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March 20, 2007 


Afghanistan admits to Taliban prisoner exchange deal
KABUL (AFP) - The Afghan government admitted Tuesday to freeing some Taliban prisoners in exchange for the release of an Italian hostage, saying it was an "exceptional measure" that would not be repeated.

The Taliban freed Daniele Mastrogiacomo on Monday after capturing him in the southern province of Helmand on March 4, along with an Afghan translator and a driver.

The driver was beheaded and the fate of the translator is unclear.

"They had some demands and their demands to some extent were accepted," presidential spokesman Karim Rahimi told reporters.

Asked if he could confirm some Taliban were exchanged for the reporter, he replied: "Yes." He did not say how many.

Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah said through an Afghan news agency Monday that he freed the Italian after receiving five Taliban prisoners.

"It was an exceptional measure taken because we value our relations and friendship with Italy," Rahimi said. "It won't be repeated."

The spokesman said, without elaborating, that one of the Taliban demanded by commander Dadullah "refused to go."

"The government really appreciates his decision," Rahimi said.

Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP last week that the movement wanted former spokesman Mohammad Hanif, arrested in  Afghanistan this year, to be returned.

Hanif, who was shown on Afghan television claiming links between the Taliban and Pakistan's intelligence agency, was not among the five returned to the Taliban.

The deal to free Mastrogiacomo has raised concern, with  United Nations spokesman in Afghanistan Adrian Edwards saying Tuesday "the UN does not negotiate with terrorists."
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Afghan protesters hold up Italian reporter's return
By Abdul Qodous
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Protesters blockaded an Afghan hospital where a newly freed Italian journalist hostage was staying on Tuesday, demanding details of the death of his beheaded driver.

More than 200 relatives and friends of the executed driver, Syed Agha, protested outside the Italian-run Emergency hospital in the capital of southern Helmand province, Lashkar Gah, demanding to talk with the Italian, who was kidnapped by the Taliban two weeks ago.

His translator, Ajmal Nakshbandi, is still being held.

La Repubblica reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo eventually left the Lashkar Gah hospital and was due in Kabul later and to fly straight through to Rome, officials said.

Mastrogiacomo, accused by the Taliban of spying for British troops, wrote in his paper on Tuesday of how he was forced to watch Agha die.

"I can still see it now," he said. "I get off my knees. Four young men grab the driver and shove his face into the sand. They cut his throat and continue until they have cut his whole head.

"He is not able to make a gasp. They clean the knife on his tunic. They tie his severed head to his body. They bring it to the river and let it go."

SPYING
Agha was found guilty by a Taliban court of spying and was killed on Thursday, the Taliban say. Analysts say he was probably killed to add pressure to Kabul and Rome to meet Taliban demands.

Mastrogiacomo, Agha and translator were kidnapped two weeks ago by the Taliban in lawless Helmand province, the opium capital of the world's biggest producer, about the same time  NATO launched its biggest Afghan offensive.

The main Afghan journalists' rights association appealed for the translator's release.

"Our message is clear. We are very much concerned about his life and his future," spokesman Halim Fedaye told reporters.

In his Tuesday article, Pakistani-born Mastrogiacomo did not explain why he was in a place most foreign journalists regard as too dangerous to visit, what he was doing to free his translator or what compensation would be offered to Agha's family.

The Taliban say they freed him after the Afghan government handed over four of five insurgent leaders, including the brother of military commander Mullah Dadullah.

A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai said a deal had been struck, but would not give any details.

"The president ... had instructed security authorities to find out any possible way for the release of the Italian journalist in recognition for the friendship with Italy and its cooperation with  Afghanistan," he told reporters. "A series of demands were made and they were met to some extent."

In Italy, there was concern the government had paid too high a price.

"The government sold out," ran the front-page headline in the right-wing Libero newspaper. "Reporter released in exchange for 5 Taliban," said leading daily Corriere della Sera.

La Stampa daily questioned whether the negotiations to free the La Repubblica journalist were hypocritical, given Rome had 1,900 peacekeepers in Afghanistan meant to help NATO secure the country after the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

"If this is the just price chosen to pay to save the life of Mastrogiacomo, it's up to (the government) to show Italy is still able to continue fulfilling its role in Afghanistan without becoming the weak link in the international alliance."

Amid the protest in Lashkar Gah, Afghan security personnel arrested the head of the Emergency hospital, but did not say why.

The hospital had also been involved in negotiations to free another Italian reporter, Gabriele Torsello, late last year.

NATO this month launched a major offensive in Helmand to take on the Taliban, as well as druglords.
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Italian hospital's head arrested in Afghanistan
Tue Mar 20, 4:48 AM ET
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Security forces arrested an Afghan hospital head on Tuesday after hundreds of people protested to demand information about the executed driver of kidnapped Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo.

Rahamatullah Hanafi was arrested outside the Italian charity hospital in the southern town of Lashkar Gah, where the journalist was housed for the night after his release by the Taliban who had kidnapped him two weeks ago.

Reasons for his arrest were not immediately known.

But it came hours after hundreds of family and friends of the executed driver, Syed Agha, blockaded the emergency hospital, demanding to know what happened to the dead man.

They chanted "Death to Rahamatullah!," and said they would not let Mastrogiacomo be driven away for a flight to Kabul until he met them to say what had happened to his driver.

Mastrogiacomo spent the night in the hospital after being freed by the Taliban following almost two weeks in captivity, accused of spying and threatened with execution himself.

Agha's throat was slit on Thursday after a Taliban court convicted him of spying, rebel officials said.

His body had not been recovered.

Mastrogiacomo, a Pakistani-born La Repubblica newspaper reporter, was due in Kabul on Tuesday, according to Italian ambassador Ettore Francesco Sequi.

"(He is in) very good health," Sequi told reporters late on Monday night. "He's in very good physical condition."

The Taliban say he was freed after the Afghan government handed over four of five insurgent leaders, including the brother of military commander Mullah Dadullah.

Another Italian journalist, Gabriele Torsello, was kidnapped in Helmand in October and held for three weeks before being released unharmed.

Helmand, the country's opium center, and neighboring Kandahar province, are considered the most dangerous places in  Afghanistan.

"My head is still spinning but I am happy. I managed to get out of the situation and I thank everybody who helped me," the freed Italian journalist told a TV channel owned by La Repubblica soon after his release on Monday.

"This is the most wonderful moment of my life."

The journalist said he had been "bound hand and foot" by his captors and moved to 15 different locations "as small as sheep pens, in the middle of the desert."

He did not explain why he was traveling in an area regarded as unsafe for foreigners. Sequi refused to say if a ransom had been paid.

NATO this month launched a major offensive in Helmand to take on the Taliban, as well as druglords.
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AFGHANISTAN: ISLAMIST WEBSITES CONGRATULATE TALIBAN FOR 'PRISONER SWAP'
Kabul, 20 March (AKI) - Congratulatory messages for the Taliban have appeared on Islamist forums on the Internet over the reported release of five Taliban leaders in exchange for the Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who was freed by the Taliban on Monday after being held prisoner for two weeks. "Participate to the congratulatory messages to be sent to the Taliban for the exchange of prisoners with the Italian unbeliever," read the title of the pages in some Islamist websites.

Congratulatory messages have been posted on these web pages by al-Qaeda supporters over what they describe as a positive outcome in the reported release of five Taliban leaders in exchange for the 52 year old journalist for Rome daily La Repubblica. There has been no official confirmation of the release of the five Taliban leaders by Afghan authorities.

Since Sunday evening, the websites which carry messages by terrorist groups, have been celebrating the initial reports that two Taliban leaders, Ustad Yaser and Mufti Hakimi, had been released by Afghan authorities.

At the time, a message by a Taliban spokesperson Muhammad Yusuf, said that such an exchange had taken place. At the same time in Italy, it was still uncertain that Mastrogiacomo had been released.

The websites close to the Taliban told their supporters that "the Mujahadeen of the Islamic Emirate released at midday today (Sunday) the Italian journalist together with his interpreter who have been prisoners of the mujahadeen for the past two weeks. This has occured based on the exchange for the mujahadeen Ustad Muhammad Yaser and Mufti Latif Allah Hakimi who have been detained in the prison in Bul Tshkuhi for the past two years. The exchange was carried out through a third party in the province of Helmand."

