KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - A series of roadside bombings in Afghanistan Wednesday killed eight people, including three NATO soldiers, in new attacks linked to a growing Taliban insurgency.
Police in the east of the country said meanwhile a local man had gone into a mosque Tuesday and shot dead three people. Police would not immediately link the man, known as a local ruffian, to the insurgency.
The three NATO-led International Security Assistance Force soldiers were killed in the volatile south of the country when a bomb tore through their vehicle, ISAF announced in a statement.
The 37-nation coalition gave no other details, including the nationalities of the soldiers or the location of the attack.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Yousuf Ahmadi, said however insurgents had blown up a foreign forces' vehicle in the province of Helmand. Several of the troops were dead, he claimed.
Most of ISAF's British contingent, which numbers about 6,700, is based in Helmand but soldiers of other nationalities also operate in the province -- where opium traders said to be allied with militants.
Ninety-one foreign soldiers have now died in Afghanistan this year, most of them in combat and about half of them from the United States which has the most soldiers in the international operation in Afghanistan.
Another bomb blew up a police vehicle in the eastern province of Khost, killing Qalandar district police chief Ali Mohammad and one of his men, a spokesman for the provincial governor told AFP.
In the southern province of Zabul, a bomb ripped into the vehicle of US-based private security company USPI, killing two guards and wounding a third, deputy provincial police chief Ghulam Jalani said.
Another bomb exploded on a road in Ghazni province and killed a man who was cycling home after buying groceries, a district governor said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast but said it had struck a police vehicle.
The hardliners rely on bombs, including suicide blasts, in their fight against the government and its allies. The military says this is a sign of the rebels' weakness and inability to fight conventional warfare.
Taliban overran a district in Kandahar province late Monday, forcing the small police force there to flee, but they were removed less than 24 hours later.
They took another Kandahar district Tuesday and police said Wednesday they were planning an operation to remove them with ISAF's help.
In another incident of violence, a man opened fire on worshippers in a mosque in Khost during evening prayers Tuesday, killing three people and wounding four others, police said Wednesday.
Provincial police spokesman Wazir Badshah said the reason for the attack was not clear but the gunman, who escaped, did not seem to have links with militants.
The governor of eastern Nangarhar province told reporters meanwhile that authorities were holding two men who had confessed to being would-be suicide bombers who had been trained in Pakistan.
"They have confessed that I was their target," governor Gul Agha Shirzay said.
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Foreign forces blasted for Afghan civilian deaths
By David Fox Wed Jun 20, 6:05 AM ET
KABUL (Reuters) - A group of Western and Afghan aid organizations in Afghanistan has launched a blistering attack on foreign troops for not doing more to prevent civilian deaths in their hunt for Taliban fighters and other insurgents.
The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), which represents nearly 100 aid groups, also hit out at the Taliban for endangering civilians by hiding amongst them and for a spate of suicide attacks that have killed or injured dozens this year.
The broadside comes after one of the bloodiest weekends since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Dozens of civilian deaths were reported, including seven children killed in an airstrike on a religious school where insurgents were believed to have been holed up.
ACBAR and other independent groups say foreign and Afghan forces have killed more than 230 civilians this year alone.
"We strongly condemn operations and force protection measures carried out by international military forces in which disproportionate or indiscriminate use of force has resulted in civilian casualties," the group said in a statement.
ACBAR singled out U.S. troops operating outside the formal command of NATO, which leads the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan.
"Such operations have frequently been carried out by forces or agencies outside NATO command, often American forces in Operation Enduring Freedom, and sometimes in conjunction with Afghan forces," ACBAR said.
ISAF spokeswoman Lieutenant-Colonel Maria Carl said on Wednesday that civilian deaths were always regretted.
"When ISAF is responsible, we investigate, we apologize and we find ways to prevent it from happening again. When the Taliban kill people, they celebrate and boast they will kill again," she told a news briefing.
Violence has surged in Afghanistan in recent months after the traditional winter lull, with foreign forces launching attacks against Taliban strongholds in the south and east and guerrillas hitting back with suicide bombings.
Nearly 6,000 people have been killed over the past 17 months, about 1,500 of them civilians.
The deaths have sparked street protests calling for President Hamid Karzai's resignation and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. U.S. forces make up the bulk of the more than 50,000 foreign troops operating in the country.
Faced with resurgent Taliban attacks, growing frustration over corruption and lack of economic development, Karzai has warned that civilian deaths would have dangerous consequences for his government and the troops.
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AFGHANISTAN: NGO network raps international forces over civilian deaths
KABUL, 20 June 2007 (IRIN) - A network of Afghan and international non-government organisations (NGOs) has called on international forces in Afghanistan to do more to protect civilians in their combat operations.
The call comes amid increasing criticism of the international troops fighting Taliban insurgents, with scores of civilians, including women and children, perishing as a result of their operations.
"We strongly condemn the operations and force protection measures carried out by international military forces in which disproportionate or indiscriminate use of force has resulted in civilian casualties," read a statement released by the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), an umbrella of more than 90 humanitarian and development NGOs.
The statement holds Afghan and international forces responsible for at least 230 civilian deaths, including 60 women and children, in their military engagements in 2007 alone.
"Fourteen civilians have been killed for simply driving or walking too close to international military personnel or vehicles," the statement said.
On 17 June, US warplanes bombed a religious school in Zarghun Shah District of western Paktika Province, killing seven children aged 8 to 15, a US military press release said. US forces have blamed Taliban and al-Qaeda for the unfortunate incident.
"This is another example of al-Qaeda using the protective status of a mosque, as well as innocent civilians, to shield themselves," read a press release, issued on 18 June from the US military base at Baghram airfield.
The NGOs urged the international forces to comply with international and Afghan laws, and respect local culture while conducting house searches and arrests.
The NGO association, which includes many Western humanitarian organisations, said Afghan support for international military forces had "substantially diminished".
"Excessive and disproportionate use of force is not only illegal and wrong but is also counter-productive," the NGOs said.
NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and US troops operating under Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) command in Afghanistan rejected the criticism.
"We have always respected international law in our military engagements and have worked alongside Afghan forces," said Maj Chris Belchera, a US military spokesman at Baghram airfield to the north of the capital, Kabul.
A spokesman for ISAF in Kabul, Maj John Thomas, gave a similar account, adding NATO would do its best to reduce civilian casualties in its operations.
"Sometimes we even call off air strikes to avoid unnecessary harm to noncombatants," Thomas said.
However, Matt Waldman from a British charity organisation, Oxfam GB, called on the US military to do more for the safety of civilians in Afghanistan.
Hundreds of civilians have died in numerous suicide and roadside explosions carried out by the Taliban and their allies.
On 15 June, a suicide bomber blew himself up in Tarinkot, the provincial capital of southern Urozgan Province, killing one soldier and 11 children, according to the UN.
Sources associated with Taliban rebels claimed responsibility for the attack but blamed soldiers for choosing to patrol where children were playing.
Members of ACBAR have, furthermore, asked Afghan and international forces, including all American armed units in Afghanistan, to establish a permanent body for better coordination and common standards of operation.
NGOs have indicated that many incidents in which unarmed Afghans have been affected by military operations are caused by inaccurate or false information.
Afghan, OEF and NATO forces, however, say their efforts are already well coordinated.
Thomas said ISAF maintained good coordination with Afghan and OEF forces on a daily basis: "We work together on tactical and operational levels."
Waldman calls the current level of coordination between NATO, OEF and Afghan forces "insufficient" and, according to him, in need of urgent improvement.
Based on a strategic partnership signed by Bush and his Afghan counterpart Karzai in May 2005, US troops have freedom of action in all military operations in Afghanistan.
The ACBAR network of NGOs has called on the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the country's human rights commission (AIHRC) to investigate every incident in which armed conflicts affect non-combatants - with the aim of verifying conflicting pieces of information.
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Britain to stay engaged in Afghanistan for 'decades'
Wed Jun 20, 5:56 AM ET
LONDON (AFP) - Britain will need to stay involved in Afghanistan for "decades" to help restore stability, London's ambassador in Kabul said.
In an interview with BBC radio, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles put greater stress on Britain maintaining a "long-term development" presence rather than a military one.
