By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press Writer
KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's top political and religious leaders invoked Afghan and Islamic traditions of chivalry and hospitality Sunday in attempts to shame the Taliban into releasing 18 female South Korean captives.
A purported Taliban spokesman shrugged off the demands and instead set a new deadline for the hostages' lives, saying the hardline militants could kill one or all of the 22 captives if the government didn't release 23 militant prisoners by 3:30 a.m. EDT Monday. Several other deadlines have passed without killings.
Afghan officials, meanwhile, reported no progress in talks with tribal elders to secure hostages' freedom.
In his first comments since 23 Koreans were abducted on July 19, Karzai criticized the Taliban's kidnapping of "foreign guests," especially women, as contrary to the tenets of Islam and national traditions.
"The perpetration of this heinous act on our soil is in total contempt of our Islamic and Afghan values," Karzai told a South Korean envoy during a meeting at the presidential palace, according to a statement from his office.
Echoing Karzai's words, Afghanistan's national council of clerics said the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, taught that no one has the right to kill women.
"Even in the history of Afghanistan, in all its combat and fighting, Afghans respected women, children and elders," the council said. "The killing of women is against Islam, against the Afghan culture, and they shouldn't do it."
And a former Taliban commander and current lawmaker who has joined the negotiations, Abdul Salaam Rocketi, said the government policy was that the "women should be released first."
But the Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, instead invoked the religious tenet of "an eye for an eye," alleging that Western militaries are holding Afghan females at bases in Bagram and Kandahar, and saying that the Taliban can do the same. He said the Taliban could detain and kill "women, men or children."
"It might be a man or a woman. ... We may kill one, we may kill two, we may kill one of each (gender), two of each, four of each," Ahmadi told The Associated Press by satellite phone from an unknown location. "Or we may kill all of them at once."
Ahmadi said the militant group had given a list of 23 insurgent prisoners it wants released to government officials, and that if they weren't freed by midday Monday hostages would be killed.
The Taliban has set several deadlines that passed without consequence and it wasn't clear how seriously the militants would treat their latest ultimatum. A leader of the South Korean group was shot and killed Wednesday but it was unclear why.
Two days of meetings between elders of Qarabagh district in Ghazni province, where the South Korean hostages were kidnapped on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, and a delegation of senior officials from Kabul yielded no results so far, said Shirin Mangal, spokesman for the Ghazni provincial governor.
The meeting is being held behind closed doors, and Mangal did not divulge any details.
In his meeting with Karzai, Korean presidential envoy Baek Jong-chun thanked the president for the Afghan government's help with the hostage situation and said South Korea will respect the Afghan government's way of ending the crisis, according to Karzai's office.
Pope Benedict XVI also called for the hostages' release, saying the perpetrators "desist from the evil they have carried out and give back their victims unharmed."
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Taliban leaders set Korean hostage deadline
By Sayed Salahuddin Sun Jul 29, 10:14 AM ET
KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban leaders said on Sunday their fighters would kill 22 remaining South Korean hostages if the Afghan government did not release rebel prisoners by a new deadline of 0730 GMT on Monday, a spokesman said.
Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said the deadline had been set by the Taliban leadership council, headed by elusive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, giving the threat added weight.
The kidnappers killed the leader of the Korean group on Wednesday, but several further deadlines have passed without the rebels carrying out their threat to kill the remaining hostages.
"Since the talks between us, the Kabul administration and Korean government have reached deadlock and they are not honest ... hence, we will start killing the hostages if they do not start releasing our prisoners by tomorrow at 12 o'clock," Yousuf told Reuters by telephone from an unknown location.
Sporadic talks between the Afghan government and South Korean diplomats on one side and Taliban rebels on the other have continually snagged over the rebel demand for Kabul to swap jailed insurgents for the Koreans.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has previously ruled out any deal with the Taliban after coming under harsh criticism for freeing five rebel prisoners in exchange for the release of an Italian hostage in March.
In his first comments on the latest hostage case, Karzai condemned the kidnapping, but did not say whether any deal might be possible.
"Hostage-taking and the abuse of foreign guests, especially women, is against Islam and Afghan culture and the perpetration of this heinous act on our soil is in total contempt of our Islamic and Afghan values," a spokesman quoted him as saying.
An Afghan minister said on Saturday force might be used if talks fail.
Pope Benedict on Sunday called the kidnapping a "grave violation of human dignity that clashes with every elementary norm of civility and rights and gravely offends divine law."
Eighteen of the remaining hostages are women. Yousuf said some of the captives -- being held in small groups at different locations -- were sick.
Ghazni's governor, Mirajuddin Pathan, said medicines the Korean government had wanted to send could not be delivered on Saturday because the Afghan team could not establish contact with the Taliban.
Pathan said the government did not want to use force to rescue the hostages. "We have no plan of attack. We are trying to send the delegation for more talks," he told Reuters.
In addition to Afghan forces, foreign troops are also stationed in Ghazni.
South Korean special envoy Baek Jong-chun met Karzai on Sunday to discuss ways to end the hostages' ordeal.
"We are well aware of Afghan culture and the difficulties the Afghan government and people are faced with in their fight against terrorism, and will respect their decision to end the hostage crisis," a statement by Karzai's office quoted the Korean chief national security advisor as saying.
