by Nasrat Shoaib
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - The Afghan government said Sunday top Taliban military commander Mullah Dadullah was killed in southern Afghanistan in the most significant success against the insurgent movement.
The NATO-led force confirmed that the notorious commander -- who had been involved in the beheading of hostages and training of suicide bombers -- was dead, saying "the insurgency has received a serious blow."
A Taliban spokesman however denied that its one-legged commander had been killed, promising to produce a fresh recording of his voice to prove that he was alive.
Afghan authorities presented a bloodied and bullet-pierced body to journalists in the southern city of Kandahar that they said was that of the commander, who claimed to lead thousands of men.
The features were similar to those of the famous militant, who has appeared in several photographs and television interviews. There was a bullet wound to his head and another to his chest.
The corpse was also missing the lower part of one leg -- one of the trademarks of the fighter, although many men in Afghanistan have lost a limb in the country's decades of war. The body was to be brought to Kabul Sunday.
Kandahar governor Assadullah Khalid said authorities were certain they had the right man because the operation that killed him in Helmand province on Saturday was based on "exact information."
"After the operation we picked his body from among other bodies. The appearance, specific signs match those of Mullah Dadullah," he said.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said the commander was killed in an operation by the separate US-led coalition that was supported by ISAF.
"Mullah Dadullah Lang will most certainly be replaced in time, but the insurgency has received a serious blow," it said in a statement.
The Afghan interior ministry said Dadullah was killed in Helmand's Girishk area, where he lived, alongside his brother and several other fighters.
Helmand, Afghanistan's top opium-producing area, has seen a surge in Taliban-linked unrest in the past months with foreign fighters also said to be active in the province.
"Obviously it will have an impact on the current insurgency because he was a key Taliban fighter, a big commander," Helmand governor Asadullah Wafa told AFP.
Dadullah, aged about 40, is the most important rebel commander to be killed since the Taliban was driven from government by the coalition in late 2001.
He was said to be close to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, with whom he claimed to communicate on a regular basis.
Afghan intelligence agency spokesman Sayed Ansari described him as the "biggest Taliban commander ever killed."
"He was the commander of commanders," he said.
Television stations interrupted routine broadcasting to give breaking news of the killing.
Talian spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP the claim that Dadullah was dead was "nothing more than propaganda."
The government of President Hamid Karzai "want to boost the morale of their losing soldiers in the south with such propaganda," he said.
Khalid described Dadullah as a "hangman and a killer."
He was involved in the beheading of Taliban hostages, including two Afghan colleagues of an Italian journalist captured in March and freed two weeks later in exchange for five Taliban prisoners.
Analyst Wahid Mujda, who was a civil servant in the 1996-2001 Taliban government, described him as the "Zarqawi of Afghanistan," referring to the slain leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
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NATO Confirms Death Of Taliban's Mullah Dadullah
KABUL, May 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- NATO says a U.S.-led coalition operation, supported by NATO troops, tracked down and killed a senior Taliban military commander on May 12.
Mullah Dadullah has been called "Afghanistan's top Taliban commander" by NATO officials. The body of a man thought to be Dadullah has been shown to journalists.
A NATO statement today says Dadullah, a commander who trained suicide bombers, was killed after he left what was described as his "sanctuary" in southern Afghanistan.
A spokesman for Afghanistan's National Security Service, Saied Ansari, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan earlier today that Mullah Dadullah had been killed in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.
Meanwhile, authorities in Kabul say Afghan and foreign coalition troops killed 55 suspected Taliban fighters on May 12 during two separate military operations near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.
That fighting, which also killed one Afghan police officer, was in the southeastern province of Paktia.
A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said he did not have any details about those operations.
Separately, an Afghan police officer was killed by a roadside bomb today in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
(with materials from agency reports)
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Afghan, Pakistani forces exchange fire, four dead
KHOST, Afghanistan (AFP) - Afghan and Pakistan security forces traded fire for several hours across their rugged frontier Sunday, leaving three Afghan civilians and a policeman dead, a governor said.
Pakistani troops briefly crossed into Afghanistan's Paktia province before being pushed back, provincial police chief Abdul Rahman Sarjang said, claiming the Pakistan side had used air force but giving no details.
The Pakistan army said six to seven Afghan soldiers were also killed, but this was rejected by Sarjang.
Both sides accused each other of initiating the fighting.
Paktia governor Rahmatullah Rahmat told AFP it started when Pakistani troops fired on Afghan border police building a security post on the disputed frontier.
The fighting continued into the afternoon and the Pakistani troops used heavy weapons including artillery, he said.
"Two school children were killed when a Pakistani rocket landed in their school, and a police officer and another civilian were also killed by Pakistani rockets," Rahmat said.
Pakistan military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said the Afghan side had opened fire "unprovoked" on a checkpost in Kurram tribal district.
"Our troops retaliated the fire in which six to seven Afghan soldiers who were firing at our post were killed and three of our troops were injured," Arshad said.
The fighting had died down but Pakistan would raise the matter in a tripartite commission of the military forces of both countries and the NATO-led military helping Afghanistan confront the Taliban, he said.
"We will give a stern reply if such an incident of firing takes place in future," Arshad added.
The clash was the second in less than a month. On April 19 security forces from both sides fought for several hours after Afghans tore down part of a fence being erected by Pakistan. No one was hurt.
Pakistan says it is putting up the fence to stop the cross-border movement of militants involved in the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.
An official said last week that it had completed 20 kilometres of the fence. Another 15-kilometre stretch of the border would soon be fenced, Pakistan military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad told AFP.
The Pakistan army had also deployed extra troops and increased patrols in the area, which faces southeastern Afghanistan.
The Afghan government strongly objects to the fence, saying it will not help stop the rebels crossing into the country but will separate tribes on the both side of the frontier.
Afghanistan also does not accept the border, which it calls the Durand Line. The frontier was drawn up by colonial Britain in 1893.
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Afghan Legislators Vote Out Foreign Minister
By CARLOTTA GALL May 13, 2007 The New York Times
KABUL, Afghanistan, May 12 — Afghanistan’s foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, lost a no-confidence vote in Parliament on Saturday after he was unable to stop the expulsion of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees and illegal workers from Iran in the last three weeks.
Mr. Spanta, who recently attended a parliamentary session to answer questions, was blamed for failing to find a diplomatic solution with Iran that would have prevented the expulsions. He won only 73 votes, while 141 legislators voted against him.
Iran has expelled thousands of Afghans before. But the number it expelled this time, more than 50,000, was high for such a short period.
The minister for refugee affairs, Akbar Akbar, also lost a vote of confidence this week over the issue. Parliament has the authority to approve ministers and has the power to remove them through no-confidence votes.
President Hamid Karzai, while praising Mr. Akbar for his efforts in trying to address the situation, accepted the Parliament’s vote for his dismissal. But he said he was referring the foreign minister’s case to the Supreme Court for clarification because refugees were not his direct concern, and because there had been a dispute over the voting, according to a statement from his office. The foreign minister will continue his duties until the Supreme Court gives its advice , the statement said.
Many of those expelled since April 21 were picked up on the streets or in their workplaces and forced onto buses heading to Afghanistan. Most of the Afghans are illegal workers who have either outstayed their visas or have no documents.
Most of those expelled have been forcibly repatriated into Nimruz Province, in the southwest. Some are refugees who had been in Iran for 25 years and who failed to reregister under a new refugee program. The refugees are now living in tents outside Zaranj, a border city that is Nimruz’s capital.
United Nations refugee officials, while not responsible for illegal immigrants, have expressed concern at the high numbers and suddenness of the expulsions. Because there are an estimated one million illegal Afghan workers in Iran, Afghanistan could be overwhelmed if Iran continues the expulsions. There are also 920,000 registered Afghan refugees in Iran who have the right to remain for three more years under a plan worked out by the United Nations and the two countries.