"I wouldn't say my picture is gloomy, I would say it's realistic," Cowper-Coles said. "It's a marathon rather than a sprint. We should be thinking in terms of decades."
"We're standing up a country that is near the bottom of the world development index, a country that has suffered from 30 years of war ... (with) an insurgency spreading across the Pashtun belt."
He said Britain, with 5,200 troops in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led force, was waging a winnable counter-insurgency war that resembled those it had fought before in Malaya and Northern Ireland.
He said the allied campaign was made easier because most Afghans oppose the Taliban, the radical Islamist movement that led the country until its overthrow in a US-led war in late 2001.
Although he regretted that Afghan civilians were killed by NATO forces, he said the allies were taking "sophisticated" precautions to warn villagers ahead of military action.
Citing Human Rights Watch, a New York-based human rights group, he said: "The Taliban kill five times as many as NATO do."
"The great thing about the Taliban is that they haven't been reading their chairman Mao. They don't have popular support. They're try to swim in a sea that doesn't exist."
The Afghan people want the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and US forces to stay in Afghanistan to ensure their security and prevent the Taliban from returning, he said.
"If there's one thing they're clear about is they do not want to return to the dark days of medieval Taliban rule," he said.
Afghans want foreign powers to finish the job of developing effective police and security forces, creating a judicial system and establishing enough schools and hospitals, he said.
Besides troops, the British government has also deployed civilians to provide aid, promote development and fight drug smuggling. It is now sending diplomats with language skills and knowledge of the country, he said.
"Maybe we should have raised our game earlier. But now we have," he said. "But everything is subject to the Brown administration."
The BBC added that there was "real concern" in the Foreign Office in London that the new British government under finance minister Gordon Brown, who succeeds Tony Blair as prime minister June 27, will take "a short-term view" of Afghanistan.
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Iraqi-Style Attacks in Afghanistan
By Anna Mulrine Tue Jun 19, 2:22 PM ET
KABUL--A rush-hour attack in a crowded section of Kabul has reignited concerns here about what the U.S. military calls TTPs--tactics, techniques, and procedures--migrating from Iraq to the streets of Afghanistan. The bus bombing on Sunday, which killed at least 35 people and wounded some 52 bystanders, targeted Afghan police trainees on their way to work.
It is thought to be the most lethal attack in the country since the fall of the Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing shortly afterward. (On Monday, police reported detaining a suspect in the Kabul bus bombing after he was caught filming the aftermath of the deadly suicide blast.)
The Taliban has stepped up its use of so-called asymmetric means of attack, using greater numbers of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), according to Gen. Dan McNeill, the American commander of the International Security Assistance Force. It is a development, he tells U.S. News, that the military anticipated since ISAF efforts began early this year to pre-empt a Taliban spring offensive--an offensive that largely failed to materialize.
On the heels of stepped-up bombings, McNeill says, the question becomes, "OK, what are you going to do about it?" Forces here have increased counter-IED training for troops. They are also on the lookout for explosively formed penetrators, a particularly lethal type of roadside bomb that has recently been discovered in the Kabul area. These munitions, which contain shaped charges able to penetrate armored humvees, are already well known to American commanders in Iraq, who say that the components come from Iran. "Clearly, EFPs are very advanced IEDs, and we've got our eye on it," McNeill says. "And we'll keep our eye on it."
U.S. forces are monitoring the degree to which such weapons may be coming from Iran. But, to date, McNeill tells U.S. News, "What we've found so far hasn't been militarily significant on the battlefield."
McNeill adds that while he is open to the possibility that Iran is meddling in the affairs of Afghanistan, he has seen no direct evidence to support this charge. He adds that coalition forces have intercepted a few convoys carrying weapons into Afghanistan. "In one convoy," he says, "the munitions were without a whole lot of doubt in my mind Iranian made." He adds that a plastic explosive packaged to look like C-4, a powerful military explosive, has been found in Afghanistan--the same type that has also been discovered in Iraq and that is thought to be coming by way of Iran.
But McNeill draws a distinction between saying that weapons are coming from Iran and saying that they are coming from the Iranian government. Arms could come from rogue actors, too, such as black market dealers, drug traffickers, and al Qaeda backers. "It could be a supply sergeant who wanted enough money to take his brother on the hajj," a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Such a person, he says, could sell weapons "out of the back of a supply closet."
Still, he adds, "I don't dispute that Iran may have provided support to the Taliban." McNeill cites the analogy of a corporation giving to both political parties, "knowing one's going to come up on top."
"I think it's plausible," McNeill says, adding that "when I find proof" that Iran is meddling, "I will have no hesitation" sharing it.
What's clear, he says, is that "there are a hell of a lot of mortars here--and they come from a lot of countries."
Meanwhile, the U.S. military is facing a backlash after two incidents in which civilians were killed. On Saturday, a U.S. soldier killed an Afghan civilian when, according to an ISAF spokesperson, his weapon accidentally fired following a suicide bombing in Kabul. Before this happened Saturday, ISAF spokespeople had just finished giving a briefing to the press explaining how military rules of engagement are designed to prevent civilian casualties.
The issue of civilian deaths has grown in the aftermath of several incidents this year in which civilians were killed in attacks meant to target the Taliban, which often takes refuge among the civilian population. The most recent incident occurred Sunday, when a U.S. airstrike killed seven boys during a raid on a suspected al Qaeda hideout in the eastern Paktika province. Military officials said that daylong surveillance of the site ahead of the attack hadn't spotted any children in the compound, which included a mosque and a madrasah, or Islamic school.
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Britain must stay in Afghanistan for decades: envoy
Wed Jun 20, 5:39 AM ET
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain needs to maintain a significant presence in Afghanistan for several decades to help fight terrorism and pull the country out of poverty, London's ambassador to Kabul said on Wednesday.
Sherard Cowper-Coles, who took up his post as ambassador six weeks ago, said Britain needed to commit to a long-term presence in Afghanistan to help it recover from 30 years of war and quash a determined Taliban insurgency.
"The task of standing up a government of Afghanistan that is sustainable is going to take a very long time," he told BBC radio. "It's a marathon, not a sprint. We should be thinking in terms of decades."
Afghanistan has relied largely on Western troops for its security and on donor funds for its economy since U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
Britain has about 7,000 troops in Afghanistan, based mainly in the southern province of Helmand where they have encountered fierce resistance from Taliban fighters. The total deployed will rise to 7,700 this year.
However, Cowper-Coles said any decades-long British presence would not necessarily be military.
"But we are serious about a long-term development presence," he said, adding Britain's foreign office had decided Afghanistan was now "one of our very highest foreign policy priorities."
Cowper-Coles rejected suggestions that U.S.-led coalition forces were losing the fight with the Taliban, and losing the support of ordinary Afghans for their presence.
More than 120 civilians have been killed in recent months during foreign troop operations, according to Afghan officials and witnesses. The deaths have sparked protests, including demands for the withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition forces.
The British ambassador admitted "mistakes have been made" with regard to the killing of civilians, but pointed to human rights organizations' data which showed the Taliban killed five times as many civilians.
"The reality is that the great majority of Afghans want us here," he said. "If there is one thing they are clear about it is that they do not want to return to the dark days of mediaeval Taliban rule."
Prime Minister Tony Blair, due to step down next week and hand over the British premiership to finance minister Gordon Brown, has warned Afghanistan risks being overwhelmed by anti-western violence, similar to that in Iraq.
Cowper-Coles said he hoped Brown's new government would remain committed to Afghanistan for the long term.
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Video shows 'graduates' of Qaeda/Taliban terror camp
Tue Jun 19, 8:00 AM ET
WASHINGTON (AFP) - Trained suicide bombers are emerging from tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan to plan attacks on the West, according to a video of a Taliban "graduation ceremony" aired by a US news channel.
The footage, taken by a Pakistani journalist and received by ABC news, showed a large group of men, their faces hidden by black scarves, who were members of teams assigned to carry out attacks in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Germany.
The 300 recruits included boys as young as 12.
The gathering was a training camp "graduation ceremony" of fighters trained by the Al-Qaeda network and Afghanistan's hardline Taliban movement, held on June 9 somewhere in the Afghan-Pakistan tribal border region, ABC news said.
Mansoor Dadullah, brother of the former Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, who was killed last month, could be seen attending the ceremony in pictures and a video of the ceremony broadcast by ABC and published on its website.
