By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's government should hold direct talks with the resurgent Taliban and other opposition forces, the senate voted on Tuesday, in a bid to end the rising bloodshed in the country.
The senate, the upper house of the Afghan parliament, also urged Western troops in the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces to halt the hunt for Taliban fighters and other militants.
The motion comes at a time of rising public discontent with the government of President Hamid Karzai over civilian casualties at the hands of Western troops, corruption and the failure to turn billions of dollars in aid into better livelihoods.
The senate motion calling for "direct negotiations with the concerned Afghan sides in the country" was passed by an overwhelming majority and now goes to Karzai, who has in the past failed in efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
It follows a controversial law offering an amnesty from war crimes committed over nearly three decades of civil war.
Former cabinet minister Wadir Safi, now a political scientist at Kabul University, said the vote was a positive step, but added friction within Karzai's government over how to reach out to the Taliban needed to be resolved before peace talks could start.
"Talking to the Taliban and other opponents should be a must, for without it the crisis will go on and on," he said, adding a way should be found to include them in the government.
The Taliban could not be contacted for comment, but in the past they have ruled out peace talks and have vowed to drive out foreign troops and topple Karzai's government.
The senate is led by former president Sibghatullah Mojadidi, a confidant of Karzai who heads a presidential commission that has tried to reach out to the Taliban and other opposition groups.
Nearly half of the 101 members of the senate are appointed by Karzai and it usually works in cooperation with him.
The senate said efforts should be made to find out the demands of the Taliban and other opponents and in the meantime military operations against them should cease.
"If the need arises for an operation, it should be carried out with coordination of the national army and police and with the consultation of the government of Afghanistan."
Karzai is under pressure from his own government after key members last month joined critics to form a new political group, the National Front, effectively the first opposition in a parliament that has no formal party structure.
They have called for some of the president's powers to be removed through the creation of a new role of prime minister.
Fighting has escalated since early last year to its worst level since the Taliban were toppled in 2001.
On Tuesday, a civilian was killed in crossfire between the Taliban and Western troops near in the southern city of Kandahar, NATO-led forces said, just hours after a U.N. driver was shot dead in the same city on his way to work.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who held talks with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad on Tuesday, said the fight against the Taliban must push on, but added more was needed to resolve the conflict.
"The final answer in Afghanistan will not be a military one and cannot be a military one," de Hoop Scheffer said. "The final answer in Afghanistan is reconstruction, development and nation-building."
NATO has more than 35,000 troops in Afghanistan -- the alliance's biggest ever ground operation.
De Hoop Scheffer said the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan was of great importance.
Leaders of the uneasy neighbors held their first talks in months on April 30 in Turkey, and de Hoop Scheffer said he hoped their meeting would have positive results.
"We are all in the same boat. We are fighting terrorism, we are fighting extremism, we are preventing Afghanistan becoming again a failed state," he said.
"We cannot afford to fail because the consequences would be felt in the region ... and globally."
(Additional reporting by Robert Birsel in Islamabad)
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Afghanistan hoping for stronger relationship with France
Tue May 8, 2:14 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai has congratulated Nicolas Sarkozy on his win in France's presidential election, saying he hoped relations between the countries would become even stronger.
"France is Afghanistan's best friend and it has made significant contributions to security and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan during the past five years," Karzai said in a statement on Monday.
"I hope the historic and friendly relations between Afghanistan and France will further strengthen under Sarkozy's leadership."
France has about 1,000 soldiers as part of the 37-nation International Security Assistance Force that is led by NATO and is trying to help the fragile government establish some authority over the resurgent Taliban movement.
The extremist group, which is holding a French aid worker hostage, has urged the president-elect to set "an exact timetable" for the withdrawal of French troops.
It says it will release the Frenchman if the troops are withdrawn or the Afghan government frees certain Taliban militants in its jails.
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Afghan fighters processing opium to boost drug profits: US official
BRUSSELS (AFP) - Taliban insurgents and armed Afghan groups are processing opium in makeshift laboratories to maximise drug profits and better fund the fight against Western forces, a top US drug official said Monday.
US drug control policy director John Walters said the groups, sometimes with the help of corrupt government officials, are then shifting the heroin to outside networks which move it on through Iran or Pakistan and into Europe.
"These processing centres have moved around," he told reporters during a visit to Brussels for talks with European Union and NATO officials, generally in southern provinces like Helmand, Kandahar and Nimroz.
