July 14, 2007
SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban insurgents have beheaded seven Afghan civilians accused of spying for foreign and Afghan government forces in the past 10 days, a senior Afghan intelligence official said on Saturday.
Taliban militants have increasingly resorted to executing those they accuse of spying for NATO and U.S.-led forces in the last two years alongside more suicide and roadside bombs, tactics copied from Iraq that officials say are aimed at instilling fear.
"In the last 10 days the Taliban beheaded seven Afghan civilians without any proof," said the intelligence official who declined to be named.
He said the killings had taken place across the country, but mostly around Kandahar, Ghazni and other areas of the south.
"The Taliban are putting pressure on civilians to gain support," he told Reuters. "When these people are caught they are tortured first and then beheaded."
He said Taliban insurgents became suspicious of everyone whenever U.S. or NATO-led forces launched air strikes, believing they must have been guided from someone on the ground.
A Taliban spokesman said those executed had been captured along with proof, such as laser equipment used for guiding air strikes, that showed they were working for foreign troops.
"We have captured many spies providing information about the Taliban to foreign troops. When we catch any spy, we behead him," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told Reuters by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location.
Some 6,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan, around 1,500 of them civilians, in the last 18 months, the worst period of violence in the country since U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
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Police, Taliban killed in Afghan clashes
Sat Jul 14, 7:11 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Two police and more than 21 suspected Taliban insurgents have been killed in fresh clashes in southern Afghanistan, authorities said Saturday.
Fifteen insurgents were killed when they attacked Afghan and international troops in the southern district of Charchino on Friday, the defence ministry said.
Allied troops responded with air attacks, the ministry said in a statement, adding that there were no military or civilian casualties.
The two police officers died Friday when they were ambushed in the neighbouring province of Kandahar, a Taliban hotbed, provincial police commander, Sayed Agha Saqeb told AFP.
"The Taliban attacked our police and fighting erupted," he said. "Six Taliban were killed and their bodies were recovered in the area. Unfortunately two policemen also lost their lives in the fighting."
In neighbouring Helmand province, several Taliban fighters were killed when they attacked an Afghan and US-led coalition patrol the same day, the coalition said in a statement.
The coalition did not give a figure for the rebel casualties, but said more than 15 insurgents had attacked the patrol in Taliban-dominated Sangin district, which has seen heavy fighting this year.
They "repelled the attack using effective small arms, machine gun and MK-19 fire," the statement said, adding that "several Taliban were killed" and several more wounded in the brief exchange.
Almost daily insurgent attacks have rocked Helmand, where the Taliban are most active, fighting an insurgency since their ouster from power by a US-led offensive in late 2001.
On June 30, 45 civilians and 62 militants suspected of using them as human shields died in allied air strikes, according to provincial police figures disputed by NATO.
More than 50,000 Western troops, the bulk of them under a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, are deployed in Afghanistan.
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Taliban leader vows more attacks against West
Sat Jul 14, 4:29 AM ET
WASHINGTON (AFP) - A commander of Afghanistan's Taliban militant group warned Western nations in an interview broadcast on US television that they can expect more attacks on their soil.
Taliban military commander Mansour Dadullah, in the interview shown on ABC News on Friday, said the July 2005 suicide attacks on London's transport system, in which 52 people died, were "not enough" and that bigger attacks were coming.
"You will, God willing, be witness to more attacks," Dadullah told a Pakistani journalist in an interview ABC said was conducted four days earlier.
The commander of the Islamic group, which was ousted from power in Afghanistan by US troops after the September 11 terror attacks of 2001, talks about his ability to operate inside neighboring Pakistan.
"We have many friends," he said. "It is very easy for us to go in and out of the tribal areas (at the Afghan-Pakistani border). It is no problem."
Last month, ABC broadcast a video showing Dadullah presiding over a "graduation ceremony" of fighters trained by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban somewhere in the Afghan-Pakistan tribal border region on June 9.
In that video, Dadullah already threatened members of the NATO military alliance deployed in Afghanistan.
"These Americans, Canadians, British and Germans come here to Afghanistan from faraway places," Dadullah said on the video. "Why shouldn't we go after them?"
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New Afghan mass grave a flashback to a brutal past
by Bronwen Roberts July 14, 2007
KABUL (AFP) - In a hilly desert just outside Kabul, three small caves dug into a sandy slope have yielded more than a dozen skeletons, some with bullet holes through the skulls, one still with tufts of hair.
It is suspected there are several such underground chambers and more skeletons -- perhaps hundreds, says the city's criminal investigation chief, Alishah Paktiawal, although this has yet to be confirmed.