However, it was only on Monday that these Islamist websites also began mentioning the release of another three Taliban fighters in the same exchange deal, unleashing a stream of joyful messages for the Taliban.

"What great news," wrote Sanafi al-Nasr. "We also want the release of our other brothers who have been detained," he said.

Following the first message, within a few minutes, more than 20 messages were reportedly posted, including a photo of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin laden and compliments for the Taliban. Messages also encouraged the Taliban to continue their fight against NATO troops in Afghanistan.
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Troops kill three 'extremists' in Afghanistan
Tue Mar 20, 2:52 AM ET
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - US-led coalition and Afghan troops killed three "suspected extremists" Tuesday in a hunt for a militant said to have ordered assassinations and suicide bombings, the military said.

The Afghan and coalition forces came under fire during an operation in Helmand province to find a "known Taliban leader and facilitator of suicide bombers believed to have controlled as many as 200 fighters in the area." They returned fire, killing the three, the coalition said in a statement.

It was not clear whether the targeted commander was among the dead, a spokeswoman told AFP.

In other Taliban-linked violence in southern  Afghanistan, a bomb hidden in a handcart hit a bus transporting trainee policemen in the southern city of Kandahar Tuesday, wounding three students, police said.

The coalition, which helped to topple the Taliban from government in late 2001, said the commander was responsible for "ordering assassinations of Afghan government officials."

He was also "believed to have helped move suicide attackers into Helmand province by way of Kandahar and other nearby cities."

There have been several recent attacks on Afghan and coalition forces in the area, which is around the town of Gereshk.
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Canada's defense minister sorry for Afghan prisoner remarks
Tue Mar 20, 2:32 AM ET
OTTAWA (AFP) - Canada's defense minister apologized for giving false information to lawmakers regarding the transfer of Afghan prisoners captured by Canadian troops to local authorities.

Gordon O'Connor has repeatedly responded to criticism by rights groups who fear the transfers could lead to torture by saying the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would alert Canada in case of any mistreatment.

"I fully and without reservation apologize to the House for providing inaccurate information to members. I regret any confusion that may have resulted from these statements," O'Connor said on Monday.

"The International Committee of the Red Cross provides this information to the country that has the detainees in its custody, in this case,  Afghanistan," he said, adding that his earlier statements had been made "in good faith."

O'Connor was forced to retract his statements after an ICRC spokesman was quoted in the Globe and Mail daily as saying there existed no such agreement with Canada and that third party countries were never informed of the results of its visits with prisoners.

Rights groups have said a prisoner transfer agreement between Ottawa and Afghanistan's government signed in December 2005 does not provide "adequate safeguards to ensure that detainees will not be tortured by Afghan forces."

Canada has 2,500 soldiers deployed in southern Afghanistan.

Since 2002, 45 Canadian soldiers and one senior diplomat have died in skirmishes with Taliban militants or in roadside blasts.
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90 percent of rural Afghan women illiterate: UN
Tue Mar 20, 2:11 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - The  United Nations said it was establishing thousands of literacy centres across  Afghanistan with 90 percent of women in rural areas unable to read.

The centres were part of the United Nations Children's Fund plan to support education in Afghanistan this year, it said.

The plan covers the establishment of 4,000 literacy centres throughout Afghanistan,  UNICEF education chief David McLoughlin told reporters.

According to UN data, "90 percent of rural women and 65 percent of rural men are illiterate still in Afghanistan," he said.

Girls were banned from going to school by the Taliban which was in power between 1996 and 2001.

After the collapse of Taliban regime they have returned to classes although efforts to get children back in school have been troubled by militant attacks, including the murder of teachers and the burning of facilities.

The number of attacks on schools dropped to 120 in 2006 from more than double that the previous year, McLoughlin said.

More than six million children would this year be in school, due to open March 21, which was "something very historical for his country and very encouraging for the education system," he said.

The British-based charity Oxfam said in November however that about about seven million children, about half the school-age population, were still not in school.
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AP reporter witnesses Afghan bomb attack
By FISNIK ABRASHI, Associated Press Writer Mon Mar 19, 1:59 PM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - The three armored Chevrolet Suburbans from the U.S. Embassy caught my eye Monday morning alongside the donkey carts and rundown Toyotas that compete for space on the muddy, bumpy highway that heads east out of  Afghanistan's capital.

"You should never get too close to those vehicles," I cautioned my driver as we waited at an intersection to let them pass while on our way to run errands.

Moments later, a fireball ripped through the convoy, wounding five U.S. Embassy security guards and killing a 15-year-old Afghan bystander — the first Taliban suicide bombing in Kabul this year.

Taliban and other militants are increasingly resorting to  Iraq-style tactics of suicide and roadside bombings in their campaign against foreign troops and President Hamid Karzai's shaky government.

Last year saw an explosion of violence in Afghanistan, including 139 suicide attacks, mostly in the south and east. Maj. William Mitchell, a U.S. military spokesman, said there have been 28 suicide attacks in 2007, including one last month that killed 23 people outside the big U.S. base at Bagram during a visit by Vice President  Dick Cheney.

Kabul remains comparatively calm, but when a bomb does shatter the peace, more often than not it comes on the potholed Jalalabad Road where  NATO, U.S. and Afghan army bases are located and which leads to Bagram north of the capital.

NATO troops in armored personnel carriers barrel down the highway, as do armored SUVs often used by foreign diplomats and security contractors, like the three Chevys without number plates that passed us.

As Sher, my driver, slowed The Associated Press car — he was taking me to do some shopping on my day off — the two black and one silver SUVs passed. A small truck got in between us and the convoy as we merged into busy traffic.

Just as we picked up speed, a huge fireball erupted in the convoy about 50 to 70 yards ahead of us. Black smoke billowed into the air while debris showered down. We pulled over and jumped out to seek safety behind a wall.

Flames engulfed the bomber's wrecked Toyota Corolla, flung next to a line of pine trees and tall aerials on the right side of the road. Other charred debris was strewn across the road and in nearby fields.

The black SUV at the head of the convoy bore the brunt of the blast, ending up on the left side of the road, some of its bulletproof windows smashed and its front mangled. The two Suburbans behind it were also damaged.

One of the doors of the badly damaged SUV opened. An armed man got out, dazed and limping as he slumped next to the rear right tire. Other guards jumped from the three SUVs, pointing their guns in a circle to guard against a potential ambush or second bomber.

A man was pulled from the front SUV and laid on the muddy ground. Some guards administered first aid as a crowd started gathering.

It was not clear who was in the convoy, but the embassy said Ambassador Ronald Neumann was not among them. A NATO spokesman, Col. Tom Collins, said the five wounded were security personnel for the embassy. He said one was seriously hurt. A 15-year-old boy passing by was killed, said Hasib Arian, the district police chief.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said in a phone call to the AP that a Taliban militant from Khost province carried out the attack. The claim could not be independently verified.

Minutes after the blast, Afghan security forces arrived with sirens wailing.

The guards from the convoy, joined by other U.S. personnel who raced up in more armored SUVs from the fortress-like embassy compound 2 miles down the road, did not want the Afghans getting close. Tempers flared and shouting broke out.

A shouting embassy man ran toward the Afghan intelligence service and took a camera from one of them as he filmed the blast scene from a distance.

Two other embassy guards confronted a two-man Italian TV crew and took their camera, saying they could get it from the embassy later. The journalists were in Kabul to cover Monday's release by Taliban militants of Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who had been kidnapped in the south. The team pleaded for their equipment back. They got it 10 hours later, tape inside, from the Italian Embassy.

A French military officer — part of the NATO-led security force that patrols Kabul — said the U.S. embassy security team blocked him from approaching the scene for 20 minutes. Later French and British soldiers helped secure the site and investigate the bombing.

"Everyone gets a bit nervous after these attacks," said the officer, who refused to be quoted by name. "I showed them my flag but they did not care," he said, referring to the French tricolor stitched to his uniform. "That is not good."