Also on Saturday, a roadside bomb killed at least eight Afghan police officers outside the southern city of Kandahar, said the provincial police chief, Esmatullah Alizai, according to Reuters news agency. Afghan security forces also said they had cleared Taliban insurgents from a district in Helmand Province after a week of fighting. The district, Nari Saraj, is in the province’s northeast, near where heavy fighting recently killed dozens of civilians.
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Iranian diplomat arrives in Afghanistan
Kabul, May 13, IRNA
Deputy Foreign Minister for Asia-Pacific and Commonwealth Countries Mehdi Safari arrived in Kabul Sunday on a two-day visit to talk with senior Afghan officials.
He was welcomed at the airport by Iranian ambassador in Kabul and a number of Iranian and Afghan diplomats.
The official is due to hold separate talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the country's Parliament Speaker Yunus Qanooni on promotion of Tehran-Kabul relations.
Safari visited Afghanistan on November 2006.
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Roadside bomb kills eight Afghan policemen
Sat May 12, 4:47 PM ET
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - Eight Afghan policemen were killed when a roadside bomb tore through their vehicle Saturday in the latest violence linked to the Taliban insurgency, officials said.
The remotely detonated bomb went off in the insurgency-hit southern province of Helmand, near Zhari district which saw major battles against the Taliban last year, provincial police chief Esmatullah Alizai told AFP.
He blamed the "enemies of Afghanistan" for the attack, a phrase used by many Afghan officials to refer to Taliban rebels who have been waging a guerrilla insurgency since their 2001 ouster by the United States.
The Taliban have made increasing use of roadside bombs against foreign and government forces in Afghanistan. Officials say they are copying the tactics of Iraqi insurgents.
Afghan authorities said Saturday they had killed 70 Taliban rebels in a week-long push to drive the militants from a district in Helmand.
Dozens of Afghan soldiers supported by NATO-led military forces launched the hunt a week ago in the province's Nari Saraj district, an intelligence department statement said.
Taliban militants "are now cleared" from the area, the statement said. It did not say when the district was overrun by the rebels.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul was not immediately able to confirm the statement.
Afghan police meanwhile confirmed Saturday they had detained a Canadian citizen of Pakistani origin for suspected links to "terrorist organisations."
The man had "illegally" travelled between Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan twice before being seized, interior ministry counter-terrorism chief Abdul Manan Farahi told AFP.
Canadian media reported Friday that Afghan police picked up a 24-year-old Canadian national on suspicion that he had attended a militant training camp in Waziristan, a lawless border region of Pakistan believed to serve as a hideout for Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, reported the Globe and Mail newspaper.
The Taliban's supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar meanwhile called on Muslims Saturday to put aside sectarian differences and unite against international forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I call upon all jihadi (holy warrior) leaders, national figures and politicians to join hands and free their beloved countries from the hands of infidel Americans," the fugitive Omar said in a rare statement, a copy of which was sent to AFP in southern Afghanistan.
Omar, who has a 10-million-dollar bounty on his head, headed the 1996-2001 Taliban regime that sheltered Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and his followers.
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55 Taliban militants killed in E Afghanistan
www.chinaview.cn 2007-05-13 19:40:48
KABUL, May 13 (Xinhua) -- Afghan and international troops killed 55 Taliban rebels in two clashes in Paktika province of eastern Afghanistan, provincial governor Akram Khapalwak told Xinhua on Sunday.
Some militants attacked Afghan border troops in Barmal district on Saturday, Khapalwak said.
Afghan and international forces fought back from the ground and in the air, killing 15 insurgents, he added.
Also on Saturday, Taliban rebels attacked Afghan forces in Gilan district, the governor said, adding Afghan and international troops returned fire and killed 40 enemies.
Two Afghan soldiers were injured in the two clashes.
Due to rising Taliban-linked insurgency, over 1,300 persons, mostly Taliban militants, have been killed in Afghanistan this year.
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Afghans Growing Irate Over Casualties
U.S.-Led Raids Help Insurgents, Observers Warn
By Pamela Constable Washington Post Saturday, May 12, 2007; A10
GHANIKHEL, Afghanistan -- The mud-walled village compound was silent except for a chorus of tiny frogs in the surrounding fields. Inside, ghosts lurked. A pile of stones had been carefully mounded over the bloodstains where Janat Gul, 40, died. A trampled patch of opium poppy plants indicated where Mir Warid, 13, fell.
The living were almost as silent. A girl of 3 held up her bandaged arm, staring mutely at a group of visitors last week. A leathery woman squatted and frowned, surrounded by motherless children now in her care. Suddenly, she began speaking in an angry torrent.
"The soldiers killed my mother-in-law, then my father-in-law. I begged to touch him, but they shouted at me not to come close. Then they left me alone with the children, crying for help," said Khanum Agha, 25. "The foreigners are supposed to be protecting us, but instead they come and kill us in our beds."
Early May 2, U.S. Special Operations units surrounded and attacked the compound here in the eastern province of Nangahar, believing it was being used by insurgents as a bomb factory, according to Afghan news reports. They arrested one man and displayed 120 kilograms (about 265 pounds) of captured explosive materials on local television broadcasts. In the raid, they killed six civilians, including two women and a girl of 13, according to witnesses.
The raid was one of a series of recent U.S.-led military attacks that have resulted in civilian casualties, provoking angry public protests. In the latest incident, a U.S. airstrike Wednesday on a Taliban stronghold in Sangin, in the southern province of Helmand, killed 21 civilians, Afghan officials said. That attack brought to at least 90 the number of civilian deaths attributed to friendly foreign troops in the past month.
Almost every day, warplanes drop bombs, shoot rockets and fire cannon rounds into suspected enemy locations in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Generally, there tend to be more airstrikes in Afghanistan than in the war in Iraq. Since the beginning of this month, according to data released by Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for Afghanistan, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, B-1 heavy bombers have struck Afghanistan four times, F-15 fighters have done so twice, and A-10 ground-attack jets have fired their cannons three times. Also, a British Royal Air Force Harrier jet carried out bombing.
The airstrikes and casualties are a direct result of the stepped-up Taliban insurgency, which employs suicide bombs and often uses civilian areas as hiding places. Yet according to diplomats and human rights groups, the tough military response is weakening Afghan support for foreign troops and playing into the insurgents' hands. President Hamid Karzai, sharply rebuking his foreign allies, declared recently that such civilian deaths were "no longer acceptable."
The problem has also created private tension and public confusion between the U.S. military mission of some 20,000 troops that patrols eastern Afghanistan, hunting for Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, and the separately commanded NATO mission of about the same size that conducts counterinsurgency and humanitarian operations in the rest of the country.
On Tuesday, a senior U.S. military commander issued a formal apology to the families of 19 civilians who died in a March 4 incident in Batikot, in Nangahar province. A squad of Marines, ambushed by a suicide bomber, sprayed indiscriminate gunfire at cars and pedestrians.
"We are deeply ashamed and terribly sorry," said Col. John Nicholson, reading his apology during a videoconference with reporters in Washington. He called the shootings "a stain on our honor" and said, "This was a terrible, terrible mistake. . . . We humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness."
Nicholson said the incident in Ghanikhel was under investigation, and U.S. military spokesmen in Afghanistan said they could not comment on it. Yet another incident, a clash April 28-29 between U.S. and Taliban forces at Shindand, in the western province of Herat, that left up to 50 civilians dead, is also under investigation by a variety of Afghan and U.S. delegations.
It is not clear whether the Ghanikhel raid was a case of mistaken identity or a successful anti-terrorist operation that also became a human tragedy. In interviews, survivors, nearby residents, legislators and other sources offered a murky, complicated picture of almost every aspect of the raid, including who the victims were, what led the Americans to suspect them, whether local authorities were informed of the operation, and how public outrage was stirred up afterward.
"There are at least three different versions of what happened, and all of them seem to have elements of untruth," said Babrak Shinwari, a member of parliament from the Shinwar District, where both the Marine shootings and the village raid occurred. "It is very difficult to learn the reality, so people believe the worst."
