Afghan villagers stand guard to protect school
PeaceJournalism, 3.28.2007, By Mark Sappenfield
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 way 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 programme. 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 recognise the importance of education ? and they are willing to defend it, even in the wee hours of the morning with axe 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."
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.
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.
Officials at the Ministry of Education in Kabul agree that engaging elders has led to a marked improvement in school security nationwide.
Here in Medrawer, it means that Atefa still has a school to attend.
"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?"
Mark Sappenfield is a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org. The full text can be found at www.csmonitor.com
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Taliban "will free Afghan medical team for prisoners"
Kandahar (AFP) - be a Taliban commander said he was holding a medical team in southern Afghanistan and would release them in exchange for militants in custody.
The Afghan doctor, three nurses and their driver were kidnapped in the southern province of Kandahar on Tuesday.
"We have the five-member medical team, they are safe and sound," a man claiming to be a local-level Taliban commander named Tur Jan told AFP by telephone from a secret location.
"We are making a list of our prisoners and will release them in exchange for our men in the government prisons," he said.
An Italian journalist was freed by the Taliban on March 19 after a militant commander said the government had released five high-profile Taliban prisoners.
The government admitted it had freed some Taliban, but said it was a one-off deal.
The Taliban are still holding an Afghan journalist who was kidnapped with the Italian in Helmand province March 4. The militants beheaded an Afghan driver, accusing him of being a spy.
The exchange has angered journalists and diplomats who said it encouraged militants and criminals to carry out kidnappings to win the release of prisoners.
Afghans have also accused the government of being more concerned with the fate of a foreign national than an Afghan.
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7 killed in new Afghan unrest
Kandahar (AFP) - a police post in southern Afghanistan, killing two policemen and kidnapping two others while NATO forces killed five rebels in the east, officials said Thursday.
The new unrest in Kandahar province came as a man claiming to be a Taliban commander in the area said he was holding three nurses, a doctor and their driver hostage and would release them for militants in prison.
Insurgents stormed a police post north of Kandahar city late Wednesday, provincial police chief Asmatullah Alizay told AFP. "Two police were martyred in the attack. Taliban have abducted two other police as well," he said.
In a separate incident, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said it had killed five militants west of the city in an overnight operation.
Kandahar province is the birthplace of the Islamist Taliban and with neighbouring Helmand sees much of an insurgency launched by the religious movement after it was toppled from government in 2001 in a US-led offensive.
A man claiming to be a local-level Taliban commander said meanwhile the medical team, snatched on Tuesday, were "safe and sound."
"We are making a list of our prisoners and will release them in exchange for our men in the government prisons," the purported commander named Tur Jan told AFP by telephone from a secret location.
An Italian journalist was freed by the Taliban on March 19 after a militant commander said the government had released five high-profile Taliban prisoners. The government admitted it had freed some Taliban, but said it was a one-off deal.
In another incident, Afghan border police arrested five militants including two foreign fighters with weapons, explosives and radios in eastern Nangarhar province, the interior ministry said.
The insurgency has grown steadily despite the efforts of an international military deployment that has swollen about 50,000 troops from 37 countries.
The number of incidents in January 2007 was double the same month last year, according to a UN Security Council report released mid-March. The report also said the violence had resulted in more than 2,730 deaths in the six months to February this year.
It gave no details but most of the deaths are believed to be of rebel fighters, with a NATO-led operation in September said to have killed hundreds. The insurgency resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 people last year, according to figures released in an official report.
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Spanta critical of deal with Taliban
KABUL, Mar 29 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Foreign Minister Dr Ragin Dadfar Spanta has expressed his displeasure over the release of five Taliban prisoners in exchange for the Italian journalist.
Speaking at a news conference here on Thursday, Spanta said he would not set free a single Taliban member even for the release of 10 foreigners if he was given the choice.
He said such measures would not only increase kidnapping of journalists, but also discourage the Afghans and the international community fighting against the militants.
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Pakistan ‘hampering Afghan integration with South Asia’
via Gulf Times (Qatar) - Thursday, 29 March, 2007 Doha Time
KABUL: Afghanistan joins a South Asian economic grouping next week but Pakistan’s refusal to allow transit for Indian goods headed for Kabul would prevent true integration, the Afghan foreign minister said yesterday.
Afghanistan will become the eighth member of Saarc, or the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, during a summit of member nations in New Delhi on April 3 and 4.
By joining Saarc, strategically located Afghanistan hopes to link its war-ravaged economy with the more prosperous subcontinent to spur reconstruction and development and boost trade.