"These labs are not places with beakers and glass-ware. They are essentially cans and pans of chemicals and opium that are mixed up in a kind of dirty kitchen, or a garage where you're changing your oil," he said.
"It's not hard to move that around."
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium and according to United Nations figures production for 2006 was to increase to a record 6,100 tonnes, after an "alarming" jump in the lawless south.
Opium poppies needs little water and is easy to grow and transport in the drought-stricken country. It is also a major source of funds for the Taliban, which were ousted from power by a US-led coalition in late 2001.
"One of the reasons, aside from the profit, they can benefit by processing the heroin inside the country is that they gain maximum value ... for the product as it crosses their border out of their hands," Walters said.
It is then handled by international networks.
"The bulk of it looks like it goes out of Afghanistan through Iran, and being smuggled across the border through Pakistan (and) up via sea routes, and through in some cases Turkey, and into the nations of Europe," he said.
Some heroin also moves into Russia and increasingly through China.
He said the Afghan heroin industry, once legal under the Taliban, does not rely on large and powerful structures like the cartels in South America.
"There seems to be a more diverse underlying infrastructure here that involves some key people in Afghanistan, key people in some of the other countries," he said.
Corruption is also an important factor.
"We still have problems of corruption, the use of this money to compromise political officials or have some powerful, wealthy political individuals who may be involved in the drug trade," he said.
And despite what he said was the progress made by President Hamid Karzai's government, Afghanistan's police and justice infrastructure was still far from being ready to cope with the problem.
"I frankly feel that it will be some time before they are able to handle some of the most powerful individuals but they are starting to gain confidence," he said.
In the meantime, The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), with around 37,000 troops from 37 nations, is trying to provide the stability needed for economic growth: the best arm for killing the industry.
"We are trying to continue the progress to take provinces away from the poppy economy, away from the rule of armed groups, whether they are war lords, drug traffickers or terrorists," Walters said.
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NATO convoy ambushed in Afghanistan
By NOOR KHAN, Associated Press Writer
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Suspected Taliban militants ambushed a NATO convoy in southern Afghanistan early Tuesday, and a gunshot victim said soldiers fleeing the scene shot him and killed a man in a bakery.
NATO said one civilian was killed and two wounded in the cross-fire after militants fired rocket-propelled grenades and guns as the convoy passed through a civilian area. NATO said soldiers returned fire, but did not specify if the casualties were caused by militants or soldiers.
Afghan officials have pleaded repeatedly with international troops to exercise caution to prevent civilian casualties, which has fueled distrust of international forces and the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.
One of the victims, Sidiqullah Khan, was shot in the leg and the hand. He said his friend, a baker with whom he was talking during the clash, was killed.
"I was sitting in a bread shop. There was some fighting with a NATO convoy. The NATO convoy came and started firing on us," Khan said from his hospital bed. "My friend was killed."
NATO said the incident was being investigated.
The Taliban "chose the time and location of the attack, deliberately putting the lives of civilians at risk," said Lt. Col. Mike Smith, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force. "ISAF soldiers go to great lengths to minimize the risk to civilians, but this incident will be fully investigated by the Afghan National Police, supported by ISAF."
Kandahar provincial police chief Esmatullah Alizai declined comment on the incident, saying it is being investigated.
Any civilian casualties are likely to feed anti-foreign troop sentiment in Kandahar, where a NATO convoy fleeing a suicide bomb attack in December opened fire on civilians, leaving at least one dead and six wounded.
According to an Associated Press tally, based on reports from Afghan and Western officials, 151 civilians have been killed by violence in the first four months of this year, including at least 51 blamed on NATO and the U.S.-led coalition.
That total does not include 51 civilians that Afghan officials say were killed in clashes and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the western province of Herat late last month. NATO said it is investigating the deaths. The coalition has said previously that 136 "suspected Taliban fighters" were killed in the clashes and airstrikes.
Separately in Kandahar, a driver working with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was assassinated by men on a motorbike as he left for work Tuesday morning. Alizai said a police investigation found the killing was caused by a family dispute.
The U.N. identified the man as Sadequllah, 38, and said that he had been working for the U.N. for 15 years.
"The motives for this attack need to be established, and we are working with the authorities in Kandahar to help the investigation," said Tom Koenigs, the special representative for the U.N. secretary-general for Afghanistan.
