Bomb hits U.S. Embassy convoy in Kabul
By FISNIK ABRASHI, Associated Press Writer
KABUL, Afghanistan - A car bomb exploded near a three-vehicle U.S. Embassy convoy on a busy road in Kabul on Monday, wounding several people, one seriously, officials said.
The blast, witnessed by an Associated Press reporter, badly damaged the front of one black SUV that was shunted to the other side of the road. First aid was administered to at least two people at the scene.
The other two vehicles in convoy also were damaged, close to the burning wreckage of the car where the bomb was apparently planted.
Joe Mellott, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, said several people in the convoy were wounded, one seriously. He did not identify them or say whether they were Americans. He said the U.S. ambassador, Ronald Neumann, was not in the convoy.
An initial alert over an embassy warning system said, "a U.S. Embassy convoy was struck by a suicide bomber in the vicinity of the U.S. Embassy," according to an AP reporter who heard the alert over the phone.
Mellott said the warning was initial incoming information, and it wasn't immediately clear if it was a suicide bomber who carried out the attack.
The bombing took place about 2 miles from the embassy on a road often targeted in bombings and rocket attacks. The road leads out of Kabul and to the U.S. base at Bagram.
The AP reporter who witnessed the attack happened to be traveling in a vehicle about 50 to 70 yards behind the convoy when the bomb went off.
U.S. Embassy security teams initially prevented Afghan police, NATO soldiers and journalists from getting close to the vehicles.
Late last month, a suicide bomber killed 23 people outside the U.S. base at Bagram during a visit by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. In September, a suicide bombing near the U.S. Embassy killed 16 people, including two U.S. soldiers.
Afghanistan has seen an upsurge in Iraq-style violence over the past year as militant supporters of the former Taliban regime have stepped up attacks and increasingly embraced new deadly tactics such as suicide and roadside bombings.
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Kidnapped reporter saw decapitation
By MARIA SANMINIATELLI, Associated Press Writer Mon Mar 19, 4:27 PM ET
ROME - An Italian journalist held for two weeks in Afghanistan said after his release Monday that he saw his captors cut off the head of one of the two Afghans kidnapped with him and thought he would be next to die.
In an interview with RAI Tg3 News, Daniele Mastrogiacomo described a harrowing experience. "I saw him be decapitated," he said.
He said the kidnappers threw the Afghan to his knees and suffocated him in the sand as they cut his head off.
"Then they wiped the knife on his clothes. I was shaking. Obviously I thought 'it's my turn now,'" Mastrogiacomo said.
The fate of the other Afghan who had been accompanying the journalist was not immediately known.
In an earlier audio posted on the Web site of his newspaper, La Repubblica, Mastrogiacomo said he slept in 15 different prisons that were "as small as sheep pens." His hands and feet were chained, and he was made to walk for miles in the desert, he said.
Mastrogiacomo said knowledge of the support of his colleagues and countrymen gave him strength.
"I knew that Italy was supporting me and that was the only comfort in the most desperate moments, when I feared I was going to be killed at anytime soon," he said. "This is the most beautiful moment of my life."
Mastrogiacomo, 52, who had worked for the newspaper in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and elsewhere since 2002, was kidnapped March 5 along with the two Afghans while traveling in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility.
The journalist arrived Monday at a hospital in Lashkar Gah, in southern Afghanistan, where the Italian-led aid group Emergency is based, Italian Premier Romano Prodi said.
"He is in good health and I expect that in a few days, we will be able to hug him," Prodi said.
Prodi said securing Mastrogiacomo's release "was not simple."
Ezio Mauro, editor of La Repubblica, said he knew of no ransom paid in exchange for Mastrogiacomo's release. But questions began to surface about how the journalist's freedom had been secured.
Alfredo Mantovano, an opposition senator, pointed to reports in Afghan media that five Taliban extremists were released in exchange for Mastrogiacomo. Officials in Afghanistan had not confirmed the reports.