The Ghanikhel story includes tribal disputes and the poisonous influence of opium poppy cultivation. It also reflects the consequences of a cultural blunder by foreign troops relating to Afghan sensitivity about women's honor, and the unseen hand of Taliban forces swiftly capitalizing on public emotion.
One puzzle is who the occupants of the mud compound were. They described themselves to a journalist as simple field hands and said they were doing nothing more harmful than harvesting opium poppies when the attack came. They said they were refugees from Kapisa province, north of Kabul.
"Does this look like a bomb factory to you?" demanded Sana Gul, 30, one of the survivors, showing a reporter through the farm compound that was strung with laundry and strewn with dirty sleeping cushions. "They said they found 120 kilos of explosives, but we can't even afford 120 kilos of wheat."
Government officials, however, said that the group might be linked to a Taliban commander in Kapisa and that the insurgents were becoming increasingly active in poppy-growing areas of Nangahar. This is partly because insurgents have come under intense military pressure in their home-base areas of southern Afghanistan.
As recently as a year ago, Nangahar had no major signs of insurgency and a record for eradicating poppy crops while production soared in other provinces. Now, the road through the district is lined with emerald poppy fields, and U.S. military forces have been increasingly encountering insurgent activities.
It is not clear, however, whether U.S. forces have been involving Afghan civilian authorities or security forces in their planning. Nangahar's governor said he was warned of the Ghanikhel raid, but he was away at the time and many residents doubt his claim. Most raids in residential areas are supposed to include Afghan soldiers to act as a buffer, but survivors said the only Afghans they saw were interpreters.
The presence of Afghan forces in U.S. and NATO military operations has been a key demand of Karzai's. In addition to smoothing civilian relations, it can also help foreign troops obtain accurate local information. On the other hand, Afghan security forces can also tip off friends and allies, which may be why some raids are conducted without them.
"The Americans think differently than we do. They see a 9/11 terrorist in every house; they want to rush in and handcuff people," Shinwari said. "If they let the Afghan forces go in first, they can prevent a lot of problems."
The issue is especially sensitive for officials from NATO countries, who fear that their wide welcome by the Afghan citizenry may be sabotaged by the spate of civilian deaths. Many Afghans cannot distinguish among foreign flags and uniforms; one agitated shopkeeper near Ghanikhel ranted last week about the brutalities committed by "British" troops. After the airstrike in Helmand this week, local Afghan officials said it had been carried out by "NATO forces," although NATO officials said they had no troops in the area.
Daan Everts, the senior civilian NATO representative in Kabul, said he believed most Afghans still support foreign troops and, if anything, are fearful they will leave too soon. But he also said the lack of Afghan involvement and slow explanations by the U.S. military are hurting the broader image of foreign forces. The apology for the March 4 shootings came a full two months after the incident.
"We are not helping our own cause as friendly forces by such incidents," Everts said. "When information is not shared that could silence critics, it is to our own detriment. And it is much better to have an Afghan knocking at the door than heavily armed foreign soldiers knocking it down. It may be less effective, but it's more acceptable and therefore better in the long run."
In Ghanikhel, an effort by the U.S. forces to make amends backfired badly. When the troops realized they had shot a 3-year-old girl in the arm, they decided to take her to Bagram air base for treatment. They also told a woman in the compound, through interpreters, that she should accompany them to comfort the girl.
The woman, Shirin Begum, 30, told a journalist she was frightened but treated well while in American military hands. But for local Afghan tribes, it is deeply dishonorable for women to have contact or travel with unrelated men. Soon after the raid, rumors spread that Begum had been kidnapped and raped by U.S. soldiers, infuriating a mob that carried the victims' bodies through a nearby market town, shouting, "Death to Bush!"
"This is a terrible shame for us, and this incident had a very bad impact on the people," said Abdul Mateen, 35, a teacher and shoemaker. "We do not want the Taliban and al-Qaeda here, and the Americans have the right and duty to search houses. But they must allow the local authorities to be involved, or the people will rise up against them as they rose against the Russians."
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed to this report.
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Civilian Deaths Undermine War on Taliban
By CARLOTTA GALL and DAVID E. SANGER May 13, 2007 The New York Times
ZERKOH, Afghanistan, May 9 — Scores of civilian deaths over the past months from heavy American and allied reliance on airstrikes to battle Taliban insurgents are threatening popular support for the Afghan government and creating severe strains within the NATO alliance.
Afghan, American and other foreign officials say they worry about the political toll the civilian deaths are exacting on President Hamid Karzai, who last week issued another harsh condemnation of the American and NATO tactics, and even of the entire international effort here.
What angers Afghans are not just the bombings, but also the raids of homes, the shootings of civilians in the streets and at checkpoints, and the failure to address those issues over the five years of war. Afghan patience is wearing dangerously thin, officials warn.
The civilian deaths are also exposing tensions between American commanders and commanders from other NATO countries, who have never fully agreed on the strategy to fight the war here, in a country where there are no clear battle lines between civilians and Taliban insurgents.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, military commanders and diplomats alike fear that divisions within the coalition and the loss of support among Afghans could undermine what until now was considered a successful spring, one in which NATO launched a broad offensive but the Taliban did not.
“There is absolutely no question that the will and support of the Afghan people is vitally important to what we do here,” Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the American commander of the International Security Assistance Force, said in an interview. “We are their guests, they are the hosts. We have to be mindful of their culture, we have to operate in the context of their culture, and we have to take every possible precaution to not cause undue risk to those around us, and to their property.”
But American officials say that they have been forced to use air power more intensively as they have spread their reach throughout Afghanistan, raiding Taliban strongholds that had gone untouched for six years. One senior NATO official said that “without air, we’d need hundreds of thousands of troops” in the country. They also contend that the key to reducing casualties is training more Afghan Army soldiers and police officers.
The anger is visible here in this farming village in the largely peaceful western province of Herat, where American airstrikes left 57 villagers dead, nearly half of them women and children, on April 27 and 29. Even the accounts of villagers bore little resemblance to those of NATO and American officials — and suggested just how badly things could go astray in an unfamiliar land where cultural misunderstandings quickly turn violent.
The United States military says it came under heavy fire from insurgents as it searched for a local tribal commander and weapons caches and called in airstrikes, killing 136 Taliban fighters.
But the villagers denied that any Taliban were in the area. Instead, they said, they rose up and fought the Americans themselves, after the soldiers raided several houses, arrested two men and shot dead two old men on a village road.
After burying the dead, the tribe’s elders met with their chief, Hajji Arbab Daulat Khan, and resolved to fight American forces if they returned. “If they come again, we will stand against them, and we will raise the whole area against them,” he warned. Or in the words of one foreign official in Afghanistan, the Americans went after one guerrilla commander and created a hundred more.
On Tuesday, barely 24 hours after American officials apologized publicly to President Karzai for a previous incident in which 19 civilians were shot by marines in eastern Afghanistan, reports surfaced of at least 21 civilians killed in an airstrike in Helmand Province, though residents reached by phone said the toll could be as high as 80.
While NATO is now in overall command of the military operations in the country, many of the most serious episodes of civilian deaths have involved United States counterterrorism and Special Operations forces that operate separately from the NATO command.
NATO, which now has 35,000 soldiers in the country, has emphasized its concern about keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. Yet NATO, too, has been responsible for civilian casualties over the past year, as it has relied on air power to compensate for a shortage of troops, an American military official who has served in Afghanistan said in a recent interview.
The subject of civilian casualties was the source of intense discussion on Wednesday in Brussels when the NATO secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, met with the North Atlantic Council, the top representatives of the coalition. But the conversation was less about how to reduce casualties, according to participants, than about how to explain them to European governments, who say their troops are there for reconstruction, not hunting the Taliban or terrorists.
“The Europeans are worried about a lack of clarity about who is responsible for the counterterror mission,” said one participant in the debate. “They are worried that if NATO appears responsible for these casualties, it will result in a loss of support” for keeping forces in Afghanistan.