None of the vehicles in the attacked convoy was immediately recognizable as a U.S. car, but hulking SUVs of that type would mark the occupants as foreigners, embassy employees or high-ranking Afghan officials.

All three Suburbans appeared to have jamming devices on their roofs — sophisticated technology that can delay a remotely detonated roadside bomb from going off, but powerless against a suicide attacker in a car loaded with explosives.

More than an hour after the bombing, a convoy of 12 embassy SUVs took away the guards hit by the attack. French military investigators scoured the nearby fields for evidence. Hundreds of Afghans stood in the rain, watching.
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Afghan president calls for greater international development
Mon Mar 19, 1:56 AM ET
BERLIN (AFP) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai called for greater international investment in his country, especially in the energy sector.

Afghanistan has a "huge appetite" for energy consumption yet only six percent of the population has a regular supply of electricity, Karzai told journalists at the start of an official visit to Germany.

He added that the country needed to develop infrastructure, notably road and railway networks, before drawing attention to the recent explosion in the mobile phone market. Up to 2.2 million Afghans now have mobile phones.

Karzai also thanked Germany for its military help in bringing stability to the region and added that international aid was still needed to fight the Taliban threat.

The president will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday to discuss Germany's role in Afghanistan, including its mission within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), in which Germany has nearly 3,000 troops.

Karzai -- who is to receive a leadership award during his three-day visit -- will also travel to France to meet French counterpart Jacques Chirac.
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German, Afghan Leaders Stand Up To Kidnappers' Demands
March 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai was in Berlin today for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the security situation in Afghanistan.

Merkel said she told Karzai she will not give in to demands by Islamic militants who have threatened to kill two abducted Germans in Iraq unless Berlin withdraws its troops from Afghanistan.

"The crisis staff is working in high gear to secure the lives of the hostages," Merkel said. "I must say that we are deeply concerned. On the other hand...as the German government has always said -- and we find support in this from the Afghan president -- the German government cannot be blackmailed."

The abductors have said they will kill the two Germans unless Berlin withdraws all of its troops from Afghanistan by March 20.

That threat -- contained in a video posted on the Internet -- was accompanied by the release of a separate Islamic militant video vowing attacks on Germany and Austria unless they pull their forces out of Afghanistan.

Karzai Thanks Germany For Support

Germany opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and has not had any troops in that country. But there are about 3,000 German soldiers serving in Afghanistan under the UN-mandate of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Most German troops are in the relatively calm northern part of the country.

Karzai today praised the work of German soldiers in Afghanistan and thanked Berlin for contributing troops, saying he hopes there will be more in the future.

"The expansion of the German role in Afghanistan is a German decision," he said. "The Afghan people will welcome any decision that the people of Germany will make with regard to their participation in Afghan reconstruction and security."

Karzai also thanked German lawmakers for their decision to send six Tornado reconnaissance aircraft to Afghanistan in response to a NATO request for more intelligence-gathering equipment.

"The significance is because it provides the Afghan people with a psychological guarantee of protection and security in that part of the world, in the region," Karzai said. "So, it is more than the tactical issues. It is providing Afghanistan with an environment in which they feel safe and secure."

Karzai told reporters after today's talks that he agrees with Merkel's decision not to give in to what he called "blackmail and terror." Karzai said meeting the demands of the abductors would merely encourage more kidnappings and terror attacks in the future.

Hope For Release Of Italian Journalist

Daniele Mastrogiacomo (epa file photo)Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, who is accompanying Karzai on his visit, told Germany's ARD television station today that a German withdrawal would be disastrous for Afghanistan at a time when it is facing a renewed Taliban insurgency.

Meanwhile, Karzai says Daniele Mastrogiacomo, an Italian journalist kidnapped in Afghanistan's Helmand Province on March 4, could be released as soon as today.

"I hope the matter is resolved today," Karzai said. "He should either be freed by now or should be in the process of being freed. We did what we could to help with the release of the Italian journalist."

Earlier reports said the Taliban already had handed Mastrogiacomo over to a third party. The Italian Foreign Ministry later confirmed the release.

Mastrogiacomo reportedly was handed over to Italian Embassy officials in Kabul today. He was abducted in Helmand Province on March 4 along with his Afghan driver and an Afghan translator. The Taliban said it killed Mastrogiacomo's driver on March 16.

Merkel also said she and Karzai today discussed Afghanistan's relationship with Pakistan -- which is under growing criticism for failing to stop militants from operating near the Afghan border.

Merkel said that despite the criticism of Islamabad, Pakistan appears to be "committed to a peaceful future."

Karzai was to travel later today to France, where he plans to meet President Jacques Chirac. France currently has about 1,100 troops in Afghanistan.
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Afghanistan Divides Germany's Social Democrats
By SPIEGEL Staff  Spiegel Online, Germany
Support is waning in Germany's Social Democratic Party for the country's deployment in Afghanistan. Keen to spin the party as one of peace, the party's base is growing restless. Will it have implications for Chancellor Merkel's government?

The unrest in Germany's Social Democratic Party began in earnest about two weeks ago. During a vote on whether to deploy German Tornado reconnaissance jets to Afghanistan, one-third of the left-leaning party's delegates cast their votes against the proposed expansion of the German military's mandate. The split on the foreign policy issue underscored the perils that face Germany's grand coalition government, which pairs the SPD with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. Foreign policy is one of the few areas where the parties have generally sung in harmony since Merkel came to power.

The vote signified growing unrest in Germany about the country's six-year deployment in Afghanistan. At almost every recent SPD party event, questions have persisted about the mission. What is Germany doing in Afghanistan? Why is Germany waging America's war? And why is it that Germany can only afford €20 million ($26.5 million) per year in development aid to Afghanistan when the cost of sending Tornado jets to the country for only six months will cost a whopping €35 million?

Party members have openly expressed their growing dissatisfaction with the uncertain aims in Afghanistan, saying they want SPD policy to reflect its identity as a party of peace. It's a sentiment that evokes former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's adamant stance against the Iraq war. Though the economic reforms Schröder pushed through remain deeply unpopular, broad support remains within the party base for his anti-war stance and the fact that he stood up to the United States.

At one party meeting, Renate Schmidt, a former cabinet minister in Schröder's government, warned that Germany "threatened to slide into a second Vietnam." And the party's foreign policy expert, Rolf Mützenich, said Germany had "fallen to a low level in Afghanistan." Slogans like "We are the party of peace," can be heard in many quarters.

And the unrest isn't just limited to the left-wing fringes of the party -- it has also arrived at its core, even within the party's parliamentary faction. During the vote two weeks ago, 69 SPD members -- close to one-third of its representatives in the German parliament, the Bundestag, voted against deploying the jets.

German public wants troop withdrawal

While this alone isn't enough to endanger Merkel's government, it has unsettled SPD leaders and it has left them uncertain about how to respond.

The issue is compounded by the fact that a new poll shows the majority of Germans calling for a withdrawal of German troops from the region. A TNS poll conducted for SPIEGEL last week revealed that 57 percent of those polled -- many of whom also support the SPD -- believe German troops in Afghanistan should be removed as soon as possible.

As part of its efforts to promote the SPD as a peacenik party, members of the base want the party leadership to lay out a clear plan for the future of Germany's deployment in Afghanistan and to express decisive opposition to the American plans to install parts of its new missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. It's a project that Schröder recently criticized as "politically dangerous," a "counterproductive attempt to create a policy of encirclement against Russia that in no way represents European interests."

The issue is creating a dilemma for the Social Democrats. If the SPD's leadership gives in to pressure from the party base, it could severely weaken Social Democratic members of Merkel's cabinet -- including Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has already been weakened by investigations into German intelligence cooperation with the US during the Iraq war as well as efforts to keep wrongly accused terror suspect Murat Kurnaz, a longtime inmate at Guantanamo, from returning to Germany. An open conflict with the Christian Democrats could bring a quick end to the fragile coalition government and raise serious questions about the SPD's ability to govern.