He addressed the seated recruits as guards with rocket launchers stood by.
"These Americans, Canadians, British and Germans come here to Afghanistan from faraway places," Mansoor Dadullah says on the video, referring to countries with forces patrolling Afghanistan since the Taliban was ousted in 2001. "Why shouldn't we go after them?"
One of the recruits spoke to the camera in English, confirming that he was the leader of the team assigned "for a suicide attack in Britain."
"Praise be to God that the enthusiasm of these people is so strong that the people are going by crowds to martyrdom and to sacrifice themselves," Dadullah said.
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Afghans must stand on their own feet, says president
By Sayed Salahuddin Tue Jun 19, 6:47 AM ET
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghans should stand on their own feet to save their country from further foreign meddling, President Hamid Karzai said on Tuesday, listing a lack of rule of law and the drugs trade as the main challenges.
Afghanistan has relied largely on Western troops for its security and on donor funds for its economy since U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
But frustration is growing with Karzai's government, not only among ordinary Afghans but the country's foreign backers too, over rampant corruption, security and the booming heroin trade.
Speaking at a gathering in Kabul, Karzai said Afghans should stop complaining that Afghanistan has been destroyed by Soviet occupation in the 1980s or interference from other countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
"The time has come for all of us Afghans, old and young, poor and rich ... to not accuse foreigners for the deterioration of our country's situation," he told the gathering of hundreds of provincial leaders and tribal chiefs, including a small group of women.
It was his first public appearance since surviving an apparent assassination attempt nearly two weeks ago when rockets were fired at a meeting he was addressing outside the capital.
Tuesday's jirga -- or gathering of elders and luminaries -- was held under tight security at a high school just meters (yards) away from Karzai's heavily fortified presidential palace.
"The time has come for us to strengthen ourselves...with a strong army and police and economy ... so that no one finds the opportunity for interference," he said.
To achieve that, Karzai said, Afghans needed to focus on education.
Enforcement of the rule of law was the second most important thing, he noted, adding that the lack thereof was a "major danger" for Afghanistan and would create a wedge between the government and people.
Karzai repeated that Afghanistan's opium industry -- the country supplies over 90 percent of the world's heroin -- was another great threat. He warned that foreign supporters would resort to more drastic measures, such as crop spraying, if soaring cultivation was not stopped.
Several delegates took the opportunity to speak after Karzai finished his speech to complain about their current circumstances.
One complained that cabinet ministers were driving in posh vehicles worth tens of thousands of dollars that would be better spent building schools.
Another demanded better coordination between foreign forces and the government while carrying out operations against the Taliban and their allies.
More than 120 civilians have been killed in recent months during foreign troop operations, according to Afghan officials and witnesses. The deaths have sparked a series of protests, including demands for Karzai's resignation and withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition forces.
A group that represents several local non-governmental organizations said more than 230 civilians had been killed in crossfire this year.
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US forces in Afghan killing row
By Charles Haviland BBC News, Kabul Wednesday, 20 June 2007, 09:13 GMT 10:13 UK
A bitter argument has arisen between an Afghan family and US-led coalition forces in the country over the shooting of a man in his twenties.
The man's family insists that he was not a militant, but the coalition says that he was an enemy combatant.
At the same time, charities in Afghanistan have strongly criticised foreign troops killing of civilians.
Aid agencies said earlier that foreign and Afghan forces had killed at least 230 civilians since the start of 2007.
People in the southern city of Kandahar told the BBC that foreign troops had forcibly entered several houses, dynamiting their doors and conducting searches.
One man said that in one of the houses they had woken up his sleeping cousin, aged in his twenties, and killed him before letting dogs sniff around his dead body.
The man said the forces had also detained 10 people and falsely accused them of militancy.
Reports say the dead man's distraught relatives shouted that President Hamid Karzai must resign for letting foreign soldiers attack innocent people.
But a spokesman for the US-led coalition said coalition and Afghan forces entered a building in Kandahar and killed an "enemy combatant".
He said no civilians had been injured or killed, adding that he was not aware of there being any mistake.
The incident coincided with a statement issued by large group of charities working in Afghanistan who said they were concerned at the number of civilians being killed by international forces.
The charities alleged that faulty intelligence was often to blame.
"Excessive and disproportionate use of force is not only illegal and wrong but is also counter-productive," the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief (Acbar) warned.
Acbar, which brings together nearly 100 Afghan and international aid organisations, said such attacks created hostility towards international forces and made relief work more difficult.
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US concerned about mental health of diplomats in Iraq, Afghanistan
Tue Jun 19, 11:47 PM ET
WASHINGTON (AFP) - The State Department is conducting an internal survey to better help diplomats cope with the stress of assignments in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, a Department official said in testimony to Congress on Tuesday.
Laurence Brown, the head of the State Department's Office of Medical Services, told a House of Representatives subcommittee that his office posted the anonymous survey on the Department's intranet system on June 1, and will collect results for a month.
"The war in Afghanistan and in Iraq represent another level of stress due to the high levels and widespread incidence of violence that involve greater numbers of serving Foreign Service employees than past incidents," Brown said.
This has resulted "in larger number of acute anxiety reactions and we might well expect an increase un numbers of those with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as well," he said.
Brown said the survey "asks specifics about what stresses and dangerous situations an employee was exposed to, what they did about it, and what counseling or other treatments they may have sought" since returning to the United States.
Officials "will use the information from the survey ... to develop additional support programs or services if needed," he said.
Foreign Service members "are not soldiers and are not trained for combat," said Steven Kashkett, vice president of the professional association that represents US Foreign Service personnel.
"Yet in Iraq, they are often directly exposed to conditions of war which they may not always be well-adapted to cope," said Kashkett, who also testified before the House panel.
Diplomats assigned to the US embassy in Baghdad "experience frequent incoming fire in the Green Zone and sleep in vulnerable aluminum trailers," Kashkett said, while diplomats working in other parts of Iraq often live with the US military "in combat areas and work entirely in a 'red zone' environment.
"Not surprisingly, some of our members who have returned from these postings have complained of symptoms that are clearly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder," Kashkett said.
Although numbers are still sketchy, "preliminary results from the State Department survey suggest that it may affect some 40 percent or more, similar to what has been reported for the US military."
Many US diplomats returning from Iraq "have commented that they had little opportunity for proper counseling before, during, or after their assignments," Kashkett said.
Some even felt they were penalized for mentioning concerns about post-traumatic stress disorder "by having their medical or security clearances suspended," Kashkett added.
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Women under siege in Afghanistan
By Soutik Biswas BBC News, Kabul Wednesday, 20 June 2007, 06:06 GMT 07:06 UK
For the past three months, Afghan female MP Shukria Barakzai has been receiving a letter saying she may be targeted by a suicide bomber in the next six months.
The cryptic government letter contains an intelligence warning that Ms Barakzai's life is under threat and she should be careful. She is one of six MPs getting such a letter these days.
"That is all that the government does - send a letter by mail once every month saying my life is under threat. There isn't talk of even providing security," says the feisty parliamentarian and mother of three daughters.
Ms Barakzai says she is being targeted by "various elements" because of her speeches against the country's warlords, her support for women's rights and for her criticisms of Pakistan.
"I am going crazy. My friends are telling me to leave the country. My husband is worried. After all, I am also a mother and a wife," says the journalist-turned-MP.
When you consider that two women journalists have been killed recently in and around Kabul, you realise that even women of influence and power in Afghanistan live and work in fear under threats from warlords, the Taleban and other insurgent groups.
Six years after the departure of the repressive Taleban this is the paradox of women in Afghanistan. They now have a say and a position under the country's constitution. But they have to work in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
The good news is that the rights of Afghan women have been enshrined in the constitution. It even asks the government to bring changes in the law to combat traditions that work against them.
Women can participate in every walk of life, including politics. Of the 361 members of parliament today, 91 are women.
Women have also begun talking about forced marriages, honour killings, abortions and rape in a traditionally male-dominated society. Local human rights groups have begun documenting such atrocities.
The bad news is that the state cannot protect women and ensure that they can go about their work safely. Even an affluent, influential city-bred MP like Ms Barakzai is now tense about her future.