Italian troops are in Afghanistan "to help with the country's reconstruction, achieving that also by combating terrorism," Mantovano was quoted as saying by the ANSA agency. "Now it turns out that terrorists are released in exchange for the release of an Italian. There are no known precedents for that in Italian missions abroad."
Ettore Francesco Sequi, the Italian ambassador to Afghanistan, said in Kabul that Mastrogiacomo would arrive in the Afghan capital Tuesday and leave for Italy shortly afterward.
"I believe that there has been team work by all the Italian authorities and Afghan authorities, both institutions and (people), like Emergency, which has played a great role." Sequi said.
Associated Press writers Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Marta Falconi in Rome contributed to this story.
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Karzai hopeful of journalist's release
BERLIN - An Italian journalist who was kidnapped in Afghanistan earlier this month is expected to be freed soon, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Monday.
Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a reporter for Italian daily La Repubblica, was abducted along with two Afghans traveling with him on March 5 in southern Helmand province's Nad Ali district. Taliban insurgents have claimed responsibility.
"On the release of the Italian journalist in the hands of the captors — whoever they are — I hope the matter is resolved today," Karzai told reporters after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. "He should either be free by now or should be in the process of being freed."
Mastrogiacomo appeared in a video shown on Italian television last week appealing to Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi to work for his release. Prodi said no efforts would be spared in trying to secure his freedom.
Karzai said Monday "we did what we could to help with the release of the Italian journalist." He did not give details.
Mastrogiacomo, 52, has worked since 2002 as a staff correspondent in Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East and Iraq.
La Repubblica has said that Mastrogiacomo was born in Karachi, Pakistan, where his father was an engineer. He holds dual Italian-Swiss citizenship, but was traveling on his Italian passport, La Repubblica said.
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Afghanistan's silent plague of AIDS
By Carlotta Gall The International Herald Tribune Sunday, March 18, 2007
KABUL: Sitting and eating quietly on his father's lap, the 18-month-old boy was oblivious to the infection running through his veins.
But his father, a burly farmer, now a widower and father of four, knew only too well. It was the same one that killed his wife, the boy's mother, four months ago. The man started to cry.
"When my wife died, I thought, well, it is from God, but at least I have him," he said. "Then I learned he is sick too. I asked if there is medicine and the doctors said no. They said, 'Just trust in God.'"
Long cloistered by two decades of war and then the strict Islamic rule of the Taliban, Afghanistan was for many years shielded from the worst ravages of the AIDS pandemic. Not anymore.
HIV and AIDS have quietly arrived in this land of a thousand calamities. Still, little is known of the disease in Afghanistan. It remains almost completely underground, shrouded in ignorance and stigma as the government struggles with the help of U.S. and NATO forces to rebuild the country amid a new offensive by Taliban insurgents.
The father of the boy, Afghanistan's youngest known HIV sufferer, agreed to speak to a reporter only on condition their names and other details be omitted. He has not even told his family what disease his son has.
He believes that his wife contracted it through a blood transfusion she received during surgery in Pakistan years ago. The few surveys that exist suggest that Afghanistan has a low prevalence of HIV — there are only 69 recorded cases of people contracting the virus, three of whom have died. Yet health officials are warning that the true incidence of HIV and AIDS is much higher.
"That figure is absolutely unreliable, even dangerous," said Nilufar Egamberdi, a World Bank consultant on HIV/AIDS. The World Health Organization has estimated that 1,000 to 2,000 Afghans are infected, but Egamberdi said that even those numbers were "not even close to reality."
Saifur Rehman, director of the national AIDS control program in the Ministry of Health, agreed. Afghanistan, a deeply religious and conservative country with strict social mores — sex outside marriage is against the law — may still be less at risk to the spread of the disease than other places, some argue.
But international and Afghan health experts warn that the country has a unique set of vulnerabilities — poor education and government services, the mass movement of people, and the sudden influx of aid, commerce and outsiders since the U.S. invasion in October 2001.
Afghanistan borders countries with the fastest-growing incidence of AIDS in the world — Russia, China and India. Its other neighbors, Pakistan and Iran, have high levels of drug addiction and growing HIV populations, as does Central Asia to the north, experts said.