But it is not only the Americans whose practices are being questioned. NATO soldiers have frequently fired on civilians on the roads, often because the Afghans drive too close to military convoys or checkpoints.
The public mood hardened against foreign forces in the southern city of Kandahar after British troops fired on civilians while driving through the streets after a suicide bombing last year, and Canadian soldiers have repeatedly killed and wounded civilians while on patrol in civilian areas.
Air Power and Popular Anger
The reliance on air power has led to a string of prominent episodes recently involving the deaths of large numbers of civilians, who often cannot escape, caught between NATO forces and the Taliban and its sympathizers.
Since the beginning of March at least 132 civilians have been killed in at least six bombings or shootings, according to officials. The actual number of civilians killed is probably higher, since the areas of heaviest fighting, like the southern province of Helmand, are too unsafe for travel and many deaths go unreported and cannot be verified.
“You have a bag of capital — that is the good will of the people — and you want to spend that as slow as you could,” said the American military official. “We are spending it at a fearsome rate.”
The issue of civilian casualties has dogged United States-led coalition forces from the beginning of their intervention here in 2001. But as the Taliban surged in strength in 2006, civilians have been caught in the middle more than before, and at a time when Afghans have grown weary of the fighting, said Dr. Sima Samar, director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
“If we still have civilian casualties, it can be used by the opposition groups to the government to encourage the people against the government and against the international community,” Dr. Samar said at a recent news conference. “That’s why we are concerned, and we ask the international community and the Afghan government to be very, very careful.”
Now in Afghanistan, calls are growing for more political control over military operations.
This week Afghan’s upper house of Parliament recommended that the government start peace talks with the Taliban, and that foreign forces cease all offensive operations. While the chances of passage as worded are unlikely, the proposal was one measure of the rising popular anger.
The episode here in this valley in Shindand district in late April showed just how changeable the attitudes toward foreign troops can be.
The ethnic Pashtuns who live in the Zerkoh Valley are from a fiercely independent tribe, surrounded by local enemies, and with a record of fighting all comers. Still, NATO and United States soldiers were a common — even friendly — sight in this valley in western Afghanistan. They came and talked to the tribal leaders, built schools and culverts, and had plans for a new bridge.
A senior Bush administration official said American Special Forces units were conducting an operation in the valley in late April. After the Taliban pinned them down in a firefight, the airstrike was necessary, the military official said. “It was the only way to extract our guys,” the official said.
“If your mortars are not getting you out, you call in close air support and that will be less precise,” said one senior American official who follows the action in Afghanistan closely. “We know that the Taliban hide in villages. The job that we have not done as well is making it clear to European publics that it’s the Taliban who are exploiting the civilians.”
A Complicated Environment
But the Americans had stepped into a complicated political environment. In interviews, villagers, who had cooperated with NATO before, blamed local rivals for planting false information with the Americans, to encourage the Americans to attack Zerkoh.
After the Special Forces units started raiding homes, the villagers were so angered, they said, they fought the Americans themselves. They insisted that no Taliban were here, an area that has been mostly calm.
“NATO was coming regularly, and the Afghan Army and police, and we were cooperating with them,” said Muhammad Alef, 35, a farmer who was tending to his wounded cousin in the provincial hospital in the city of Herat.
“But when the Americans came without permission, and they came more than once and disturbed the people,” he said. “They searched the houses, and the second time they arrested people, and the third time the people got angry and fought them.”
The American forces searched the tribal chief’s house and arrested two of his staff members, the villagers said. One, a watchman named only Bahadullah, 45, said he had been handcuffed, covered with a hood and taken to the nearby American base at Shindand.
He said he had been strung up by his feet for what seemed like an hour and a half as American soldiers swung him about. When he was let down the soldiers kicked and beat him, he said. In an interview this week, he said he was still passing blood and in pain from the beatings.
A United States military spokesman at Bagram air base north of Kabul, Maj. Chris Belcher, denied in an e-mail message that Afghan or American Special Forces units had entered the villages or detained anyone.
The American forces did not find any weapons caches in the Shindand area, either, he said. They were attacked with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells, he said.
A senior American military official who has looked at what happened in Zerkoh said that some compounds were bombed but added that the troops were receiving fire from them.
But a villager, Abdul Waheed, said the Americans had searched his family compound and found no weapons and certainly must have seen the women and children. Two days later they bombed the compound, killing six children, he said.
“The Americans should leave Afghanistan because this is my own home,” he said. “I am sitting here and they come and just order a bomb to drop.”
Whether there was firing from the compound or not, the military official said tactics needed to be reviewed. “We just have to go over each one of these, one by one, and say even if this was within the rules, is this what we want to do next time,” the official said.
Villagers said the first fighting broke out on April 27, as they had gathered at the bazaar in the central village of Parmakan. Two old men, Adel Shah, 80, who was walking home with some meat and sugar for his family, and Sarwar, 80, who was harvesting poppies, were shot dead by the Americans, said Abdul Zaher, Mr. Shah’s son.
A Village Under Fire
That night, the first airstrikes were carried out, mainly on Bakhtabad, the village at the entrance to the valley, residents said. On April 29, the Americans returned, positioning their armored vehicles outside Parmakan.
Villagers said they thought the Americans were going to raid houses again, and the men gathered to fight. Husi, 35, lives in a house near the school and on the edge of the village. She was alone with her 10 children, and when the shooting started they cowered at the entrance of their walled home, she said.
Then suddenly a plane bombed the five-room house. “When they bombed I just ran,” she recalled as she held her 1-year-old boy. Women and children were pouring out of the village to the river to cross it to safety, she said.
In the panic as they fled, Husi was separated from three of her children, Amina, 8, Tote, 5, and Fazli, 3, who are still missing.
“We ran with bare feet, we left our shoes,” said Sara, a relative and the mother of seven, whose house was also bombed. “I was running and they were shooting at us from the plane,” she said.
Two uncles and two cousins were killed when the house was bombed, she said. “We have nothing, it’s all finished,” she said.
The river was chest-high at the time, and a number of women and children were swept away. Fifty-seven people died over all, including 17 children under 10, 10 women and 14 old men, Hajji Daulat Khan said. Eight people are still missing, including a 21-year-old man, and Husi’s three children.
The bombing of the village so outraged people that they continued fighting the Americans even after the airstrikes. American and Afghan military officials admitted that they had been surprised at the ferocity of the response, and said that at one point American soldiers had been forced to call in the Afghan Army.
“We are not saying that the foreigners should leave or stay, we are just saying they should not do this,” said a farmer, Fateh Muhammad, 55, gesturing with his scythe at an enormous bomb crater and his neighbor’s collapsed house. He showed the place where two of his neighbors had been killed in a field nearby.
The airstrikes damaged about 100 homes and a new school built by Italian troops.
“This is a big mistake the Americans are making,” said Nasrullah Khan, a younger brother of the tribal chief, Hajji Daulat Khan. “If the Americans are here for peace, this is not the way.”
Carlotta Gall reported from Zerkoh, and David E. Sanger from Brussels. Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Zerkoh, and Abdul Waheed Wafa from Kabul.
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Afghanistan not to blindly follow US
Sunday May 13, 2007 (0921 PST) PakTribune.com, Pakistan
UNITED NATIONS: Afghanistan's permanent mission to the United Nations would not blindly follow the United States at the world body, said Zahir Tanin, the country's ambassador at the UN.
Instead, Afghanistan would like to have its own voice at the world body, Tanin told Pajhwok Afghan News in an exclusive interview. Following are excerpts from the interview: PAN: What is the significance of Khalilzad's visit to the Afghan mission? Tanin: His visit was meant to convey the message that the United States attaches great importance to Afghanistan and is still with the people of Afghanistan and the government of President Hamid Karzai. As he is presiding over the Security Council this month, his understanding of Afghanistan, Iraq, Middle East and the Muslim world will be very helpful for that country.