An identity issue

At the same time, the idea of positioning itself as a peace party remains an attractive prospect -- especially in the wake of controversial reforms that have seen the center-left SPD help push through such unpopular measures like a hike in the retirement age by two years. "This is an issue of identity for us," says SPD floor leader Peter Struck, who expressed concern that the "dissatisfaction within the party and population regarding the Afghanistan deployment is growing."

Still, party strategists have yet to come up with any solutions that would meet the demands of its Christian Democratic partners and Germany's NATO commitments while at the same time keeping the party core happy. The only certainty within the party is that the unilateral withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan would be impossible.

"Even the peaceniks know that," says Struck.

Nevertheless, the Afghanistan mandate expires this fall and a new plan will have to be voted on in the Bundestag. With so many SPD members opposed to further involvement in Afghanistan, difficult political wrangling is anticipated. So far, Steinmeier's Foreign Ministry hasn't released any concrete plans on the future of Germany's deployment. Diplomats say the government must find more money for Afghanistan and that it must be funnelled to reconstruction projects with high visibility -- also in the dangerous southern part of the country. They are also calling for a plan that will provide a clear roadmap for ending the Bundeswehr deployment.

There is also displeasure in the party base over Germany's development aid in Afghanistan, which many argue is lacking. In 2006, the country provided €80 million in bilateral aid. Although that figure will be increased by €20 million this year, critics argue that is will do little to significantly change life in a country that is almost twice as big as Germany.

"We're going to have to inject more money," Struck said. Meanwhile, the party's defense expert, Jörn Thiessen, said the future focus of the German deployment in Afghanistan must "clearly lie in civilian development."

In two weeks, Kurt Beck plans to travel to Afghanistan to assess the situation. The SPD party chief is fully aware of the tinderbox nature of Afghanistan for the Social Democrats' foreign policy. In the sixth year of the Western intervention, the situation in Aghanistan is growing increasingly precarious and Iraq-like -- and the party base need look no further than the media to recognize that. Both the party core and the general public are keenly aware that a massive Western military deployment has failed to bring order to the country.

And the dangers in Afghanistan are far from limited to the southern part of the country. Two weeks ago, armed men shot and killed Dieter Rübling, a 65-year-old civil engineer working for the German aid organization Welthungerhilfe, in the northern part of the country.

A new NATO push

Around the same time, NATO also ratcheted up its combat operations in Afghanistan with operation Achilles. About 4,500 NATO soldiers have been deployed to protect the vital Kajaki dam in southern Afghanistan from an estimated 6,000 Taliban fighters. The deposed Islamists had previously announced they had prepared more than 2,000 men for suicide attacks. The Americans reacted by promptly redeploying 3,200 men from the 173rd Airborne Brigade to the area.

For its part, Germany is sending Tornado reconnaissance jets that will indirectly aid NATO troops in the south, but none of the soon to be 3,500 Bundeswehr soldiers stationed in the country will participate in the combat operations. That fact, however, has done little to assuage fears that the Germans could be pulled deeper and deeper into the war.

"There will be additional demands from NATO," warned SPD parliamentary floor leader Struck.

But those demands will also likely be met with reservations in Germany. In the years that have passed since the toppling of the Taliban, work has been accomplished in parts of the country -- streets and schools have been built. But the majority of Afghans continue to live in abject poverty. Even the capital Kabul is plagued with a shortage of electricity -- Western embassies and hotels get their power from their own generators.

Opium for the masses

The only boom sector in the country is the drug business. Even under the watchful eye of the international community, the destitute country has risen to become the world's largest producer of opium. The country's drug barons -- who are believed to include Hamid Karzai's own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, though the Afghan president disputes the allegation -- control 92 percent of the world market and have a turnover of as much as €3 billion from the lucrative trade.

Of course, the lack of success in the Afghanistan project is also at least partially attributable to errors made by the Germans. The government under ex-chancellor Schröder long blocked efforts to station ISAF troops in Kabul, and ISAF was only able to take over command for the entire country last year. Nor has the German government been quite the role model it has presented itself to be when it comes to Afghanistan. German soldiers, diplomats and development aid workers long railed about the fact that the Italians "of all people" (well-known for high-profile government corruption) had been put in charge of developing Afghanistan's justice system. But last year, it emerged that Afghanistan's German-run police training program had produced equally dissatisfactory results.

Throughout, the German government has skillfully created the impression that it has put more emphasis on civil reconstruction than the hawkish Anglo-Saxons. But now it's the much-maligned Americans who are planning to invest $2 billion in reconstruction during the next two years.

For now, the SPD party leadership has undertaken a major internal debate about Afghanistan and other areas of foreign policy conflict within the party. The hope is to paper over differences before this fall's vote on the next Afghanistan mandate.

A threat for Christian Democrats?

Meanwhile, the Christian Democrats are observing their coalition partner's conflict with increasing concern and irritation. Up until now, foreign and security policy were two of the few issues the government parties could agree upon. Now many Christian Democrats see the thin SPD consensus on the Tornado deployment as evidence of a shift in the party.

"The SPD needs to ensure that foreign policy populism doesn't spread within the party," the Christian Democrats foreign policy spokesman, Eckart von Klaeden, warned.

But the developement also presents a host of problems for Chancellor Merkel and her followers, who haven't forgotten that the SPD emerged as a peace party during the 2002 elections, nor the fact that, with their opposition to the Iraq war, they snatched voters away from the Christian Democrats. Leading Christian Democrats believe that Afghanistan and the conflict over the missile defense system could create a similar situation.

A source close to Defense Secretary Franz-Josef Jung told SPIEGEL: "The situation has become very fragile."
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AFGHANISTAN: INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY MUST HELP CONSOLIDATE PEACE
New York, 20 March (AKI) - While progress has been made in Afghanistan in coordinating national and international efforts for development and countering the insurgency in the south, mounting violence from an emboldened insurgency, popular alienation and human rights issues put the country and its partners at "a critical juncture," according to a new United Nations report.

“It is time for the international community to reconfirm its commitment to Afghanistan and to move expeditiously to consolidate the accomplishments of the last six years,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in his report to the Security Council covering the past six months, proposing a 12-month extension of UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

“UNAMA, together with its Afghan and international counterparts, is well positioned to assist in meeting some of the challenges,” he added, calling for the mission to focus in the coming months on promoting a more coherent international engagement in support of development, human rights and regional cooperation.

Ban noted that insurgency-related violent incidents for January were more than double those in January 2006, and that a record 77 suicide attacks occurred during the reporting period, up from 53 over the previous six months.

A September agreement between Pakistan and the local Taliban of North Waziristan did not prevent the use of the tribal area as a staging ground for attacks on Afghanistan, which had been one of the accord’s central stipulations. Security incidents involving insurgents instead rose by 50 per cent in Khost province and 70 per cent in Paktika.

“Coordinated efforts by the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to curb incursions into Afghanistan of opposition forces will therefore continue to be vital,” Ban said.

Popular alienation remains a key factor behind the revitalized insurgency, and stems from inappropriate Government appointments, tribal nepotism and the marginalization of those outside the dominant social and political groups. “The central Government’s frequent tolerance of weak governance has diminished public confidence in its responsiveness and its readiness to hold officials accountable for their transgressions,” he wrote.

“In those cases where the centre has appointed capable governors, such as in Party, Cruzan and Kabul, it has failed to provide them with the resources necessary to maintain the goodwill that they have generated.”

Ban says lack of security remained the greatest challenge to the enjoyment of human rights, with teachers killed, education facilities attacked and civilians caught in crossfire. Curbs to media freedom continued to be reported, the ratio of detainees to sentenced prisoners rose while the government continues to face “enormous challenges” in delivering economic and social rights such as sufficient food, water, health care and educational facilities, particularly for girls and women.

“Progress towards the realization of gender equality continued to be held back by discrimination, insecurity and the persistence of customary practices,” Ban said. “Honour killings of females by family members continue to be reported. Reasons included having been raped and elopement.”

In Afghanistan’s largest prison in Kabul, the capital, almost 30 per cent of female detainees are in prison for acts that do not constitute criminal offences, while a further 30 per cent are detained for adultery in breach of national due process standards.