However, Pakistan’s denial of transit rights to Indian goods bound for Afghanistan - saying New Delhi and Islamabad must first resolve their longstanding political disputes, including Kashmir, was a major hurdle, said Rangin Dadfar Spanta. “Indeed, that is one of the serious barriers on the way to bringing the countries closer together,” Spanta said in an interview.
“But I recognise ... hopeful progress in the relationship between India and Pakistan. And I hope the result of this development is and will be to open the roads from India to Afghanistan.”
Saarc, which also includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, was formed in 1985 to help bring prosperity to one of the world’s poorest regions.
The region is home to about 1.5bn people, tens of millions of them living in abject poverty. Although Saarc aims to boost growth, critics say it has remained a talking shop whose lofty speeches are rarely translated into action.
Much of the blame has been laid on hostilities between two of its biggest members, India and Pakistan, as their historic rivalry has spilled over into the grouping and overshadowed it.
Both countries have also been vying for influence over Kabul since the Taliban government was ousted by US-led forces in 2001 but Islamabad’s denial of transit rights to New Delhi has meant Pakistan remains Afghanistan’s biggest trading partner.
While Afghan exports are allowed to transit through Pakistan to India, Indian businessmen complain flying goods to Afghanistan or using the sea route through the Pakistani port of Karachi or the Iranian port of Chabahar are too expensive.
Spanta said this had been raised often by Afghan President Hamid Karzai with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and by himself with Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri.
“We need more time and also patience,” Spanta said, adding that a slow peace process between India and Pakistan was expected to resolve the transit dispute.
Karzai’s Western-backed government has struggled to reconstruct a country torn by almost three decades of conflict, despite billions of dollars being pumped in by donors.
Its farm sector has been neglected for decades and industry non-existent. This, combined with a lack of jobs, high levels of graft, a thriving drug trade and a resurgent Taliban, have led to widespread unhappiness among Afghans, analysts say.
Afghanistan is a transit route for gas from Central Asia and itself has rich reserves of copper, iron and coal.
While Afghan exports were just $470mn in 2005 - mostly wheat, fruits, nuts, wool, meat and sheepskin, gems and carpets - the country imported almost everything else at a cost of $3.9bn, according to one American estimate.
But this only indicated Afghanistan had major business potential, said Hamidullah Farooqi, chief executive of the Afghanistan International Chamber of Commerce.
“Wherever there are problems there are opportunities,” said Farooqi, who also teaches economics at Kabul University. “This is a country with some risks but huge opportunities.” - Reuters
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Pakistan: Surge of Afghans repatriating
ISLAMABAD, 29 March 2007 (IRIN) - The number of Afghans returning from Pakistan has increased considerably over the past week following the announcement of an increased assistance package for each returnee by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
In an effort to facilitate Afghan returnees' reintegration, UNHCR recently increased its assistance package three-fold from US $30 to $100 for each Afghan returning to Afghanistan.
This monetary increase has been well advertised among Afghan communities living in Pakistan by way of pamphlets, newspapers, radio and TV advertisements. This has resulted in more Afghans coming to UNHCR repatriation assistance centres in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan province where most Afghan exiles live.
In the first week of this year's voluntary repatriation drive, which started on 1 March, only 274 Afghans returned. But they were followed by more than 1,000 in the second week and nearly 12,000 in the third week. More than 25,000 have returned so far this week, according to UNHCR.
"We are processing more than 700 [Afghan] families or around 5,000 individuals daily from two repatriation centres," Vivian Tan, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Islamabad, said on Wednesday.
More than 38,000 Afghans have repatriated since 1 March, with 90 percent of the returnees coming from NWFP - which is home to nearly 1.5 million Afghan refugees.
According to UNHCR officials, a combination of reasons has contributed to the recent increase.
"The attraction of the enhanced return package, unregistered Afghans realising that the grace period is half over, and quite possibly the warmer weather inside Afghanistan could be the pull factors," Tan said.
Pakistan has hosted millions of Afghan refugees, fleeing conflict in Afghanistan, for more than a quarter of a century.
In an effort to ascertain the number and profile of the exiled Afghan population, Pakistani authorities carried out a four-month countrywide campaign from October 2006 to February 2007.
More than 2.1 million Afghans were registered during the campaign and were issued with 'Proof of Registration' cards valid for a three-year period.
Afghans who failed to register have been given a grace period until 15 April to do so.From 16 April, those who have still not registered will not avail UNHCR's voluntary repatriation assistance package
To date, about 400,000 Afghans have not registered with the Pakistani authorities, according to Afghan embassy officials in Islamabad.
More than 2.8 million Afghans have voluntarily returned from Pakistan since 2002 under UNHCR's voluntary return assistance programme.
