Afghan president travels to Britain
Sun Oct 21, 7:19 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - President Hamid Karzai left for Britain where he is due to meet Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and Prime Minister Gordon Brown for talks on post-Taliban Afghanistan, the palace said.
The four-day visit would cover "regional issues, and the role of Britain in Afghanistan's reconstruction, the strengthening of security, and the training of the Afghan national army," the presidential palace said in a statement.
Britain is the second main contributor of troops after the United States to an international force helping Afghanistan fight a Taliban-led insurgency.
It has about 7,000 British troops here and has lost more than 80 in Afghanistan since the start of operations in 2001 when the Taliban regime was removed from power in a US-led invasion for harbouring Al-Qaeda chiefs.
Most of Britain's soldiers are based in the southern province of Helmand, where Taliban insurgents are said to be teamed up with foreign fighters and opium producers helping to finance the insurgency.
Since 2001, Britain has committed more than a billion pounds (two billion dollars) to Afghanistan, according to the British embassy in Kabul.
It will spend 270 million pounds over the next three years in support of a strategy to halt opium production, it said. Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of the drug which makes much of the heroin used in Britain.
Despite international efforts in Afghanistan, opium production is up by more than 30 percent this year compared to last and insurgent attacks by at least 20 percent, according to the United Nations.
Karzai was last in London in February when he held talks with former prime minister Tony Blair.
He was accompanied on Sunday by Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta and national security advisory Zalmai Rasoul.
Report: Taliban appoint new regional chief in Afghanistan
KABUL, Oct. 21 (Xinhua) -- The Taliban's fugitive chief Mullah Mohammad Omar has appointed his close aide Mawlawi Abdul Kabir as new commander of his loyalists in Afghanistan's eastern region, a local newspaper reported Sunday.
"Mawlawi Abdul Kabir has replaced Anwarul Haq Mujahid in eastern zone which includes Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar and Nooristan provinces," Daily Afghanistan reported.
Kabir had served as provincial governor of Nangarhar during Taliban regime and he was considered very close to Taliban elusive leader Omar.
However, the Taliban has not made any comment on the report.
The Taliban, removed from power by the U.S. invasion in late 2001, has waged a years-long war against the current Afghan administration and the international troops being deployed in the country.
Karzai: Anti-Iran propaganda cannot have impact on Tehran-Kabul friendly ties
Tehran, Oct 20, IRNA
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Saturday that his government has always resisted against all propaganda campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Afghan president made the remark in a meeting with Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on the sidelines of the 17th annual meeting of the Council of Ministers (COM) of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO).
Propaganda campaign launched by the enemies should not leave any impact in friendly ties between Iran and Afghanistan, Karzai said.
Referring to the strategies employed by the Afghan government in consolidating all-out ties with Iran, he said all Afghan officials underline the importance of friendly ties, sincerity and expansion of ties with Iran.
Continued friendly ties between Iran and Afghanistan is very vital for both countries, he said, adding that the two sides should endeavor to lift any obstacles on this way, if any, he underlined.
On current developments in Afghanistan, he said Afghanistan is now facing insecurity.
Given cultural commonalties between Iran and Afghanistan, the two countries should live in peace for ever as two members of a family, he underlined.
The Iranian foreign minister, for his part, called the two sides' relations as very friendly and progressive and said the two sides should strive to remove existing barriers and reach a satisfactory level of trade exchange between the two countries.
Iran expects the two sides to enjoy a cordial and balanced ties with the support of both sides' leaders, he said.
Mottaki said that the rational stands of the Afghan president demonstrated determination of the Afghan nation.
Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan Stress Expansion of Cooperation
October 20, 2007
TEHRAN (Fars News Agency)- Foreign ministers of Iran and Afghanistan and deputy foreign minister of Tajikistan in a meeting in the western city of Herat on Saturday underlined the need for the further bolstering and consolidation of trilateral cooperation among the three neighboring states.
In a joint statement issued at the end of the meeting, the three diplomats reminded that the talks in Herat were a follow-up to an earlier agreement held by the presidents of the three countries in the Tajik capital city of Dushanbe last June.
The statement emphasized good neighborly relations, expansion and strengthening of trilateral ties and cooperation among Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan in all the political, economic and cultural grounds.
According to the statement, Tehran is due to host a trilateral meeting of the Iranian, Afghan and Tajik road and transportation ministers in three months in an effort to boost transportation and transit cooperation among the three neighboring countries.
The three countries' energy and power ministers are also due to meet in Tehran in a similar trilateral conference in three months in a bid to implement the agreements held by the three parties in the energy sector.
The statement also said that Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan would send their relevant authorities to a meeting in Kabul to study possible ways of waging an effective campaign against terrorism and drug trafficking.