The latest mass grave to be unearthed in Afghanistan -- there are about 20 known sites, human rights groups say -- was shown to police more than a week ago by a man in his late 40s.
He told media he had first seen it 12 years ago, before migrating to Iran where thousands of Afghans waited out the 1992-1996 civil war and the harsh Taliban regime that followed.
The grave in Chimtala, just three kilometres (two miles) off the main road that leads northwards out of the city is located on the site of weapons bunkers dating back to the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation.
The extent of its contents are still a mystery, as are the identities of the people buried there and when they were killed -- perhaps during the occupation, which was met with fierce resistance, or the subsequent civil war among resistance factions.
Either way, it is another grim reminder of decades of war in which more than a million people were killed, thousands more went missing and a country was destroyed.
It is too early to say what happened at this barren and windswept place, interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said.
"Our teams are working on the case. Once they finish their work, we will know how many bodies were buried there, how old the grave is and also how they were killed," he told AFP.
President Hamid Karzai has appointed a commission to investigate.
"Those innocent people should be remembered in the history of Afghanistan," he said.
Another mass grave was found around Kabul last year near the notorious Pul-i-Charkhi prison in the east of the city, where many opponents of the Soviet invaders were tortured and killed.
And in April this year a mass grave containing the remains of more than 400 Afghans killed during the communist era was discovered in the remote northeastern province of Badakhshan.
"More than 20 mass graves have been found in this country. Some of them are so shocking, like one in Kunar containing 1,200 victims," said Nader Nadery, from Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission.
The Kunar grave in the northeast of the country dates from the 1980s but, again, little is known about the remains inside.
"It's believed a large number of people killed in the 1980s' conflicts are lying in mass graves. Some of them are identified and some are still to be found," Nadery said.
Mass graves cover all the periods of Afghanistan's conflict, said Richard Bennett, head of the human rights unit of the UN mission here.
This includes the communist, or Soviet time, the chaotic rule of the resistance, or mujahedeen (holy warriors), and the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, he said.
"We would like there to be a mapping of these and proper security for all of them and preservation of the human remains," he told AFP.
This would allow eventual forensic investigation to find out who was murdered and why.
"There are thousands, I don't think anybody knows how many thousands, of disappeared people. They themselves have the right to an identity and a decent burial," Bennett said.
"There is a responsibility towards those families who have missing relatives, who might wish to know where they are and might wish to have their remains repatriated to their homes."
The graves also hide atrocities that human rights groups want exposed.
"Many of these people have been executed and there is a question of ultimately finding out the truth and making accountable those responsible, if they are still around and if they can be identified," Bennett said.
He said it was "essential" the skeletons remain undisturbed until they can be investigated.
Paktiawal appeared to think differently when, in front of journalists, he put some of the Chimtala bones into a plastic bag last week and took them back to his office.
Shock at the discovery of yet another grave illustrates the "public demand for justice," Nadery said.
This can only be done through a new "action plan on peace, justice and reconciliation," which was adopted by the government last year, he said.
Proposals in the plan -- slow to get off the ground -- include efforts to document what happened, acknowledging suffering through the erection of monuments, and purging human rights violators from state institutions.
Its most controversial element is a yet-to-be defined mechanism for truth-seeking, a provision which appeared to prompt parliament, filled with mujahedeen leaders alleged to be linked to atrocities, to pass an amnesty law this year.
"It is recognised that in Afghanistan this will take a long time," Bennett said. "But people should not give up and (should) do their best to document what happened and work towards the creation of the truth so the truth comes out."
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PM clearly speeding up Afghan plan
James Travers The Toronto Star (Canada) July 14, 2007 OTTAWA
Canadians now know how many Afghanistan casualties are too many. With the death toll at 67 and forecast to continue rising fast, federal politicians and the military are easing away from combat.
What's not known – and may never be known – is how many losses would be enough to ensure success. Countering a 21st-century insurgency requires so many boots on the ground that the human cost quickly exceeds what democratic governments are willing to pay.
Canada is at that point. Once single-minded about the mission, Stephen Harper is now searching for a protective political consensus while top general Rick Hillier is preparing for the inevitable by shifting from fighting Taliban to training Afghans. That's both problematic and a familiar pattern. Facing an intractable enemy abroad and polarized opinion at home, governments find ways to declare victory and retreat.
Ottawa is adding an ironic twist. After sending troops to Afghanistan in partial compensation for not sending them to Iraq, the federal government is counting on a strategy thwarted in Baghdad to triumph in Kabul.