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Afghanistan: 'Two feet and a lot of skin'
By Philip Smucker Asia Times Online / March 29, 2007
GURBUZ, Afghanistan - Government officials in this town in Khost province refer to the cross-border operations simply as "Suicide, Inc", a sophisticated joint venture between al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Young Arab, Pakistani and Afghan bombers strapped with increasingly potent bombs aim for softer and softer civilian targets, both Afghan and Western. Just in tiny Khost province alone, which sits opposite the outlaw Pakistani city of Miram Shah, there have been two dozen suicide bomb attacks in the past year. In one of the most recent attacks, a suicide blast killed six civilians and injured 31 people in Khost city.
The figure spiked late in the year because of a "peace deal" signed between Pakistan's government and tribal elders of North Waziristan who are in league with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, according to Western diplomats and a just-released United Nations report.
After the deal, attacks went up by 50% in Khost and by 77% in neighboring Paktika, according to the UN report, along with a near-tripling of such attacks in 2006. Citing fresh transfers of bomb-making technology from the war in Iraq to this remote South Asian frontier, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said bombers and insurgents have been "emboldened by their strategic successes, rather than disheartened by tactical failures".
A record number of 77 suicide attacks were recorded in the past six months, up from 53 over the previous six months, with most directed against foreign military convoys, "but civilians were increasingly targeted", Ban said.
"According to national and international security sources, the training camps for these attacks are located outside Afghanistan," Ban said. "The al-Qaeda-affiliated trainers in these facilities reportedly include Chechens and Uzbeks, as well as Yemenis and other Arab nationals. Four of the 12 identified suicide bombers in January 2007 were not Afghans."
Taliban commanders have warned that they have more than 2,000 suicide bombers ready to be launched ahead of their planned massive spring offensive.
In sunny Khost province, where the governor's guards stand at attention with fresh flowers in their hair, the relatively new phenomenon of suicide bombing has angered residents and altered shopping habits.
One local religious leader refers to the suiciders, who stream in from Pakistan on foot, on bicycle and on motorcycles, as Osama bin Laden's "bastard children". Locals say many of the bombers are war orphans raised in virulently anti-American madrassas, or religious schools.
"They don't have a family, and so al-Qaeda and rogue elements in Pakistan's intelligence agencies nurture them and instill in them wills of steel," said Major Bismullah, a former intelligence official in Khost who now acts a police chief on Khost's newly paved "suicide highway".
As elsewhere in the Islamic world, al-Qaeda is a facilitator of terror, rarely the direct instigator. Bin Laden's experts corral anti-American sentiment within disparate, home-grown Islamic groups and launch young men over the mountains toward martyrdom. At least some of them are being pushed across the border with a blessing from Egyptian Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's wizened and bespectacled ideological lieutenant, says a senior Afghan intelligence official in Kabul.
In Khost, three major mountain passes link Pashtun tribesmen across the disputed Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan. But there are dozens of buzrao, or goat paths, which bombers can navigate unseen by border guards. One lost bomber is known to have stopped to ask a group of small children for directions to downtown Khost. At least two recent bombers arrived at their target on bicycles.
"The other side of the border is heavily populated and there is a concentration of extremist religious schools there," said Khost Governor Arsallah Jamal. "We are an ideal target because they can simply walk into a booming metropolitan area from Pakistan within hours."
More than 1,000 persons cross legally every day from Pakistan into Khost. Even if the Afghans knew who the bombers were, they would be hard pressed to "catch up to their Japanese motorcycles on our cheap Pakistani imitations", said Major Bismullah, who travels to and from work with his two heavily armed sons. None of the bombers entering Khost has been captured alive, a credit to their well-crafted detonation devices that allow them to blow themselves up by pressing a button - usually positioned on the arm or wrist.
"The only thing left of them after they are done is two feet and a lot of skin," complained the major. "If we get a finger, we have to send it to Kabul to analyze the prints."
American soldiers in the 82nd Airborne have been trained in advance of their deployment to spot suicide bombers and deal with them accordingly, said Lieutenant-Colonel Scott Custer, the unit's combat operations chief in Khost.
"We look for gestures in their eyes," Custer said, adding that it was not blind luck when a young US sergeant spotted a bomber late last month disguised as a surgeon at a dedication ceremony for the recently renovated Khost hospital.
"He spotted his nervousness and shouted for him to halt," said the colonel, who witnessed the attack. The Afghans had time to scatter and the sergeant, later rewarded for his bravery, tackled the bomber and shot him once through the leg before retreating as several US officers riddled the bomber with machine-gun bullets. In his death throes, the bomber was able to clasp his hands together and detonate his explosives, causing only minor injuries to the tackler and bystanders.
Afghan and US officials now believe that an accomplice had dropped the suicide vest off in the hospital before the ceremony.