Last month, a powerful remote-controlled bomb destroyed a U.N. vehicle in Kandahar, killing four Nepalese guards and an Afghan driver. The attack on a three-vehicle U.N. convoy was the bloodiest in Afghanistan for the world body since the hard-line Taliban militia's 2001 ouster.
"The safety and well-being of those Afghan and international staff who work for the U.N. in Afghanistan is a matter of paramount importance to us," Koenigs said in a statement. "We will spare no effort to ensure that Sadequllah's murderers are found and properly brought to account."
A recent Human Rights Watch report said NATO and U.S. military operations killed at least 230 civilians in 2006 and that most of the year's 900 civilian combat fatalities were from insurgent attacks.
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NATO, Pakistan pledge new anti-Taliban efforts
by Masroor Gilani
ISLAMABAD (AFP) - NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and President Pervez Musharraf agreed on Tuesday to strengthen security along the Pakistan- Afghanistan border to contain the Taliban insurgency.
Scheffer told a joint press conference with Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri that his two-hour meeting with Musharraf focused on measures to secure the border.
"This was an important element in my discussions with President Musharraf: that ... every effort, every investment should be made to see that the porous border is adequately under surveillance and adequately under control," Scheffer said.
The NATO chief underlined that military action alone was not the solution to Afghanistan's insurgency problems, despite the presence of 37,000 NATO forces.
"It is my strong opinion that the final answer in Afghanistan will not be a military one and cannot be a military one. The final answer in Afghanistan is called reconstruction, development and nation-building."
Kasuri said Pakistan had made huge efforts to enhance stability in the border region.
"Pakistan has deployed twice as many troops and suffered thrice as many casualties as the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces in Afghanistan," he said.
He said that Pakistan had increased the number of troops and military posts on the rugged border to check cross-border movement of militants.
"Previously we had 80,000 soldiers, but now with the movement of some more troops it's reached 90,000."
"The onus for border control cannot be placed on Pakistan alone. We expect a matching response from Afghanistan as each side must play its due role to combat the menace of terrorism," he added.
Scheffer, who arrived here on Monday, also met Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.
Aziz told the visiting official that Pakistan had started "selective fencing of our side of the border to prevent illegal movement on the border."
Afghanistan has opposed the fencing, saying that it would divide families on both sides of the border.
Official sources said better coordination between Pakistan and Afghanistan also came under discussion during talks with Musharraf in the context of mutual mistrust between the two neighbours over cross-border infiltration.
The visit comes after Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai met in Ankara under Turkish mediation last month and said they had reached a new accord to step up efforts against terrorism.
Musharraf told the NATO chief the Taliban were primarily an Afghan problem and that Afghan and international coalition forces needed to do more at military, political and administrative levels to defeat the insurgency, the source said.
Afghanistan and Western allies believe that Pakistan's support is crucial because the Taliban and other militants linked to the Al-Qaeda network use its semi-autonomous tribal areas as a launch pad for attacks inside Afghanistan.
Afghanistan suffered its bloodiest year in 2006 with more than 4,000 people killed, mostly rebels, sometimes in pitched battles between Taliban-led insurgents and NATO-led troops in regions bordering Pakistan.
The Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan in late 2001 by US-led forces.
As well as the NATO-led ISAF troops in Afghanistan, there are also around 14,000 troops in the US-led coalition focused on counter-terrorism tasks.
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UN staff member shot dead in Afghanistan
By IANS Tuesday May 8, 06:06 PM
Kabul, May 8 (Xinhua) A UN staff member was shot dead Tuesday in volatile Kandahar province of southern Afghanistan, a statement of the UN Assistance Mission said.
Sadequllah, 38, who was a driver for the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, was killed apparently by gunmen on a motorbike at around 7 a.m. on his way to his office in Kandahar, the statement said.
'The safety and well-being of those Afghan and international staff who work for the UN in Afghanistan is a matter of paramount importance to us,' said Tom Koenigs, the special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan.
On April 17 four Nepalese security guards and an Afghan driver working for a UN agency were killed in a roadside bomb in Kandahar.
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Taliban may not listen to 'Pakistan-Afghanistan jirga
By ANI Tuesday May 8, 01:37 PM
Islamabad, May 8 (ANI): A member of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Peace Jirga Commission has said that the commission might not succeed in pacifying a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Daily Times quoted Rustam Shah Mohmand, an adviser to Pakistan's Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao Khan and the heads the Pakistani commission in the jirga, as saying that "I do not have much hope for success."