As Hillier sketched in a wide-ranging, thought-provoking Star interview this week, Afghanistan's fledgling army and corrupt police will be expected to defend and control more of their country. Always the long-term expectation, the plan is clearly being accelerated to meet fast-approaching deadlines.
NATO needs to know what Canada will do when its current mission ends in February 2009. That forces a fall debate and a decision minority Tories can shape but not control.
So necessity is spawning virtue in a solution that rests heavily on optimism. Hillier argues that key differences between Iraq and Afghanistan raise prospects that the army, if not the police, will take up the slack created by NATO reluctance to replace Canadians at the front.
True, parts of Afghanistan are stable enough to allow military training and the country is more cohesive than Iraq. But Hillier knows the Afghan army isn't ready to stand alone. Canada or some other elusive ally will have to fight alongside troops that may be making huge strides but aren't nearly ready to defeat extremists or keep a moderate regime in power.
Raising them to first-world standards will take years and suggests that what looks like an exit strategy may prove to be the political cover Canada needs to stay longer in a less combative role. That makes sense. The 3D theory of defence, development and diplomacy is a difficult work in progress and it's delusional to think that failed states can be this quickly fixed.
What remains to be seen is if countries including Canada have the political will to stay that long and arduous course. In lives and dollars there's an enormous cost variance in overthrowing a repugnant regime, stabilizing an inherently unstable country or rebuilding it to modern standards.
NATO governments haven't asked their people to consider the implications of an equation that in war manifests itself in the choice between putting enough boots on the ground and striking anonymously from the air. One inevitably leads to higher military casualties, the other to the civilian deaths that make building or holding local support impossible.
Canadians, too, are now more likely to skirt a full debate on the costs and benefits of Afghanistan strategy. Having exhausted our political capacity to absorb casualties, Canada is proclaiming progress, lowering its guns and edging toward the door.
James Travers' national affairs column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday
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Afghanistan's Frustrating Rebuilding Work
The U.S.-led coalition is spending hundreds of millions of dollars constructing roads, bridges and buildings across Afghanistan. For the troops on the ground, it can be a frustrating and delicate job.
COMMENTARY By Dan Ephron Newsweek
July 14, 2007 - Doing business in Afghanistan can be a difficult undertaking for an earnest American Air Force officer. I'm riding in an armored convoy with Capt. Harry Jackson to a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Chardeh, a small town where the American-led coalition has overseen construction of a new school for girls. The project is one of hundreds around the country managed by the coalition to help bring Afghanistan into the modern era. When the school opens, it will mark the first time Chardeh has set aside a learning space for girls, who were barred by the Taliban from studying at all and still face huge inequalities.
Jackson inherited management of the project when he deployed to Afghanistan in March. With 17 years experience in the military, he is a true believer in winning over local hearts and minds. Jackson waves or gives the thumbs-up sign to almost every Afghan we pass during the three-hour trip through the Parwan province. Over the rattle of the Humvee engine, he explains how reconstruction projects help shore up President Hamid Karzai's government and weaken the Taliban.
When we reach Chardeh, I get a glimpse of what Jackson and his crew are up against. For the school to be seen as an Afghan achievement, Jackson has invited Parwan Governor Abdul Jabar Taqwa to cut the ribbon. But Taqwa is hard to pin down, and today he's a no show. Also missing is the appointed principal of the school. The Afghan contractor hired by the coalition to build the two-story structure tells us the principal demanded a 10 percent kickback on the project, not an uncommon way of doing business in this region. But with the U.S. government signing the checks, bakshish is not an option.
Jackson, who is tall and balding and keeps his Kevlar vest and helmet on during most of the two hours we spend at the school, improvises a way forward. To compensate for the governor's absence, he tells the contractor to summon village elders for the ceremony and the ensuing lunch. And he shames the principal publicly. "We'll see how the governor feels when he hears what a high-quality principal he has," he says aloud, drawing laughter. Still, the ribbon cutting is not the festive occasion Jackson had hoped for and the banquet of rice and meat looks dicey to the soldiers. I notice one of them swallowing an antibiotic regularly handed out by the team medic to preempt possible food poisoning.
Such is America's involvement in Afghanistan these days: not just a war on the resurgent Taliban and a lumbering hunt for Al Qaeda leaders, but also a slew of construction projects in a country the size of Texas. Using only Afghan contractors and mainly Afghan labor, the U.S.-led coalition is spending hundreds of millions of dollars constructing roads, bridges and buildings across this country. The projects are overseen by Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) like the one Jackson serves on. But even that's a misnomer. In most cases, the teams are not so much rebuilding as building from scratch. Outside the Kabul area, most roads in Afghanistan are unpaved. Most residents live without electricity or running water. Police stations and municipal buildings are often mud huts.