The Taliban are also holding one German and four of his Afghan colleagues, abducted from a neighboring province a day before the Koreans. Another German seized alongside them was later found dead with gunshot wounds.
The abduction of the Koreans is the largest kidnapping of foreigners by the Taliban since U.S.-led and Afghan forces overthrew the movement's radical Islamic government in 2001.
It comes amid an increase of violence in the past 18 months, the bloodiest period since Taliban's removal.
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Afghan president meets SKorean envoy over hostages
Sun Jul 29, 8:34 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - A South Korean envoy on Sunday told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that Seoul would respect "any position" taken by his government over the Taliban's capture of 22 Koreans, Karzai's office said.
Baek Jong-Chun, a senior adviser to South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun, met Karzai amid growing concerns for the Christian aid workers captured on July 19 after the Taliban shot dead their leader, a pastor, last week.
The extremists have threatened to kill the remaining hostages, including 16 women, unless eight Taliban fighters are freed from jail -- a demand one of the Afghan negotiators has said is not on the table.
A statement from Karzai's office quoted Baek as saying that Seoul was "well aware of the Afghan culture and the problems that the Afghan government is facing in the war against terrorism."
The envoy also said "we respect any position that the Afghan government takes for solving the hostage case," a translation of the Dari-language statement said.
South Korean officials in Kabul would not comment on the meeting.
Karzai vowed in March his government would not free Taliban prisoners in exchange for hostages after five were released in March in exchange for the release of an Italian reporter in a widely criticised deal.
At the meeting, the Afghan president assured the envoy that his government was doing all it could to free the hostages, his spokesman told AFP.
"President Karzai said he was personally involved in the process and that we are doing everything we can to secure the release of all the hostages," Homayun Hamidzada said.
Several foreigners have been held this year by Taliban militants waging a deadly insurgency against the Western-backed government that replaced the hardline regime driven from power in late 2001.
Most of the foreign abductees have been freed, some apparently after hefty ransom payments, although in one case two Afghans also captured with the Italian journalist were beheaded.
Baek, chief presidential secretary for foreign and security affairs, also received assurances from Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, whom he met earlier Sunday.
"Dr Spanta said that we are doing everything possible to release the hostages safely and quickly," the minister's spokesman, Sultan Ahmad Baheen, told AFP.
Asked about a possible exchange of captives, he said: "Our position is the same as it was before. But at the same time we are considering all possibilities, like traditional values and other means."
Negotiators have demanded the Taliban release the 16 women in the group on the grounds that it is "un-Islamic" and against Afghan culture for women to be taken hostage.
The militants' demands would be considered once the women are free, officials told AFP Sunday.
The Taliban said however it remained firm on its demand that eight of its men be released from jail before any of the hostages can be freed.
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Pope calls for release of hostages in Afghanistan
Sunday July 29, 7:23 PM
CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (Reuters) - Pope Benedict appealed for the release of South Korean hostages held in Afghanistan on Sunday, condemning the exploitation of innocent people as a "grave violation of human dignity".
Taliban rebels abducted the Christian volunteers from a bus south of Kabul 10 days ago. They killed the leader of the group on Wednesday, and say the remaining 22 hostages will meet a similar fate unless militant prisoners are freed.
"Unfortunately the usual practice of exploiting innocent people for their own ends is spreading among armed groups," the Pope told a crowd gathered at his summer residence outside Rome.
"It is a grave violation of human dignity that clashes with every elementary norm of civility and rights and gravely offends divine law."
The Pope, who began the passage with a reference to Afghanistan, said he appealed to the "authors of such criminal acts" to stop their activities and return their victims unharmed.
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Militants flourish new al-Qaida haven
By MATTHEW PENNINGTON, Associated Press Writer
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - The jagged mountains of Pakistan's tribal belt conceal the passage of Taliban fighters into Afghanistan. Its mud fortresses are perfect for training suicide bombers. And al-Qaida kingpins likely find refuge among its Pashtun inhabitants.
With U.S. intelligence agencies warning that al-Qaida is regrouping at Pakistan's frontier, and Taliban militants launching suicide attacks almost daily, this key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism is under growing pressure to crack down on militancy.
More than 300 people died nationwide after Pakistan's army stormed a pro-Taliban mosque in its capital on July 10, triggering reprisal attacks by extremists. The latest suicide bombing killed 13 people near the Red Mosque in Islamabad on Friday.
But it is the situation in the wild border region, particularly Waziristan, that is most worrying to the United States. It fears al-Qaida, whose capabilities have been eroded at the Afghan frontier during five years of the war on terror, could now mount another attack on America.
While still supporting embattled President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and stressing the need to cooperate with Pakistan, U.S. officials are now suggesting its military could strike inside Pakistan — although analysts say it risks destabilizing Pakistan and breeding more militancy.
"No question that we will use any instrument at our disposal" to deal with al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, Frances Fragos Townsend, U.S. homeland security adviser, said last weekend.
Adding to the pressure on Pakistan, legislation that Congress passed Friday would tie aid from the United States to Islamabad's efforts to stop al-Qaida and the Taliban from operating in its territory. It cannot take effect without the signature of President Bush.