The meeting appears to have hit snags before it has even started, as the Taliban ruled out their participation, rejecting the move as an 'attempt by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to prolong' his rule.
The governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed on May 4 to hold their first joint jirga in the first week of August in Afghanistan, which would be followed by another one in Pakistan.
The two countries recently decided to try using the traditional tribal system to combat the Taliban.
President Pervez Musharraf and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai agreed to the idea during their joint meeting with US President George W Bush in September last year.
Mohmand said that the decisions taken at jirgas would be 'more or less binding' on the two governments.
Security concerns could reduce the delegate strength, the adviser said, adding that a final decision would be taken in the last week of May in Islamabad.
Mohmand said that the joint jirga would not include government representatives. Only tribal elders would be selected.
Azmat Hayat, head of Area Study Centre for Russia, China, Central Asia and Afghanistan said the joint jirga would not help Pakistan or Afghanistan. (ANI)
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U.S. commander laments civilian killings
By PAULINE JELINEK, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - A U.S. commander said Tuesday he is "deeply ashamed" by the Marine killings of Afghan civilians in March and reported that the American military has made condolence payments to their families.
"Today we met with the families of those victims: 19 dead and 50 injured," said Col. John Nicholson, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, deployed in eastern Afghanistan. "We made official apologies on the part of the U.S. government" and payments of about $2,000 for each death.
Speaking to Pentagon reporters by video conference from Afghanistan, Nicholson read the apology he said he made to the families.
"I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people," he said.
"The death and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hands of Americans is a stain on our honor and on the memory of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and the Afghan people," Nicholoson said.
A U.S. Marines convoy — fleeing after a suicide car bombing on March 4 — fired indiscriminately on vehicles and pedestrians, killing 12 people.
A U.S. military commander has determined that the Marines used excessive force and referred the case for possible criminal inquiry.
Military killings of civilians have been eroding Aghan support for international forces on its soil and the shaky U.S.-backed government and Afghans have protested the killings.
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Pakistani troops increased to 90,000 on Afghan border
(AP) 8 May 2007 via Khaleej Times
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan has increased the number of its troops deployed along the Afghan border to 90,000 to make it more difficult for Taliban and Al Qaeda militants to cross, its foreign minister said Tuesday.
Khursheed Kasuri announced the increase from 80,000 after talks with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Islamabad. Pakistan also increased the number of military posts along the frontier from 100 to 110, he said.
“This is the level of Pakistan’s commitment,” Kasuri said at a news conference. “We expect a matching response from Afghanistan, as each side must play its due role to combat the menace of terrorism.”
Pakistan is under growing pressure to take stronger action against militants using its remote border areas as a springboard for attacks on foreign and government troops in Afghanistan.
Kasuri provided no details of when the troop increase occurred or where exactly the troops were deployed.
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Canadian engineers detonate IED in southern Afghanistan; nobody hurt
Canadian Press Tuesday, May 08, 2007
SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan (CP) - Canadian engineers have safely detonated an improvised explosive device at the side of a dirt road near Spin Boldak in southern Afghanistan.
The device, a rusty bucket packed with explosives and wired to a battery box, erupted in a huge cloud of flame and smoke as soldiers watched from the safety of their armoured vehicles. The controlled explosion came after engineers spent several hours poking and prodding the bomb with a remote-control robot.
The roadside bomb, which was found exposed at the side of the road, was later fitted with explosives and detonated remotely.
Soldiers say it's unusual to see such a device out in the open, and suspect insurgents were preparing to set it up when it was spotted.
Sgt. Dave Camp, an engineer attached to the Royal Canadian Dragoons, says he's confident the Taliban were watching from a distance to see what the soldiers would do.
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Bomb destroys nine tankers with oil for troops in Afghanistan
EARTHtimes.org - May 08 1:11 AM
Islamabad - Nine tankers carrying oil for international forces in Afghanistan went up in flames when a suspected militant bomb blew up under one of the vehicles on the Pakistani side of the border, an official said Tuesday. In what was termed the latest act of sabotage against supplies to NATO and US forces, the parked tankers reportedly loaded with 44,000 litres of fuel, were destroyed in a chain reaction Monday night in the border town of Sheikhwal in Pakistan's restive Khyber Agency.