PAN: What were the issues discussed at the meeting with Khalilzad? Tanin: We discussed co-operation between the two missions. We have multiple identities. This means, we are not here to follow all diplomatic lines of the US or the world powers. But we can cooperate on our causes and agenda of peace and security and many other areas.
PAN: Which are the issues at the UN where Afghanistan differs with the United States? Tanin: I don't think so. For example, we do not want Afghanistan to have any negative impact of Washington-Tehran relationship. I do not think Americans are against it. Khalilzad is aware of that. The relationship between Pakistan and the US is cordial. We would like to have cordial relationship with Pakistan. At the same time, we emphasize that Pakistan should help us. There are areas where we work together. But at the same time, we feel that there are areas, where we should work with the South and the NAM.
PAN: What would be the mission's working at the UN? Tanin: Working at the UN is about advancing the agenda of the United Nations. With a different perspective, we would like to see a better UN. We would like to see that the civilizations work together rather than confronting each other. We would like to see how the UN role in development and economy of the world can be more efficient and more effective and more transparent. Weather the US has the same view or not, it is the view of a large number of countries. So we agreed to advance these issues for the benefit of every body in the world.
PAN: Where Afghanistan stands on issues like reforms at the UN and expansion of the Security Council? Tanin: We support the membership of G-4 in the UN Security Council. At this stage, we are in favour of membership of India, Brazil, Germany and Japan. At the same time, the issue of reforms is of wider nature. We have to listen to each other. It is difficult to bring reforms in face of differences between various groups.
PAN: Of late, there have been talks at the UN about reviewing its role in Afghanistan. What do you say? Tanin: The United Nations has played an important role in Afghanistan's transition from war to peace. It was the UN that approved the role of the international community in Afghanistan. The UN's role is central and we would like it to be there and continue with its role there.
PAN: What else do you expect from the UN? Tanin: The United Nations can play an important role in improving Afghanistan's relations with its neighbours. It doesn't mean to replace the role of the Afghan government. Its prime role is to assist and help the Afghan government in bringing peace and security and rebuilding the country.
PAN: Do you foresee any peacekeeping role of the UN in Afghanistan? Tanin: No. This is completely ruled out.
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British military talks to Afghan civilians
KIRKUK, Afghanistan, May. 11 (UPI) -- British officers in Afghanistan say they may win over the hearts and minds of villagers by providing them with work.
The Telegraph reported that many Taliban members in the Helmand province are laborers who need work. Upcoming road projects funded by Britain and the United States may lure them away from the Taliban.
A recent gathering of the British military and Afghan civilians had to begin with a British commander's apology about reports of civilian deaths in NATO bombings, the London newspaper reported.
"I deeply regret any incident of this nature," Brigadier John Lorimer told 400 people at Thursday's meeting, the Telegraph reported. "We go to great lengths to avoid the deaths of civilians."
While people were angry about the bombings and the deaths of villagers, another gathering Tuesday showed the Afghan people may not be closely aligned with the Taliban.
Tribal leaders said Taliban commander Haji Wali Mohammad and his bodyguards were killed after a gathering at which he refused to stop launching attacks in Sarwan Kala, the Telegraph reported.
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Taliban-destroyed Buddhas may never be restored
May 11, 2007 By Peter Bergen
BAMIYAN, Afghanistan (CNN) -- At the foot of cliffs in central Afghanistan, about 5,000 fragments of what were once among the world's great artistic and religious treasures, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, sit in rudimentary shelters.
Their destruction by the Taliban in March 2001 was an act of cultural vandalism on a spectacular scale. The two tallest standing Buddhas in the world -- which had stood as silent sentinels over the snow-capped valley of Bamiyan for more than 1,500 years -- were reduced to mere rubble.
Wire mesh now covers the cliffs to prevent them from deteriorating further, while archaeologists and restoration experts have cataloged the fragments that remain of the giant statues.
The recovered pieces -- many the size of large boulders, others as tiny as pebbles -- are stored in the shelters while the archeological team decides whether to proceed with restoring the statues.
And that's just it: More than three years after UNESCO, the United Nations' main cultural agency, declared Bamiyan to be a World Heritage site, no one knows if the statues can ever be saved.
"No decision has yet been made about whether the Buddhas can be restored," said Abdul Abbasy, who heads Afghanistan's ministry responsible for the country's monuments and cultural heritage.
Carved out of sandstone cliffs, the larger male Buddha once towered 170 feet above the valley, as high as a 15-story building, while the smaller female Buddha stood around 10 stories tall.
The statues had survived the ravages of Mongolian conqueror and warrior Genghis Khan, centuries of wars and the natural wear and tear of the elements. But in 2001, despite protests from around the world, including from Muslim nations, the Taliban used explosives and tank fire to destroy Afghanistan's most famous tourist attraction.
The Taliban ordered their destruction as part of its campaign to destroy pre-Islamic artifacts considered an assault on Islam.
Today, some see the influence of al Qaeda behind the destruction of the Buddhas, which came in the months before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Al Qaeda had brought its extremist Wahabbist version of Islam to Afghanistan while the Taliban were in power, critics say.
The governor of Bamiyan, Dr. Habiba Sarabi, the only female governor in the country, told CNN, "It was al Qaeda or some other foreign power."
No apology from Taliban
A sense of the enormity of restoring the Bamiyan Buddhas can be gained by visiting Kabul Museum, in the Afghan capital, which once housed one of the world's greatest collections of Buddhist art.
In the weeks before the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddhas, they also entered the Kabul Museum wielding sledgehammers. They smashed 2,500 priceless artifacts stored there.
"It was a sad action," said museum director Omar Khan Masoudi, who has worked at the museum for almost three decades.
Asked if the Taliban had ever apologized for their actions, he smiled slightly and said, "No."
In 2003, with the support of the governments of France, Britain, Italy and Japan, work was begun not only restoring the destroyed artifacts, but also rebuilding the museum, which had been destroyed in Afghanistan's civil war during the mid-1990s.
Where once the roof was open to the sky, the museum is now almost completely rebuilt.
In the museum restoration room, technicians wearing white overalls working from old photos have been painstakingly restoring around 300 of the destroyed artifacts in the past five years. At that rate, it will take another four decades to restore the rest.
The slow progress at the Kabul Museum suggests that the restoration of the giant Buddhas will take many, many years -- if it is even possible.
Back at the cliffs overlooking Bamiyan, a gaping hole remains where the Buddhas once stood. Like so much in Afghanistan, a country destroyed by decades of war, restoring the country's cultural heritage is a task that will likely take decades.
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Afghans open controversial interrogation facilities
via Ottawa Citizen (Canada) David Pugliese CanWest News Service Saturday, May 12, 2007
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - From the outside, the two-storey building looks like any other dilapidated structure in this dust-covered city in southern Afghanistan.
But the facility, a prison and interrogation centre operated by Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, is at the centre of a political firestorm in Ottawa as the Harper government fights off allegations Canadian troops turned detainees over to torturers here.
In an unusual move the NDS, Afghanistan's version of a combined CIA and FBI, allowed CanWest News Service access to insurgent detainees as well as to tour its interrogation facilities. It is the first time journalists have been allowed into the installation.
NDS officers readily admit they opened the doors of their prison to counter allegations in Canada that Afghans in custody of the intelligence agency are routinely abused.
Some Afghans, now in another prison in Kandahar after being linked to the Taliban, say they were tortured at this NDS facility. According to them, they were beaten or hung upside down from metal hooks in the ceiling of one of the cells. Other prisoners have talked about being confined in small cages in the basement.
Human rights groups have also raised concerns about the NDS, whose predecessor was the dreaded KhAD, the secret police created by the Soviets to hunt down anti-Communist forces. KhAD officials earned a brutal reputation for themselves and torture was a common method of dealing with detainees.
The Afghan government says things have changed under the NDS, although some of its officials were members of KhAD.
NDS officers here maintain there is no cause for concern in Canada over the welfare of insurgents taken into custody.
"We don't do anything that is against the law," NDS deputy director Noor Mohammed Balak Karzai said through an interpreter. "We have been trained in our profession. We have much experience."