Experience in other countries has shown that AIDS can easily cross borders, carried by migrants or returning refugees who picked up drug habits or had sex with infected people in those countries. And rates of drug addiction are rising in Afghanistan itself, along with its booming opium crop and the growing availability of heroin.
But even though the Afghan government and senior religious leaders have won praise for making the problem of HIV a national priority, they are struggling to manage many problems.
"In Afghanistan, all the traditional risk factors for rapid spread of HIV exist concurrently," said Fred Hartman of Management Sciences for Health, a nongovernmental organization in Boston that is working in Afghanistan. He has worked as technical director of Reach, an American-financed program to expand health care to Afghanistan's rural communities, and advises the government on HIV/AIDS.
The return home of more than two million refugees has played a part in the spread of the disease, said Renu Chahil- Graf, regional coordinator for Unaids, the United Nations program, who was visiting Pul-I-Charkhi prison in Kabul, where a testing clinic has opened.
Some of those returning to Afghanistan from working abroad have drug habits, and they spread AIDS by contact with spouses, prostitutes and street children, Rehman said.
Afghanistan, the biggest opium- and heroin-producing country in the world, has nearly one million drug users, according to UN estimates. Most users still smoke the drug rather than inject it.
But five years ago, injectable heroin hit the streets of Kabul, and intravenous drug use is increasing, with an estimated 19,000 intravenous drug users here, according to the World Bank. Addicts are not difficult to find, living in bombed-out buildings in the old part of the city and in Kota-e-Sangi, a neighborhood on the south side.
They are homeless or returned refugees fallen on hard times, mostly young men, said Miodrag Atanasijevic, a coordinator for Doctors of the World, a French aid group that runs a clean needles program in Kabul.
"It will become a huge thing," he said. "In this country you have a lot of drugs."
Even after five years of international assistance to the health sector, only 30 percent of blood used in transfusions in Afghanistan's hospitals is screened for HIV, says a World Bank report.
Eighty percent of government hospitals now screen blood, Rehman said, but he acknowledged that many institutions do not. Health workers remain ill informed about HIV and careless, often reusing needles even when they know the practice can spread the disease, he said.
While several organizations are working to provide needle exchanges and to increase awareness of HIV, a far wider program is needed, said the World Bank, which is providing $10 million to fight HIV/AIDS in Afghanistan.
A recent study of 461 intravenous drug users in Kabul showed that 3 percent were HIV-positive, Rehman said. He, like many officials, cited the situation in neighboring Pakistan as a warning.
There, drug users identified as HIV- positive in Larkana, near the port city of Karachi, were stoned and chased from the area when the local people learned of their infections. They then drifted into the vast city of 16 million, and went underground. Within just two years the HIV rate among drug users skyrocketed from 2 percent to 26 percent, Rehman said, citing a survey on the episode.
The stigma of HIV/AIDS is perhaps the largest obstacle Afghanistan faces. The Taliban government, with its stoning and execution of adulterers and homosexuals, may be gone, but sex outside marriage and homosexual sex are still socially unacceptable.
Doctors and health workers here warn that AIDS sufferers will face ostracism, even death, if their communities learn they have the disease. The Ministry of Health is closely guarding the identity of the few people who have tested HIV-positive.
Muhammad Farid Bazger, HIV/AIDS coordinator of the German nongovernmental organization ORA International, has seen firsthand the cruelty communities are capable of in neighboring Pakistan and his native Afghanistan.
During his work in villages and refugee camps in Pakistan, he came across an unmarried man who had returned from the Arabian peninsula infected with HIV. The man told his father, who, not understanding the consequences, told others, and soon the whole village knew.
The villagers told the father he should kill his son. He was swiftly ostracized and then locked up in a brick cell in the family yard, with only a small opening where food was thrown in.
Bazger and his colleagues eventually rescued him and made a film of his story, which has been shown on an Afghan television channel.
