breadbasket," this is among Afghanistan's the most developed regions. Some of Helmand Province's infrastructure -- including irrigation networks and roads donated a half-century ago by the United States and the Soviet Union -- could be returned to use with a minimum of effort.
But Helmand is also home to Taliban militants, opium production, and tribal tensions.
Taliban fighters' brazen takeover of a town in southern Afghanistan this month marked a major setback for NATO and its Afghan allies. Just days before that seizure, British officers were touting the power-sharing deal that kept Taliban fighters out the town of Musa Qala as a possible blueprint for other parts of Helmand Province.
These problems are hampering NATO's British-led efforts to rebuild the province.
Winning Afghan "hearts and minds" is the overriding ambition of nearly every NATO official or soldier here. Military and other officials acknowledge that the Taliban-led insurgency cannot be defeated without improving the lives of ordinary Afghans.
But they also express a frustrating sense that locals are simply willing to side with whichever side offers better terms.
NATO officials say they try to hire local contractors for their projects. In Lashkar Gah, the PRT has distributed nearly $3 million in cash to Afghan contractors in since July.The provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Helmand's Lashkar Gah is part of NATO's effort to win public trust.
Tens of millions of dollars are pouring into the province. Much of that money is provided by Britain, but junior partners Denmark and Estonia play a part in Lashkar Gah, too.
"Those projects vary enormously, but there are small infrastructure-type projects, such as providing covered stalls at the Friday market, and some work to prevent [the Helmand River] from eroding the bridge, the Bolan bridge, and also rehabilitating some of the police checkpoints, and that sort of thing," says British diplomat Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, acting head of the Helmand PRT. "But also we've worked with a women's center in that regard. I think we've done a children's play area."
A NATO source says the market and the bridge were not necessarily among NATO's top priorities, but they were essential to securing the good will of the provincial leadership.
Cochrane-Dyet says Britain is investing $38 million into longer-term projects, mostly focused on rural infrastructure. He says the money will translate into 1,000 wells and 49 kilometers of roads that are crucial for local economic development.
A recurring theme at NATO briefings is the contribution that roads can make to opening markets for alternatives to Helmand's opium poppies -- the source of more than half of Europe's heroin.
Promoting The Kabul Government
Ian Huntley, deputy commander of the military component of the PRT in Lashkar Gah, stresses that NATO wants its aid to be regarded as an Afghan achievement -- for a variety of reasons.
"The other point about it is, of course, that we're trying to win hearts and minds not for ourselves, but for the Afghan government," Huntley says. "So the fact that there's a Union Jack on something wouldn't help; [it] would probably just make something a target...associated with outsiders, with foreigners. But what you want is for the locals to see that their standard of living is going up and [to] associate that with the government of Afghanistan -- not with outsiders."
NATO officials say they try to hire local contractors for their projects. In Lashkar Gah, the PRT has distributed nearly $3 million in cash to Afghan contractors in since July.
The Security Problem
But security remains a major obstacle. For example, Estonia is providing equipment to a local hospital, in that country's first-ever development-aid experience.
The city of Lashkar Gah provides the backdrop for that Baltic state's first-ever experience providing development aid.
"Estonia has decided to spend $125,000 out of its 2006 budget to provide medical equipment for the children's ward of the main hospital of Helmand Province [in Lashkar Gah]," explains Estonian diplomat Toomas Kahur. "In more precise terms, we're talking here oxygen-generators and related equipment."
However, Kahur's recent visit to the hospital was cut short after just 15 minutes when his security team decides that an altercation with locals at the gates of the hospital -- coupled with intelligence that there are as many as six suicide bombers at large in Lashkar Gah -- represents an intolerable security risk.
Danger All Around
Outside Lashkar Gah, things are much worse.
NATO's mobile operations groups (MOGs) draw insurgent fire on a daily basis. There are very few permanent bases.
NATO officers say the heavily populated Sangin Valley to the north of Lashkar Gah is effectively controlled by the Taliban.
In the south, NATO's soldiers do not venture beyond Garmsir, where well-entrenched Taliban troops have been challenging them for months.
In the north, the limits of NATO's presence end where the mountains begin. These limits are best exemplified by standoffs around the district capitals of Now Zad and -- since its storming by Taliban in last week -- Musa Qala.