Also according to the same statement, Iranian, Afghan and Tajik foreign ministers would send their deputies to a meeting in Tehran by winter to assess the results of the cooperation agreements and measures adopted by the three sides and to decide the date and venue for the next meeting of the foreign ministers.
Pentagon chief seeks help in Afghanistan
By Kristin Roberts Sun Oct 21, 8:28 AM ET
KIEV (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will ask Ukraine and other eastern European countries this week to send troops to Afghanistan to cover a shortfall in trainers for the Afghan army, a senior U.S. defense official said.
Gates, who landed in Kiev on Sunday to meet Ukraine's government and attend the Southeast Europe Defense Ministerial, has grown increasingly frustrated by the failure of NATO allies to fulfill promises made to Afghanistan, his aides say.
He is particularly worried about a shortfall of more than 3,000 trainers for Afghan security forces -- a need that military commanders voiced a year ago.
A senior defense official traveling with the Pentagon chief said one of Gates's main goals was to press members of the Southeast Europe Defense Ministerial to send troops to Afghanistan to fill the gap.
The 11-member group sent a 100-troop brigade, called Southeast Europe Brigade or SEEBRIG, to the war zone in 2006.
"It's to have a discussion about SEEBRIG and how SEEBRIG can potentially help in Afghanistan again possibly by undertaking a training mission," the official said when asked about Gates's priorities in Kiev.
"Given the need for trainers in Afghanistan, could SEEBRIG undertake or consider doing such a mission there?" the official said.
The six-year-old war in Afghanistan, overshadowed in the United States by Iraq, tops Gates's agenda this week. After meetings in Kiev, the secretary stops in Prague on his way to a meeting of NATO defense ministers in the Netherlands.
There, he will argue yet again that progress in Afghanistan could be lost if NATO members do not dedicate more combat troops, trainers and equipment to the fight. Already, violence has soared in 2007 and military officers say the Taliban is trying to import the deadly roadside bomb technology that has been used in Iraq.
While in Kiev, Gates will meet with Ukraine's president, prime minister and defense minister and ask about their security priorities and defense reforms. Ukraine is considered a strong U.S. partner in Iraq and the Pentagon thinks Kiev might send troops to Afghanistan as well.
Ukraine receives U.S. military assistance with equipment and training. In 2007, it received $10 million in U.S. military equipment and $1.7 million in training funds.
Gates also will discuss the pace of defense reforms among members of the Southeast Europe Defense Ministerial and what more is needed for NATO integration, U.S. officials said.
U.S. pins Kosovo force on NATO's Afghan commitment
By Kristin Roberts October 21, 2007
KIEV (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will consider shifting U.S. troops from Kosovo to Afghanistan next year if NATO allies do not fulfill their commitments, U.S. government officials said.
Gates, in Ukraine on Sunday to ask eastern European countries for help in the war, had first considered laying the threat before NATO defense ministers this week at a meeting in the Netherlands, senior U.S. officials said.
But upon the advice of senior military officers, the Pentagon chief has extended the U.S. commitment to Kosovo to summer 2008. If NATO allies have not sent more troops, trainers and equipment to Afghanistan by then, Washington will consider pulling its 1,600 troops out of NATO's Kosovo force KFOR.
"The secretary had wrestled with the idea of moving our forces in Kosovo to Afghanistan but decided late this week to extend our KFOR presence until next summer," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
"But beyond that is very much up in the air. The secretary is disappointed in NATO's inability to live up to its commitments and if that doesn't change before then, he's prepared to go to the secretary of state and to the president to discuss yanking our troops out of Kosovo," Morrell said.
Gates has grown increasingly frustrated by the failure of NATO allies to fulfill promises they made more than a year ago to provide troops and equipment to the war in Afghanistan.
The secretary is particularly worried about a shortfall of more than 3,000 trainers for Afghan forces, but commanders also need more combat forces, helicopters and other equipment.
By pinning the U.S. commitment in Kosovo to Europe's commitment in Afghanistan, Gates wants to signal that Europe will be left alone to deal with a still unsteady situation in its own backyard if it does not help the United States in Afghanistan, said officials familiar with the discussions.
NATO took responsibility last year for operations throughout Afghanistan. The United States contributes the most troops in the coalition -- or about 15,000 of a NATO force totaling just under 40,000. Washington also added combat troops and a helicopter force last year after other allies did not respond to a call for help from commanders.
Despite six years of war in Afghanistan, a fight overshadowed in the United States by Iraq, violence has soared in 2007. Taliban suicide bombings are up 50 percent from a year ago and military officers say the group is trying to import the deadly roadside bomb technology that has been used in Iraq.