With the knowledge that it is rare to catch a bomber before he blows, the US government in conjunction with Afghan authorities has launched a rewards program for information leading to the arrest of bombers. The efforts have provided mixed results. One villager, who said he had identified a bomber before he exploded himself harmlessly on a hilltop, said he is still owed US$9,000 for identifying the attacker and initiating a chase.
Governor Jamal also uses billboards, rewards and public rallies in an effort to curtail the bombings. The billboards depict a bomber and warn that it is Islamic sacrilege to kill oneself in such a manner. Suicide bombing as a tactic of war was unheard of in the long Afghan jihad against Soviet aggression, when residents in Khost prided themselves in shooting down helicopters and ambushing foot patrols.
At a recent rally of tribal elders in the soccer stadium, the governor asked the US military to back off from security detail as a way of showing that Afghans are taking the lead in fighting the phenomenon.
Authorities in Pakistan, though, take the opposite tack.
In Waziristan, al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, mimicking similar martyrdom celebrations in the West Bank and parts of the Arab world, throw lavish parties for the families of the bombers, said Afghan intelligence officials.
But such morbid celebrations for the departed do not necessarily soothe the hearts of relatives. A religious leader in Khost recounts the story of an Afghan father in Waziristan. He had just sent his son off to a madrassa and left to work in Saudi Arabia to support the family. When he returned, he asked the mullah at the madrassa how his son had done in school. The mullah said, "He has done so well that he has been sent to heaven." The father collapsed and began to pull out his hair.
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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Pakistan Tries to Negotiate Peace in Tribal Areas
Voice of America By Benjamin Sand 29 March 2007
Pakistan is trying a new approach of negotiations and development projects to secure its volatile tribal regions. But U.S. and Afghan officials are concerned it will not be enough to keep Taleban militants from using the area to as a launch pad for attacks in Afghanistan. The issue is particularly worrisome as the militants are expected to begin a new offensive in the coming weeks. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports.
Pakistani authorities this week signed their third peace agreement with local leaders in the often-lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
Army spokesman Major General Wahid Arshad says tribesmen in the Bajur region have agreed to sever ties with foreign militants - often Islamic militants who lead attacks in Afghanistan.
"This undertaking given by the tribes is basically because the tribes have now realized it is important to have peace in their area and it is also important to ensure no one uses their area coming from Afghanistan and other place," said Arshad.
The Bajur deal is part of a new strategy, using negotiations, development projects and other enticements to break ties between area residents and the Taleban.
Towns and villages all along the rugged area have been overrun by the Islamist hard-liners. Residents say some villages have become little more than jihadist way stations in the fight against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The Taleban, who advocate an extreme fundamentalist form of Islam, ran Afghanistan for several years until being ousted by a U.S.-led invasion force in 2001. Many Taleban leaders and their allies in the al Qaida terrorism network are believed to be hiding along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.
For several years, Pakistan's military has battled the insurgents, but General Arshad says the army can only accomplish so much.
"Military operations are only the means to and end and not an end in themselves," he said.
Officials from the United States and Afghanistan say the Pakistan military has had little success in preventing cross-border raids. And some experts say Pakistan's military operations are increasingly seen as counter productive. They say incidents such as a government air strike on an Islamic school last October, in which more than 80 people died, only increase anger at Islamabad.
General Arshad says under the new strategy, 80,000 troops in the tribal area will continue to pressure militants, while the government focuses on wooing residents.
Security analysts have been critical of the new strategy. The International Crisis Group's Samina Ahmed says pro-Taleban militants continue to expand their influence in the region.
"What we have witnessed in this region is an alliance between the Taleban and local militants," said Ahmed. "In effect, in parts of the tribal agencies the militants are running parallel administrations."
There are reports of Taleban fighters taking control of villages and ordering men to grow beards, women to wear all-covering burqas and closing schools and other public venues they consider un-Islamic.
Despite such concerns, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam this week said the new approach is bearing fruit. She noted a recent battle between tribesmen and the Taleban, in which more than 100 militants died.
"This shows the success of the strategy that the government of Pakistan has adopted," she said. "If anyone had any doubt about the success of this deal it should be obvious to them now."
U.S. officials, however, are among those who are not convinced by the new strategy.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, in Islamabad last week, said it is too early to assess its long-term effectiveness.
"I think everybody recognizes that at this point - and perhaps that will change - the political deal in Waziristan has not stopped the militancy," he said.
Boucher left little doubt that Washington has made stabilizing the volatile tribal areas a top priority.
The U.S. will provide $750 million over the next five years to help redevelop the region.
"I think this commitment to the development of Pakistan, this commitment to a long-term relationship, is another example of the very broad and deep relationship we have and that we are developing with Pakistan," said Boucher.