Now that the deal that ostensibly kept militants out of Musa Qala has fallen apart -- and locals are fleeing in anticipation of violence -- NATO will try and reclaim the district through other means.
That places the alliance -- and its desire to play a supporting role to the Afghan government -- in a delicate situation, particularly as NATO battles for the "hearts and minds" of area residents.
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National mourning in Nangarhar as US troops conduct raids
JALALABAD, Feb 7 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Members of the Provincial Council of the eastern Nangarhar province announced national mourning and staged work stoppage on Wednesday in protest to 'irresponsible raids' by US forces.
The twin actions of protest were announced by the council after, its members said, the US-led coalition forces detained two people and killed another during a raid last night.
Deputy head of the Nangarhar legislative council Maulavi Abdul Aziz Khairkhwa told a press conference here that they were launching a four-day work stoppage and simultaneous national mourning in order to protest against foreign forces' 'irresponsible operations' in villages. The knee-jerk reaction by the elected council came after the US forces said it captured two men from Khogyani district for suspected links with al-Qaeda overnight.
"In addition to the arrests, Maulavi Muhammad Yahya, a local man was also killed during the raid last night, but officials have kept it secret from the public and the media," Khairkhawa said.
He added: "People have voted to us to bring tranquility to them and now this is our job to react by announcing a national mourning and work stoppage for four days in reaction to torture of our people (by foreign forces)," said Khairkhwa.
The deputy chief of the provincial legislative body said there was no full-fledged war going on in the area, neither there existed any high-level Taliban commanders as to prompt the US-led coalition troops 'to torture people'.
He went further to blame the Coalition forces for looting people's wealth and cashes, adding that they wanted to plunge the eastern provinces into a chaotic status like that has already been developed in Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul.
Khairkhwa said they have asked foreign forces through US troops commander, its ambassador and British officials to stop 'irresponsible operations and home searches' in the area, but the situation did not improve at all.
He also slammed local government officials for poor management and control as they have failed to respond to their complaints about prevention of military operations conducted without prior coordination of the government.
"Together with the residents of Nangarhar province we will jointly make a decision, unless any change was made in the situation as response to our objection, he warned.
Abdul Mueed Hashimi
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Three senior police, army officers killed in Herat
HERAT CITY, Feb 7 (Pajhwok Afghan News): An army and two police officers were killed in a roadside bomb explosion in the western province of Herat Wednesday morning.
The three senior security and military officials of Shindand district were killed while monitoring defusing of a bomb freshly planted on the road in Zir Koh, the most volatile area in Herat.
Shindand district chief Khudadad Erfani told Pajhwok Afghan News a team bomb disposal squad from the police department was defusing a recently-planted bomb when another improvised explosive device suddenly went off .
The dead included crime brach chief of the district Sayed Ahmad Ansari, detection officer from police and chief of the local army units in Shindand, said the district chief, who added the explosion took place when the officers were inspecting the area, where the first bomb was defused.
Efrani also informed about a clash between Taliban and local security forces in the same district, but said there were no information about casualties.
Blast in Nimroz
Three people, including a policeman, were wounded in roadside bomb blast this morning in the neighbouring Nimroz province.
Ali Ahmad, a provincial security official, said a policeman, his driver and a bystander were injured when their vehicle hit the roadside bomb in Zaranj area. The vehicle was completely destroyed in the explosion, witnesses said.
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Rocket fired at Kabul airport
KABUL, Feb 7 (Pajhwok Afghan News): A rocket fired from the eastern side of this capital city, landed near the Kabul Interenational Airport Wednesday morning, but caused no casualties.
Chief of the crime branch of the Kabul police General Alishah Paktiawal told Pajhwok Afghan News the rocket landed in airport area but it did not harm the buildings. He said both civilians as well as security personnel remained unhurt in the attack.
He said the rocket was fired from Bagrami area situated east of the city. The eastern part of Kabul was scene to a mysterious explosion last week. Neither officials, nor civilians confirmed what caused the huge blast that had harrassed the people in that area.
Habib Rahman Ibrahimi
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Pakistan to deport 250 Afghan pilgrims
Thursday February 8, 06:32 PM
Islamabad, Feb.8 (ANI): The Pakistan Government has decided to deport over 250 Afghan pilgrims to Afghanistan after they were found to have traveled to Saudi Arabia on fake documents for the Hajj pilgrimage.