At the time of the CanWest News Service visit there were less than 20 prisoners being kept in the facility's basement. Some were captured by the NDS, others by NATO forces. All detainees kept in the prison are suspected anti-government insurgents. If the detainees are convicted of a crime they are transferred into another Kandahar prison.
The main holding cell for less dangerous detainees was a large room where eight men sat on mattresses or on the floor. They had food and drink and their feet were shackled.
Another eight prisoners were held in nearby cells behind locked doors. Each of those cells measured about a metre and a half wide by three metres long.
Their legs were also chained and some had small mattresses on the ground. A few had the Koran nearby.
Some of the men were subdued, looking constantly down at the ground. Others had a vacant look on their faces. Some laughed as they talked with the guards. There were no visible signs of abuse on their hands, feet or faces. No one complained about poor treatment, but it would be difficult with the nearby presence of the NDS officers.
The cells were relatively clean by Afghan standards. There were no hooks on the walls or in the ceilings. There were no cages. There was fresh food, which appears to have been brought to the prisoners to coincide with the visit by journalists. The NDS officers say the detainees are given the same food as the guards and officers at the facility.
The detainees also have food brought to them by their families when they are allowed to visit once a week.
Col. Abdul Razzaq, another high-ranking NDS officer, maintains the Taliban is using the Canadian news media to discredit the Canadian Forces and the Afghan government with claims of detainee abuse.
"Our enemy uses different tactics," he explained. "They have used suicide bombers. Now the enemy takes the benefit of propaganda."
Razzaq said the NDS is more than open to regular visits by the Canadian military to check on the prisoners. After the detainee issue became high profile in Canada, a group of Canadian military officers made a quick trip to the prison to watch the interrogation process and examine the cells, he noted.
"They observed the situation and they apologized for the (media) broadcasts in Canada," added Col. Mohammed Yassin, another NDS officer on the tour.
Officials from Corrections Canada also visited the facility, according to the NDS officers. They asked that the leg chains be removed from the prisoners but were told that was not possible because of the concern the detainees would escape.
Upstairs, an interrogation was being conducted with an alleged insurgent suspected of being involved in a plan to kidnap a foreigner. His feet were shackled and he looked nervous. An intelligence officer asked him questions and wrote the answers down on a notepad.
The man, who did not give his name, had been in custody for a month and the NDS had applied to hold him longer.
"My family knows where I am," explained the prisoner. "I've seen them twice here."
The detainee jokingly claimed the NDS officers were his "friends" and everyone in the room laughed.
Razzaq claims it doesn't make sense for the intelligence agency to engage in torture since such actions would ultimately undercut support for the government. "If we ignore the rules of human rights and other international laws, the public will distance itself from the government," said Razzaq. "That would cause an unpeaceful situation."
But asked to further explain the interrogation process, the NDS officers were vague with their answers. They indicated they rely heavily on information already collected on detainees but didn't go into details about how that is obtained. "We use different techniques," explained Razzaq. "We usually take the benefit of the information we've had before. We talk to him. He just confesses."
There is a detailed process on keeping a detainee in custody. If a suspect is injured they are taken to the local hospital for treatment. The NDS officers said they cannot question a suspect until he recovers. Intelligence agents are allowed to hold a suspect for 72 hours, after which they apply to senior legal officials for an extension to keep the person in custody. If the courts convict the detainee they can either be sent to a prison in Kabul or Kandahar.
Some Afghan government officials in Kabul have privately expressed frustration with the reaction in Canada to the detainee issue. They point out the Taliban doesn't hesitate to use torture or kill prisoners outright. The NDS, they argue, are on the front-lines of a guerrilla war with insurgents and are under no illusion what fate awaits them if the Taliban captures them.
"If we are unlucky they would cut off our nose, cut out our eyes, cut off our feet," said Karzai. "If they killed us outright we would be happy."
The NDS officers are particularly angry Canadian troops have been tarnished by the recent allegations. And it is also clear the Karzai government is concerned the ongoing political battle in the House of Commons over the detainee issue could further sour the Canadian public's view of the war, as well as jeopardize foreign aid.
Canada is a major contributor to Afghanistan with both troops and development aid.
Razzaq stressed Canadian troops have a reputation for acting properly in regards to handling of prisoners.
"During their operations they don't abuse people," he explained. "We appreciate such an attitude. Other coalition forces do not obey the rules, they don't follow the rules like the Canadians do."
According to the colonel, the Canadians have a good reputation in the Kandahar area and local residents will sometimes warn the NDS about hidden roadside bombs rigged to target the Canadians. That is something the locals don't do for U.S. soldiers. "If an IED is buried in the way of American forces, they don'tsay anything," said Razzaq. "The public doesn't have a good attitude or opinion toward them."
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US to build Afghan super-madrassas
By Gethin Chamberlain in Paktika, Afghanistan, Sunday Telegraph (UK) 12:23am BST 13/05/2007
American forces in Afghanistan are building madrassas in an attempt to persuade parents not to send their children across the border to Pakistan for instruction at hard-line religious schools.
Work has started on two "super-madrassas" in Paktika, which borders Pakistan, and more are planned. The American government is also paying for the refurbishment of mosques in the area, in the hope of winning over religious leaders. The coalition has been under growing pressure over the deaths of civilians and American military commanders say they hope the moves will convince Afghans - many of whom rely on madrassas to provide bed and board for their children - that they are on the same side.
"We are saying that we respect their culture and religion," said naval commander Eduardo Fernandez, the man in charge of American aid efforts in the Sharana district of Paktika. "We have to give the religious leaders the respect they feel they deserve."
Each madrassa will accommodate 1,000 boarding pupils, all of them boys.
The US military insists that the schools, which it calls "centres for educational excellence", will be administered by the Afghan education ministry, but admits there is a risk that they will be vulnerable to radical Islamic preachers. Madrassas in Pakistan have frequently been linked to the indoctrination of young Muslim men who have joined the insurgents in Afghanistan or been trained to become terrorists in the West.
"In Afghan terms it is a madrassa, but those words have baggage and if word gets back to a Western public that we are building madrassas, that is a bad thing," said Major Jason Smallfield, 37, an American officer in Sharana. "It is a religious school, but it is not a religious education. The governor is trying to ensure that there is some sort of control over the curriculum, to ensure that radical Islam is not being fomented through these schools."
More than five years after the fall of the Taliban, education remains a battleground in Afghanistan. For many children, the choice is still a religious education, or no education at all.
In the village of Badam Qul, about 20 miles south-west of the capital, Kabul, the only education available for 200 families is at the mosque. For a while, said Suleiman Mirafzal, a village elder, there had been a conventional school, but the money for it ran out. Now, the nearest school is a two-hour walk along a narrow dirt track which runs through a vast minefield, laid during the Soviet occupation.
In the winter, snow covers stone markers painted red and white to show the only safe path through the mines, which still claim victims regularly. There is also a threat from wolves, which come down from the mountains to search for food.
Parents wanted their children to go to school, said Amngul Didargul, a teacher, because they had noticed the improvement in their behaviour. But Mr Mirafzal said many parents, who could not afford to feed their children and keep them warm through the winter, found it simpler and safer to send them to madrassas in Pakistan.
Under the Taliban, much of the Afghan population was denied an education, and 90 per cent of women and 63 per of men are illiterate. The remnants of the old regime still try to exert their will, killing teachers and burning down schools. Of 154 schools in the south-western province of Oruzgan, 107 are closed; 58 of those have been burnt or damaged and the rest are shut because teachers are too frightened to attend.
Schools that employ women teachers and admit girls are most at risk of becoming Taliban targets - one reason why, across Afghanistan, 70 per cent of boys are in school but only 40 per cent of girls.
At the Qali Aday school outside Kabul, the British charity Save the Children covers much of the cost of educating 570 pupils, aged from six to 17, in subjects including geography, history, science and English.