Critics say the teams are small and the spending far from enough; Jackson is among only about 70 people overseeing projects in two of Afghanistan's 33 provinces. In a scathing report earlier this year, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has been characterized by "the desire for a quick, cheap war followed by a quick, cheap peace." Still, with the Iraq situation getting no better and the Taliban stirring anew in some parts of Afghanistan, the PRTs might be the brightest spot on Washington's board. "Because we're a poor country, the help is never enough," Parwan community leader Abdul Zahir Salangi told me days earlier, during a military helicopter ride over his district to assess flood damage from recent rains. "But we're glad for every road they help build."
From Chardeh, we drive deeper into Parwan, stirring up plumes of dust, while following a river that irrigates a narrow swath of the valley. The military describes Parwan as "permissible," meaning there's almost no Taliban activity in the province, and soldiers can travel in relative safety. Still, troops wear vests and helmets in their Humvees and operate an electronic device that jams potential IED detonation frequencies. About two hours west of Chardeh, Jackson's team has overseen construction of a health clinic in the town Sheikh Ali. Here, too, a planned ribbon-cutting ceremony is marred by a setback, this time the shoddy workmanship of an Afghan contractor. The plaster is cracked, many of the light fixtures don't work, the roof leaks and a retaining wall looks wobbly. Jackson, who is an engineer by trade, walks the contractor from room to room, describing through an interpreter what needs to be fixed.
The teams walk a fine line. By overmanaging, they work against the perception they aim for—that the projects are mainly about Afghans helping themselves. Undermanaging exposes the projects to incompetence and corruption. Jackson, who harks from Illinois, exudes Midwestern courtesy even as he reminds the contractor that he won't be hired for future projects if this one sours. But Jackson has lost his main bargaining chip, a staged payment scheme that forces contractors to pass inspections before getting their money. This contractor has already been paid in full by the previous reconstruction team. Though the contractor promises to make the fixes, Jackson looks dispirited. "What an utter disappointment," he lets out in the Humvee.
Two days later, I'm sitting in on a meeting between members of another reconstruction team and the governor of the Kapisa province, Abdul Sattar Murad. Western-educated and a veteran of the war against the Soviet occupation, Murad faces a resurgent Taliban in the southern part of his province. U.S. Army Capt. Jordan Berry, who overseas the coalition's reconstruction efforts in Kapisa, suggests quick projects in the south to show residents that the government is doing something for them. But the security threat posed by Taliban forces makes access difficult. Later, Murad tells me the problem is that the government is not delivering what people need. "In remote parts of the country there is practically a vacuum of authority, a vacuum of power." The construction projects help the government fill that vacuum, he says. But the Taliban is also finding a way into the void.
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Ukrainian FM, Afghan President Discuss Energy Ties
KABUL, July 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Afghan President Hamid Karzai met today in the Afghan capital Kabul for talks on energy cooperation.
RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service reports the two officials discussed the participation of Ukrainian companies in the development of gas fields in Afghanistan, according to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry.
Yatsenyuk traveled to Kabul following talks in Ashgabat with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov.
Yatsenyuk said Ukraine sees Turkmenistan as not only an important energy partner but as an "important partner" on humanitarian, information, and construction projects.
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Deadly attack on Pakistani troops
BBC News Saturday, 14 July 2007
The number of soldiers killed in a suicide attack on a military convoy in north-western Pakistan has risen to 24, a Pakistan army spokesman has said.
Twenty-nine others were also hurt when the convoy was hit in the remote tribal region of North Waziristan.
Major General Waheed Arshad admitted the attack could be linked to the storming of the Red Mosque this week.
Troops have been sent close to the area amid fears militants may be planning a "holy war" in response to the siege.
Although no-one has claimed responsibility for Saturday's bomb attack, Maj Gen Arshad acknowledged that it could be a response to the army raid on the Red Mosque in Islamabad on Wednesday.
"We can't say for sure, but it could be a reaction to that," he said.
The week-long siege left 102 people dead, including 11 soldiers and an as yet unknown number of extremists and their hostages.
The government's operation against the radical Islamists sparked protests across Pakistan
In the north-western city of Peshawar on Friday more than 1,000 demonstrators vowed to avenge the death of the mosque's deputy leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi.
Maj Gen Waheed Arshad said the wounded from Saturday's incident, some of whom are in a critical state, had been taken to hospital by helicopter after the attack near the village of Daznary, about 50km (30 miles) north of Miranshah.