Security experts say the U.S. effort makes sense. Militants use the area's crushing poverty to help recruit new foot soldiers, so experts say development projects could go a long way toward stabilizing the region.
But economic diplomacy is a long-term effort, and so is Pakistan's new strategy of winning local support in the fight against foreign militants.
The concern here is more immediate. U.S. defense experts say Taleban insurgents are massing along the border and could be days away from a new offensive against U.S. and Afghan forces.
Against that backdrop, the latest peace agreement in the tribal areas is likely to generate more concern, not less, about Pakistan's commitment to securing the tribal region.
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Soldier, tribesmen killed as Pakistan violence spreads
Islamabad (AFP) - lew himself up among troops resting near an army base in Pakistan Thursday, killing a soldier, as a wave of Islamist violence gripped several parts of the key US ally.
The blast in eastern Pakistan came as a week-old ceasefire broke down between warring tribesemen and Al-Qaeda rebels in a region bordering Afghanistan, while troops enforced a curfew in a Taliban-plagued town.
Meanwhile female students at a radical Muslim school in Islamabad released a brothel owner and two of her relatives, ending a tense standoff with the government.
Analysts say the incidents show the spread of "Talibanisation" from Pakistan's tribal areas, posing a serious challenge to the government of President Pervez Musharraf, who backs the US-led "war on terror."
The suicide attacker struck near a driver training centre at the garrison town of Kharian, killing one soldier and wounding seven, military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said.
"It was a suicide bombing," Arshad told AFP. "The soldiers were sitting near their vehicle outside the garrison area doing some work and the bomber came and blew himself up."
It was the eighth in a series of suicide blasts that have rocked Pakistan this year leaving scores of people dead, mostly blamed on Pakistani Taliban militants based in the troubled South Waziristan tribal area.
One pro-government tribesman was killed and three were injured in South Waziristan on Thursday as fresh fighting shattered a truce between local tribes and Uzbek and Chechen Al-Qaeda rebels.
Another two Uzbeks were arrested when tribesmen overran a checkpoint.
Clashes there last week left 160 people dead after a former Taliban chief, who the government says has crossed to its side, ordered foreign Islamists led by top Uzbek militant Tahir Yuldashev to disarm.
Pakistan says the clashes show the success of its policy of encouraging tribes to drive out foreigners who fled Afghanistan after the 2002 fall of the Taliban, instead of using army operations that alienate local people.
A "mentally disturbed" soldier from a local tribal militia shot and seriously wounded two colleagues in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, officials said.
Troops also enforced a tense curfew for a second day in the town of Tank -- which is not in the tribal belt but is next to South Waziristan -- following clashes between Taliban and security forces.
A man was hit and killed by a car in Tank when residents fled in panic from an army patrol. Several families fled the area and 10 people were arrested for violating the curfew, officials said.
A Taliban leader and a policeman were killed in Tank on Monday when militant recruiters tried to enter a high school. Gunmen kidnapped the school's principal the next day and a soldier and two other people died on Wednesday.
Meanwhile pro-Taliban woman students in Islamabad claimed victory against the government after freeing an alleged brothel boss, named only as Shamim, whom they had kidnapped with two female relatives on Tuesday.
The woman appeared before the media at the students' madrassa wearing a burqa and read out a confession in which she promised to shun "immoral acts."
The kidnap sparked tensions when police arrested two female teachers from the school on Wednesday. Baton-wielding students then abducted two passing policemen. The police officers and the teachers were freed late Wednesday.
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Gitmo's Afghan prisoners to be shifted to Kabul
KABUL, Mar 27 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Presidential spokesman Karim Rahimi has said that all Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram will be transferred to the newly-constructed block at Pul-i-Charkhi jail in Kabul.
The new block, constructed at the cost of $16.9 million, was inaugurated by Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak during a ceremony on Sunday.
After their shifting to the Pul-i-Charkhi prison, the Afghan government would be responsible for the security and litigations of the Afghan prisoners, Rahimi informed.
He welcomed the agreement between the government of Pakistan and the tribal elders from Bajaur Agency. Some 800 elders from the agency assured the government that they would not shelter or support foreign and local militants.
He said the Afghan government was supportive of all pacts aimed at bringing peace and stability to the region. At the same time, he referred to previous such agreements, which did not bear positive results.
About the kidnapped Afghan journalist, Rahimi said the government was doing its utmost to ensure his safe release.
He said father of the hostage had written a letter to President Hamid Karzai requesting him to use all possible means to ensure his safety. The president directed the security organs to mount efforts for the safe release of the journalist.