The Afghan pilgrims were arrested by the Federal Investigative Agency (FIA), and it was decided that the pilgrims would be handed over to the Afghan officials.
Pakistani authorities have reportedly completed talks on the issue with Afghan officials and the FIA immigration authorities preparing the list of people to be deported, sources here said.
These Afghan nationals would be handed over to Afghanistan authorities at Chaman border whereas lawsuits would be filed against other arrested persons, the sources added. (ANI)
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Afghan women? Their place is within the burqa
Ann Jones 2/9/2007 Financial Express - Feb 08 8:32 AM
Born in Afghanistan but raised in the United States, like many in the worldwide Afghan diaspora, Manizha Naderi is devoted to helping her homeland. For years she worked with Women for Afghan Women, a New York-based organization serving Afghan women wherever they may be.
Last autumn, she returned to Kabul, the capital, to try to create a Family Guidance Center. Its goal is to rescue women - and their families - from home-made violence. It's tough work. After three decades of almost constant warfare, most citizens are programmed to answer the slightest challenge with violence. In Afghanistan it's the default response.
Manizha Naderi has been sizing up the problem in the capital and last week she sent me a copy of her report. A key passage went like this:
During the past year, a rash of reports on the situation of women in Afghanistan has been issued by Afghan governmental agencies and by foreign and local non-governmental organizations that claim a particular interest in women's rights or in Afghanistan or both. More reports are in the offing. What has sparked them is the dire situation of women in the country, the systematic violations of their human rights, and the failure of concerned parties to achieve significant improvements by providing women with legal protections rooted in a capable, honest and stable judiciary system, education and employment opportunities, safety from violence, much of it savage, and protection from hidebound customs originating in the conviction that women are the property of men.
I'd hoped for better news. Instead, her report brought back so many things I'd seen for myself during the past five years spent, off and on, in her country.
Last year in Herat, as I was walking with an Afghan colleague to a meeting on women's rights, I spotted an ice-cream vendor in the hot, dusty street. I rushed ahead and returned with two cones of lemony ice. I held one out to my friend. "Forgive me," she said. "I can't." She was wearing a burqa.
It was a stupid mistake. I'd been in Afghanistan a long time, in the company every day of women encased from head to toe in pleated polyester body bags. Occasionally I put one on myself, just to get the feel of being stifled in the sweaty sack, blind behind the mesh eye mask. I'd watched women trip on their burqas and fall. I'd watched women collide with cars they couldn't see. I knew a woman badly burned when her burqa caught fire. I knew another who suffered a near-fatal skull fracture when her burqa snagged in a taxi door and slammed her to the pavement as the vehicle sped away. But I'd never before noted this fact: it is not possible for a woman wearing a burqa to eat an ice-cream cone.
We gave the cones away to passing children and laughed about it, but to me it was the saddest thing.
Ever since the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, President George W Bush has boasted of "liberating" Afghan women from the Taliban and the burqa. His wife Laura, after a publicity junket to Afghanistan in 2005, appeared on a popular talk show to say that she hadn't seen a single woman wearing a burqa.
But these are the sorts of wildly optimistic self-delusions that have made Bush notorious. His wife, whose visit to Afghanistan lasted almost six hours, spent much of that time at the US air base and none of it in the Afghan streets where most women, to this day, go about in big blue bags.
It's true that after the fall of the Taliban lots of women in the capital went back to work in schools, hospitals and government ministries, while others found better-paying jobs with international humanitarian agencies. In 2005, thanks to a quota system imposed by the international community, women took 27% of the seats in the lower house of Parliament, a greater percentage than women enjoy in most Western legislatures, including the United States'. Yet these hopeful developments are misleading.
The fact is that the "liberation" of Afghan women is mostly theoretical. The Afghan constitution adopted in 2004 declares, "The citizens of Afghanistan - whether man or woman - have equal rights and duties before the law." But what law? The judicial system - ultra-conservative, inadequate, incompetent and notoriously corrupt - usually bases decisions on idiosyncratic interpretations of Islamic sharia, tribal customary codes or simple bribery. And legal "scholars" instruct women that having "equal rights and duties" is not the same as being equal to men.