Scores of foreign prostitutes have arrived in Kabul in recent years, capitalizing on the influx of foreigners. Afghans are using their services as well, particularly the well-paid young men employed by foreign organizations, health officials warn. Sex between men is a serious crime here, but health officials say this has not eradicated homosexuality. Gay men, many unaware of the risks, often have unprotected sex, putting them at high risk of contracting HIV.
Afghanistan's efforts to combat AIDS have been stymied by a lack of money and a lack of urgency among donors who regard Afghanistan as a country with low prevalence of HIV, Hartman and others said. Afghanistan's application to the Global Fund for AIDS programs failed last year. Even United Nations agencies have been slow to develop HIV/AIDS education, saying that they need to see figures documenting more AIDS cases, Egamberdi said.
Until this year, the members of the government AIDS team worked out of a shipping container on the grounds of the Health Ministry. Now they have graduated to a drafty, unheated hall inside the main building. While the World Bank has granted Afghanistan money to gather data and work with high-risk groups, Rehman hopes for an AIDS treatment ward in Kabul, testing around the country and antiretroviral drugs for AIDS patients remain unfulfilled.
His ministry has even enlisted the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs to educate mullahs, often the most influential people in Afghan villages, about HIV and AIDS to help promote basic health education and mitigate the stigma.
The man interviewed for this article has not shown positive for HIV in nearly a year of tests, despite the death of his wife from an AIDS-related illness.
"I don't know what to do," he said. "I have sacrificed so much since my marriage. I mortgaged half my land to pay for her medical care." Even if he keeps his secret, he can do little for his son. The country has no antiretroviral drugs.
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Afghans rejecting Canadian troops for Taliban, survey finds
LONDON (Globe and Mail) -- Afghan civilians are increasingly turning against Canadian troops and their country's government and toward support of the Taliban, according to a large-scale survey conducted in southern Afghanistan this month.
In a survey to be released in London today by the Senlis Council think tank, Afghan men in the Canadian-controlled areas of Kandahar province and in the neighbouring British- and U.S.-controlled regions say they are being driven to support the Taliban because of disillusionment with the NATO military effort and poverty created by the continuing conflict.
A team of 50 researchers polled 17,000 Afghan men in randomly selected districts in the Kandahar, Helmand and Nangarhar provinces of southeastern Afghanistan between March 3 and March 12.
"Across the south, the majority of survey respondents both worry about being able to feed their families, and do not believe that the Afghan government and the international troops are helping them," the Senlis report concludes. "Afghanis in southern Afghanistan are increasingly prepared to admit their support for the Taliban, and the belief that the government and the international community will not be able to defeat the Taliban is widespread in the southern provinces."
Canada's troops are responsible for Kandahar province as part of the UN-ordered NATO operation, and British soldiers are responsible for neighbouring Helmand province. These are considered the most volatile and dangerous regions in the Afghan campaign. The U.S. military is largely involved in Nangarhar.
The Senlis Council is a Brussels-based think tank that began as a European drug-policy organization, but has become heavily involved in Afghanistan, where it argues in favour of allowing Afghans to continue growing opium poppies, but for medicinal purposes.
The survey's conclusions are similar to those made earlier this month by Gordon Smith of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, a Calgary-based think tank with a broadly hawkish stand. Like the Senlis Council, it concluded that the military operation is vital, but that it is failing because it is inadequately supported by humanitarian efforts.
The survey shows that 27 per cent of Afghans in the south now openly support the Taliban, a number that the surveyors said is likely higher because some respondents are wary of admitting support to a Westerner.
More specifically, when asked, "Are the international troops helping you personally," only 19 per cent answered yes (in regions with U.S. soldiers in control, only 6.5 per cent said yes). And 80.3 per cent say they worry about feeding their families.
"The widespread perception of locals is that the international community is not helping to improve their lives," the survey concludes. "The Taliban has been able to easily and effectively capitalize on this by providing protection from forced eradication [of poppy crops] and employment to many."