A search is still under way for one missing vehicle after the convoy was struck by the attacker's explosives-laden vehicle.
North Waziristan, near the Afghanistan border, is often the scene of clashes between troops and tribesmen or foreign militants.
In a second attack on Saturday, two security officials were hurt in a blast near the town of Bannu in North-West Frontier Province.
Thousands of troops have been moved into the province as President Pervez Musharraf vows to pursue his campaign of rooting out extremists.
Although there is no new deployment to Waziristan, militants there say the government has broken peace agreements by setting up checkpoints.
Militant commander Abdullah Farhad told the Agence France-Presse news agency there could be "guerrilla war" if all checkpoints were not removed by Sunday.
Protests against the Red Mosque attack were held across the country on Friday.
Demonstrators in Peshawar were told it was a "genocide" in which "hundreds of innocent women and children died".
In Islamabad, hundreds of demonstrators attended a rally organised by Pakistan's main alliance of radical parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal.
"This carnage will prove to be the last nail in the coffin of Musharraf's dictatorial rule in Pakistan," the group's deputy leader Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Hydri told the gathering.
"Now there will be Red Mosques everywhere in Pakistan."
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Jihadis tap anti-Musharraf feeling
By Barbara Plett BBC News, Islamabad Saturday, 14 July 2007
President Pervez Musharraf's decision to storm the Red Mosque in Islamabad and his words about the elimination of terrorism and extremism are a challenge to the home-grown Pakistani Taleban and its attempts to mobilise religious opposition to military rule.
It was easy to dismiss the burka-clad students of the Red Mosque as a bunch of fanatics, especially when they started talking about their dreams.
The prophet Mohammed appeared to them, they told me in interviews a few months ago, handing them swords, telling them to conduct jihad against General Pervez Musharraf.
"When we are getting such signs," they asked, "how can we not act?"
The students - many of them are girls - mostly came from the conservative north-west of Pakistan, near the tribal regions along the Afghan border.
I travelled there to meet a commander of the Pakistani Taleban, a radical religious movement inspired by the Afghan Taleban.
As we were about to set off, my colleague, a local journalist, took off his socks and tossed them to me.
"You must cover yourself," he said in answer to my look of startled confusion, pointing to my bare feet. He threw a blanket around my shoulders.
Clothed in the blazing heat, I was almost relieved when the interview fell through.
The Taleban believe in an utterly literal interpretation of Islam. And they use violence to enforce it.
In the frontier town we were visiting, they had banned music and they zealously policed their decree.
A wedding singer talked about the hardship of losing his job, but he would not talk about the Taleban. He was too afraid.
A music shop owner switched to selling Islamic cassettes after his store was fire-bombed, even though he lost a lot of money.
He still sold a small stash of forbidden recordings, under the counter, he told us, like drugs.
Sense of duty
We did finally meet a Taleban commander.
He and his men roared across a dry riverbed in their pick up trucks for a rendezvous in a wheat field.
They certainly looked the part, with Kalashnikov rifles thrown over their shoulders and pistols stuck into holsters slung across their chests.
The commander told us the Taleban had a duty to impose Islamic law wherever they could, because the government had failed to do so.
"We've waited 60 years for the police to stop un-Islamic behaviour," he said. "Now we've been forced to do their job."
The week-long siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad propelled this Taleban-ised form of Islam into the headlines, with the country shocked by its violent conclusion.
Yet the clerics running the mosque's madrassa, or Islamic school, clearly struck a chord with the students and their parents, as they did in the remoter tribal regions.
Of course, the young people in the mosque and their families were pious, conservative people who implicitly trusted religious leaders. But it was more than that.
I was struck by the reaction of a father outside the barricades during the siege.
He was beside himself with worry over his daughters, aged 10 and 14. They had told him they were willing to stay and be martyred with their teachers.
But he was also furious with the army.
"This country only protects the elite," he said. "The security agencies are just protecting the president and the government, not the common people."
It was into that strong sense of injustice and inequality which the clerics also tapped.
That was the line of the mosque's media-savvy deputy leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was killed in the army raid.
"Ours is an Islamic system that takes action where the state fails to act," he had told me. "The system of government in Pakistan doesn't work. It's corrupt, and the people are tired of it."
His vigilante students not only kidnapped alleged prostitutes, they also championed the case of rape victims whose attackers were wealthy, powerful and above the law.
That is the message then. The government is not working, the rule of law is crumbling, so the Taleban are trying to seize power by force.