Many here view the airing of the possibility of a U.S. unilateral strike also as a tactic to pressure Pakistan to take tougher action. But the threat has drawn a stinging response from a Pakistani government fiercely protective of its national sovereignty.
The Pakistani Foreign Office has warned that a U.S. military strike would violate international law and be deeply resented.
"Such action ... will be irresponsible and dangerous," said spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam. Musharraf denies al-Qaida is regrouping.
A U.S. National Intelligence Assessment this month said a September 2006 peace deal with Taliban militants in North Waziristan that saw the Pakistan army lift checkpoints and left tribesmen to police the lawless area had failed — allowing al-Qaida more freedom to operate.
A Pakistani security official identified key al-Qaida leaders in the tribal regions as Khalid Habib, believed to be the group's chief of military operations at the Pakistan-Afghan border, and Abu Laith al-Libi, whom the U.S. military has named as the likely mastermind of a suicide bombing that killed 23 people outside the main U.S. base in Afghanistan during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney in February.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment to journalists, said al-Libi is believed to move between North Waziristan and Afghanistan, and is in close contact with a prominent Taliban leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani — underlining al-Qaida ties with the Taliban, which can draw on thousands of local supporters.
Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna said al-Qaida's top leadership is using Pakistan's tribal regions as the hub of their global operations, led by bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. While al-Qaida, with ties to about 30 groups worldwide, has decentralized its training, Gunaratna said operatives from North Africa, the Middle East and Europe have traveled to the tribal regions for consultation with al-Qaida leaders and specialist preparation for major attacks.
Gunaratna said Shezhad Tanweer and Mohammed Sidique Khan, two of the perpetrators of suicide bombings that killed 52 people in London in July 2005, were schooled by al-Qaida in the use of two explosives during a visit to the tribal region of Malakand.
But analysts say U.S. airstrikes or raids from Afghanistan into Pakistan to counter the perceived threat to America would seriously undermine Musharraf. The general is already under acute political pressure at home from pro-democracy forces and opponents of his alliance with Washington.
And given the vast, hostile terrain and the suspicion of its warrior-minded tribesmen against uninvited outsiders, American forces would have no guarantee of military success.
"If the Americans are able to take out al-Zawahri or Osama bin Laden, I don't think any tears would be shed in the government or among enlightened elements of Pakistani society," said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
"But if they keep missing the target as they have in Afghanistan and in Pakistan a couple of times, it will cause collateral damage and further enrage Pakistani people against the United States," he said. "The entire country would be destabilized and there would be a greater flow of arms and militants into Afghanistan to fight against the U.S. forces there."
U.S. military intervention could also strengthen the hand of Islamist parties ahead of general elections due by early 2008. And sustained bombing — such as the offensive that drove al-Qaida from Afghanistan in late 2001 — would almost certainly topple Musharraf's government.
Pakistan's Senate Foreign Relations Committee — led by the president of the ruling party — issued a statement Saturday that in case "of any unilateral, unprovoked US/NATO military action across the border" Pakistan should end its cooperation in the campaign against terrorism.
The U.S. will more likely continue to pressure Pakistan to intervene. But Pakistan complains that the U.S. has given it no firm intelligence to back up assertions that, for instance, bin Laden is sheltering in the tribal belt. And it's virtually impossible to prove whether terror leaders could do much more than give a "blessing" for attacks further afield.
Experts say Pakistan's best option for bringing Waziristan under some semblance of control is to curry favor among tribesmen to marginalize militants, then strike hard when needed using its own troops. But that too risks a violent backlash.
Thousands of Taliban fighters are based in the region, and residents say that for the first time, fractious groups of militants in both North and South Waziristan appear prepared to fight together if Pakistan's army launches a major operation.
Mahmood Shah, former security chief for Pakistan's tribal regions, also estimates that about 2,000 foreign militants -- mostly hardened Uzbek, Chechen and Tajik fighters, along with a sprinkling of Arab financiers and organizers -- shelter in North Waziristan, particularly in four villages south of the town of Mir Ali, and in territory west of Datta Khel. Others stay in South Waziristan.
In 2004, the army deployed thousands of troops to destroy al-Qaida camps and put militants to flight in South Waziristan. But civilian casualties provoked bitter resistance from heavily armed local tribes, culminating in clashes with pro-Taliban fighters in North Waziristan that killed more than 500 people during the first half of 2006.
The September peace deal was designed to cap the bloodshed. But after an initial calm, it spawned a wave of militancy in neighboring areas of northwestern Pakistan once under firm state control, with attacks on police, schools and 'un-Islamic' music and movie stores.
Afrasiab Khattak, a leader of the opposition Awami National Party, said a new "jihadi gentry" had become dominant in Waziristan. Even before the deal, targeted killings of more than 120 pro-government tribal leaders had shaken traditional power structures and put power in the hands of religious extremists.
Some locals welcome that transition.
"The Taliban have more credibility among local people than corrupt maliks (tribal elders)," Mufti Mehmood Hassan, who runs a madrassa or religious school in Mir Ali, said. "They virtually eliminated robberies and other criminal activities."
The Pakistani government is still hoping to resurrect the peace accord, believing it is the best long-term option.