Widespread corruption in the justice system also remains a serious concern.
Ban stressed that the successful completion of the ongoing reforms of the ministry of the interior is a precondition for achieving a sustainable peace, not only through creating a more capable and motivated force to prevent insurgency and cross-border infiltration, but also to reverse the growth of narcotics trafficking and build public confidence in the rule of law.

“The narcotics economy, linked both to the insurgency and failures of governance and rule of law, poses a grave threat to reconstruction and nation-building,” he wrote of the country which supplies more than 90 per cent of the world’s heroin. “An urgent concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed to improve implementation of the national drug control strategy.”

And he repeated UN concerns that the adoption in both houses of Parliament of a resolution on national reconciliation could lead to amnesty for those prosecutable for human rights violations in a country that has known little but occupation by Soviet forces and then internecine factional fighting and brutality for nearly three decades.

“I welcome President [Humid] Kara’s launch of the Action Plan on Peace, Justice and Reconciliation in December, which states that no amnesty should be provided for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other gross violations of human rights, and outlines a clear road map for the future. I urge the Afghan Government to maintain this momentum,” he said.
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Bombings triple in Afghanistan in 2006
Mon Mar 19, 4:10 PM ET
LONDON (AFP) - Bomb attacks in  Afghanistan rose three-fold between 2005 and 2006, figures released by the government on Monday showed.

According to Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram, attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) rose from about 500 in 2005, to 1,525 last year.

Ingram said that while the figures were an estimate, most of the attacks were against either International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops, or soldiers from the Afghan National Security Forces.

Of the total number of bombings, suicide attacks rose by six times -- from 25 two years ago to 150 in 2006.

"In 2006, it is assessed that there were approximately 1,525 IED attacks, of which approximately 150 were suicide IED attacks," Ingram said.

"These figures do not necessarily represent the complete statistics but are an estimate."

Since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001, 52 British soldiers have died there.
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Afghanistan: Floods and avalanches kill dozens and displace hundreds
KABUL, 20 March 2007 (IRIN) - More than 50 people have been killed and hundreds displaced because of heavy rainfall, avalanches and floods over the past few days in Afghanistan's southern and south-western provinces, officials say.

In Uruzgan, Helmand, Badghis and Ghor provinces, more than 500 houses were destroyed or damaged by floods.

In the most recent incident, an avalanche in the Murgab area of central Ghor killed 16 people and injured 25, Mohammad Asif, a provincial official, told IRIN on Tuesday.

In another incident on Monday, floods killed more than 30 people in Ghor's neighbouring province of Uruzgan, where officials have urged the United Nations and international relief organisations to provide humanitarian assistance.

Qayom Qayomi, a spokesman for the governor of Uruzgan, said hundreds of people affected by floods were now stranded in Dehraoud and Charcheno districts.

"For the time being we cannot access the affected areas and provide assistance. Roads are destroyed and we do not have helicopters to deliver aid," Qayomi said.

In the neighbouring Helmand and Badghis provinces, at least 12 people, including several women and children, died in flash rains and floods.

"People in many parts of Badghis province have lost everything," said Farooq Ehsan, a member of the provincial development council in Badghis. "They do not have shelter, food, medicine and potable water."

In the Ingeel district of Herat province in the west, up to 200 houses were damaged by floods, provincial officials confirmed.

A Joint Disaster Preparedness Committee (JDPC) - comprised of several Afghan government departments, UN agencies, coalition forces and international relief organisations - has dispatched rapid assessment teams to the affected areas.

NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) has sent helicopters to deliver aid and evacuate locals from the flood-ridden Dehraoud district of Uruzgan province.

"ISAF helicopters have transported people into relatively safe areas. Provincial hospitals and local health clinics in many districts are thronging with injured and ill people," said Qayomi.

Rikki Maliklali, deputy country director for the World Food Programme in Afghanistan, said the UN agency was ready to deliver food items to the affected communities.

"We have 350,000 metric tonnes of food items at our warehouses in five locations in Afghanistan, which is more than the current level of demand," said Maliklali.

Supplies of medicine, tents, tarpaulins and blankets have also been prepared by JDPC and plans are underway to distribute them to 400 affected families in Uruzgan.

Officials in Kabul say more humanitarian assistance will be delivered in the coming days through a government and NGO-coordinated emergency plan.

But prompt delivery of humanitarian assistance into the rugged provinces of mountainous Afghanistan could be difficult, warn aid workers. Heavy snow and rains have damaged highways and roads, impeding traffic in many parts of the country.

"For the past three days, the only highway that connects Bamyan province with Kabul through Parwan province has been blocked by oversize rocks slipping from mountains in the rains," said Sabira Nawabi, a local official in Bamyan.
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Avalanche, floods kill 17 in Afghanistan
KABUL, March 19 (Reuters) - At least 17 people have been killed in Afghanistan in an avalanche and floods triggered by heavy rain and several villages were inundated, officials said on Monday.

Twelve people, including women and children, were killed in the avalanche in the central province of Ghor on Sunday, deputy-governor Ikramuddin, who uses only one name, said.

Five people died in flash floods in the western province of Badghis, also on Sunday, another official said.

Floods had also hit several villages in Uruzgan province and NATO-led troops had launched rescue operations, the alliance said in a statement.

Aircraft had been deployed to evacuate about 1,000 people in the province as the Helmand river, which runs through Uruzgan, was rising, it said.

The rains had also damaged or destroyed several mud houses in the rugged and remote province, an Afghan official said.

Many parts of drought-stricken Afghanistan have received heavy rain in recent days, residents said.
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Afghan villagers stand guard to protect schools
By Mark Sappenfield, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor Tue Mar 20, 4:00 AM ET
MEDRAWER, AFGHANISTAN - Atefa's dream might have ended on a bright winter morning 13 months ago.

The hazel-eyed 8-year-old still has a ways to go before she becomes a surgeon, which she confidently proclaims as her life's goal. Yet graduating from grade school is one important step – and on Feb. 10, 2006, that seemed almost impossible.

Overnight, the Medrawer Girls School was burned to a charred husk by terrorists determined to prevent local girls from reading textbooks and learning geometry. Smoke still curled above the surrounding eucalyptus grove as the students arrived for class – their hopes of an education, and the better life it promised, vanishing in the morning sunshine.

Even then, however, the village elders were beginning to formulate a decision that would change the lives of Atefa and – some would say – girls across  Afghanistan. Later that day, they decided to take protection of the school into their own hands, cobbling together a corps of village volunteers that has stood watch over the now-rebuilt school every night since, sometimes armed only with spare farm tools and ancient swords passed down as family heirlooms.

There hasn't been an attack since.

Local authorities say that this was Afghanistan's first community-sponsored school-watch program. In the intervening year, the Afghan  Department of Education has championed the idea nationwide in an effort to maintain what has been, in many respects, the government's most celebrated success: bringing education to Afghanistan – and especially to girls.

"Education has a special importance in Afghanistan, and that is what our enemies know," says Mohammad Patman, Afghanistan's deputy minister of education.

National education officials estimate that during the past 18 months, the Taliban has burned more than 180 Afghan schools. The threat of attacks, according to a 2006  UNICEF report, has prevented 100,000 children from attending school.

But the rate of attacks has fallen significantly in recent months – a success the government attributes to community watch groups. Plans are under way to expand them to schools in all 34 provinces.

"For 30 years, people said to the uneducated that [schools] are something from foreigners, so burn them," says Mr. Patman. Now, villages are coming to the government and asking it to establish girls' schools, he says. "The enthusiasm we see is incredible."

For a nation often conflicted about the trappings of modernity, the eagerness of rural villages like Medrawer to patrol their own schools is telling. It suggests that, after years of ambivalence or even hostility, Afghans have come to recognize the importance of education – and they are willing to defend it, even in the wee hours of the morning with ax in hand.

Terrorists "are coming here and misusing the illiteracy of my people," says Abdul Qader Damanewal, an elder from a nearby village who sometimes stands guard here. "As soon as we are educated, the enemy will not be able to use them."