"Over the last three or four months tankers carrying oil for NATO troops have been regularly targeted, this is the fifth incident in this period," Fazal Mehmud, an official of the Khyber Agency administration, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
Firefighters took more than three hours to extinguish the blaze, which caused no casualties, he said. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.
Spokesmen for US-led coalition and NATO-led security assistance forces in Afghanistan said they were unaware of the incident or other attacks this year on fuel supplies coming from Pakistan.
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US Envoy Expresses Optimism about Afghanistan's Future
By Stephanie Ho Washington 07 May 2007 Voice of America
The outgoing top U.S. official in Afghanistan, who has just completed his assignment there, says he thinks stability is still possible, despite ongoing violence linked to the resurgence of the Taleban and increased cultivation of opium poppies. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington.
Ambassador Ronald Neumann says he is more optimistic about prospects for Afghanistan now than when he took up his position in Kabul in 2005.
Speaking at the Middle East Institute in Washington Monday, he said in recent years, the people of Afghanistan have been working on establishing institutions of national government.
"Parliament, constitution, president, two elections, a constitutional assembly," he said. "Those were pretty significant, big achievements."
In response to a question about why Afghans would support the Taleban, he said the reasons are complex and varied.
"You had noticeably bad government in some areas of Afghanistan, which particularly alienated tribes," he said. "There are pieces that are ideological. There are pieces that overlay with the drug trade. There are pieces that overlay with tribal resentments, where one tribal group feels that another has, because of its government position, has victimized it and goes the other way."
On the issue of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, Neumann acknowledged that what he described as "massive production" in the south is still a big problem. But at the same time, he added that there have been small gains in northern Afghanistan, which has seen a reduction in poppy growth.
"Success is not guaranteed," he said. "It is simply that I would say to you that you can see a measure of progress and a way forward."
When asked about the future of NATO troops in Afghanistan, he acknowledged that there are what he described as "frictions" within NATO over burden-sharing. But he said overall, he believes the alliance will have the political will to remain in Afghanistan.
Thirty-seven countries have sent soldiers and personnel to the 32,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Neumann raised concerns that funding for U.S. operations in Afghanistan could "become a hostage to other questions," specifically the congressional debate over funding for the Iraq war.
He said he fears the spotlight on Iraq is overshadowing Afghanistan, which will need continued funding.
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PAKISTAN: U.N. REFUGEE AGENCY TO GIVE $5 MILLION FOR AFGHAN REFUGEES
Geneva, 8 May (AKI) - United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres will on Wednesday in Geneva present Pakistan's states and frontier regions, Sardar Yar Muhammad Rind with a five million dollar cheque to assist the remaining three million refugees Afghan refugees still living there. The government of Pakistan has also announced a separate contribution of some 1 million dollars towards the registration and de-registration of Afghans in Pakistan.
"UNHCR urgently requires an increase in its voluntary repatriation and integration programme of an additional 15 million dollars and is grateful to the government of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan for this generous and timely contribution towards this effort," the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday.
Since 2002, more than 5 million Afghans have returned home from Pakistan (3.2 million) and Iran (1.8 million). But in 2006, there was a significant drop in repatriation, with 133,000 persons returning from Pakistan and 5,000 persons from Iran. UNHCR believes the causes of this decline in returns are the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the challenging economic and social conditions inside the country, and the long exile of the remaining 3 million Afghans - half of whom were born outside Afghanistan.
In an effort to maintain the momentum of voluntary repatriation in 2007, and in close consultation with the governments of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, UNHCR earlier this year increased the repatriation grant given to Afghan returnees from 60 to 100 dollars per person. The additional money is designed to help returnee families meet initial essential needs on their return home.
Those Afghans who did not register during the recent mandatory registration exercise carried out in Pakistan but who wanted to return should also receive this increased assistance package until mid-April, it was decided after further consultations.
Some 205,000 unregistered Afghans returned home with the increased cash grant between 1 March and 15 April as a result: 55,000 more than the 150,000 people UNHCR had budgeted for. The additional 15 million dollars called for on Tuesday by UNHCR is needed to offer all the additional returnees the enhanced repatriation package.