"If the government consults with genuine religious leaders and ensures the honor, life and property of tribesmen, they'll be no objection to (military) operations. But if the government wants bloodshed and puts the lives of tribesmen in danger there will be the worst kind of reaction from the people," Hassan warned.
Associated Press writer Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Munir Ahmad in Islamabad contributed to this report.
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Afghan refugee camp in NW Pakistan closed - UNHCR
29 Jul 2007 12:25:13 GMT
ISLAMABAD, July 29 (Reuters) - One of Pakistan's oldest camps for Afghan refugees has been closed and another is set to be wound up by end-August, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, said on Sunday.
Kacha Garhi camp in the North West Frontier Province was one of four camps UNHCR and Pakistan planned to close this year which Islamabad says have become havens for the Taliban, who are fighting an intensified insurgency in Afghanistan.
Millions of Afghan people either live in refugee camps or work illegally in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.
"The Kacha Garhi camp was officially closed on July 26 and over 37,000 registered Afghans were assisted back to their country from the camp," UNHCR spokesman Babar Baluch said.
"People went back on a voluntary basis, while some of the Afghan refugees opted for relocation to government-designated camps in Dir."
Dir is a different border district.
Baluch said the Jalozai camp, also in the NWFP near the Afghan border, was scheduled to be closed on August 31. The other two camps -- Jungle Pir Alizai and Girdi Jungle -- are located in southwestern Baluchistan province.
"The peaceful closure of Kacha Garhi camp has set a very good example," a UNHCR statement quoted Faridullah Jan, the Additional Commissioner of the Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees in NWFP, as saying.
Refugees in the camps due to be closed can volunteer to return home or move to another camp in Pakistan.
While the Kacha Garhi camp has been closed peacefully, Pakistani authorities are facing difficulties in vacating the Jungle Pir Alizai camp in Baluchistan, where the UNHCR stopped relief activities in 2005 after it had lost its "humanitarian value", one official said.
Afghans in the camp say they don't want to go home to a country crippled by more than 20 years of war.
Pakistani authorities are confident the refugees will ultimately go home without major problems.
The UNHCR, which is running a voluntary repatriation programme for Afghans, has urged Pakistan to tread carefully, fearful impoverished Afghanistan could be hit by floods of people from both Pakistan and Iran.
More than 4.6 million Afghans have gone home from Pakistan and Iran since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. But about 3 million Afghans remain in Pakistan.
The officials say many Afghans have acquired Pakistan's national identity cards and some have mixed in with the native population through marriage. Many Afghans live and run businesses in Pakistani cities and towns across the country.
There are an estimated 2 million refugees in Iran, which recently forced about 100,000 Afghans back home.
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Leader promised much, delivered little
Email Print Normal font Large font Amin Saikal
July 30, 2007 The Sydney Morning Herald
The Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, is now not only a widely opposed leader but also a humiliated leader. He is at his weakest point since seizing power in a military coup nearly eight years ago. Neither Pakistanis nor the United States and its allies, which have backed him as a critical player in the war on terrorism, can easily view him as a credible and sustainable leader any longer. What has brought this about and what is Washington's best option in the event of his downfall?
Musharraf is largely responsible for his predicament, but the US role should not be ignored. The virtually unqualified support he received from the Bush Administration following the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US was instrumental in enabling him to renege on promises to put Pakistan on a path of genuine democratisation.
The US too easily bought the line that Musharraf was the key to a stable Pakistan, just as it once consented to Pakistan's backing of the Taliban and a Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance in the naive belief it would stabilise Afghanistan.
Musharraf publicly emphasised the importance of democracy and what he called "enlightened Islam". But he never failed to suppress and humiliate the main opposition parties - the Pakistan People's Party, led by the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League, headed by another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, whom he overthrew. He did everything possible to keep the leaders of these parties in exile, expanded the role of the military in politics and allowed Pakistan's military intelligence to continue its role as a government within a government.
He talked about reforming Pakistan's system of religious education to stem Muslim extremism, fighting al-Qaeda and preventing the Taliban from receiving help for cross-border operations in Afghanistan. Yet he did not address any of these issues effectively. He made little headway in exercising control over Pakistan's tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, where many al-Qaeda's operatives are believed to be hiding. In 2005 Musharraf deployed 80,000 troops to bring those areas under his authority but the subsequent truce agreement left the Taliban and al-Qaeda uncontrolled.
Musharraf seems to have acted on an expectation that when foreign forces left Afghanistan Pakistan would reclaim the influence it enjoyed while the Taliban were in power.
Publicly, Musharraf has sought to assuage the nationalist demands of two smaller groups, the Pathans and the Baluch, in the provinces of North-West Frontier and Baluchistan on the border with Afghanistan. In reality, he did little to address the poverty and social and economic disparities in these provinces. Instead, he allowed many of his generals to buy large tracts of land at cheap prices and ruthlessly suppressed the Baluchi nationalist movement.
Musharraf initially allowed a degree of freedom in the media and the judiciary. But early last year he turned against them and recently moved to dismiss Pakistan's respected Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, for corruption. The real reason is Chaudhry's refusal to kowtow.
Indeed, Chaudhry's refusal to step down has turned him into a credible opposition figure. His reinstatement by the Supreme Court this month humiliated Musharraf. The military's storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad to end a stand-off between Musharraf and a group of Islamic militants two weeks ago - and the subsequent spate of suicide bombings across Pakistan - has only compounded Musharraf's problems.