"When I leave home these days on work, I am not quite sure whether I will be back [alive]. Life has become so insecure. I am not planning to leave the country yet, but I do have to think about my kids," says the MP.
Fellow female MP Tooarpekay, the only woman parliamentarian from the restive Zabul province, echoes the same sentiment.
"There have been many attacks on women workers in Zabul. I am worried about the rise of Taleban," says the MP who studied in a boys' school.
Ms Tooarpekay should know - she has worked in Zabul, where the Taleban are now highly active, for the past 22 years as a school teacher, community and health worker.
When she stood for the elections two years ago, her 22-year-old brother was killed by the Taleban. She has soldiered on in her new job as an MP.
To add to her problems, she has not been paid her monthly salary of $937 for the past three months.
If this is the plight of some of the most "powerful" women in the country, the state of ordinary women across the country is obviously much worse.
Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, for example, alone documented over 1,500 cases of atrocities against women last year.
The details make for grim reading - a third of these women were victims of domestic violence - simply called "beating" in the rights group report - some 200 of them were married off forcibly, 98 of them set themselves on fire, and over 100 of them tried to take their lives by consuming poison.
Now the rights group is worried about the rising number of women who are taking to drugs in the countryside.
"Jirgas [tribal councils] are still deciding the fate of the women in most rural areas. Most of the judgements go against the women," says Soraya Sobhrang, a former gynaecologist who runs the women's rights department of the Human Rights Commission.
"We have the constitution and the courts. Who are the jirgas to decide on women?"
In the end, analysts say, it is a weak, feeble and a largely corrupt state machinery which is just not carrying out its duties - ruling with a firmer constitutionally mandated hand, and giving women more security, sometimes even from their own menfolk and community.
Zabul is a good example of this apathy - Ms Tooarpekay says government officials are lax and insincere about simple demands of local people, joblessness is rife and there are few schools.
"All this drives people into the arms of the Taleban. And the women become the worst sufferers again," she says.
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Better times, new problems for model Afghan city
By Mark Bendeich Tue Jun 19, 7:17 PM ET
HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The man who runs the western Afghan province of Herat has many problems, but he says his biggest headache has nothing to do with the Taliban.
The Islamist guerrilla group launches suicide bombings against troops and civilians in the province, but these are not currently at the top of Governor Sayed Hossain Anwary's in-tray.
Nor are the tens of thousands of jobless Afghans streaming into the provincial capital from the nearby Iranian border, where they are being deported as illegal immigrants.
So what problem could be bigger in Herat than Afghanistan's entrenched evils of violence, lawlessness and grinding poverty?
"The biggest problem is the building of the university," Anwary told Reuters earnestly at his office in Herat city, an ancient capital close to the Iranian border.
"It is 45 percent complete. Our students don't have a dormitory or good classes," he complained, rubbing his forehead.
Herat is Afghanistan's second-largest city and one of its most successful. With less violence than many other provinces and far more development, the governor has problems that his counterparts in the rest of the country can only dream about.
Herat city, a conquest of Alexander the Great and a jewel of Islamic civilization, wants to regain some of its former glory. Home to 3 million people, it now has a steady power supply and thriving trade with Iran and another neighbor, Turkmenistan.
Trucks laden with fruits, spices, raisins, almonds and goats' wool rumble over a good, sealed road to the Iranian border about two hours' away. Coming the other way, Iranian trucks bring clothes, household goods and building materials.
Outside Herat city, an industrial park has attracted foreign firms to set up factories employing hundreds of people. In the city, there are wooded public gardens where families picnic beneath tall evergreens. Apartment blocks are also sprouting up.
The city's 14th-century fort has been restored and is surrounded by a teeming medieval bazaar of mud-brick shops where turbaned men with beards tend carts weighed down by ripe tomatoes, red onions, potatoes and cucumbers.
There is also a new five-star hotel, owned by a British woman of Iranian descent who has so far invested about $200,000 of her family savings in the hope that Herat will continue to thrive.
But a closer look at Herat reveals that Afghanistan's model city is struggling to write the next chapter of its success.
'THERE IS NO MONEY'
The $60 million university project is half finished and there is no sign of work. Three buildings have been completed, each clad in white and black marble and rising impressively from the dusty construction site, but there is no power or water.
The other buildings are still concrete shells. Desks and chairs are piled up inside one of the unfinished structures. The whole project should have opened this year and stands as one of the most visible symbols of Herat's waning fortunes.
The university and other projects were pushed ahead by the powerful previous governor, Mohammad Ismail Khan, who used taxes collected from the border trade to refurbish the city.
In the first four years after invading U.S-led forces removed the Taliban from power in 2001, Herat was a boom town.
But his successor, Anwary, complains that customs and income taxes now flow directly to the central government for Kabul and are redistributed among the lesser-developed provinces.
"There is no money," said Anwary, who wears a dark suit, no tie, a thick black beard and a permanently furrowed brow.
As he spoke, the lights flickered and his office plunged into darkness for a few moments, as if to drive home his point.
"We have some money from the municipality, which we use for solving our problems but we don't have any budget coming from the central government," he said.
The University of Herat has about 6,000 students crammed in to its current campus, about a third of them young women who had been prevented from studying under the Taliban regime.
The dormitory is so crowded that up to 20 students sleep in one room, university president Mohammad Naim Assad said. Some of them recently went on hunger strike over the conditions.
"In the night, they are studying in the middle of the street," Assad said through an interpreter.
Asked when the university will be finished, he just shrugs.
Tensions between the United States, which is largely underwriting Afghanistan's security, and Iran may also be taking some of the shine off Herat's success, according to the new five-star hotel's owner and manager, Lailla Salari-Mercier.
"It's really difficult," she said.
But she said Herat was still one of the brightest prospects for business in Afghanistan and there was no turning back.
"I am sure there's enough business for this hotel to be very successful," she said. "We have taken the lease for three years and invested a lot of money in the hotel ... We have burnt all the bridges and there's no going back, so it has to be successful."
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Afghan districts retaken from Taliban
By IANS Wednesday June 20, 05:23 PM
Kabul, June 20 (DPA) Afghan officials said Wednesday their forces have retaken two districts earlier captured by the Taliban in the southern region of the country.
Police forces entered Miyanishin district of Kandahar province without any resistance or casualties on Tuesday evening, 24 hours after being overrun by Taliban fighters, Esmatuallh Alizai, provincial police chief of Kandahar said.
Alizai said that the police forces made a 'tactical withdrawal' from another district, Ghorak, in the same Kandahar province Tuesday afternoon. But Chief of Staff (Operations) for the Afghan army, General Shir Mohammad Karimi said Afghan army and police recaptured the district two hours after they had vacated the town.
Karimi told a press conference Wednesday that police left both district headquarters for 'a few hours' but moved into the districts after reinforcements were deployed.
The Taliban had earlier claimed their forces captured Ghorak district late Tuesday, killing five police officers.
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Guardsmen will train Afghan police
By CHUCK CRUMBO The State - Jun 19 9:17 PM
Spc. Roger Ceasar of Hemingway inserts an airway tube into the nostril of a training dummy at Camp Phoenix, Afghanistan. He’s taking a refresher course in first aid from instructor Tad Gow in preparation for training Afghan police.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Efforts to improve security and defeat the Taliban are getting a boost as 270 S.C. National Guard soldiers join the ranks of instructors training the Afghan police.
The S.C. soldiers, who are being pulled from other duties at Camp Phoenix, will go to police districts across the country. They will provide police with tactical and logistical support.
“You are the primary effort,” Brig. Gen. Bob Livingston told the troops. “If we do not get to where we occupy land — 24 hours, seven days a week — we will spend the next 50 years running the Taliban off.”
The soldiers are members of the S.C. Guard’s 218th Brigade Combat Team, which commands the task force responsible for training the Afghan army and police.
Most of the trainers will come from the 200-soldier contingent of the Mullins-headquartered 1st Battalion, 263rd Armor Regiment at Camp Phoenix. The 263rd’s troops have been in Afghanistan since January, providing security for Camp Phoenix on the outskirts of Kabul.
The 263rd’s soldiers appear to welcome the new assignment, which will put them closer to the fight.
“I think it’s what everybody came here to do,” said Spc. Ross Morris of Myrtle Beach.