The study found that 72 per cent of men in the region know how to fire a weapon, making them potential Taliban recruits. The average annual income in the region of $747 (U.S.) is equivalent to two months pay for a Taliban fighter.
"We would support the Canadian military if we could. We would also support the Taliban if we could," an unemployed man in Helmand told the researchers.
Only 48 per cent of southern Afghans now believe that their government and NATO are capable of defeating the Taliban. Similar surveys taken at the end of 2001 showed overwhelming faith in the success of the war against the Taliban.
"It is clear that the Taliban are winning the propaganda war," the survey concludes. "This victory is now having a direct effect on the war itself, through people's perceptions of who is going to win."
The report notes that the military effort to defeat the Taliban has eclipsed, and often undermined, the simultaneous effort to improve living conditions for Afghans and rebuild their government and civil society.
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Afghan field commander wants Canada to supply better weapons for his troops
Sunday, March 18, 2007
MA'SUM GHAR, Afghanistan (CP) - One of Afghanistan's top field commanders wants Canada to provide his troops with better weapons to fight the Taliban.
For the past year, Lt.-Col. Shereen Shah Kohbandi's 2nd Kandak (battalion) has been roaring into battle in Ford Ranger pickup trucks while their Canadian brothers-in-arms ride in heavily armoured LAV-3s and RG-31s.
While some of the Rangers are mounted with Soviet-era heavy machine-guns, the "Built Ford Tough" slogan used by the automaker provides little protection against Taliban rocket-propelled grenades or roadside bombs.
"We have nothing. We have no strong weapons," Kohbandi told The Canadian Press inside his mud-brick compound through an interpreter.
"I have good officers and soldiers - brave. For four years they have fought in Uruzgan, Kandahar and Helmand. The best thing that we need are weapons."
Earlier this month, one of Kohbandi's officers died when his Ranger was destroyed by a landmine. Eight other Afghan soldiers - most of them piled together in the back of the truck - were wounded.
Kohbandi has been a military officer for 23 years, helping to defeat the Soviets in the 1980's and the Taliban in 2001.
Tall, solidly built and with a scar on his chin, Kohbandi crackles with energy as he rocks back and forth on his chair while rubbing a set of beads between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand.
In his right hand he brandishes a fly swatter, smashing bugs on the table in mid sentence with a loud thwack. "Just like killing Taliban," he jokes.
A small team of veteran Canadian soldiers are helping to train the 2nd Kandak so it can plan and conduct long-term military operations on its own.
Kohbandi said he is grateful for the help provided by Canada's Observer Mentor Liason Team and can sense that his multi-ethnic battalion recruited from across Afghanistan is becoming more effective.
His troops, veterans and greenhorns alike, are starting to receive new helmets, camouflage uniforms and even body armour.
But what his warriors really want are new assault rifles, machine-guns, armoured vehicles, artillery - even helicopters, something even Canadian troops don't have in the war-ravaged country, said Kohbandi, who turned down a brigade command out of loyalty to his troops.
A Canadian officer said the Afghan government has some better weapons, including aircraft and tanks, but that they are kept close to Kabul, the capital.
Kohbandi said he brought up the issue of gear with Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor earlier this month during his visit to Kandahar province and hopes Ottawa will help supply the Afghan National Army with new equipment before Canadian soldiers leave.
"Still we have old weapons from the Russian times," he said, staring at his own weathered AK-47 rifle hanging by its sling from a nail driven into the mud wall of the room.
Maj. James Price, Kohbandi's mentor from the liaison team, said he can understand his counterpart's desire for better gear - especially when Afghan troops are working so closely with the well equipped Canadians.
Only a decade ago it was Canadian troops who were looking at their NATO counterparts with envy, said Price, a member of the Gagetown, N.B.,-based 2 Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment.
But it's a soldier's job to do the best he can with the gear he's got, he said. "I wish, at the end of the day, that we could have armour for all of them," Price said Sunday.
"You feel a bit for them, because you share in their risks. They are getting it (equipment), slowly but surely."