Citizen guards for where police are thin
Who the enemy was on the night of Feb. 9, 2006, the elders of Medrawer still don't know. Not surprisingly, Mr. Damanewal blames the Taliban for seeking to destroy what they see as an imposition of foreign values.

Medrawer could have been just one more school burned into oblivion. Allah Mohammad says that certainly seemed to be the plan. As the lone government guard on duty that night, the thin young man draped in a long beige shawl recalls the events with manic clarity. He scurries among the eucalyptus to show where some two dozen marauders poured over the wall after nightfall, where he was standing when they shot between his feet in warning, where they bound him hand and foot.

As they began to loot and burn, one put a can of gasoline next to Mr. Mohammad's face. "If you make a noise or try to escape, I will burn you alive," Mohammad recalls him saying.

They stayed for as long as four or five hours, after which Mohammad was able to sneak away for help. The town quickly converged on the school to put out the flames. But the damage was enormous. Photos taken in the aftermath show windows broken, walls seared by the flames, and what were once books scattered across the floor in ankle-deep piles of indistinguishable ash.

This is what Narzia Wafa remembers of her school on that day. "Everything was black with cinders," says the 12-year-old student, a math problem of intersecting angles on the blackboard behind her. "But still I came, and I was not scared."

"If we stopped coming, the enemy would just be encouraged," she adds.

When the local elders in Medrawer met to discuss the future of the girls' school, they knew that one underpaid government security guard wasn't enough. Nor could the government of Laghman Province provide police support: The entire province has only 250 police officers and 199 schools.

The solution was clear. "This was our responsibility," says Sayed Omer, another elder. "Who should protect our school if the government is not able?"

So the elders worked out a plan. Each village would be responsible for guarding the school for 10 nights, with shifts starting after evening prayers at 9 p.m. and ending before sunrise at 4 a.m. At the end of 10 days, another village would take over.

According to the rotating schedule, the men of Damanewal's village have worked the 10-day shift four different times since last February. During the night, the dozen men work in shifts, with six resting inside while the others split up into two groups of three, walking around the school wall simultaneously in opposite directions.

Using logic to fight the Taliban
These days, they've taken to doing it with a certain flair, bringing along sticks, axes, and old swords. But the intent is peaceful. "Even if we face some people, we'll first try to give them some logic," says the elder Mr. Omer, who exudes an urbane elegance with his sandy brown shawl and calm manner. "We will say, 'If you can convince us that this is a good thing, we will go and burn the school with you.'"

Such logic can have an effect, they say. It has already convinced one local Taliban commander, who has gone from denouncing the schools as tools of foreign oppression to protecting them. While he doesn't participate in school watches, he has pronounced that he would maim anyone who attacked a school in his district. He even sends his girls to school.

"He supports us [the government] in the schools but is against us on other things," says Asiruddin Hotak, Laghman's education administration director.

Mr. Hotak looks on the program with great pride. "This district was the first to protect its school," he says, suggesting that it started the trend. The Ministry of Education in Kabul is vaguer, saying the idea came from many places.

But officials there agree that engaging elders has led to a marked improvement in school security nationwide. Part of that has to do with winter, when all insurgent activity slows in Afghanistan. But "the primary reason for success is cooperation from the community," he says.

Here in Medrawer, it means that Atefa still has a school to attend.

Sitting in a spare classroom with rows of benches and desks for about 30 girls, she has an open reading textbook before her, bright with pictures. While other girls stand and answer questions at nervous attention, she sits almost casually, her pale eyes fixed and unblinking.

"I'm not scared, because I want to serve my country in the future," she says. "If [children] don't know anything, how will they be able to build this country?"
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UNICEF gears up to boost Afghan education as new school year begins
[Press Release] United Nations - Mar 19 12:07 PM
19 March 2007 – With more than 6 million Afghan children returning to school this week in grades 1 to 12, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has set itself a target of enrolling 400,000 more girls in basic education, providing learning materials to 5.4 million youngsters up to grade 9, and supplying teaching materials for over 100,000 teachers.

“It’s very exciting to see the increasing enrolments, it shows the commitment of parents wanting their children to be educated and ensuring that Afghanistan has an educated society in the future,” UNICEF Chief of Education for the country David McLoughlin told a news conference today in Kabul, the capital.

“It is incredible to see during the past five years that the people of Afghanistan have reaffirmed their commitment to their children’s and Afghanistan’s future by sending their children to school in unprecedented numbers that have never been seen before,” he added. “To have 6,080,260 children in school in a few days time is something that is very historic for this country.”

But major challenges still confront the country and UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Education in trying to overcome them. These include providing suitable teaching and learning accommodation throughout the country, developing effective teacher-training, and providing female teachers, of which there is a critical shortage affecting the retention rate of students, particularly girls.

Low rural literacy levels, with 90 per cent of women and 65 per cent of men still illiterate, provide another challenge as do improving the curriculum and school management, and developing school management committees to give ownership of education back to local communities.

UNICEF’s $25.4-million work plan within the Ministry of Education’s strategic plan also includes the construction of 246 cost-effective community schools. The plan is also supporting 140,000 women between the ages of 15 and 49 under the functional literacy programme through the establishment of 4,000 literacy centres throughout Afghanistan.
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Afghanistan: UNHCR increases cash grant for repatriation
KABUL, 20 March 2007 (IRIN) - Afghan refugees living in Iran and Pakistan will receive a six-fold increase in cash grants upon their return to Afghanistan, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

"We want to support the reintegration of Afghan returnees in their country by paying them more," Nadir Farhad, a UNHCR spokesman in Kabul, told IRIN.

Each Afghan national who returns to Afghanistan in 2007 will receive US $100. This is in addition to transportation assistance which the UN agency provides to repatriating individuals.

UNCHR began its Afghan voluntary repatriation programme in 2002 following the ousting of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The agency has since helped 3.7 million Afghans repatriate - the single largest repatriation operation in the organisation's 55-year history. A further one million refugees returned to Afghanistan without assistance.

More than two million Afghan refugees currently live in Pakistan and about 900,000 stay in Iran.

UNHCR plans to assist about 250,000 Afghans who want to voluntarily repatriate in 2007, a significant slump in numbers from the post-Taliban period of 2002 and 2003 when more than one million returned.

Insecurity in the south and south-eastern parts of Afghanistan coupled with limited socio-economical opportunities has slowed the repatriation pace.

Only 6 percent of the overall 4.7 million Afghans who have returned to Afghanistan since the US ousted the Taliban in October 2001 have settled in the country's volatile south.

A majority of returnees have chosen to return to the relatively calm capital, Kabul, and some other major cities in the north of the country.

In February 2007, the government of Pakistan, in collaboration with UNHCR, issued registration cards to Afghan refugees living on its territory, extending their stay in the country until 2009.

However, a substantial number of Afghans are still unregistered in Iran and Pakistan with no legal support from the UN or their host countries.

The government of Iran recently issued a 40-day warning to all unregistered Afghans to leave the country.

"We only support Afghan refugees that have registration cards from their respective host governments," said Farhad, adding that UNHCR would not provide assistance to unregistered emigrants who face deportation from Iran.

Unregistered Afghans in Pakistan who want to repatriate have until 15 April to request UNHCR's assistance.

Beyond financial and transportation assistance to those who voluntarily repatriate to Afghanistan, the UN refugee agency has said it will provide extended reintegration support only to "most vulnerable" families.

The organisation has a US $52 million budget for its Afghanistan operations in 2007. It aims to use part of this money to help about 11,000 disadvantaged families rebuild their houses in the war-torn country.

According to UNHCR, for decades Afghans constituted the world's single largest refugee population. At the height of the exodus, up to eight million people were living outside Afghanistan, mainly in Pakistan and Iran.

Many other Afghans have travelled to more than 70 other countries. In the five years since repatriation began, Afghanistan has become the world's largest returnee recipient.
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Italy to ask UN to back Afghanistan summit proposal 
ROME, March 19 (Xinhua) -- Italy will ask the United Nations to back its proposal for an international conference to help forge peace and stability in Afghanistan, Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said Monday.