Post-Taliban Afghanistan, under President Hamid Karzai, also ratified key international agreements on human rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Treaty of Civil and Political Rights, and CEDAW: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Like the constitution, these essential documents provide a foundation for realizing the rights of women.
But building on that paper foundation - amid poverty, illiteracy, misogyny and ongoing warfare - is something else again.
That's why, for the great majority of Afghan women, life has scarcely changed at all. That's why even an educated and informed leader like my colleague, on her way to a United Nations agency to work on women's rights, is still unable to eat an ice-cream cone.
For most Afghan women the burqa is the least of their problems.
Afghanistan is just about the poorest country in the world. Only Burkina Faso and Niger sometimes get worse ratings. After nearly three decades of warfare and another of drought, millions of Afghans are without safe water or sanitation or electricity, even in the capital city. Millions are without adequate food and nutrition. Millions have access only to the most rudimentary health care, or none at all.
Diseases such as tuberculosis and polio, long eradicated in most of the world, flourish there. They hit women and children hard. One in four children dies before the age of five, usually from a preventable illness such as cholera or diarrhea. Half of all women of childbearing age who die do so in childbirth, giving Afghanistan one of the highest maternal death rates in the world. Average life expectancy hovers around 42 years.
Notice that we're still talking women's rights here: the fundamental economic and social rights that belong to all human beings.
There are other grim statistics. About 85% of Afghan women are illiterate. About 95% are routinely subjected to violence in the home. And the home is where most Afghan women in rural areas, and many in cities, are still customarily confined. Public space and public life belong almost exclusively to men. Karzai heads the country while his wife, a qualified gynecologist with needed skills, stays at home.
These facts are well known. During more than five years of Western occupation, they haven't changed.
Afghan women and girls are, by custom and practice, the property of men. They may be traded and sold like any commodity. Although Afghan law sets the minimum marriageable age for girls at 16, girls as young as eight or nine are commonly sold into marriage. Female doctors in Kabul maternity hospitals describe terrible life-threatening "wedding night" injuries that husbands inflict on child brides. In the countryside, far from medical help, such girls die.
Under the tribal code of the Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group, men customarily hand over women and girls - surplus sisters or widows, daughters or nieces - to other men to make amends for some offense or to pay off some indebtedness, often to a drug lord. To Pashtuns, the trade-off is a way of maintaining "justice" and social harmony, but international human-rights observers define what happens to the women and girls used in such "conflict resolution" as "slavery".
Given the rigid confinement of women, a surprising number try to escape. But any woman on her own outside the home is assumed to be guilty of the crime of zina - engaging in sexual activity. That's why "running away" is itself a crime. One crime presupposes the other.
When she is caught, as most runaways are, she may be taken to jail for an indefinite term or returned to her husband or father or brothers, who may then murder her to restore the family honor.
The same thing happens to a rape victim, force being no excuse for sexual contact - unless she is married to the man who raped her. In that case, she can be raped as often as he likes.
In Kabul, where women and girls move about more freely, many are snatched by traffickers and sold into sexual slavery. The traffickers are seldom pursued or punished because once a girl is abducted she is as good as dead anyway, even to loving parents bound by the code of honor. The weeping mother of a kidnapped teenage girl once told me, "I pray she does not come back because my husband will have to kill her."
Many a girl kills herself. To escape beatings or sexual abuse or forced marriage. To escape prison or honor killing, if she has been seduced or raped or falsely accused. To escape life, if she has been forbidden to marry the man she would choose for herself.
Suicide also brings dishonor, so families cover it up. Only when city girls try to kill themselves by setting themselves on fire do their cases become known, for if they do not die at once, they may be taken to hospital. In 2003, scores of cases of self-immolation were reported in the city of Herat; the following year, as many were recorded in Kabul. Although such incidents are notoriously underreported, during the past year 150 cases were noted in western Afghanistan, 197 in Herat and at least 34 in the south.
The customary codes and traditional practices that made life unbearable for these burned girls predate the Taliban, and they remain in force today, side by side with the new constitution and international documents that speak of women's rights.
Tune in a Kabul television station and you'll see evidence that Afghan women are poised at a particularly schizophrenic moment in their history. Watching televised parliamentary sessions, you'll see women who not only sit side by side with men - a dangerous, generally forbidden proximity - but actually rise to argue with them. Yet who can forget poor murdered Shaima, the lively, youthful presenter of a popular TV chat show for young people? Her father and brother killed her, or so men and women say approvingly, because they found her job shameful. Mullahs and public officials issue edicts from time to time condemning women on television, or television itself.