The captive, Ajmal Naqshbandi, was kidnapped along with Italian journalist Danielle Mastrogiacomo on March 4. The Italian reporter was set free on March 19 in exchange for the release five Taliban prisoners; however, his Afghan guide is still in the custody of Taliban.
Asked about Taliban readiness for negotiations for the release of the journalist, Rahimi said: "Our target is the safe release of Ajmal and it is up to the security organs to adopt whatever means they deem proper."
Regarding the deal for the release of Italian journalist, Rahimi once again said it was an "exceptional arrangement".
About the poppy eradication campaign in the country, he said the drive was going on. Poppies standing on some 12,000 acres of land had been eradicated so far, he added.
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Panjshir Province serves as model for Afghan success
COMBINED JOINT TASK FORCE- 82 COMBINED PRESS INFORMATION CENTER BAGRAM AIRFIELD, AFGHANISTAN
March 28, 2007 By: Army Sgt. Timothy Dinneen Regional Command-East Public Affairs
PANJSHIR, Afghanistan – The tomb of Shaeed Ahmad Shah Masood, “The Lion of Panjshir,” stands on a hilltop overlooking the mountainous river valley he dedicated his life protecting against Soviet invasions and Taliban assaults. Although assassinated by Al Qaeda days prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, his legacy of peace and progress for free Afghans endures through progress by Panjsheeris. This progress serves as a model for the whole of Afghanistan.
Panjshir Province is a model of success because of the strength shown by the people living within the valley. Panjsheeris are providing the muscle behind security, cultivating a fertile environment for construction projects and humanitarian-aid assistance, according to Army Maj. Clifford White, deputy provincial reconstruction team commander, Panjshir PRT.
“We live in one of the best neighborhood watches on the planet,” said White. “They do more than guard houses, when we go on missions, they come with us. The security details are from all six districts so they know the people and the terrain. When we have problems, they handle it Afghan against Afghan.”
Panjshir has only been recognized as a province since 2004, and they have completed a micro hydro plant for electricity generation, new roads for commerce, bridges, wells, schools and a radio station to connect the remote valley to the rest of the country.
Furthermore, Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, deputy commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force-82, arrived March 27 for the groundbreaking of a new public works building.
“The [Afghan] New Year provides a great opportunity to focus on the future of reconstruction and not a future of war,” said Votel. “Public works will play a key part in the future of Panjshir sustaining a self-sufficient province. Education and agriculture are also important, but without public works children cannot attend school, adults can’t get to work and produce won’t reach the market.”
Votel acknowledged the positive security situation in Panjshir has made reconstruction possible.
“Cooperative security here is a model for the rest of Afghanistan and hopefully the reconstruction will also serve as a model,” Votel said. “It is a step-by-step process and today is a big step.”
The public works building will help with road clearing, water purification, landscaping and waste management; many of the small things a community needs in order for the bigger projects to get underway.
“This is a nice, secure province because the people won’t allow the Taliban here,” said Saddeem, a local student. “People are generally happy with the American presence because they recognize they are helping.”
White did concede there are some security issues within the Panjshir community, but at the end of the day they all recognize they must work together peacefully to succeed.
“There are a number of factions that disagree, however, as Governor Balu said, ‘Panjshir is like an open hand with it’s fingers arguing, however when outside forces try and take something from the valley or impose its will the hand closes and becomes a fist,’” White said.
According to the latest Panjshir PRT census, Panjshir Province has more than 300,000 inhabitants with new villages being discovered when exploring around the mountainous bends. It is a mono-ethnic area dominated by the Tajik tribe that is predominately Sunni.
White said even though society is conservative, education for both girls and boys are important to Panjsheeris.
“There are 55,000 school age children and 80 percent attend school everyday,” White said. “Of those 80 percent, 35 percent are female.”
Panjshir Province Deputy Gov. Kabini said the people of his province are growing more optimistic from the way their eyes and faces look and he said the people are becoming more informed and connected to their government through their new radio station.
“We will not accept Al Qaeda in any form of this government because they killed our national hero and attacked the U.S.,” said Kabini. “These tragedies bind us together against Al Qaeda.”
Masood was the leader of the Northern Alliance and a hero to many Afghans because he was able to defeat the Soviets accounting for more than 50 percent of their casualties, according to White. In addition, he kept the Taliban at bay while they controlled 90 percent of the country.
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Avalanche in northern Afghanistan kills 12
via earthtimes.org DPA / March 29, 2007
Kabul - At least 12 people were killed and 12 more wounded when their houses were buried by avalanches in northern Badakhshan province, the Interior Ministry said Thursday. A police team was sent to Raghistan district to help extract the people from under the destroyed houses and snow, the ministry said in a statement. It said the wounded were taken to provincial hospital.