Yet even in such a model school, the inherent problems facing the Afghan education system are evident. The school is short of eight teachers and there is not one woman on its staff, a legacy of the years in which women were denied access to any education. Government funding has dried up and the school relies on charity.
The headmaster, Abdul Qadir, admitted it was a struggle to persuade parents to send their daughters to school when a girl who trains to be a teacher might earn the equivalent of £30 a month, while one who learns a trade such as tailoring can pull in three times that.
"The parents of girls are saying, 'Don't go to school'," he said. "As the salaries of teachers go down they say to the girls that they won't be able to feed their families on that money."
Girls wanted to study so that they could become doctors or teachers, said one pupil, Palwasha, 14, but they face challenges unknown to Western schoolchildren. Sports such as football and volleyball are off limits because there is no walled-off area where they can be screened from male eyes.
They also fear the Taliban. Wazhma, 13, said a letter had been pushed under the door of another school recently, warning that if girls continued to attend, it would be burnt down. Yet in some places parents accept that the future lies in education. In the village of Oria Khail, over the mountains from Badam Qul, Mahtab, a mother of 10, said they had to persevere.
"I want to see development like in other countries," she said. "We can't do anything on our own. But with support, in 15 to 20 years, we will have our own doctors and teachers and engineers in this village." Walking to school through a minefield telegraph.co.uk/news
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Mother-of-two's transformation in Afghanistan from burka to bikini
By HEIDI KINGSTONE in Kabul 12th May 2007 Daily Mail (UK)
There is a quiet buzz of happy conversation as the students at the world's most unlikely hairdressing academy practise the arcane arts of perms, tints and extensions on a row of life-size plastic heads.
All are wearing high heels and make-up, but their heads are covered with long scarves. There are no men around, save the Kalashnikov-toting guards in a leopardskin-print sentry box outside the walled compound.
This is the Kabul Beauty School, a Western-style coffee bar and hairdressing salon in the Afghan capital that has so far offered the promise of a new life to nearly 200 women who have been left destitute by decades of warfare and rule by Islamic fundamentalists.
The school is run by Debbie Rodriguez, an eccentric American mother of two from Michigan. Debbie, 46, was on the run from a disastrous marriage when she arrived in Afghanistan five years ago with a Christian humanitarian group.
She had come to work as a nursing assistant, but she found her skills as a hairdresser - she had worked in salons since the age of 15 - were far more in demand.
Beauty salons had been banned in 1996 by the Taliban, which imposed a draconian regime on Afghan women: they were forced to wear the burka, forbidden to work, barred from education past the age of eight and faced public flogging and execution for violating religious laws.
But in a country waking up to a new liberalism after the American-sponsored toppling of the Taliban in 2001, it soon became clear to Western aid workers and local women that there were no hairdressers - and when word got around that Debbie was a wizard with scissors, there was a stampede for her services.
"When I got back to my hotel room at night, my door would be plastered with 20 or 30 Post-It notes from people asking me to cut their hair," she recalled.
Now her account of her five-year odyssey that has seen Debbie help set up a salon and beauty academy, divorce her American husband and marry the assistant to a local warlord who sleeps with a Kalashnikov by their bed, has become an American publishing sensation. Her book, The Kabul Beauty School, will be published in Britain later this month.
Today the school she co-founded is a registered charity that trains Afghan women who have few opportunities for work.
Yet Debbie's personal journey has been every bit as fascinating as that of the students she has trained to give Brazilian bikini waxes and bobs.
Her visit with a Christian charity, Care For All Foundation (CFAF), in May 2002 was part of her search for fulfilment that began a year earlier, when she felt stifled in her marriage to an American Bible-basher.
She began training as a volunteer disaster worker with CFAF - and in September 2001 found herself in New York, offering assistance to firefighters and rescue workers amid the rubble of the World Trade Centre.
"It was a hard experience, but so fabulous,' she recalled. "When I went home, it was "Taliban, Taliban, Taliban" on the TV, radio and in the papers. I saw these women in Afghanistan and, at the same time, I felt so trapped in my marriage.
"I told my ex-husband there was nothing he could do to stop me from going to Afghanistan. I did not know what I was supposed to be doing, but I knew I was supposed to be there."
She begged a medical team from the charity to let her travel with them to Kabul and raised money for her tickets by selling cookies.
"I had no intention of staying any longer than a month," she said. "But in Afghanistan all my misery disappeared. There were so many people who had real problems, mine were nothing.
"It was embarrassing to say I had a troubled marriage, because my husband didn't try to set me on fire, which is not uncommon here."
She was then asked to help train women to meet the burgeoning post-Taliban demand for beauty treatments, often for Afghan brides on their wedding day.
However, women working is still taboo for many fundamentalists, so being a hairdresser can be a dangerous occupation - hence the armed guards.
Afghanistan is still a fiercely traditional society and most women are married at 12. Even sex within marriage is considered so shameful that women hide their pregnancies.
Before the Taliban came to power in 1996, there was a flourishing world of women-only beauty parlours - some of which were fronts for brothels.
So Debbie is keenly aware that the salon must not only be beyond reproach, but must be seen to be so. The only men allowed as far as the gate of the school, which also includes a coffee shop and charity gift shop, are fathers, brothers or husbands.
Some of the students' stories are heartbreaking. Mina (all the women's names have been changed in the book to protect them) is a beautiful, elegantly dressed woman - no mean feat in a country where the average family income is £400 a year.
She lives in two small rooms in a dangerous area of Kabul, where she could be raped or murdered just walking home.
Her family sold her to pay a debt to a much older man when she was ten. Mina fled to Kabul and worked as a cleaner for Debbie. After two years she asked if she could join the school and is now the salon's manager.
Hama's life has been equally grim. Her father sold his entire family - wife and children - to a much older man who, the father claimed, was an uncle who would marry her.
"Girls are not respected as humans. Fathers don't look at them as people to cherish, but as a way to feed their family," said Debbie.
Six women work at the school, which has trained 170 women, most of whom have gone on to work at other salons that have opened since the fall of the Taliban.
The staff are like family, all swapping stories, including Debbie, of the trouble with their Afghan husbands. One of the ways women avoid having sex with their husbands is not to bring water to their homes, most of which don't have running water.
"The big thing after sex is showering, it's an Islamic custom. It's no sex tonight because there is no water," Debbie laughed.
She also told the story of how she was groped in a market and was then advised that this was the right of all Afghan males. She laid the molester flat with a knock-out punch.
Debbie knows that, for an Afghan woman, striking a man remains a penal offence. But for her, as an angry Westerner, it was a moment of liberating satisfaction.
Since writing her book, Debbie has become a celebrity in Kabul and in America, where she has made the Top 10 of The New York Times' bestseller list. But, not everyone is convinced of her saintly image.
Six American women involved in the founding of the school say Debbie's book exaggerates her role. They have also alleged that, in their absence, she moved the school from its original home in Kabul's Women's Ministry, where she was not allowed to make a profit, to a house she shares with her new Afghan/Uzbek husband, where she could make money.
One of the co-founders, Sheila McGurk, told The New York Times: '[The book] makes Debbie out to be Mother Teresa. And it's wrong."
Certainly prices are high at the salon, which caters mainly for Western women. It costs £48 for a cut and blow-dry and £16 for a manicure.
But Debbie lives in a modest three-room apartment above the salon and said she puts any money she makes back into the school.
She also argued that she has never claimed to be the founder of the school. "Others have claimed that, not me," she said.
"I have always said I helped found the school. The book is not a detailed description of every event. It is and always has been about the women and their stories."
Debbie's image is not helped by the fact that her new husband, Sam, who is 12 years her junior, is the assistant to the notorious Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is suspected of killing as many as 50,000 people and is now part of President Karzai's government.
Debbie married Sam four years ago, just 20 days after their first meeting, despite the fact that he hardly spoke any English and was married to a woman with whom he had had seven daughters.
Debbie admitted she wouldn't have married so quickly, but knew she could not continue to see him unless they got married. The only low point, she said, came when his first wife, who lives with her children in Saudi Arabia, gave birth to a son.