D'Alema, who was scheduled to fly to Washington Monday afternoon, said he would raise the issue of a conference when he gives a speech at the UN Security Council meeting in New York Tuesday morning.

The minister said he would stress "the need for a strong political, economic and humanitarian commitment for the stability of Afghanistan, partly through an international conference."

D'Alema was to speak at the UN as part of a debate leading up to a vote at the Security Council later this week on the continuation of the UN civilian mission in Afghanistan, according to local media reports.

Italy has been calling for a summit on Afghanistan for several months. It envisages a UN-backed meeting involving regional powers such as Pakistan, India and Iran. Italy currently has 1,900 troops in Afghanistan on peacekeeping duties.
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Winning Afghan hearts and splitting hairs
By Philip Smucker Asia Times Online
KABUL - Amid political bickering in Washington and Brussels, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which assumed command of international military operations for Afghanistan last October, is struggling to assert a new image - one that Afghans can get their minds around.

"We are determined to build the NATO brand here in Afghanistan," said the North Atlantic Alliance's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Nicholas Lunt. The differences between a US-led 26- nation NATO alliance and a US-led coalition, the latter of which remains active and fighting in theater, however, are lost on many Afghans.

For one, NATO says it does not "do counter-terrorism", which it contends is a US specialty. The new "brand" of peacekeeping in Afghanistan, says Lunt, is not a matter of, as the US ground forces often say, "hunting down the bad guys".

"There are different approaches needed," said Lunt. "We have the Spanish, Italian and German efforts that are essentially non-combative, and the Turkish base in Wardak involves almost no counterinsurgency. We'll win by working more and more with Afghans, providing prosperity and literacy." If that sounds as though the alliance has gone soft, that is just the message NATO wants to project.

The alliance's approach to Afghanistan takes lessons from the past five years in country. Many NATO officers now view a vigorous hunt in hostile terrain for small cells of al-Qaeda to be - more often than not - counterproductive. Afghans tend to provide unreliable and conflicting intelligence, which often leads to collateral damage, spelled "innocent deaths". In short, not an effective way to win hearts or minds.

The "old" approach led by the US military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sometimes did more to anger Afghans than to stabilize the nation, say some Western diplomats in Kabul. Though "Abu Ghraib" is a dirty word from another war, Afghanistan has been home to a number of secret detention centers, all with their own dirty little secrets, including international rendition.

It is largely in opposition to these US- and Afghan-controlled detention centers, and reports that torture was commonplace therein, that many leading NATO member states decided to make it clear that they would no longer be party to the "old" approach.

Taking the lead on the other side of the Atlantic, Canada's defense minister has demanded accountability for any prisoners, Afghan or foreign, seized by Canadian forces and handed over for any length of time to the Afghan police or army. An often unspoken concern of NATO countries such as Canada is that the CIA might be in the next room in an Afghan detention center calling the shots.

Distancing themselves further, some European members refuse outright to enter the thick of the fight against the Taliban and foreign fighters, who stream in daily from Pakistan. Their refusal to mount combat operations has prompted rebukes from befuddled lawmakers on both sides of the isle in the US Congress.

"They [other NATO members] must also free their forces from restrictive 'national caveats' that limit their involvement in operations," Congressman Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, insisted last week. "Afghanistan is not only a central front in the war on terrorism, but the outcome there could well determine the future of the NATO alliance."

NATO officials in Kabul, however, appear unflustered by the growing political chasm. Lunt insisted: "We are different. Our efforts are not the same as those of some other efforts here. We will also judge the mission differently."

But are the differences between NATO and the US-led coalition really that great? According to the man who recently served as a spokesman for the US secretary of the army, Colonel Thomas Collins, "Not really." Collins should know. He is now a spokesman for the NATO-commanded International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

"We're really the same," he said. "Fundamentally, we have the same doctrine that guides us." One serious difference, though, is that "ISAF does not do counter-terrorism missions".

Provided with a concrete scenario, however, that NATO forces are trying to take back a Taliban stronghold and are coming face to face with a few dozen al-Qaeda affiliates, the colonel clarified. (After all, NATO isn't going to turn and run. In Afghanistan, where cowardice is abhorred, that would do nothing but draw public chuckles and inspire the enemy.) "Well, the way we put it is really a nuance," continued Collins. "NATO does counterinsurgency, not counter-terrorism. I'll be quite frank, it is dancing around words to a degree, but at the North Atlantic Council level, our mandate does not include counter-terrorism."

That may be because most NATO members - apart from the United States - rarely even refer to the "war on terror" anymore. It is a phrase too closely associated with the administration of US President George W Bush, which is not popular in the Islamic world.

The most genuine or real difference, however, is that there are specific US-led coalition "counter-terrorism forces" in Afghanistan, working outside of NATO, who, as Collins said, "have a very specific thing that they are going after".

This can also sound like splitting hairs, though. After all, NATO admits to having its own "special forces" on the ground in Afghanistan, albeit lurking in the shadows. If Delta Force gets into trouble in the Hindu Kush, you can be sure that the Special Air Service will be on call to bail it out.

Blurring the lines further, NATO's former supreme allied commander, retired General James L Jones, testified in front of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 8 that NATO ISAF's assumption of control over the entire Afghan stability mission is "testament to its growing capacity to engage in defense against common security challenges, including terrorism".

So is NATO's obsession with projecting "a new brand" apart from that of the US-led coalition really a key to the success of the Afghan mission? In the hinterlands, such as the city of Assadabad, hard up against the rocky Hindu Kush, verbal distinctions are lost on a wizened Mullah Nakibullah, who fought the Russians but has now - unlike most of his neighbors - embraced the US commanders in Kunar province.

He regularly confers with the local US leader and NATO reconstruction-team chief, Commander "Doc" Scholl, over tea and crumpets. For that he says he has earned the ire of many fellow residents in Assadabad, even government officials, who are under pressure from locals to distance themselves from the American "infidels".

Many Afghan farmers have been alienated by the aggressive tactics of US forces in the past five years, said Mullah Nakibullah. They do not want to be associated with the US brand, and if you ask them about the difference between the "coalition" and the "alliance", they scratch their heads or stroke their beards.

One thing that US Army officers and NATO spokespeople agree on, however, is that Afghanistan will likely be won or lost in the next several years not by counter-terrorism in the remote mountains, but by good deeds and honest words in the valleys. Development and stability, they hope, will put the "bad guys" out of business.

Lunt, a student of military history, says this will not require the reinvention of the wheel. Winning hearts and minds in the hinterland implies a lot of boot leather and hard work.

"It is a certain rehashing of the ideas of T E Lawrence [of Arabia] and making them relevant for today," he said, referring to the famed British officer who helped persuade Arab leaders to coordinate a revolt against the Ottomans to aid British interests.

That translates into knowing the culture, speaking the language and finding common ground, all of which could well prove challenges enough for both NATO and the US-led coalition.

Philip Smucker is a commentator and journalist based in South Asia and the Middle East. He is the author of Al Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail (2004).
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Pakistani tribes, militants clash, 47 dead
Tue Mar 20, 2007 9:25 PM IST
WANA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Nearly 50 people, including 35 foreign militants, have been killed in two days of fighting between the al Qaeda-linked militants and Pakistani tribesmen, Pakistani government officials said on Tuesday.

A battle between foreign militants, most of them Uzbeks, and ethnic Pashtun tribesmen erupted in the remote area near the Afghan border on March 6.

It followed government efforts to convince the tribesmen to help keep order and stop militant raids into Afghanistan.

The latest fighting broke out on Monday in Shin Warsak village, 7 km west of Wana, the main town in the South Waziristan region.

"According to our reports 35 Uzbek militants and 12 tribal combatants have been killed," said a senior government official, who declined to be identified. An intelligence official in the area gave the same toll.

Military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said earlier the fighting was still going on and up to 35 people had been killed, at least half of them foreign militants.

Security forces were not involved, Arshad said.

Hundreds of foreign militants, including Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs, fled to the semi-autonomous tribal lands on the Pakistani side of the border after U.S.-led forces defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

Most Pashtun tribesmen, who inhabit both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border, gave the militants refuge despite government efforts to clear the foreigners out.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding out somewhere in the rugged belt of mountains and deserts along the border.