This year Afghanistan has been experiencing greater rains and snowfalls after six years of severe drought that badly damaged the plantations in the country and caused animal deaths.
The rain has caused severe flooding and mudslides in various parts of the country, leaving at least a dozen of people dead in the past fortnight through out the country.
The UN mission in Afghanistan said Monday that its officials and the Afghan government had assisted over 20,000 people affected by the floods, while UN World Food Programme provided 350,000 tons of food to distribute to vulnerable families.
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Govt accountability week begins
KABUL, Mar 27 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Ministries of Education (MoE) and Higher Education (MoHE), as well as Academic Sciences, released their annual activity report and responded to queries here on Tuesday, as the first day of the annual government reporting to the nation began.
The Government's Accountability Week, (which actually stretches over a fortnight), was decreed by President Hamid Karzai through which every ministry and independent government organization, is required to report on their activities for the past year.
Speaking on the commencement of the Accountability Week, Vice-president, Ahmad Zia Massoud, said it was an important event.
Higher Education Minister, Muhammad Azam Dadfar, while reading (MoHE) report received a lot of complaints for failing to admit more 12 th grade graduates. He blamed lack of capacity in this regard and said they were trying to develop and broaden the universities according to international standards, to be able to attract more students.
The MoHE was allotted $120 million last year, ministry officials' said.
The ministry also received over 1000 scholarships for students and over 800 teachers have been sent abroad for training in the last two years, the MoHE report said.
The Government has sanctioned $49 million to the MoHE this year, minister added.
MoHE could spend 64% of its $21million development budget last year, Finance ministry officials said.
However Education Minister, Muhammad Hanif Atmar, while presenting his annual report said the MoHE could spend 70% its budget this year.
Construction of 1,100 schools has begun in different provinces across the country, he said, of which the construction of 500 schools had been completed thus far.
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No easy solutions in Afghanistan
Desperately poor nation lacks money and time to rebuild capability to defend itself from Taliban - Wednesday, March 28, 2007 – Edmonton Journal
KABUL, Afghanistan - To get a better idea of the challenges facing Canada in Afghanistan, you need look no further than the Kabul Military Training Centre. Here, instructors from various coalition countries, including Canada, help prepare Afghan soldiers to protect their homeland.
The latest training battalion, called Kandak 61, has almost 900 new troops ready to graduate and fight the Taliban. The problem is, 15 weeks ago Kandak 61 started out with 1,242 recruits.
More than 300 have simply walked away and not come back. Coalition military officials downplay the issue, saying many of the troops are only a few days overdue or they have left to help their families temporarily. Some were trapped in their home provinces by a landslide, said one official, but they will be back.
Or maybe not. "The main problem for me is that for three months I haven't received pay," said recruit Ali Gawhar, 27, through an interpreter. "I'm married and I've got two sons and it's very difficult."
Gawhar hasn't gone AWOL but others in his position have. Gawhar blames his pay problem on careless senior Afghan officers who didn't bother to find out that he was on duty elsewhere in the training centre the day they did a head count. He expects to get paid on graduation day next week or else he says the officers risk angering impatient troops and making even more go AWOL.
However, even if they were paid on time and had brand new weapons, they'd still leave here ill-prepared compared to Canadian troops who get at least 12 months of training before finding themselves at the sharp end of a military operation. Afghan troops get 16 weeks.
"We could use more time to do the training properly and to cover more topics," says Canadian instructor Major James Molloy.
But there isn't the time or the money. That could be the unofficial motto of Afghanistan. The country is the fifth-poorest on the planet. You'd have to go to Sudan to find people worse off. Canada is pumping in $100 million a year to help reconstruct the country but money alone won't rebuild Afghanistan.
Most people are illiterate. Many don't have power or clean water. Some countries, such as Australia, have teams of soldiers going into villages to quickly drill wells or refurbish communal buildings such as mosques. However, Canada has taken a slower, hands-off approach where village leaders decide what needs to be done and Canada supplies the money to hire local residents. Canada is also helping fund training programs to teach Afghans employable skills.
The idea is to pump money into the local economy and teach people how to look after themselves.
"We're not there to build bridges," said Helene Kadi, development director of the Canadian International Development Agency in Kandahar. "We're there to build capacity."
It's all part of a frustrating chicken-and-egg scenario. To have reconstruction and economic growth, Afghans need security, but to have security they need reconstruction and economic growth.
That's why there are no quick, easy solutions in Afghanistan. After 30 years of war, the infrastructure is crumbling.
In the Zhari district west of Kandahar City, for example, a Canadian convoy came under attack twice in one night this week near the spot where a suicide bomber killed two children two weeks ago. Canadian troops stationed here or travelling through in convoys come under attack, be it from rockets, small arms or improvised explosive devices, almost daily.