Many people believe the key to improving life for women, and all Afghans, is education, particularly because so many among Afghanistan's educated elite left the country during its decades of wars. So the international community invests in education projects - building schools, printing textbooks, teaching teachers, organizing literacy classes for women - and the Bush administration in particular boasts that 5 million children now go to school.
But that's fewer than half the kids of school age, and less than a third of the girls. The highest enrollments are in cities - 85% of children in Kabul - while in the Pashtun south, enrollments drop below 20% overall and near zero for girls. More than half the students enrolled in school live in Kabul and its environs, yet even there an estimated 60,000 children are not in school, but in the streets, working as vendors, trash-pickers, beggars or thieves.
None of this is new. For a century, Afghan rulers - from kings to communists - have tried to unveil women and advance education. In the 1970s and 1980s, many women in the capital went about freely, without veils. They worked in offices, schools, hospitals. They went to university and became doctors, nurses, teachers, judges, engineers. They drove their own cars. They wore Western fashions and traveled abroad. But when Kabul's communists called for universal education throughout the country, provincial conservatives opposed to educating women rebelled.
Afghan women of the Kabul elite haven't yet caught up to where they were 35 years ago. But once again ultra-conservatives are up in arms. This time it's the Taliban, back in force throughout the southern half of the country. Among their tactics: blowing up or burning schools (150 in 2005, 198 in 2006) and murdering teachers, especially women who teach girls. The UN estimates that in four southern provinces more than half the schools - 380 out of 748 - no longer provide any education at all.
Last September, the Taliban shot down a middle-aged woman who headed the provincial office for women's affairs in Kandahar. A few brave colleagues went back to the office in body armor, knowing it would not save them. Now, in the southern provinces - more than half the country - women and girls stay home.
I blame Bush, the "liberator" who looked the other way. In 2001, the US military claimed responsibility for these provinces, the heart of Taliban country; but diverted to adventures in the oilfields of Iraq, it failed for five years to provide the security international humanitarians needed to do the promised work of reconstruction.
Afghans grew discouraged. Last summer, when the US handed the job to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), British and Canadian "peacekeepers" walked right into war with the resurgent Taliban. By year's end, more than 4,000 Afghans were dead - Taliban, "suspected" insurgents and civilians. Speaking recently of dead women and children - trapped between US bombers and NATO troops on the one hand and Taliban forces backed (unofficially) by Pakistan on the other - Karzai began to weep.
It's winter in Afghanistan now. No time to make war. But come spring, the Taliban promise a new offensive to throw out Karzai and foreign invaders. The British commander of NATO forces has already warned: "We could actually fail here." He also advised a British reporter that Westerners shouldn't even mention women's rights when more important things are at stake. As if security is not a woman's right. And peace.
Come spring, Afghan women could lose it all.
(Ann Jones, who was a humanitarian-aid worker in Afghanistan periodically from 2002 to 2006, is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan Books, 2006, and soon to be in paperback).
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The Taliban in Pakistan
By SAID T. JAWAD February 6, 2007 The Wall Street Journal Page A16
Pakistan's recent proposal to fence and lay landmines along its 1,500-mile Afghanistan border is impractical, ineffective and irrelevant to the problem of terrorism and the Taliban. Terrorism will be contained only if we end the institutional support for extremism and strengthen traditional leadership in our region.
On Jan. 11, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He identified Pakistan as "a major source of Islamic extremism" and said that al Qaeda leaders enjoy a "secure hideout" in Pakistan, while rebuilding their terrorist network and pursuing WMD. These statements reflect a growing consensus among political and military leaders. In his recent trip to the region, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted a "significant increase in cross-border attacks." Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley has stated that Jalaluddin Haqqani and other Taliban leaders are in Pakistan, and in Congress Rep. Frank Pallone urged President Bush and Condoleezza Rice to "work with President [Pervez] Musharraf to eliminate extremist training camps in western Pakistan." The Taliban are currently training and preparing for a bloody spring operation against Afghan, U.S. and NATO troops. Neither exchanging barbed comments nor concealing and misrepresenting the threat is the solution. Frank discussions and constructive engagements are necessary to contain the impending surge of Taliban violence.