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Well-trained Afghan army key to Canadian war withdrawal
Sunday, March 18, 2007 - CanWest News Service
CAMP SHIRZAI, Afghanistan -To see Canada's exit strategy in Afghanistan you need to come here to the entrance. It is here in Camp Shirzai that Canada is helping train a new Afghan National Army in the hope it will eventually take over from Canadian troops and allow them to go home.
Almost every day Lt.-Col. Wayne Eyre of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry passes through the entranceway into the camp that is home to 3,000 Afghan troops - many of whom who live in neat but depressingly Spartan barracks that are positively middle-class compared to the living conditions of many Afghans.
Eyre is commander of Canada's 64-person training squad with the cumbersome title of Operational Mentor and Liaison Team - better known here by its unmilitary-sounding acronym, OMLT, which is pronounced "omelette," a flippant nickname that makes professional soldiers cringe.
And Eyre is every inch a professional soldier - tall and lanky with a moustache and shaved head who has read every book on Afghanistan history he can get his hands on to help him understand what he is up against.
Afghanistan is such a dysfunctional land it hasn't had a national army in living memory. Its armies over the years have been largely regional and tribal based. What's being built soldier-by-soldier at Camp Shirzai and other camps like it across Afghanistan isn't just a military force, it's a new way of thinking.
"This is the first truly federal institution in Afghanistan in 100 years," says Eyre.
Americans help train the recruits, the British train the non-commissioned officers, the French the officers and in the province of Kandahar it's the Canadians' job to put all the parts together into a professional army. Other nations have their own OMLT soldiers in various provinces.
The army has become something of an experiment in nation building. Troops from the south who speak Pashto are deliberately mixed in with soldiers from the north who speak Dari. Members of tribes who have squabbled in the past are joined together in battalions to learn to work together. Like everything else in Afghanistan it is a slow, cumbersome process. After centuries of war, Afghans might be traditional warriors, but they are not professional soldiers.
"We have to take them to a level where they can conduct autonomous operations," says Eyre. "What I mean by autonomous as opposed to independent is they'll still liaison with coalition elements but they can go out, they can plan, they can organize the operations, the logistics on their own. ... It's all small simple victories."
This week one simple victory came when Afghan soldiers ran their first logistics convoy to resupply their forward bases. Last month, their artillery soldiers supported coalition troops in the field.
The army is widely respected by Afghans who hold a contrary opinion of the Afghan National Police force that is often accused of corruption. Soldiers are better trained and better paid than police, although the starting pay for a private is the equivalent of just $100 US a month.
It's all baby steps and sometimes the steps are backwards. Soldiers routinely desert for a variety of reasons including homesickness, spotty pay and the ever-present danger of riding in unarmoured pick up trucks or manning exposed positions.
More than 10 per cent of the soldiers in the battalion working with Canadians, for example, go absent without leave - a disturbing number at first glance but not so bad when you consider that before the Canadians came, 40 per cent would routinely be AWOL.
"Canadians are a pleasure to work with," says Afghan General Khair Mohammad through an interpreter. "Canadians are sacrificing for our future, fighting for our future. Canadians are now part of our history, we have one history. ... They are good people."
Like most Afghans, Mohammad is quick with a smile and a handshake and has a background that is a complex patchwork of contradictions and pragmatism. Trained as a soldier by the Russians during their invasion three decades ago, he initially fought against fellow Afghans before joining the mujahideen to battle the Russians.
Now, he is fighting alongside Canadians and other coalition forces. One day, he hopes to do the fighting on his own, allowing Canadians and others to leave.
When does he think that will be? "When NATO and the international provide good training, good equipment, modern weapons and also a good salary," he replies without specifying any date or length of time. In the vernacular of military speak in Afghanistan this is what's called a "conditions -based" answer as opposed to one that is "time based."
The implication is that the more resources, energy and money the international community spends here, the faster the international community can pull its soldiers out.
No matter how much we invest, it will take time. "It's not going to happen overnight," says Eyre. "You're not going to have the typical Canadian fast solution where it's done by the end of the year."
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