The weekend announcement that the US and India have reached agreement on peaceful nuclear co-operation - allowing trade in nuclear reactors, technology and fuel, permitting India to reprocess nuclear fuel and opening the way for the US to become a "reliable" supplier for India's energy program - is another embarrassment to Musharraf.
His position is now dire. If he is overthrown or assassinated, it leaves the US and its allies with difficult choices. One certainly would be to institute civilian-military rule, but this could only work if it led to democratic transformation. The US may not find this the most palatable option, but it is the best it can hope for under the circumstances.
Pakistan cannot be left to its own devices; it is a nuclear-armed state, whose instability could have grievous consequences for the world.
Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.
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Beck open to extending Afghanistan mission
Deutsche Welle - Jul 28 10:44 PM
The leader of Germany's co-governing Social Democrats, Kurt Beck, has said he is open to continuing the deployment of German troops in Afghanistan. Germany currently contributes to the NATO led mission in Afghanistan by providing soldiers for the International Security Assistance Force, Tornado reconnaissance jets, and special forces units. Until now, the deployment of the KSK special forces has been a point of debate within Germany's grand coalition government. The mandates for these missions are to be reviewed by the German parliament when it meets again after the summer break.
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Body of German abducted in Afghanistan had gunshot wounds: report
EARTHtimes.org - Jul 29 2:21 AM
Berlin - The body of a German engineer abducted in Afghanistan earlier this month had gunshot wounds to both knees and to the back, according to a report in a German Sunday newspaper. The mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag said the 44-year-old had been shot first in the knees and then in the back.
It quoted German security sources, speaking after an autopsy carried out in Cologne on Thursday.
The German Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the report and staff at the forensic institution where the autopsy was carried out said further tests were being made before a final report was released, probably in the first week in August.
The dead man leaves behind a widow and a school-aged son.
Two German engineers were abducted on July 18. Afghan police reported on July 22 that they had found the body of one of the men. German reports said he was a diabetic and there was speculation he was killed when his abductors found he could not keep up with them.
Efforts are continuing to free the second hostage amid concerns over his health.
The second engineer is reported to suffer from high blood pressure and to need regular medication.
Ostensible Taliban spokesmen have claimed the radical Islamists are holding the man, but the German Foreign Ministry has cast doubts on the reports.
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40000 Afghan children saved: Cdn commander
Edmonton Sun, Canada
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Canada’s outgoing military commander in Afghanistan says Canadian and NATO efforts there have helped save the lives of 40,000 children.
And Brig.-Gen. Tim Grant says that’s a “conservative estimate.”
In an interview with The Canadian Press at the multinational base in Kandahar, Grant said he’s handing his successor, Brig.-Gen. Guy Laroche, a country more “confident” than it was a year ago.
“There’s 40,000 babies in Afghanistan more this year than... last year,” said Grant, whose return to Canada is days away. “That’s a big number.”
He attributes the success to improvements in health care, which has led to a drop in the region’s infant mortality rate.
Grant says the international community helped put a vaccination program in place and increased access to doctors, particularly for women.
'A successful little town'
Meanwhile, even as Taliban activity remains prevalent in Kandahar province, the level of confidence has surged among the city’s inhabitants, he said.
“The town was empty,” Grant said of Kandahar 12 months ago. “Now you go there, (it’s) like Kandahar City is a successful little town.
“The shops are open, kids going to school, people have gone back to a normal life. We see farmers have returned in large numbers, thousands of people have gone back to live in their homes.”
He also said villagers in the Panjwaii district, west of Kandahar City, who fled last year after fierce fighting broke out between insurgents and NATO forces, have returned.
“The streets are full, people are going about their daily lives,” Grant said. “Yes there are risks, but people have a sense that the situation is manageable, much better than last year, and its getting better.”
Risk still high for NATO soldiers
Still, Grant’s optimism is relative, as Afghanistan remains poverty-stricken and the prey of an insurgency.
At regular intervals, convoys of Canadian soldiers are the target of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices.
Earlier this week, Grant himself narrowly escaped an attack.
“We do absolutely everything we can to reduce the risks for our soldiers,” he said. “There will always be a risk here.
“Soldiers understand that though. Every soldier who is over here realizes that there is a risk with the lifestyle they have chosen.”
For Grant, the real break for soldiers will come when Afghans can count on a competent and effective police force of their own.
“The police have to improve to the point where the people have an increased level of confidence in their ability to protect them and not take advantage of them,” he said.
“How long it will take? We’re talking years in my mind — two years or 10 years, it’s hard to tell. A lot will depend on how much attention we’ll turn to the problem.
“In this province (Kandahar), as Canadians, we are shifting our effort to turn resources toward making the police better. We understand clearly they are the last piece of the security puzzle.”
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Top general vows to tell it like it is
PAUL KORING From Saturday's Globe and Mail July 28, 2007 at 12:54 AM EDT
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Brigadier-General Tim Grant says he's ready to tell Canadians tough truths about what it's going to take to win in Afghanistan.
“I'm not interested in just being a cheerleader or parroting government policy,” said Gen. Grant, the Canadian contingent commander, who heads home next week after nine months in Afghanistan.