The Afghan government values the high price the people of Pakistan are paying to restrain extremism. We appreciate that President Musharraf, a crucial ally of the U.S. and NATO in the war against terror, has recognized the threat posed by cross-border terrorist excursions into Afghanistan and is intending to do more. However, the border is not where the problem lies. Terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan are the real threat to regional stability and global security. Such sanctuaries are breeding grounds for extremism and violence.
We share the concern of Canada, European countries, the U.N. and human-rights organizations such as Pakistan's Human Rights Commission that new mines will take the lives of many more innocent civilians in one of the most heavily mined regions in the world. In 2005, 825 new landmine casualties were recorded in Afghanistan. The tribes along the border demand and deserve peace, prosperity and human security. Expanding the benefits of development and trade and providing economic aid for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North-West Frontier Province will be the best means of achieving these goals. Mining the border will neither stop trained terrorists nor deter suicide bombers. Rather, these measures will divide nations, tribes and communities with a shared culture and common heritage.
In the past, Pakistan has rightfully objected to the fencing of the Kashmir border as ineffective. The most secure fence becomes useless if the border guards at the crossing points are corrupt or accomplices to the extremists. Laying mines along some of the most mountainous terrain in the world is not only impractical but also irrelevant. If the sources of terror remain untouched we will continue to face this threat, even if the border were to become impenetrable.
Afghanistan remains the original front of the war on terror and the chief victim of the Taliban's safe havens in Pakistan. The international community must help Pakistan take additional steps to ensure that the terrorist threat posed by these havens is contained or eliminated. A concerted plan to close down sanctuaries for training, command, control, regrouping and supply will eliminate cross-border incursions. Such a plan should be accompanied by a dismantling of the Taliban's organizational structure in Quetta, Balochistan and Miranshah, North Waziristan. Our allies in the war against terror should work with Pakistan to shut down those madrassas that have become factories of hatred, as well as sources of recruitment and financial and logistical support.
Strengthening the traditional leadership in the tribal areas will yield valuable dividends. The majority of Pashtuns in our region are victims of extremism. Talibanization is a threat to their identity and culture; extremist groups must not be allowed to suppress nationalist leaders who seek "enlightened moderation," traditional values and secular rule. Tribal elders and civic institutions should be provided effective resources to strengthen civil society and empower moderate political parties. Lifting the ban on political parties in the tribal areas will help fend off extremism. The proposed Joint Peace Jirgas in Afghanistan and Pakistan by President Hamid Karzai are intended to empower the border region's traditional leadership through an honorable and time-tested mechanism of conflict resolution.
Afghanistan is in favor of friendship with all its neighbors, through trade and commerce and people-to-people contacts. The people of Afghanistan and Pakistan demand constructive engagement, and the sincere cooperation of our governments. Since reconstruction began five years ago, Afghanistan has followed global trends to open borders and break down the boundaries, physical or otherwise, between peoples. If we must lay land mines and build fences to prevent attacks against Afghan and Coalition forces, it should be around the terrorist sanctuaries and training grounds, not along the border. We must isolate terrorists, not divide tribes and communities.
Mr. Jawad is the ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States.
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How Goes the War (on Terrorism)?
Nation-building or nation-neglecting?
- M. Ashraf Haidari Tuesday, February 6, 2007 sfgates.com
Now is the time to finish the job we began in Afghanistan five years ago. Last year saw a desperate and vicious onslaught by a new generation of Taliban forces with enhanced logistical and financial support. More than 4,000 Afghans, many of them civilians, were killed in military actions in 2006, a three-fold increase from the previous year. Suicide attacks -- a phenomenon unknown to Afghans before 2002 -- jumped to 118 from 21. As our intelligence capabilities improve, we are finding and arresting more boys who arrive in Afghanistan fresh from ideological brainwashing in foreign madrassas. They weep when they are caught, not out of remorse, but because they have been denied their martyrdom. And despite the presence of aid workers from more than 60 countries in Afghanistan, 44 Afghan women die each day in childbirth.
Millions of Afghan men and women face this environment of insecurity and remember the promises made to them five years ago. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States demonstrated that a neglected Afghanistan can have tragic consequences for global security. While nation-building is not cheap, nation-neglecting is far more costly.