A restless population
President Musharraf says the government cannot tolerate such a challenge to its rule.
The weakness of his argument, of course, is that he seized power by force, in a military coup.
At the time he also said he was rescuing the country, that the civilian government had brought Pakistan to the brink of ruin.
At first liberal democrats welcomed him. They were tired of their inept civilian leaders.
Now though, they are tired of their autocratic rulers.
And in the tribal areas, some accept the Taleban as purveyors of a rough justice, in the absence of any other sort.
The president insists he is presiding over a democracy, pointing to Pakistan's civilian institutions, like parliament.
But his liberal critics accuse him of concentrating power in his own hands and marginalising moderate political parties.
The political vacuum has been filled by religious extremists, they argue.
At the Red Mosque, force was used to quell these radical Islamists.
But as I wandered through the blackened, battle-scarred remains of the madrassa, it was evident to me there could be no military solution to Pakistan's problems.
Yet more and more Pakistanis are asking whether there can be anything else while a general sits in the president's chair.
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A new battle front opens in Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online / July 14, 2007
SWAT VALLEY, North-West Frontier Province - To Pakistan's Western allies, the military's attack on the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad was a crackdown on a Taliban asset, much like crackdowns on other militant organizations across the country.
For the administration of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, though, the move is viewed as the first blow against an emerging extremist armed movement committed to the
enforcement of Islamic sharia law.
A leading figure in this movement summed it up on Thursday: "God willing, Pakistan will soon have an Islamic revolution." Maulana Abdul Aziz was speaking at the funeral of his brother, Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, who was one of more than 60 people killed in the seven-day siege of the Lal Masjid. The brothers ran the pro- Taliban mosque and Aziz was apprehended outside the mosque before the main military action began on Tuesday.
With the Lal Masjid saga all but over now, the second phase in the battle against an "Islamic revolution" has began many kilometers away in the picturesque Swat district in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Reaction to the events at the Lal Masjid has been the strongest here, as it is home to the banned pro-Taliban Tehrik-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM - Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws).
The Pakistan Army has mobilized thousands of troops in the area, and on Friday it was declared "highly sensitive" and parts of it placed under an unofficial curfew. Over the past few days there have been incidents in which several security personnel have been killed.
Unlike the Lal Masjid's small complex, this new battlefield will be a huge valley where militants will be able to trap soldiers at sites of their choice, and the army will be free to bomb their hideouts in the high mountains.
By Thursday evening in the Mingora district of Swat, the military had already made its presence felt. The airport and other important installations were guarded by Frontier Corps and Swat Scouts. All government buildings were protected by bunkers made from sandbags.
Earlier, a convoy of tanks and artillery trucks crossed a bridge leading into town seconds before a bomb went off. The military vehicles picked up speed, but were chased by a civilian car that rammed into the police escort and exploded. Three policemen and three passers-by were instantly killed.
"I caught a brief glimpse of the suicide bomber as he was about to ram his car into the convoy. He was a bearded man of about 40 years," a shaken policeman, Bakht Rahman, told this correspondent.
With the bomb at the bridge and the suicide attack as foretastes, a military operation in the Swat Valley is beyond doubt, probably within a few weeks, if not days.
This will pit the army against a radical armed insurgency dedicated to an Islamic revolution with the aim to establish a firm base in Pakistan from where it can fuel the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan and ultimately announce a regional caliphate.
A tuned-in leader
There is an air of anticipation in the area, with occasional shouts of "Long live Imam-Dhari." Imam-Dhari is a small town in the Swat district where Maulana Fazalullah, the head of the TNSM, lives.
It was time to pay a visit. I had no trouble finding my way there - everyone knew the location, and everyone was a TNSM member. Imam-Dhari is, after all, the headquarters of the TNSM.
After passing through a narrow alley, we reached the modest house of Fazalullah, and within five minutes I was chatting to him. At first he was visibly disconcerted as I had not made an appointment or been referred by anyone, but local custom dictated that he welcome the stranger standing at his door. So I received a hug from the short 28-year-old man with a long beard and a black turban.
"I am extremely sorry that I cannot spare much time for you because you did not warn me that you were coming, and I am avoiding the media because it is a delicate situation here," Fazalullah said.
"I need to go to my FM radio station now to announce that I am not behind any attacks, and secondly people should not become outraged by the presence of the military in the area. I need to be in constant contact with the people of the area to ask them to restrain themselves from attacks or violence," said Fazalullah.
Fazalullah - "Maulana Radio" as he is widely known - runs FM stations that have been banned by the local authorities. One of his pet subjects is electronic goods, which he wants destroyed, including televisions.