But they continue to push through the ambushes, firmly believing if the NATO mission was to fail, the Taliban would return and provide a base for groups such as al-Qaida and international terrorism.
In the words of one soldier, helping Afghanistan helps Canada; our national values and national interests are intertwined.
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Path to peace, justice in Afghanistan
The Christian Science Monitor - 03/28/2007 J Alexander Thier and Scott Worden
Healing the wounds of the civil war requires both reconciliation and accountability.
WASHINGTON - Like every country facing the aftermath of civil war, Afghanistan is struggling to balance the need for peace and stability with demands for justice and accountability. Last Saturday, the lower house of the country's parliament passed a bill that encourages all factions, including the Taliban, to join in a process of national reconciliation. In return, these groups and individuals would be immune from prosecution for atrocities committed before joining the process.
Although President Hamid Karzai successfully negotiated a crucial amendment to protect the rights of victims of war crimes, the new amnesty law still favors the powerful warlords who sponsored the bill. Unless the government takes responsibility for standing up to the perpetrators of past atrocities, true national reconciliation may be impossible to achieve.
The amnesty issue arose last month when Afghanistan's parliament passed a hastily drafted "Charter on National Reconciliation" that aimed to provide a "comprehensive solution" for "consolidating peace and stability." These goals are worthy, but healing and unity were not the only motives behind the legislation. The bill was also a self-serving attempt by many of the country's top warlords-cum-politicians to escape prosecution for the horrific catalog of crimes ? mass executions, torture, rape ? that they perpetrated against other Afghans for nearly three decades.
It's a positive sign for Afghanistan's young democracy that the initial bill provoked an outcry. Despite a rally in the national stadium by the still-armed political leaders behind the measure, civil-society leaders and human rights groups protested that parts of the bill were unconstitutional and against international law. Then the usually conservative National Council of Islamic Clerics declared the bill un-Islamic because only victims have the right to forgive their tormentors under sharia law. Western diplomats also pressed Mr. Karzai to find a solution that promoted stability and respected international law.
After intensive negotiations, Karzai achieved a legislative compromise that acknowledges the sacrifice made by mujahideen fighters against Soviet occupation, while calling for a process that will rebuild trust in Afghanistan's divided society. The legislation invites all groups involved in the past three decades of war to lay down arms and rejoin society. This includes communists, Islamists, and royalists who fought a series of civil wars over the past 25 years, and the Taliban and other forces that are still fighting the government today. An unconstitutional prohibition on criticizing the jihad and its leaders has also been struck from the bill.
The most controversial and confusing aspect of the bill remains its amnesty provisions. On one hand, the revised bill offers general amnesty from prosecution to all former combatants who agree to abide by the Constitution and laws of Afghanistan. However, a crucial clause restricts this reprieve, stating that the amnesty "shall not affect individuals' ... criminal or civil claims against persons with respect to individual crimes."
Read broadly, this provision could mean that amnesty does not really protect any individual from answering for his crimes ? so long as a victim is brave enough to bring a claim. But in Afghanistan, where many of those responsible for past crimes retain weapons and power, it is unlikely that a victim would press a claim without active support from the state. And in fact international law requires the Afghan government to investigate and prosecute war crimes.
The best way to ensure that the new bill becomes a force for reconciliation is to implement it within the framework of the Action Plan for Transitional Justice, enacted by Karzai last December. The plan sets up several mechanisms to foster forgiveness and accountability, such as a commission to vet high-level government officials and a program to build national monuments of remembrance for victims. But crucially, the plan states, "[T]here will [not be] amnesty for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations."
These are momentous decisions for Afghanistan's future in an unstable time. International experience has shown that amnesty has not worked to promote reconciliation where potentially guilty parties have simply tried to evade accountability. The original bill referred to the process of truth and reconciliation in South Africa as a model for Afghanistan, but they drew the wrong lesson. In South Africa, amnesty wasn't for everyone; it was granted only to those who publicly admitted their crimes and asked forgiveness. The threat of prosecution remained for those who did not cooperate.
In Afghanistan, lack of accountability continues to erode support for the government and creates fertile ground for the insurgency. Karzai must seize this opportunity to cement his leadership by transforming a self-serving attempt by warlords to avoid justice into a measure that truly sets a course for reconciliation and peace.
J Alexander Thier and Scott Worden are advisers on the rule of law at the United States Institute of Peace. Mr. Thier served as legal adviser to Afghanistan's Constitutional and Judicial Reform Commissions from 2002-04. Mr. Worden served as a legal adviser on electoral and human rights issues in Afghanistan from 2005-06.
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