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Afghanistan: World Bank Country Director Sees 'Staggering' Changes
May 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The World Bank's director for Afghanistan, Alastair McKechnie, says he expects the Afghan economy to continue its rapid growth -- leading to considerable improvements in people's lives. McKechnie spoke with Radio Free Afghanistan broadcaster Mustafa Sarwar on May 4 about South Asia's fastest-growing economy, and about challenges stemming from threats to public security. What follows are excerpts of that interview.
RFE/RL: You've said you expect Afghanistan's economy to continue to grow rapidly. In which sector has Afghanistan seen this economic growth?
Alastair McKechnie: The Afghan economy has grown at rates greater than 10 percent, on average, during the past five years. And this growth has come in several sectors. First of all, construction -- as the infrastructure is rebuilt and as there are high rates of investment in the future. The second area is trade -- trade with the rest of the world, with the region. And a lot of this [trade] is fueled by investment, reconstruction, and also rising incomes. And the third major source of growth is in agriculture -- partly due to the recovery from draught, but also due to a lot of small-scale investment by farmers in irrigation, in improved seeds, in looking after improving the health of livestocks, and also restoring horticulture, such as grapes. In fact, several tens of thousands of grapes were exported from Afghanistan last year.
RFE/RL: To which sector is this growth related? Is it related to the government economy or the private sector?
McKechnie: I think it's both. Part of it has been government -- or should we say public -- investment, because a lot of foreign aid is provided outside the government budget. That is essentially for public goods, such as education, sanitation, and so on. Some of it is private-sector driven, particularly oriented towards trade and consumer goods. And also it's probably true to say that there is some spillover from the illegal narcotics economy into the legal economy -- as people who have made fortunes from drugs invest in real estate, new houses, and so on.
"For those of us who have been visiting Afghanistan for the past five years, the differences between early 2002 and today are quite staggering."
RFE/RL: You were quoted as saying that soon this economy will reach double-digit growth, what does this double-digit economic growth mean?
McKechnie: Well, firstly, the Afghan economy has already achieved double-digit economic growth. It's been the fastest-growing economy in South Asia, if you look at the last five years. There's been some year-to-year fluctuation, particularly caused by agriculture as rainfall varies from year to year. But what these high rates of growth mean is that there is increasing prosperity, there is a recovery of the economy, recovery of normal business activity. And for those of us who have been visiting Afghanistan for the past five years, the differences between early 2002 and today are quite staggering -- whether it's the number of shops that are trading, whether it's the condition of buildings that have been rehabilitated, whether it's the capacity of government to implement programs, [or] whether it's the amount of traffic on the road, which to some extent is a negative aspect as well. All of these things indicate that this is an economy that's moving.
RFE/RL: In your opinion, to what extent is insecurity in Afghanistan a challenge to economic growth?
McKechnie: Well, I think it's firstly important to have an accurate view of what the security problems are and how widespread the insecurity is within Afghanistan. For example, two-thirds of the country are reasonably safe -- certainly as safe as other low-income countries. But it's also true to say that there is an insurrection in parts of the south and parts of the east, and that's a fact of life. However, what this means -- particularly the perception of insecurity -- is it is a constraint to private investment, particularly large-scale or foreign investment. There are other factors as well, such as the shortage of land, the shortage of electricity, the business environment. But when it comes to investment, perceptions count -- especially as Afghanistan is really competing with perhaps a hundred other countries for foreign investment.
RFE/RL: You talked about rapid economic growth in the Afghan economy, although we are experiencing an increasing level of unemployment and skyrocketing price hikes in the country. Why do we still have this high rate of unemployment?
McKechnie: Firstly, there is very little data available on unemployment -- or employment, for that matter -- in Afghanistan. Nevertheless there are perceptions that there is...underemployment. And I think that part of the problem is that, for many people, they don't have the security of a regular job. I think there is part-time work around. But it's essentially daily work, which is inherently insecure, particularly if people have families to support and other commitments. So we need to recognize this real problem there. Nevertheless I think that it's probably true to say that employment overall has increased substantially since the end of the Taliban regime. People even in rural areas look more prosperous, and I think [they] are generally much better off. Nevertheless there are acute problems of poverty, and also there are some problems in the labor market -- particularly because due to the collapse of the education system in 20 years of war, many Afghans do not have the skills that are needed in the recovering economy. And that is a real problem. Another problem is that several million refugees have returned from Pakistan and Iran, so that the labor supply has increased quite substantially; maybe as many as 5 million refugees have returned.