"They [Pakistan Army] are here because they are a Pak-American army. They are here not to guard us but to protect British laws. We are the flagbearers of Islamic sharia - that's why they are here, to prevent us demanding Islamic law."
Fazalullah is wanted on a number of charges, including running the FM stations and aiding the Taliban, but the authorities are reluctant to take action against him because of his large following.
"The government objected to my FM radio stations. I rejected those objections. These are non-commercial stations from which I only broadcast Islamic programs. There are other FM stations which are also illegal, but since they broadcast music and vulgarity, the government does not take heed of them," Fazalullah said.
All roads in the area, including the important artery of the Silk Road leading to China, have been blockaded by TNSM members. Fazalullah insisted he had nothing to do with this, saying it was a reaction by the masses against Islamabad's Lal Masjid operations.
"The TNSM is not the only organization in this area. There are others, including the Jaish-i-Mohammed, the Harkatul Mujahideen, the Jamaat-i-Islami, but whatever is done by them is blamed on me.
"Even today's attack on the military will be blamed on me. I tell you, I was with Maulana Abdul Aziz and am still with him, but I am convinced that implementing sharia is the duty of the government, not of any individual. We just aim to demand that the government implement sharia," said Fazalullah.
In the months prior to the attack on the Lal Masjid, students from adjoining men's and women's seminaries had waged a high-profile campaign to impose sharia law in the capital, including abductions and sit-ins in government buildings.
"As far as the Lal Masjid is concerned, we are with it, and if we had the resources we would have gone there to fight with them. Lal Masjid was fighting for a just cause."
Fazalullah was dismissive of the official charge that he is a member of the Taliban movement. "It is not a charge, it is an honor. I say that I am with the Taliban and I consider [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar as my amir [head]."
The TNSM was founded by Fazalullah's father-in-law, Sufi Mohammed, in the early 1990s. He gathered more than 10,000 youths to fight in Afghanistan when the US-led invasion began in 2001. With the Taliban withdrawing so fast, these youths took the brunt of the casualties.
When Sufi Mohammed returned from Afghanistan, he was arrested and put in jail, where he remains. The TNSM was almost destroyed, but it has become stronger over the past few years through the efforts of Fazalullah and his network of about 107 FM stations in Swat Valley and nearby Bajaur Agency.
Thousands of people - young and old - are part of the TNSM. Fazalullah calls it a peaceful movement in favor of virtue and against vice. The Western alliance in Afghanistan calls it a Taliban asset in Pakistan that distributes huge dividends to the Taliban movement. Pakistan calls it a serious threat to its national security.
Whatever the perspective, once the showdown starts between the Pakistan Army and the TNSM, one thing is sure: the conflict will transcend any borders.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief.
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Santosh Sivan to make film on Afghanistan
ndtvmovies.com Saturday, July 14, 2007: (Mumbai):
Director Santosh Sivan of Asoka fame will be directing a film on Afganistan titled Wedding Party which will be produced by the BBC.
The film will be about how the whites and Russians arrive in Afghanistan and trace a 100-year history. The cast is yet to be finalised but the script has been penned by an Italian writer.
As insurance companies are unwilling to insure the film as it is being shot in Afghanistan, the film will likely be shot in Morocco or Ladakh.
His other film Before the rains will be screened at the 32nd Toronto International Film Festival.
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Water supply, road projects inaugurated in Nangarhar
JALALABAD, July 12 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Water supply and road projects, costing 500,000 dollars, have been inaugurated in the eastern Nangarhar province.
An official informed Pajhwok Afghan News on Thursday the schemes - a 15-kilometre paved road and 30 wells - were completed in Sheikh Misri Dag town.
Provincial Refugee Affairs Director Abdur Rehman Shams said a hundred small bridges under construction in the town would be completed in four months.
Shams revealed the government had approved his departments proposal for the construction of a health clinic to provide 24-hour services to the people.
Work on the clinic and a mosque would get under way in the near future, he promised, saying they were trying to give the inhabitants maximum possible facilities.
One dweller Shah Wali, happy about the completion of the plans benefiting 1000 families, said wells alone were not enough to resolve the potable water problem. Water from the wells should be piped to houses, he suggested.
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New presidential spokesman takes charge of office
KABUL, July 12 (Pajhwok Afghan News): New presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada formally took charge of his office on Thursday.
Hamidzada, 32, was appointed as spokesman and in charge of the presidential press office by President Hamid Karzai the other day.
Siamak Haravi, deputy spokesman for the president, told Pajhwok Afghan News the new appointee was introduced to officials of the press office this afternoon.