Added Sgt. 1st Class Darryl Cheatham of Greenville: “I look forward to it. It will be a nice change of pace.”
The troops will augment a group of about 250 soldiers in the brigade who are embedded trainers with the Afghan army and police.
Training the Afghan police has become a top priority as coalition forces try to tamp down a growing insurgency. Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates prevailed upon NATO allies to increase the number of troops they have in Afghanistan so there would be more trainers for the Afghan police.
“Right now, the police are taking the brunt of the fight,” said Maj. Bob Carruthers, the 218th’s operations officer. “The Taliban purposely pick on the police because they’re lightly armed and ... they’re not as well-trained.”
To help the Afghan police, U.S. trainers are being shifted away from instructing the Afghan army. That’s because the Afghan army has developed its own trainers and is considered an effective fighting force, according to coalition commanders.
Sunday, the first group of 170 troops from the S.C. brigade began two weeks of training for their new job, assisting the police. A second group of about 100 will follow in a few weeks, said Carruthers of Charleston.
The trainers will provide support for Afghan police, who operate more like a militia than a law-enforcement agency. The Afghan police’s primary job is to defend communities and territory and hold off attackers until the Afghan army arrives.
The S.C. troops will form 12- to 16-man teams. In the field, the trainers will fight alongside the Afghan police and be able to call for close-air support as well as radio for helicopters to evacuate wounded police officers, Carruthers said. The trainers also will assist with logistics and supplies.
There’s pressure to get results fast in training the Afghan police, Livingston said.
“You’re going to do ... in a year (what) it took us five years with the army,” Livingston told the troops.
Training and supporting the Afghan police will help “the local people,” Livingston added. “They, in turn, will have confidence in the government. The economy expands, people feel good (and) the Taliban has no home.
“That way, we go home.”
AFGHAN POLICE VS. SOLDIERS
A look at the differences between the Afghan army and national police
$70: Monthly pay for an Afghan police officer
$100: Monthly pay for an Afghan army soldier
37,400: Soldiers in Afghan army
62,000: Afghan police officers
70,000: Authorized strength of Afghan army as of December 2008
82,000: Authorized strength of Afghan police as of December 2008
SOURCE: Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board
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Afghanistan may release suspected Canadian terrorist
Don Martin CanWest News Service Wednesday, June 20, 2007
KABUL, Afghanistan -- The murky, mysterious case of an alleged Calgary suicide bomber could become even more twisted after Sohail Qureshi is released from jail here in the Afghan capital.
Reliable sources close to the Afghan authorities say the 24-year-old University of Calgary computer science graduate could be released as early as this week on what qualifies as a form of bail in this war-ravaged country.
But there are hints he may not be allowed to return to Canada immediately because authorities have apparently not yet ruled out the possibility he could be charged in the future if fresh evidence is unearthed. Qureshi was apprehended on terrorist suspicions in May and held in custody on the outskirts of the city, but was never charged with any crime.
Arrested while sitting in a taxi in a remote and dangerous section of the capital, he was accused of terrorist training in Pakistan and plotting to follow his suicide bomber brother's footsteps into the afterlife. His notebooks had details about a German military base and a list of contacts in Pakistan.
The Canadian Embassy here, which has maintained regular diplomatic contact with Qureshi since his incarceration, refused to confirm the imminent release, citing the need to respect his right to personal privacy.
But he might not be totally vindicated yet, others warn. "Here in Afghanistan we sometimes convict on the basis of no evidence and release them when there is evidence," one official noted wryly.
Those who have visited Qureshi in a Kabul detention centre found him painfully quiet about his experience and describe him as closely resembling the stereotypical "computer geek" image.
His bizarre trek from the Calgary suburbs started when a local imam was asked by Qureshi's father, a physician, to provide counselling to the troubled man.
Sheikh Alaa Elsayed contacted police after Qureshi disappeared overseas, worried about the ominous implications of the man's use of the word "jihad" during their discussion. "He did mention something that 'It's an obligation upon me to defend my brothers and sisters, which pretty much is putting me shoulder to shoulder . . . maybe fighting back,'" he recalled. But Elsayed added: "Nothing in the connotation or indication of anything to do with suicide bombing."
A recent Maclean's magazine article quoted unnamed government sources in Kabul insisting Qureshi was "part of a larger network in Canada that is supporting the Afghan insurgency."
His release would be unexpected in light of those allegations, along with signs that a case was being built during his prolonged incarceration. The release would also come at a time of heightened tension in the Afghanistan capital, as Taliban terrorists attempt to shake up civilians here with random bombings in what used to be the most peaceful part of this violent country.
On Sunday, the city was placed on yellow alert for the first time this year after a suicide bomber, disguised as an officer, boarded a police bus and detonated a bomb, killing 35 police and civilians. Diplomatic and United Nations staff immediately had their movements limited in the aftermath.
Paradoxically, the bombing occurred within a stone's throw of Kabul's law-enforcement headquarters, whose aim is to prevent suicide bombings. It's also where the detained Qureshi was interrogated.
Sources could not explain why it could take so long to free Qureshi after reports that he had confessed to a planned suicide bombing were retracted.
His incarceration triggered a brouhaha in Calgary's backlash-fearing Muslim community. The issue was also raised in the House of Commons.
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay refused to comment on the case and Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided not to raise the matter during this month's meetings with the Afghan president, Hamid Karsai.
The diplomatic silence was a particularly unusual, given the hue and cry raised by the Conservative government with Chinese officials following Huseyin Celil's arrest and conviction on terrorism charges.
During his visit to China last year, an impatient Harper signalled he was willing to gamble on trade consequences to protect the rights of an individual he felt was wrongly detained.
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Missiles kill 32 militants in Pakistan tribal region
Tue Jun 19, 2:42 PM ET
MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (Reuters) - A missile attack, possibly launched by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, killed at least 32 pro-Taliban militants in a Pakistani tribal region near the border on Tuesday, Pakistani officials said.
The missiles targeted a suspected training base in a village near the mountainous Datta Khel district, 60 km (40 miles) west of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media, told Reuters.
Intelligence officials said some foreigners were among those killed, raising the possibility that al Qaeda fighters might have also been present. North Waziristan is a known refuge for remnants of Osama bin Laden's network.
"There was a cluster of three houses and a tent which were hit. There were about 45 people in that area," a senior government official told Reuters.
Army spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said there had been an explosion in the area, but he denied it was caused by missiles and added that the army had not carried out any operations there either.
"It wasn't a missile attack," Arshad said, adding that initial reports suggested the explosion occurred while the militants were making a bomb.
Such explanations have been offered in the past when U.S. forces in Afghanistan have launched strikes on targets in Pakistani territory.
The government is sensitive to any report of foreign forces carrying out operations in Pakistani territory or airspace.
According to intelligence officials and residents, however, a U.S. pilotless drone aircraft carried out the attack at around 10:30 a.m. (0530 GMT).
It was not known whether any leading Taliban or al Qaeda figures were targeted in the attack.
Last September, the Pakistan government struck a controversial peace deal with militants in North Waziristan.
Under the terms of the treaty, foreign fighters were bound either to surrender or be expelled. Critics said the pact created a sanctuary for militants in North Waziristan.
President Pervez Musharraf met U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte along with Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher on Saturday. Admiral William J. Fallon, chief of the U.S. Central Command, held a separate meeting with the Pakistani leader the same day.
Cross-border incursions by the Taliban militants have long been a bone of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan, two U.S. allies.
Western and Afghan forces have had a series of successes against senior Taliban figures in recent months, thanks in part to Pakistan's cooperation, though Islamabad is wary of taking any credit for fear of a backlash at home.
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AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN: Repatriation obstacles facing key province of Nangarhar
QUETTA, 20 June 2007 (IRIN) - For Abdul Quados, a resident of the Katwai refugee camp in Pakistan’s sparsely populated Balochistan Province, returning to his home province of Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan is simply not an option.
“I won’t return to my homeland. There is no security there,” Quados, 47, said at his shoe shop outside the camp, 300km south of the provincial capital, Quetta, where he is able to earn just over US$150 a month to support his family.
“I certainly can’t earn that kind of money if I return. How will I take care of my family?” the father-of-nine asked.
That is a question often asked by his neighbours, many of whom hail from Nangarhar as well, but have lived in Pakistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion.