The general has some pretty well-formed ideas of what's been achieved, what hasn't and, most important, what lies ahead in the tough counterinsurgency war being fought by Canadians in the Taliban's heartland of Kandahar.
While Canadian firepower has smashed the Taliban's capacity to seize and hold territory, the toll from their fallback tactic – suicide bombs and IEDs – threatens to erode international support for the mission, the general said. And while he's heartened by the still-evolving transformation of the Afghan army into a vital fighting force, the woefully corrupt police force in Kandaharposes the biggest impediment to bringing stability, he said.
Insurgencies don't march to the incessant drumming of impatient foreign populations but, in Canada, February, 2009, has become an onrushing deadline. It's the date by which troops will return home to be replaced by other combat units or, perhaps, Canada will extend its military commitment.
Here, amid the dust and the heat and the uncertainty – where waging a counterinsurgency is a never-ending grind and every drive down every road is a version of Russian roulette played with roadside bombs and suicide attackers – the notion of a specific withdrawal date seems absurd.
Lean, soft-spoken and thoughtful, the general knows that only half the battle involves the hearts-and-minds campaign to woo Afghans to modernity, where opportunity, security, education and democracy are a viable alternative to warlord-ism, violence and a narco-state. There's also a war for the hearts and minds of citizens in faraway places. In Holland and Germany, in Spain and Canada, doubts are mounting and a rising chorus of voices want their soldiers brought home.
Mounting casualties, as roadside bombs and suicide attacks reap a grim toll, underscore the political utility of the Taliban's shift in tactics.
“They are hoping to break the will of the international community,” Brig.-Gen. Grant said. If the stubborn Afghan fighters seeking to drive foreign occupiers from their land succeed, just as they ousted the British in the 19th century and the Russians in the 20th, then Canadian blood and bullion will have been wasted.
Given the enormity of the task of establishing a civil society in a war-ravaged and impoverished land, progress in Kandahar has been swift and impressive since the long convoys of Canadian troops rolled south 11/2 years ago. Then, there was a grave threat that the Taliban would seize the city of Kandahar, creating a Islamic statelet that would undermine Afghanistan and re-emerge as a new haven for al-Qaeda.
That threat has gone. The Taliban, as a stand-and-fight force, stood and was defeated last fall in the Panjwai district west of Kandahar.
Canadian troops, on aggressive search-and-destroy missions, regularly rout and kill small groups of Taliban fighters. Equally important, the fledgling Afghan National Army, mentored by embedded Canadian teams and with Canadian artillery and tank support, is increasingly capable of conducting small-scale combat operations.
“That's why I am so optimistic after 10 months,” Brig.-Gen. Grant said.
Kandahar city is bustling. The fertile Panjwai has been mostly repopulated. It's no small measure of progress that small children shyly wave to passing Canadian armoured vehicles. “There are plenty of places where people still don't wave,” one soldier said.
Almost by definition, waging a successful counterinsurgency, especially for a foreign army, consists of barely perceptible progress that rarely warrants headlines back home interrupted with headline-making failures, defeats and mistakes.
“The Taliban is losing credibility in the eyes of the population,” Brig.-Gen. Grant said in a wide-ranging interview days before his departure.
Efforts to enhance governance (does the mayor have a filing system or does the village know how to reach the police) and aid reconstruction (new irrigation ditches and a stunningly successful polio-eradication program) are the two other legs that, along with security, complete the Canadian effort in Afghanistan.
“They are not well told and not well understood,” Brig.-Gen. Grant admits of the governance and aid components of the mission.
But slapping a Maple Leaf flag on every irrigation ditch dug with Canadian money may have little impact in Canada and could be counterproductive in Kandahar. There's a fine line between effective aid and making a local population look like lackeys to a foreign army.
“Hurry up and wait” is the unofficial motto of all armies. So the general, on an impossibly tight timetable in the last week of his tour, sits and patiently waits in Masum Ghar, a Canadian forward operating base, because the medals he is supposed to bestow are in a vehicle that has broken down somewhere. It's a rare moment to reflect.
“This can't be done in two or three years,” he says. “Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely.”
But Brig.-Gen. Grant's political antennae aren't just tuned to shifting sentiments among Afghans. “The mission focus can change,” he said, well aware that the high-profile of the military effort, and its heavy cost in casualties, may need reshaping.
If beating the Taliban in a conventional campaign to control territory was the first big objective and transforming the Afghan National Army into a force that will eventually be able to replace Canadians in the front line of counterinsurgency operations was the second, the third is fixing the police.
Manifestly corrupt, widely distrusted by ordinary Afghans, often left to man remote checkpoints where they are little more than cannon fodder for roaming Taliban, the Afghan National Police are the weakest link in the still-evolving chain that is supposed to anchor civil society in Afghanistan.
“It took me about four months too long to figure out where the ANP system was broke,” Brig.-Gen. Grant admitted. NATO has no mandate to reform and rebuild the police, and creating an honest force is a huge project.
“The next big thing is the police in Kandahar province,” he said.
Like most soldiers in Canada's small army, Brig.-Gen. Grant can expect to be back in Afghanistan if the mission continues. He will be back sooner than most because his next job will be deputy commander of all Canadian expeditionary forces abroad.