RFE/RL: And how can we provide people with employment in Afghanistan?
McKechnie: Well, I think the first thing is to ensure that public investment is directed towards investments that are labor-intensive -- that require Afghan skills. And that means may small-scale reconstruction activities -- small construction projects, rather than large megaprojects that require very highly skilled labor to implement. That's number one. Number two is to deal with the problems of skills, and this has several aspects: One is at the level of basic education, literacy; and there has been a tremendous increase in access to education. More girls, more children overall, are at schools that at any time in Afghanistan's history.
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Eyes Wide Shut on Afghanistan's Rifle Range
By Aryn Baker Friday, May. 04, 2007 Time Magazine
Ahmad Shah can't close one eye at a time. That wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that he's been an officer with the Afghan National Police for three years, and he still can't shoot straight. On the firing range at Camp Naray, a U.S. Army base in Kunar, eastern Afghanistan, his police chief, exasperated by Shah's wild shooting, finally holds a hand over his left eye, and for the first time all day, his bullet hits the paper target. His audience of U.S. soldiers and Military Police instructors let out a cheer, but Master Sergeant Rouben Meraz throws up his arms in exasperation and turns to the police chief. "Are you going to be there to cover his eye in combat?" The chief nods, and the group bursts into laughter. "It's not funny," Meraz barks. "I can't let him be a police officer if he can't close his eye. He'll die."
For the past three months Meraz, and his squad of MPs from Fort Lewis, Washington have been training local officers in the basics of police work. "We have to explain to them that they can't take bribes," says Meraz. "We talk about domestic violence, and they just don't get it. They are like, 'Why shouldn't we let a man hit his wife?' "
But training in basic skills, like shooting, is even more important these days. Over the weekend 13 Afghan National Police were killed — five by a roadside bomb in Ghazni, eastern Afghanistan, and another eight in a gun battle in the west. In contrast to the considerably more impressive Afghan National Army, the national police are routinely derided for their ethnic factionalism, inexperience and corruption. But with programs like Meraz's, that is starting to change. Already more than 250 officers have passed his nine-day training course, and he's expecting several hundred more. "Before people were reluctant to join the force," he says. "The police weren't popular with the locals. But these guys are making a difference. Now people trust them. Now they feel safe." The training, combined with logistical support from the U.S. army, has turned the police into a credible security asset. "In order to leave this place one day, we need to take these guys on, train them and supply them," says Colonel Mike Howard, in charge of the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division in Naray. "When you have no hope, when you have no chance of hitting what you are shooting at, when you have no fuel to put in your truck or ammunition to put in your gun then you have no motivation to be a policeman. You may as well just guard the station."
But until Shah can prove that he's not a danger to himself, or his fellow officers, Meraz won't let him graduate. "I can't have this guy aiming at a bad guy, and hit a child instead," Meraz tells the chief. "Let's make a deal. We will train him on the pistol and he can be a clerk. If that doesn't work, he can be the cook." Even with a second chance, Shah looked perilously close to spending the rest of his police career in the kitchen. After his first round on the pistol he pushed himself to his knees, gun in hand and finger still on the trigger, ignoring the basic rules of gun safety. Trainers scattered in all directions. "Dude, if I'm going to get shot, I want it to be down range," muttered one.
Shah eventually passed, hitting the target for 18 shots out of 20.
When the next batch of trainees from nearby Ghaziabad police station showed up, one officer was missing the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand. Rahmatullah, who only has one name, had picked up a mine as a child, thinking it was a toy. When he first went to the Jalalabad Police Academy, the U.S. soldiers there told him to go away, that he couldn't shoot without any fingers. "But I said give me a chance," he says. "I'll show you." Now he wears his uniform proudly, even if its loose folds are tightly cinched around his spindly frame with a worn leather belt. Rahmatullah took to the sharpshooting practice with ease, flinging himself into firing position with a fluid grace, and squeezing off three near-perfect rounds with his ring finger on the trigger. His trainer, PFC Blake Jones, adjusted his rifle sights, and Rahmatullah fired again. Jones handed him the paper target, neatly marked with three holes over the bullseye. "You did good man, real good." Rahmatullah beamed. "We have guys that complain 'I'm sick,' or 'I'm tired,' but this guy, he wants it," says Jones. "That's the kind of stuff that actually makes me feel we are doing something here that's worth it."
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