"It felt as if he had cheated on me," she said. "My American brain can't process the fact that I am a second wife. So I've made up the story that he's divorced and he has to go to Saudi Arabia to visit his children, which he does one month every year."
And despite the fact that neither she nor Sam speaks each other's language particularly well, she insists their marriage has grown stronger.
"The great bonus is that you don't have to apologise about all the terrible things you've said in an argument, because neither of us has the faintest clue what the other has said," she laughs.
While we talked, Sam came into the cafe to ask Debbie a question. He's a burly man with a moustache, a scar across his cheek and a gun in his pocket.
He played with her hair extensions in a loving manner - an unusual sight in a country where men and women rarely even speak - and told me Debbie is old.
"But in Afghanistan we like antiques," he said, with a wicked laugh.
Debbie refers to him as Fred Flintstone with a rocket launcher.
Whatever the truth about its origins, The Kabul Beauty School remains an oasis of hope and cheer. Despite the turmoil outside, the students and customers chat as they would in a salon anywhere else in the world.
And every generation of graduates spreads the gospel that women can earn their own living in Afghanistan and free themselves from the Taliban's crippling straitjacket of tradition and puritanism.
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Afghan govt deports three Chinese women to Pakistan
Daily Times, Pakistan
LANDIKOTAL: The Afghan government on Saturday deported three Chinese women back to Pakistan who entered Afghanistan without legal documents from the Torkham Border Check Post, said officials.
According to Pakistani officials at the Torkham border, Afghan officials arrested three Chinese women – Shilili, Liaxaping and Zhangwaiwel – who entered into Afghanistan without legal documents. They said the Afghan government had handed over the women to Pakistan to deport them to China.
Some officials said on condition of anonymity that the three foreign women had crossed all four check posts of the Khyber agency, including the Torkham Border Check Post. The Pakistani officials said the women had been shifted to the Khyber House in Peshawar from where they would be shifted to Islamabad. They said the women only had Chine passports and were also staying illegally in Pakistan, adding that the women would be sent back to China after investigations.
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Helmand poppy fields - a magnet for jobless youths
GHAZNI CITY, May 11 (Pajhwok Afghan News): The least bit bothered about their safety, thousands of impoverished unemployed youths from the southern Ghazni province poured into embattled Helmand to pierce lush-green poppy bulbs that promise to yield a massive quantity of opium this year.
Many out-of-job Afghans from the southeastern zone converged on the major drug-producing province, accounting for more than 40 percent of Afghanistan's poppy harvest. Almost ubiquitous militant attacks and ensuing air strikes by NATO and Coalition warplanes notwithstanding, Helmand is a magnet for the desperate multitudes struggling for survival.
For obvious reasons, the poor see a ray of hope in working on verdant, well-tended poppy farms - stretching for miles and miles in valleys and plains. In May, when farmers generally start pricking the bulbs to extract sap, crowds of labourers from the neighbouring provinces stream into the vales and deserts of Helmand and Kandahar - Afghanistan's poppy heartland.
Given a dramatic increase this year in the area cultivated with the illegal crop that brings handsome cash for growers, demand for workers has also considerably risen.
Gul Muhammad, hailing from Mullah Nooh village in Andar district of Ghazni, has been one of the thousands collecting what can be characterized as the raw material for heroin in Greshk for a month now. The 30-year-old, speaking to Pajhwok Afghan News, says abject poverty has driven him into a zone where deadly clashes and bombings are a routine occurrence.
"Being the sole breadwinner for a family of 18, I have to toil continually. Over the last 20 days, I have earned Rs18,000 - perforating the poppy bulbs and amassing the gum the moment it solidifies. I had come here last year too but the situation is hugely different this time around. Farmers, who came to Andar and adjoining areas in search of manual workers, promised attractive remuneration to so many youngsters."
A boy from Qarabagh, Nasrullah spent three weeks at work in the militancy-plagued Nad Ali district. But the 18-year-old carried on unconcerned. "Indubitably, Helmand is a volatile place but I being unemployed and resourceless chose to come here to eke out a living at a time the harvest was reaching its peak."
Having grown in experience and efficiency, Nasrullah's wages have surged with time. "Our meals on the house, we were a group of 23 working five hours and each of us earning 800 afghanis a day. Not a bad deal for someone hard up," he thinks.
A Ghazni-based shopkeeper sent 30 youths to Helmand, but not before receiving cast-iron security guarantees from the growers. "Worried over the nose-diving security situation, I sought guarantees from the poppy farmers who came to me, asking for labourers," reasoned Said Muhammad.
Although the workers are satisfied with the terms and conditions offered by their short-term employers, they charge security forces often trade on their financial vulnerability plus official strictures (hardly applied) on poppy cultivation. A resident of Waghaz, Abdul Ghafoor accuses security personnel of extorting 500 afghanis from the farmers for every pair of hands hired.
With the outlawed trade continuing to flourish despite the presence of several thousand foreign and Afghan troops in the south, doctors warn, all the people associated with the business run the risk of becoming addicted to opium and heroin. More often than not, health experts argue, it is the environment that induces dependence on hazardous drugs.
A direct contact with narcotics and addiction are inextricably intertwined, continues Dr. Ahmad Shah Amarkhel, in charge of the detoxification centre at the Ghazni Public Health Department. That most drug dealers, traffickers and growers themselves are addicts is a hard fact, he maintains.
"We ought to provide jobless youngsters a wholesome working atmosphere to rid our society of the narcotics curse," suggests Dr. Amarkhel. Afghanistan has earned a lot of notoriety for producing three-quarters of the total global opium production, with the UN warning the Central Asian nation could emerge as a narco state.
Nevertheless, Nasrullah is dismissive of any icy medical logic detached from the ground realities. Loath to the nasty smell of the toxic substance, the teenager reacts, he cannot even think of becoming a druggie. "Like my friends and other people out there, I too had been to Helmand in quest of a livelihood - nothing else."
Be that as it may, 2,000 junkies visited the detox facility in Ghazni last year, but the actual number could be much higher because a vast majority of addicts avoids consulting doctors. According to a conservative but credible figure, close to a million Afghans are hooked on drugs produced in their homeland.
Reported by Sher Ahmad Haider
Translated & edited by S. Mudassir Ali Shah
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Britain supports sustained Pak-Afghan dialogue
PESHAWAR, May 11 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Pakistan being a frontline state in the war on terror should take more measures to eliminate some of the senior al-Qaeda and Taliban figures still hiding in the lawless tribal belt near the porous Durand Line, a top British diplomat has said.
Young British nationals of Pakistani origin, who visited the country to receive guidance and ideas from al-Qaeda and other terrorist leaders sheltering in the border areas, offered London a cause for concern, High Commissioner Robert Brinkley told journalists here on Thursday.
Upon return to Britain from Pakistan, some of the young visitors blew themselves up, the diplomat remarked, saying that his country was trying to stop that happening. "We are working with Pakistan government to tackle the problem. Islamabad has cooperated with us in tracking down such people.
Speaking at the Peshawar Press Clubs Guest Hour programme, Brinkley lauded the sacrifices rendered by the Pakistan government and people in fighting terrorists and extremists. Together we are fighting the twin menace, which is taking a toll on Pakistan as shown by a recent suicide attack on the interior minister."
The global fraternity was prodding Pakistan and Afghanistan to resolve bilateral irritants through dialogue, said Brinkley, who lauded Turkey's recent initiative to host a Musharraf-Karzai summit in Ankara. He hoped sustained Pak-Afghan talks would lend strength to their ties besides bringing stability to the region.
With regard to a Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, the high commissioner said the militants were killing innocent civilians in a desperate attempt to undermine the progress made by the international community in the war-ravaged country since the ouster of the fundamentalist regime in 2001.
"But Afghanistan is making progress as 4.6 million refugees have been repatriated while six million Afghan children are attending schools today. Similarly, Afghanistan's economy grew by 14 percent last year," he concluded.
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