“The first thing I will look at is the police,” he said, when asked how he will measure future progress.
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Pakistan Says U.S. Aid Bill Casts Shadow On Relations
July 29, 2007 - (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan's Foreign Ministry says new U.S. legislation linking aid for Pakistan to progress in cracking down on Al-Qaeda casts a shadow on ties with Washington.
Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said such linkage did not serve the interest of cooperation in the past and it can prove detrimental in the future.
The legislation reflects concern among U.S. lawmakers that Al-Qaeda has become entrenched in safe havens in Pakistan's tribal region on the border with Afghanistan.
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"Afghanistan Story Writing Encyclopedia” to be reviewed in Tehran
mehrnews.com - Jul 29 7:32 AM
TEHRAN, July 29 (MNA) -- Mohammad-Hossein Mohammadi’s "Afghanistan Story Writing Encyclopedia” will be reviewed at the offices of the Mehr News Agency (MNA) by critics Ali Dehbashi, Hassan Anusheh, Mohammad-Ebrahim Shariati, and Homeira Qaderi.
Mohammadi wrote in the book’s prologue that no effort has ever been made to comprehensively catalogue the literary and artistic works of Afghanistan.
He added that he has listed all the Afghan writers who have written over ten short stories or a novel, but without detailing the writers’ backgrounds or the significance of the works.
The Afghan Story Writer’s Dictionary, Description of the Novel and Novella in Afghanistan, Bibliography of Afghanistan’s Short Stories, and Calendar of Afghanistan’s Fiction are the four sections of the book.
Born in 1976 in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, Mohammadi has been in Iran since 1982. He has won many Iranian literary awards for his stories and is now the editor in chief of the monthly “Taravat”, which is a periodical for Afghan children and young adults published in Tehran.
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Last Jew in Afghanistan has no plans to leave
Sat. Jul. 28 2007 9:25 PM ET CTV.ca News Staff
In the war-torn country of 30 million Muslims, Zebulon Simentov stands alone.
Thirteen centuries after the first Jews arrived in Afghanistan, Simentov is the last Jew left in the nation.
"It makes no difference," says the 47-year-old, who wears a yarmulke along with his shalwar kameez. "I'm like a lion -- strong and courageous."
While there were more than 40,000 Jews in Afghanistan at the turn of the 19th century, the community emptied -- first in 1948, when the state of Israel was established, and then in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
For some time, Simentov was one of two Jews in Kabul. He was finally left alone when his neighbour and archrival Ishaq Levin died in January 2005.
There was no love lost between the two men, who lived together at the synagogue through the Soviet invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban regime.
Simentov and Levin vied for control of the synagogue, and famously grew to despise each other, holding loud yelling matches that neighbours could hear down the street.
When Levin died of natural causes at 80, Simentov did not seem to grieve the loss.
"He was a very bad man who tried to get me killed," he told the Associated Press news agency at the time, "and now I am the Jew here, I am the boss."
Before he died, Levin said Simentov had accused him of converting to Islam, so that Simentov could take over the synagogue.
Meanwhile Simentov blamed Levin when a valuable copy of the Jewish holy book, the Torah, went missing.
Simentov, who said it was confiscated under the Taliban regime, was acquitted in court.
Now Simentov is the only one left and in control of the dusty rundown synagogue they shared and fought over. Described as coarse and demanding, he still fights with his neighbours.
But they seem to live side by side in mutual tolerance and respect.
"I have no problems," he says, "Except for the Taliban years when a few crazy people came around."
There's not much left in Kabul of Jewish history. Yet there's a place in the suburbs where Simentov often comes to pray.
It used to be a Jewish cemetery, and his grandparents are buried here. Now it's looked after by an Afghan Muslim family.
"Many Muslims tried to convert me," he says. "But I never listened."
His ex-wife and children moved to Israel long ago. But Simentov refuses to follow.
Too many problems, he says, and too many responsibilities in Afghanistan.
With a report from CTV's South Asia Bureau Chief Paul Workman
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Afghan men pumped about bodybuilding
Sunday, July 29, 2007 By Jason Motlagh Newhouse News Service
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- Drive around this capital known for its modesty, and the massive homemade billboards of a shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger are impossible to miss. Ditto for the waxed chests of young Afghan men sweating inside makeshift gyms.
Six years ago, the simple act of flying a kite here was illegal and the soccer stadium was an execution venue. Today, the seeds of democracy are turning up in some funny places -- places that seem oblivious to a reconstruction hamstrung by official corruption and a resurgent Taliban.
Welcome to Gold's Gym, Kabul style, where Afghans are getting pumped.
"Bodybuilding is fashion today," said Yasar Ahmedzai, 20, a local journalist and recent devotee. "Life is so much better when you look strong and are in good shape."
While there are more than 100 gyms in the city, none is as famous as Gold's Gym, Kabul's first. Ask for directions and everyone -- from traffic cops to fruit merchants -- knows the place.
Meet its big-hearted founder, Bawar Khan Hotak, and it's easy to understand why.
At 6-foot-5, 290 pounds, with a superhero's jaw-line, hands like sledgehammers and shoulders as wide as a doorway, he is the face of Afghan bodybuilding.