A former UN official, Hamidzada has a master in journalism from Kabul University. He is well-versed in English, Pashto and Dari languages.
He replaces Karim Rahimi, who served as the presidential spokesman and head of the press office of the Presidential Palace for two years.
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Costly Park Project Puzzles Helmand Residents
British funding for a new green space in one of the more troubled parts of Lashkar Gah has left residents wondering about the international community’s priorities.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By IWPR trainees in Helmand (ARR No. 259, 10-July-07)
A new park being laid out by the British-led reconstruction team in Helmand is supposed to provide a welcome respite from the heat and violence of this southern province - but residents are asking why so much money is being spent on leisure when the most pressing problem – security – is getting worse by the day.
The seven-hectare park will lie on the banks of the broad Helmand river, on the outskirts of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, and will provide fresh air, fountains, flowers, picnic areas and recreational facilities for the city’s estimated 100,000 people.
The work is being funded by the United Kingdom through the Provincial Reconstruction Team, PRT, in Lashkar Gah, which is headed by the British. But at 700,000 US dollars, the price tag is a bit steep for many in Helmand’s capital to understand, especially when the security situation seems to be worsening day by day.
“Almost 80 percent of the work is complete,” said Engineer Esanullah, head of the Helmand office of the Helping Afghan Farmers Organisation, HAFO, which began implementing the work in late March.
“The park is supported by DfID [Britain’s Department for International Development].”
The location of the park, on the other side of the Helmand river, has raised some eyebrows in the city. The area, known as Bolan, is largely off-limits for residents of Lashkar Gah, who fear the Taleban across the water.
Bolan is one of the richest opium poppy-growing areas in Helmand province, and becomes especially unstable at harvest time, when crop eradicators, farmers and the Taleban vie for influence.
In most people’s minds, Bolan is more closely associated with explosions, kidnappings and killings than children’s swings and flowerbeds.
“For two years now, there have been remote-controlled explosions on the main Bolan road,” said Gul Mohammad, 35, a farmer. “I think mines will be laid in this park. That will keep people from going there.”
“People are now being killed even inside Lashkar Gah,” said Mohammad Ekhlas, 25, a shopkeeper in the city. “I don’t think anybody will go to this park.”
Amir Mohammad, 44, agreed, adding, “If the international community wants our country to be prosperous, they should first worry about peace and security. Then we can have parks.”
Daud, 36, thinks it would be better to invest reconstruction money in creating jobs.
“If the PRT is really interested in helping us, it would do better to set up a factory here to help the unemployed,” he said.
While exact figures are hard to come by, some estimates put the unemployment rate at 40 per cent or more. Most of those who do work are employed in the province’s booming, but highly illegal, opium industry.
But Ghulam Nabi, the head of the regional agriculture department, says that the provincial government has made the park a priority because people really need it.
“This park is being built to international standards,” he said. “We are very happy that we’ll have this kind of park in Helmand, and I think people will come here from all over the place to enjoy themselves.”
Ghulam Nabi noted that the park would be segregated, with some days of the week set aside for women, and others for men. The exact schedule has yet to be worked out.
“It depends on the security situation,” he said.
In this very traditional part of Afghanistan, there may be few takers for the women’s park. Helmand’s largely Pashtun population adheres to the older codes of behaviour which to a great extent restrict women to the home.
The instability in Helmand will deter many women from travelling to the park, as will the Taleban’s hostility to women who behave in ways seen as unconventional – an attitude which sometimes translates into violence.
“I don’t think this park is against Islam,” said Mohammad Zaher, 60, who lives in Lashkar Gah. “The problem is that men are not accustomed to going to parks along with their women. And they won’t let women go on their own.”
Abdul Halek, 22, a resident of Bolan, agreed. “Although our house is very close to this park, we will never let our women go there,” he told IWPR. “This park will be only for men.”
But some younger people – men as well as women – are looking forward to having a place where they can relax outdoors.
“I really want to be able to go there with my family,” said Malika, an eighth-grade female student in Lashkar Gah.
Zahra, 25, said she hoped the Bolan park would start a trend. “We need more parks in Helmand so that everybody can to enjoy them,” she said.
Young men pay little heed to security risks and are desperate for a place to congregate with their friends apart from the dusty, treeless streets of Lashkar Gah.
“My friends and I will really enjoy this park,” said Mahmud, 18, from Bolan. “We’ll ask the government and the international community to make more and more of them.”
IWPR is conducting a journalism training and reporting project in Helmand Province. This article is a compilation of reporting by the trainees.
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