Ajab Khan, 36, who has lived in Pakistan for 25 years and shares similar concerns, said his family discussed the possibility of returning, only to decide against it after a brief visit across the porous dust-ridden frontier last year.
“When I got back, it was clear we couldn’t return. Things haven’t improved at all,” Khan said.
Such sentiments are not unusual amongst the over two million Afghans living in Pakistan today, but point to a much larger challenge facing the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the international aid community: If Afghans are to return to their homeland, much more rehabilitation and development work will be needed.
More than five years after the collapse of the Taliban, Afghans have grown impatient over issues such as jobs, shelter, insecurity and access to land - all areas fundamental for their return and well-being.
According to the 3 May 2007 Registration of Afghans in Pakistan report, produced jointly by the Pakistani government and the office of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the vast majority (87 percent) of Afghans in Pakistan said they had no plans to return any time soon.
The Nangarhar challenge
In Nangarhar - a largely agricultural province of 7,616sqkm adjacent to the Pakistani border and where most Afghans living in Pakistan come from - that challenge will prove even stronger, aid workers said.
Of the 2,153,088 registered Afghans in Pakistan today, 451,200 or 21 percent come from Nangarhar - making it a key province in the overall repatriation effort, the same report revealed.
“Nangarhar is a major area of origin for Afghans still in Pakistan,” Vivian Tan, a UNHCR spokesperson in Islamabad told IRIN. “There’s no doubt a lot needs to be done if these Afghans choose to return,” she said, calling for further efforts.
“Returnees need stability and security if they are to stay in their home areas. If return is unsustainable, they will go back to Pakistan or wherever they can make a living,” Tan said.
Since the repatriation of Afghans began in March 2002, of the more than three million Afghans who have left Pakistan, over 600,000 have returned to Nangarhar, only to find a less than hospitable environment there, and despite the presence of a sizable aid community on the ground and the free distribution of land by the government to facilitate resettlement.
No water, schools
Less than 40 percent of Nangarhar’s 1.2 million inhabitants have access to clean drinking water, while the province’s education and health infrastructure is particularly poor.
In 2006 Mohammad Bashir and his family returned from Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. They were given a piece of land to build on at Shaikh Mesri camp in the north of Nangarhar Province - a township now being erected for landless returnees.
“There is no water in Shaikh Mesri,” Bashir said, who now buys water from passing tankers coming in from the provincial capital, Jalalabad. Another returnee who built a house in the same camp cited the lack of schools:
“UNICEF has set up four tents here which have been used by hundreds of boys as a high school. Girls have nowhere to study,” said Mohammadullah.
Members of the aid community are aware of these issues: “The international community needs to focus efforts and funds on developing the one township [Shaikh Mesri] that exists,” Tan said, noting the need for water, roads, schools and health clinics.
Unemployment, high transport costs
As for jobs, they too remain scarce, with unemployment remaining a common complaint amongst Nangarhar returnees.
“Lack of access to jobs is another major obstacle to return,” Tan added, citing a strong need for vocational training and micro-credit projects to enable returnees to rebuild their lives.
More than 70 percent of Afghans living in Pakistan are illiterate and most returnees are unskilled, making it increasingly difficult for them to find jobs.
Meanwhile, many returnees in Nangarhar point out a number of other problems, which they say have undermined their living conditions after repatriating from Pakistan.
Mawlawi Gul Rasool, a construction worker in Jalalabad, said due to poor transport links between his village and Jalalabad, he ends up spending most of his salary just getting to work.
“I earn 150 Afghani [$3] a day and spend 80 Afghani [$1.60] on the daily return journey to Jalalabad,” Rasool said.
Lack of optimism
The provincial capital, home to some 500,000 inhabitants, has a sporadic electricity supply, and areas outside the city fare even worse.
Such realities have left many Afghans in Nangarhar and beyond with a nostalgic feeling about their lives back in Pakistan as refugees.
“Our lives were better in Pakistan. At least there we had power and gas,” one returnee grumbled.
And while Nangarhar’s director of refugee and returnee affairs, Hassan Shinwary, sympathised with the plight of such returnees, he said the Afghan government was doing everything it could to help them.
“We are doing everything in our capacity to help the re-integration of Afghan returnees. Yet, we should remember that Afghanistan is a poor, war-ravaged and underdeveloped country,” Shinwary said. “It will take time before the problems of returnees are sorted out.”
But for many Afghans on the other side of the border looking in, that time is slowly running out. After years of promises, the situation is increasingly less appealing, with many Afghans taking a less than optimistic view of their country’s peace and stability.
“We do not know what is going to happen six months from now,” Nematullah, a Nangarhar resident, shrugged.
“The Taliban are becoming stronger every day and we don’t trust the Americans. They will be here as long as it is in their interest to stay. [Then] They will fly like pigeons and abandon us as they have in the past.”
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Pentagon sends decks of archeological cards to troops in Iraq, Afghanistan
June 19, 2007 -(AP) via Fort Frances Times, Canada
The Pentagon is sending another deck of playing cards to troops in Iraq, this time showing some of the country’s most precious archeological sites instead of the most-wanted people.
Some 40,000 new decks of playing cards will be sent to troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Laurie Rush, an archeologist at Fort Drum in New York, says it’s part of an awareness program to encourage troops to help preserve the heritage of those countries.
It’s aimed at making troops aware they shouldn’t pick up and bring home artifacts and also to avoid causing damage to sites.
In one incident after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. troops built a helicopter pad on the ruins of Babylon and filled their sandbags with archeological fragments from the ancient city.
Each card in the deck shows an artifact or site or gives a tip on how to help preserve antiquities.
‘‘Drive around, not over, archeological sites,’’ says the five of clubs.
‘‘This site has survived 17 centuries. Will it and others survive you?’’ asks the seven of clubs, which pictures Ctesiphon Arch in Iraq.
The majority of cards are about Iraq, but some shows sites in Afghanistan. The king of diamonds shows Buddha statuary at Hadda.
In another program, U.S. pilots have received training in recognizing and identifying ruins, cemeteries and other sites so they don’t accidentally bomb them.
In another, soldiers are simulating incidents such as practising what they would do if they were taking hostile fire from within an archeological ruin.
‘‘Obviously we have to put our soldiers safety first,’’ Rush said. But they would consider whether there might be a way to return fire without harming the site.
The military sent a 55-card deck to troops Iraq in 2003 with pictures and information about the most-wanted former senior government officials, distributing them to thousands of U.S. troops in the field to help them recognize and find the officials.
The Archaeological Institute of America reported on the program in the July-August issue of its magazine.
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U.S.: Afghan Jews Keep Traditions Alive Far From Home
NEW YORK, June 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- More than 200 Jewish families of Afghan descent live in the New York City borough of Queens -- the largest group of Afghan Jews outside of Israel. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, there is officially only one Jew left, Zebolan Simanto, a 45-year old caretaker of a synagogue in Kabul.
The focal point for Afghan Jews in New York is the congregation Anshei Shalom, which is also a spiritual home to Jews from Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Russia, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.
Binyamin Pinchasi, a jeweler by trade, was born and raised in Israel. He has never been to Afghanistan, but both of his parents grew up in Kabul. They still have fond memories of growing up in the Afghan capital more than 50 years ago.
"We never had persecution in Afghanistan. And the government was very helpful to us."
Pinchasi, who appears to be in his early 30s and speaks a little Dari -- which along with Pashto is one of Afghanistan's two main languages -- says he feels a spiritual connection to the country, though only a faint one.
"Some connection yes, a little bit," he said. "I think if we go to visit there, we're going to feel some more."
Like most congregants at Anshei Shalom, Pinchasi helps support Simanto, the last Jew in Kabul. This year -- like every year -- they sent Simanto a package for Passover on April 1 that was nearly 27 kilograms of grape juice, matzo and oil -- all kosher -- that cost $650 to ship to Kabul.
Pinchasi, who came to New York as a teenager, has lived in New York for about 13 years. Anshei Shalom, he says, is the place where he finds comfort and spiritual guidance.
"We're coming here almost every Sabbath, every Saturday," he said. "During the week we're coming here at least three or four times...sometimes it's every day. You feel it like you see all the people, all the [Afghans], you feel the tradition by the praying, and it's different."