The U.S. government announced last week it plans to provide another $10.6 billion for Afghanistan, and the European Union has proposed a further $780 million in aid. The international community must cooperate closely with the Afghan government to ensure the realization of these pledges. The sight of new schools, banks, police stations, factories and roads is just as valuable as a successful military sweep in winning the hearts and minds of the people.
Despite these promising developments, three destabilizing factors with local, regional and transnational dimensions contribute to deteriorating security in Afghanistan. At the local level, the government's lack of capacity and resources impedes its ability to meet popular demands for basic services. After 30 years of war, Afghanistan suffers from weak state institutions, and the Afghan army and police force reform of the last five years has not received adequate attention and investment from the international community. Without security, reconstruction proceeds slowly or not at all.
While the international community has pledged long-term support to Afghanistan's reconstruction, regional actors have concluded that this commitment will be short-lived. Although Afghanistan is the world's original front in the global war against terrorism, attention and resources have been diverted elsewhere, a fact not lost on Afghanistan's neighbors.
Transnational drug traffickers and terrorists have taken advantage of Afghanistan's slow pace of reconstruction, effectively hijacking the country's economic re-emergence. The relationship between drug mafias and terrorists is mutually beneficial. The Taliban finances some of its operations through a 10 percent tax collected from opium producers. Narco-terrorists continue to enjoy an enabling environment as global demand for Afghanistan's heroin far outpaces the international community's ability to provide licit agricultural development and alternative livelihoods for poor Afghan farmers.
To address these root causes of instability in Afghanistan, the international community must rethink its peace-building approach. First, the international community must deliver on its commitment to implementing the Afghan "Marshal Plan" or peace will remain elusive.
Second, terrorist sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan's borders must be shut down. Afghanistan sits in the middle of a predatory neighborhood. The ability of the Taliban insurgency to operate in Afghanistan depends on a sophisticated extremist infrastructure in Pakistan that recruits, indoctrinates and trains terrorists. This infrastructure capitalizes on endemic poverty and illiteracy to recruit young men into traveling to Afghanistan to fight in the name of jihad.
Third, drug-consuming countries must recognize their stake in ending regional narco-terrorism. Millions of lives and billions of dollars are lost to the war on drugs in Iran, Russia, Europe and the United States each year. If major consumer countries invest preventively to revitalize Afghanistan's agricultural economy, they will save the lives of their own citizens and deal a blow to their own domestic drug mafias. When Afghan farmers see that their crops can be preserved with cold storage and transported to neighboring countries on a modern road, they will replant their previously uprooted orchards. But if all they perceive is neglect and mismanagement, these farmers will keep falling back on the guaranteed profits of a poppy crop.
History has demonstrated that winning the peace has a higher rate of success in post-conflict countries where the majority of people support international intervention. In Afghanistan, the people overwhelmingly support the presence of the international community and their forces to help secure and rebuild the country. Capitalizing on this strategic asset will guarantee the success of nation-building in Afghanistan and set a valuable precedent for future post-conflict reconstruction.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the political counselor at the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington.
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Ariana to begin flights for Dubai, Tehran from Kandahar
KANDAHAR CITY, Feb 6 (Pajhwok Afghan News): The state-owned Ariana Afghan Airlines (AAA) will begin flights from the southern city of Kandahar to Dubai and Tehran from tomorrow, officials said on Tuesday. Head of the national flag carrier in Kandahar Haji Mohammad Qasim told Pajhwok Afghan News there would be one flight for each Dubai and Tahran on weekly basis.
He said the decision was taken in face of the problems confronting by people, who want to travel by air between Kandahar and Tehran. In case of travel to Dubai, majority of Afghans use the Peshawar or other airports in Pakistan.
He said the flights will be undertaken by Boeing 757, newly purchased by AAA. It will fly to the both destinations every Wednesday.
Businessmen, who are expected to be the main class to use the AAA planes, welcomed the development that, they say, will cut their trip to the outside shorter than before.
Haji Abdul Wadood a trader from Kandahar city said it took them long distance and more time to fly from Kabul or Pakistan to outside and it will spare both time and money for them to use planes from their province. He also asked AAA officials to start flights to other foreign countries too, like China and India, where Afghan merchants frequently go for their businesses.
Qasim said they will look into the suggestion of taking more overseas destinations if demand increased for it.
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