Hotak, a former heavyweight wrestler, said he began lifting seriously during the darkest days of the Taliban reign. In 2000, he entered and won Kabul's first bodybuilding championship. (Strict rules meant competitors had to abide by a "no shorts, only trousers" policy, he said, although they were permitted the indiscretion of taking their shirts off.)
To the ire of the ultra-fundamentalist regime, he was a crowd favorite. Revved-up audience members threw money onstage -- a traditional gesture of approval that earned him two months behind bars "for making people happy," as he put it with a wide grin.
Prison didn't sap his resolve.
After the Taliban fell two years later, he decided to open the gym and name it after the original in Venice, Calif., where his Mr. Olympia hero-turned-governor of California trained in the cult bodybuilding film, "Pumping Iron."
"During the Taliban time, I dreamt about the future and how when peace and stability came I would make a modern equipped gym," Hotak said. "When they left, I was the only one to invest; others were buying vehicles to leave. I bought weight equipment for the next generation."
More or less.
Hotak and his friends started small, pouring cement into metal cans connected by steel rods to make barbells. Derelict Soviet tanks were stripped of parts and bent into improvised weight machines by welders -- refashioning the weapons of war to strengthen the people they once targeted.
Step inside the sour-smelling space at Gold's now and you'll rub deltoids with a throng of muscle-bound Afghans, ages 15 to 50, using imported, if rusty equipment, along with requisite wall-to-wall mirrors.
The sight of a journalist's camera incited a frenzy of flexing and shouting beneath yellowed posters of present-day favorites Jay Cutler and Ronnie Coleman. And, of course, Arnold.
Abdul Hadiqubadi, 27, has a day job with a U.N. agency and pays about $6 in monthly dues to work out when he has free time. He says it's a small price
to lift alongside some of Afghanistan's best beefcakes.
"There are bigger gyms," he said, "but this is the best. All the champions and top trainers lift here."
Noorulhada Shirzad, winner of the Mr. Kabul and Mr. Afghanistan titles and national team coach, has traveled as far as South Korea for international competitions. His business card, if not perfect, reads: "The Most Advance Body Builder in Afghanistan."
"My first objective was to one day be Mr. Afghanistan," Shirzad said, his blue jeans apparently strained a shade lighter by beer-keg thighs. "Later, American films had their own effect on me . . . . I saw that having a good body is to be well-known among people, so this has been my goal."
The Mr. Kabul competition is held every July in a dank movie house in the city's Shar-e-naw district. Hotak estimated more than 2,000 people attended last year's showdown, with almost twice as many turned back at the door. The winner moves on to the Mr. Afghanistan contest in August and international competitions in the fall.
Despite the surging violence in Afghanistan's southern and eastern provinces, and a lack of government money, the sport continues to grow. As president of the National Bodybuilding Federation, Hotak travels the country to meet other coaches, hold workshops and organize competitions.
One of last year's Mr. Afghanistans, Aziz Ahmad Nikyar, lives in Helmand province, now the hotbed of the Taliban insurgency.
It costs about $2,000 a month to keep the gym running, and in five years Hotak swears he's never made a profit, just enough to make occasional improvements and buy the odd bucket of American-made protein supplement.
Still, he is proud of the fact that despite lean resources, the Asian Bodybuilding Federation recently recognized Afghan lifters as the "'most active and improved" bunch on the continent.
Still, the country's iron men are not holding their breath for state money while a war is on in the provinces. They are, however, convinced new weight machines, training expertise and even glossy posters would be express-delivered if they could only get in touch with bodybuilding's greatest ambassador and tell him more about his faithful on the other side of the world.
"Even though Arnold has not done anything for bodybuilding here yet, we love him and have lots of things to tell him," said Hotak, ticking off a wish list of supplies he needs.
"We know everything about him. We want him to know something about us, the poor bodybuilders of Afghanistan."
. . . . . . .
Jason Motlagh, a freelance writer based in Washington, wrote this article for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Khalilzad, diplomats admire late Zahir Shah
NEW YORK, July 27 (Pajhwok Afghan News): The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, visited the permanent mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations to sign in the book of condolences.
Khalizad paid tribute to the "Father of the Nation" for his efforts to bring peace and stability to the war-battered country.
Offering condolences on behalf of the people of the United States, Khalilzad said he was privileged to have the opportunity to work with the late king before the fall of the Taliban as well during the post-Taliban era.
The best way to honor the former king was to "commit ourselves" to work harder towards achieving a lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan, he noted.
Besides Khalilzad, a large number of diplomats and ambassadors from various countries, including Japan, Germany, Ukraine, China and Poland, visited the Afghan mission to pay homage to the last Afghan king.
Meanwhile, top diplomats and ambassadors of over three dozen countries visited the Afghan embassy in Washington for condolence with the Afghan people and the government.
The foreign dignitaries praised the former king for his courage to return to Afghanistan soon after the fall of Taliban. He was remembered as the founder of peace and democracy in Afghanistan.
Prominent among countries whose diplomats signed in the book of condolences included Albania, Algeria, Argentina, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Iran, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lichtenstein, Malaysia, Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Palestine, Pakistan, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, St. Lucia, Sweden, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, UAE, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam and Zambia.
Lalit K. Jha
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