Jonathan Abraham is also a member of the Anshei Shalom Synagogue. His parents left Afghanistan in the late 1940s. He was born in Italy and raised in Israel. Abraham speaks neither Dari nor Pashto, but he comes to the synagogue every week. Sermons here are conducted in Hebrew, which he speaks fluently.
"The idea is to carry on the tradition that for many-many years our parents and their parents tried to preserve and keep in Afghanistan where they were kind of isolated between a lot of Muslim countries and Russian [Soviet] countries that didn't always encouraged them to keep their tradition," he said.
Abraham says that when living in a free country where you can openly practice your religion it is even more important to keep traditions alive to ensure that the hardships one's ancestors experienced were not in vain.
Abraham says that he would like to visit Afghanistan one day when the country is not so troubled. But he says that Afghanistan was only a stop in the Jews' travels around the world.
"Afghanistan was just a station for the Jews who were exiled from Israel thousands of years ago," he said. "So, we weren't really Afghans by definition, we just lived over there. We respected the rules of the country and leaders and the king, and whoever was in charge. We are very grateful for the time we had over there but right now we're in a different place."
Jack Abraham, who was born in Afghanistan and lived there until the age of 11, is the president of Anshei Shalom. He claims that it is not the only Afghan synagogue in the United States. Abraham says that each Sunday between 30 and 40 people attend the service.
'Winds Of Change'
Approximately that many -- all men -- were present during the service on June 17. There are separate compartments for women on both sides of the spacious and well air-conditioned prayer room but women, Abraham says, usually do not attend Sunday services, they come for prayers separately.
"They don't have to pray with us, they can pray at home, they don't even need to pray," he said. "In our religion the women have gotten a higher, much higher level of spirituality than men because they give birth. As such, they're not required to pray like men."
Anshei Shalom is in a lush, almost suburban area of Queens. But they've moved three times, Abraham says, since initially establishing the first synagogue in a basement in 1976. The current one-story building has housed the synagogue since 1983.
Afghanistan's Jews, Abraham says, began moving out of the country long before the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.
"There was a wind of change; we felt the wind of change before the Soviets came in," he said. "We were feeling the wind of change in the 1960s. The changes were that the government was sending their students to schools in Russia [Soviet Union]. My mother is Bukharian, we ran away from the Russian Revolution to Baku [Azerbaijan], to Turkmenistan, to Bukhara [Uzbekistan], and then they passed the Amu Darya River back to Afghanistan. My father is Afghan; my mother is Bukharian. So, when we saw in the 1950s and 60s [that] Afghan students from a Muslim country [were] going to Russia [Soviet Union], we knew that the wind of change was going to come. Those kids were going to be somehow or another infused with socialism and communism and repression. So, our people started leaving already."
Abraham, who came to the United States to study in 1962 and decided to stay, says that he is very proud of his Afghan heritage. Abraham speaks fluent Dari and has a special place in his heart for the only remaining synagogue in Kabul -- it was built by his father in 1964.
Feeling At Home
"We never had persecution in Afghanistan," he said. "And the government was very helpful to us. If there was any kind of a thing happening out on the street, they would inform the Jews 'Take it easy, don't go to work' on these particular days because people were talking negative, and they would put police outside of our doors for protection. So, I'm looking at it as being fortunate, I'm grateful, I'm proud, I've never, ever hid the fact that I was born in Afghanistan. Never."
Abraham's father relocated to the United States in 1969, before the synagogue in Queens was established. After the Taliban government fell in Afghanistan in 2001, Abraham paid for the partial renovation of the Kabul synagogue, which by then had fallen into poor condition.
He says that the caretaker of the synagogue, Simanto, does not want to relocate to the United States but would rather carry on as the last member of his religion in Afghanistan.
"I talk to him but [Kabul is the] place [where] he feels at home," he said. "He's by himself, all by himself in a compound over there and he lives a life, breathes the air, he is totally alone, all by himself in that land."
Abraham says that he talks to Simanto several times a year and that they will continue to support him as long as he needs help. After the repairs were done three years ago Simanto no longer had to climb into the synagogue through a window.
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First-ever telemedicine system launched in Afghanistan
www.chinaview.cn 2007-06-20 20:03:19
KABUL, June 20 (Xinhua) -- The first-ever telemedicine system in volatile Afghanistan was launched in capital Kabul on Wednesday to improve health services.
The system, supported by an Afghan leading cellphone operator Roshan, will provide hospitals in Afghanistan with real-time access to specialist diagnosis, treatment and training expertise from abroad.
Afghan Minister for Communications Amirzai Sangin formally launched the system, which is linked to Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi city of Pakistan.
In the first phase, the system would link the Kabul-based French Medical Institute for Children (FMIC) to Aga Khan University Hospital, enabling access to a broad array of radiology expertise provided by the foreign hospital, he said.
Subsequent phases will link Afghanistan's major regional hospitals to the FMIC, which will be connected with some medical institutions in Europe and North America, he added.
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Armed men crossed into Afghanistan from Iran: Police
Wednesday June 20, 2007 (0807 PST) PakTribune.com, Pakistan
HERAT: More than 20 armed men crossed the border from Iran into Afghanistan and entered a town, a police commander said in the first such blunt claim by a high-ranking Afghan official.
Colonel Rahmatullah Safi - police commander in the three western provinces of Farah, Badghis and Herat - said according to intelligence information, the group of armed militants crossed the border Monday in Farah's Anardara district.
"Two pickup trucks with over 20 armed people riding in them crossed the border from Iran to Afghanistan," Safi said in his Border Police headquarters, 15 km outside Herat city.
He said according to intelligence information, the men were heading towards Zirkoh area in Farah province, which has been the site of escalating militant activity in recent months.
Safi said the police did not have the opportunity to track down the vehicles but said he had informed President Hamid Karzai and international forces in the country.
"I can say with certainty that the vehicles came from Iranian soil, and if they came from Iran with ammunitions and explosives, of course, they are supported by the Iranian government."
"If the Iranian border forces really want to stop them, they can," he added. "They have one outpost every five to 10 km."
Safi's report of the infiltration comes at a time when US officials have linked Iran's government to large shipments of weaponry to militants in Afghanistan, but Karzai and other Afghan officials have ruled out Iran's involvement and Tehran has also strongly denied funnelling weapons to Afghan militants.
Safi also revealed that during fighting Saturday night between Afghan police and insurgents in the Shindand district of Herat province, which left nine suspected Taliban and two police officers dead, police found the remains of Iranian-made bullets.
He also showed DPA five anti-tank mines that had Iranian markings, which he said were seized at the Afghan-Iran border about two weeks ago.
Safi said his police forces had information that former mujahideen fighters, who forced Soviet forces from Afghanistan and later plunged the country into a bloody civil war, were receiving training in Iranian territory and were sent back to Afghanistan to carry out attacks against the government and international forces.
In April, US officials said Iranian-made weapons had showed up in the hands of the Taliban. The Pentagon's top general, Peter Pace, said NATO forces in Afghanistan had seized Iranian-made mortars and explosives destined for the Taliban.
Last week, a top US State Department official charged in a CNN interview that the US has "irrefutable evidence" that Iran is arming Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Although not mimicking the strong nature of Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns' remarks, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said a day later that large weapons' shipments were crossing from Iran into Afghanistan and it was unlikely Tehran did not know about them.
"Given the quantities that we're seeing, it is difficult to believe that it is associated with smuggling or the drug business or that it's taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government," Gates said.
Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, however, rejected Iran's involvement in supplying militants in a media interview, arguing that Kabul and Tehran have good relations and a stable Afghanistan is in Iran's interest. He said there was evidence weapons were coming from Iran but suggested they were from the Al Qaeda terrorist network or drug traffickers.
Gates also mentioned the good relations between the Afghan and Iranian government. "Whether Iran is trying to play both sides of the street, hedge their bets, what their motives are, other than causing trouble for us, I don't know," the US defence chief said.
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Vancouver man sentenced to 4 years in Dubai
ARMINA LIGAYA June 20, 2007 Globe and Mail
With a report from Canadian Press, and Brian Laghi in Ottawa
VANCOUVER -- The family and friends of anti-narcotics worker Bert Tatham, facing four years in a Dubai prison on drug charges, hope he will be released in the fall when pardons are granted around the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Mr. Tatham's girlfriend, Sara Gilmer, an elementary-school substitute teacher in Victoria, was "gutted" when she got the late-night phone call from his parents with the news of his sentence. The couple had been planning their future together, only to have it put on hold by his arrest two months ago.