"A SUCCESS"
The latest fighting indicates that in at least one area, relations between the militants and tribesmen have broken down.

"It's a success of the government tribesmen strategy ... the tribesmen are fed up with them because they and their activities adversely affect their lives and business," Arshad said.

Among the dead were three children killed by a mortar bomb on their way home from school on Monday, a teacher said.

"The children were getting off their school bus and some had started walking home when a mortar bomb hit," said the teacher, Noorzali. Some children were wounded, he said.

Several wounded civilians were flown to hospital in the northwestern city of Peshawar, the senior official said.

An intelligence official in Wana said the Uzbek militants had cut off a road to the west of the town and security forces would take action to clear it if they didn't withdraw in 24 hours.

Seventeen people, most of them Uzbeks, were killed in the March 6 battle that broke out after the militants tried to kill a pro-government tribal leader.

The cause of the latest fighting was not clear, but the tribal leader and his men had been demanding that the foreign militants lay down their arms, a security official in the area said.

The militants have over the past few years killed scores of people across the region, including pro-government tribal leaders and people they accuse of spying for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Islamabad)
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Economic Future Of Afghanistan Grounded In Copper
Science Daily - Mar 20 2:05 AM
Science Daily — A British Geological Survey (BGS) project funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) addresses the need to alleviate poverty in Afghanistan by encouraging inward investment, commercial and infrastructure development and provides an alternative source of income to poppy cultivation.

Afghanistan is well endowed with mineral resources such as copper, gold, iron ore and gemstones. During the late 1970's and 1980's, Russian geologists carried out wide ranging exploration surveys for metals. One of the most advanced of these prospects, the Aynak Copper Deposit, located 35 km south of Kabul, consists of 240 Mt grading 2.3% Copper. This copper was formed within marbles and schists deposited some 500 million years ago.

Anthony Benham, project geologist at BGS explained: "BGS geologists have been assisting the Afghanistan Geological Survey (AGS) over the past two years with scanning, digitising and re-interpreting data from the Aynak Copper Deposit. My colleagues and I have created a detailed three-dimensional model of the deposit. We also helped in carefully archiving and cataloguing all geological information and with rebuilding the AGS library, museum and laboratories. Teaching English to AGS geologists, developing computing capacity and updating their geological knowledge have formed a vital part of this project."

Assistance from the World Bank and BGS enabled the Ministry of Mines in Afghanistan to prepare a new Mining Law in 2005. This law will enable it to effectively and efficiently manage an emerging mining industry. The development of a minerals industry in Afghanistan has a potential value of at least 300 million dollars a year.

In late 2006 tenders were invited for the Aynak Copper Deposit. Currently expressions of interest have been received from mining companies based in Australia, India, Canada, Kazakhstan, China, USA and Russia. Central to this tendering process is the availability of the original Russian data now translated into English and available in digital format.

Much more detailed work remains to be carried out, and multi-million dollar investment will be needed before a mine can be brought into production, but the BGS work forms the essential basis for these future developments. Indeed BGS works world-wide in aiding developing countries to rebuild their geological infrastructure.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by British Geological Survey.
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BearingPoint Lands Afghanistan Project
By David Hubler Special to the Washington Post Monday, March 19, 2007; D04
BearingPoint of McLean has won a five-year, $218.6 million contract from the Agency for International Development to help modernize and upgrade ministerial, private-sector and educational services in Afghanistan.

The Afghans Building Capacity Program contract is one of USAID's largest individual awards for economic reform and private-sector development since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

BearingPoint will work with USAID and the Afghan government to train government, public-sector and education officials in performing essential tasks such as budget preparation and disbursement, interagency coordination and human resources. Graduate programs set up at Afghan universities will give middle managers the opportunity to earn advanced degrees.

Mid-level managers and officials in Kabul and the provinces will receive on-the-job training, individual coaching and classroom instruction, said Pat Bryski, managing director of BearingPoint's emerging markets practice and head of the financial and private-sector development program in Afghanistan.

"It may [include] taking them to another country, Poland for example, to expose them to best practices on how an emerged country might execute a budget or manage their human resource management processes within a ministry, a business or a university," Bryski said. "It's meant to be a very multifaceted program that gives many tools to meet the needs of the Afghan government."

A BearingPoint launch team is already in Afghanistan developing specifics of the programs and determining how many specialists will be needed to run them.

BearingPoint has been working in Afghanistan since 2002, when a team of 30 technicians and financial experts helped rebuild the Afghan banking system and its commercial interests.

The two previous USAID contracts focused on economics and a few select ministries, said James Horner, senior vice president of BearingPoint's emerging markets practice.

"What this new program does is it goes into quite a few parts of the government in Afghanistan that have not really been touched and not really been part of previous USAID programs," he said

David Hubler is an associate editor with Washington Technology. For information on this and other contracts, go tohttp://www.washingtontechnology.com.
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AIDS arrives in Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan, March 19 (UPI) -- Health officials caution that surveys showing a minuscule rate of HIV infection in Afghanistan are inaccurate.

The New York Times reported that surveys show that Afghanistan has 69 recorded cases of HIV and three deaths.

"That figure is absolutely unreliable, even dangerous," Nilufar Egamberdi, a World Bank consultant on HIV and AIDS, told the Times.

The World Health Organization has estimated that 1,000 to 2,000 Afghans are infected. Even that larger number is "not even close to reality," Egamberdi told the Times.

A doctor working in a United Arab Emirates hospital who asked that his name not be used told the newspaper that the rate of infection in Afghanistan had to be higher, based on the mandatory testing of foreign workers done at his hospital in 2001 and 2002, when 23 Afghans tested HIV positive.

"There were only 30 known cases in Afghanistan then and I knew of 23 more," he said.

The Times said HIV and AIDS carries a stigma in the Muslim country and little or no public education is done to contain its spread.
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Manufacturer: Israeli spy planes patrolling the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan
By Associated PressMonday, March 19, 2007 via Boston Herald
JERUSALEM - Pilotless planes small enough for a single soldier to carry and operate are gathering intelligence for U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli manufacturer said Monday.
 Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s leading defense electronics companies, said its little ”Skylark” can cover an area within a range of 6 miles day or night. It is about 7 feet long with a wingspan of nearly 8 feet, the company said.
 
”Skylark is operational and currently deployed in the global war on terror in Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan,” the statement said. It described the Skylark as suited for ”close range, beyond-the-next hill, counter-terror missions.”
 
Lt. Col. Matthew McLaughlin of CENTCOM, the American command that handles Iraq and Afghanistan, said the military ”would not confirm the use of the drone,” but is always looking for aircraft with such capabilities.
 
The U.S. relies heavily on pilotless planes of all shapes and sizes for surveillance, launching missiles and other missions in the region.
 
Elbit said the Skylark, one of several items of Israeli defense hardware deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be unveiled to the public at the March 20-25 Australian International Airshow.
 
Earlier this month, state-owned arms-maker Rafael said it had won a contract to supply the U.S. Marine Corps with state-of the-art armored vehicles, and military analysts said Israeli firms had long been supplying and maintaining equipment for American ground and naval forces in Iraq, although both buyers and sellers generally preferred to keep a low profile.
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Girls school torched in Herat
HERAT CITY, Mar 18 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Interior Ministry announced that a girls school was set on fire, but the Herat Education Department said the fire was accidental.

In a press release issued Sunday, the Interior Ministry said the school was set on fire by the enemies of education, in Oaba district of Herat province, two days ago.

The press release said a section of the school library had been burnt, but thanks to the timely assistance by the local police, further damage to the building was prevented.

Mohammad Din Fahim, Head of the Education Department of Heart, however told Pajhwok Afghan News that the fire was accidental.

Fahim said the security guard of the building had said in preliminary investigations, that unknown men had burnt the school but later he confessed that the fire had started when he tried to turn on a lamp.

According to education officials, 200 schools were torched last year and over 0.1 million students were deprived of education in the country.

The Government blames the Taliban for these acts, but the group rejects any involvement in burning down the schools.
Ahmad Qurishi
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