"It's ridiculous. ... Especially under the circumstances of his work in Afghanistan where he was working with these substances on a daily basis and doing a really good thing for the world. And he gets punished for that," she said.
Ms. Gilmer, 28, hasn't seen Mr. Tatham since a January reunion in Thailand. Now, she's focusing on getting his name on the amnesty list, in the hopes of seeing him in the fall. "I'm counting on it," she said.
Mr. Tatham, 35, was arrested April 23 in Dubai on his way home to Vancouver, after airport officials found two poppy bulbs and less than a gram of hashish residue in the corner of his pants pocket, which his family says got onto his clothing because of his job.
Mr. Tatham was working for the U.S. State Department in Afghanistan for the Poppy Elimination Program. He spent the past year educating poppy farmers on how to get out of the business.
Judges in Dubai ruled early yesterday that Mr. Tatham was guilty and would spend four years in prison, the full sentence under the country's zero-tolerance drug policy.
Mr. Tatham's father, Charlie Tatham, an engineer who lives near Collingwood, Ont., says he feels "ill" about his son's sentence, especially since he spent a year fighting the drug trade in Kandahar.
It's a verdict their family didn't expect, said Bert's older brother Chuck, who lives in Aurora, Ont.
"We've maintained hope they would acknowledge ... the work he'd been exposed to, and they would have released him," he said.
Just last week, about 300 prisoners convicted of similar crimes in Dubai were pardoned, Bert's brother Charlie Tatham said. "That in itself was extremely frustrating because [Bert] had been there for over a month already, but because he hadn't been [convicted], he couldn't be considered."
Sharif Emara, a member of the Dubai-based legal team defending Mr. Tatham, expressed disappointment at the verdict, adding Mr. Tatham's lawyer, Saeed al-Gailani, will appeal the sentence within 15 days.
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay told reporters after Question Period yesterday that he could not comment on the case.
"But what I can tell you is that we've had contact with Mr. Tatham and his family almost from the moment that he was taken into custody," Mr. MacKay said.
"We'll continue to do so. You know the United Arab Emirates is a country that we have very good lines of communication and working relationship with on a number of files, diplomatic and otherwise. So we're monitoring the case closely and we'll provide diplomatic and consular service where we can and when we're asked."
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Pak-Afghan cooperation improving, says Wardak
BRUSSELS, June 18 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak has said that cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan to stop terrorists' infiltration was improving.
"With the help of NATO and the international community, our cooperation with Pakistan has improved and we are trying to have more coordination as far as the borders are concerned," Wardak told a news conference in Brussels, Germany.
The defence minister also briefed NATO foreign ministers on the security situation in the country. "This cooperation is in its initial phases but we do hope that the joint cooperation of ISAF, Afghanistan and Pakistan will bear fruit and I think we will be more able to entrap the flow of the terrorists," he was reported as saying.
Regarding the involvement of Iranian government in provision of arms to Taliban, the minister said "there is definitely evidence that weapons and other supplies are coming from that side of the border (Iran), but it has not been identified if it is the drug mafia or the al-Qaeda or some other elements".
Afghanistan had cordial relations with Iran, said Wardak, adding the neighbour had helped Afghanistan in its reconstruction. "We do believe that stability, peace and prosperity in Afghanistan is in the interests of Iran and also the whole region," the minister asserted.
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Governor wants probe into madressa attack
KABUL, June 18 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Demanding investigations into the killing of madressa children in a Coalition airstrike, Governor of the southeastern Paktika province Dr. Akram Khpalwak said he was not consulted before the raid.
Seven children were killed in an air raid by the US-led Coalition troops on a madressa in Yahyakhel district of the southeastern Paktika province on Sunday.
The Coalition forces' statement said they had conducted the raid after approval and credible intelligence about the presence of terrorist activity at the compound.
However, the governor categorically rejected they were consulted before the military operation when Pajhwok contacted him for comments.
"We can't tolerate the killing of innocent civilians and demand investigations into the incident," said Khpalwak who added seven terrorist had also been eliminated in the raid.
He said he had visited the district this morning along with other government officials and met people to get their views about the tragic occurrence.
He said investigations must be focused on where the terrorists were hiding and how and why the ill-fated children got there.
In charge of crime investigation in Paktika Col. Shah Wali Sarozawal told Pajhwok the targeted madressa was located in area between Yahyakhel and Yousafkhel districts.
He said the seminary was established and named after a former Taliban commander Asadullah Khadali. Besides imparting religious teachings, the madressa used to provide shelter to 'terrorists' from time to time.
Maj. Gen. Abdul Khaliq, commander of the 203 Thunder Corps, also said the operation was conducted without their permission or consultation.
Speaking to this news agency, Khaliq said Coalition troops should confer with the Afghan police and military before going for any such action in the area.
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First-ever photo exhibition in Kunduz
KUNDUZ CITY, June 18 (Pajhwok Afghan News): The first-ever photo exhibition was organised in the northern Kunduz province on Sunday.
The exhibition titled, Today's Afghanistan in Picture, was jointly organised by a local and a German magazines.
Nearly 150 photographs submitted by seventeen photojournalists from Kunduz, Baghlan, Takhar and Kabul provinces were put on display during the one-day exhibition held at the Media-Tech Centre.
Abdullah Rasuli, head of the centre, told Pajhwok Afghan News 11 people, including professional photojournalists, performed as judges who declared Samiullah Ayubi, reporter of Sada-i-Azadi Radio in Kunduz, as the first prize winner of the competition. Farid Ahmad of Radio Subh Bakhair was announced the runner-up.
In a chat with this news agency, the winner Samiullah said that he was not a professional photographer. He said the picture, which won the first prize, was taken by him while preparing a report on women in the province.
Rasuli said the centre would continue organizing such exhibitions as they were encouraged by the response from journalists during this maiden event.
The Media-Tech Centre, funded by German-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs), has been working for promotion of media in the northern zone over the previous four years.
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WB pledges $133m for administrative reforms
KABUL, June 17 (Pajhwok Afghan News): The World Bank will provide $133.8 million for implementation of administrative reforms and capacity building programme in the country.
In this connection, an agreement was signed between World Bank's Country Director Alastair Mckechnie and Finance Minister Anwarul Haq Ahadi here on Sunday.
Speaking on the occasion, Ahadi said $80 million would be spent on administrative reforms, $33.4 million on strengthening of financial management system and 20.4 million on promotion and improvement of civil services.
The amount would be given to the government for onward spending, said the minister.
He said the ministry had launched a programme for computerisation of all ministries with $20.4 million assistance from the World Bank.
On this occasion, WB director promised continuous support for Afghanistan. He said the bank was likely to increase its annual grant to $316 million from the existing $200 million this year.
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Japan pledges $1.2m for welfare projects in Bamyan
KABUL, June 16 (Pajhwok Afghan News): The government of Japan has pledged $1.2 million for welfare projects in central Bamyan province.
Hussain Ali Yaqoobi, an official of the rural rehabilitation department, told Pajhwok Afghan News the amount would be spent through regional councils in the province.
In the northern Faryab province, the Norwegian provincial reconstruction team (PRT) has constructed a dining hall, rooms for attendants of patients, separate toilets for male and female patients, treatment centre for addicts and a medical store at the Maimana Civil Hospital.
Completed at the cost of $700,000, the projects were handed over to officials on Saturday.
Public health director Dr Abdul Ali Halim appreciated the assistance and said it would go a long way in addressing the problems faced by patients and their attendants at the hospital.
In the southeastern Paktia province, work was started on reconstruction of a school destroyed during exchange of fire with Pakistani troops last month.
The school is being constructed by the US-led PRT. The construction work will be completed at the cost of $66,000.
In the northern Samagan province, a bridge linking the provincial capital of Aibak with Dara-i-Souf district, was inaugurated on Saturday.
The construction cost amounting $147,000 was provided by the World Bank. Construction of the bridge was completed in nine months, said engineer Nooruallah Hakimi, official of United Nation Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in Samangan.
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