In Kiev, Gates will ask Ukraine and other members of the Southeast Europe Defense Ministerial to send troops to Afghanistan to help cover that shortfall in trainers, another U.S. defense official said.
The 11-member group sent a 100-troop brigade, called Southeast Europe Brigade or SEEBRIG, to the war zone in 2006.
"It's to have a discussion about SEEBRIG and how SEEBRIG can potentially help in Afghanistan again possibly by undertaking a training mission," the official said when asked about Gates's priorities in Kiev.
Ukraine, which received $11.7 million in U.S. military assistance this year, is considered a strong U.S. partner in Iraq and the Pentagon thinks Kiev might send troops to Afghanistan as well.
Iran to donate extra dlrs 600,000 for Afghan reconstruction
Herat, Oct 20, IRNA
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Saturday that the Islamic Republic of Iran is to donate an extra sum of dlrs 600,000 to ECO Fund to help Afghan reconstruction.
Mottaki made the remarks at the 17th annual meeting of the Council of Ministers (COM) of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) in Herat, Afghanistan.
Calling for restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan, he said the Iranian nation and government spare no efforts to help alleviate sufferings of the Afghan people.
Both Iranian private and state run organizations have endeavored to rehabilitate the war-stricken country, he said.
He expressed satisfaction with the current level of cooperation between the two countries.
Mottaki said that restoration of stability and tranquility in Afghanistan leaves positive impacts on regional countries.
Iranian nation stands by Afghan people shoulder to shoulder in dealing with their problems, he said adding that Iranian nation and government wish to help remove existing problems of the neighboring countries and spare no efforts to this end.
Mottaki said that the Islamic Republic of Iran has made contributions to Afghan reconstruction and will extend an extra dlrs 600,000 to help speed up reconstruction efforts.
Iran is keen to take advantage of ECO potentials to expand current level of regional and international relations, he said, adding that previous agreement signed in the 16th annual meeting of the Council of Ministers (COM) of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) in Baku is a good instrument for expansion of regional and international cooperation.
The Iranian foreign minister said that given positive developments and the breakthrough made in expansion of regional cooperation between ECO members, it is necessary for the member countries to help remove existing barriers.
He said ECO's political leaders are determined to expand economic cooperation within rules and regulations of the organization.
He said that suitable grounds for expansion of cooperation on new projects and programs have been created which are in line with ECO rules and policies.
Regional organization such as ECO, can help further expand economic cooperation among neighboring states in order to make them well prepared to enter into global economy, he said.
Expansion of economic cooperation between regional states would help bolster political ties among them, he said.
Mottaki said that it is necessary for the ECO to be upgraded to a higher status in order to find its role in global economy and that solid cooperation among ECO members would disappoint foreign countries who wish to interfere in their affairs.
He said that any type of communication, contact with big political or economic powers should be based on mutual respects and interests and the prospects of future cooperation is very promising thanks to the significant cooperation underway among the member states.
Mottaki said that drawing up strategy for ECO 2015, the grounds for implementation of joint projects would be created.
"Expansion of banking cooperation, construction of rail roads beyond Asia region, benefiting from regional power networks, buy back insurance are among projects to be implemented by ECO in the future." Mottaki is scheduled to confer with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the sidelines of the 17th annual meeting of the Council of Ministers (COM) of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) in Herat on Saturday.
Afghan president says region must tackle terrorism
By Sayed Salahuddin Sat Oct 20, 9:01 AM ET
HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghanistan and its neighbors must launch a regional campaign against terrorism in order to make the most of their natural resources and develop trade, President Hamid Karzai said on Saturday.
Karzai was addressing the final session of a conference of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), a 10-nation group which was founded by Iran, Turkey and Pakistan.
Afghanistan, where a Taliban-led insurgency -- backed by al Qaeda -- has intensified in the past two years, could serve as a bridge bringing ECO nations together, Karzai said.
"Our homelands are resourceful homelands. We have abundant resources and our people are thirsty for progress," Karzai said, adding economic development would help bring stability.
"...Terrorism, drugs...and organized crime...form our difficulties and are the main block to regional development."
He emphasized terrorism was the most serious obstacle.
"And this (development) will not be possible if we do not isolate the handful of terrorists wherever they are and organize ... a joint campaign against them."
Located on the old Silk Route, Afghanistan has rich copper and iron reserves and some precious stones.
Iran, one of the world's leading oil exporters, Turkey and Pakistan set up the ECO in 1985. Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and the five central Asian nations have since joined.
Turkmenistan has long wanted to export its gas to Pakistan and beyond through Afghanistan, but the multi-billion dollar project has been held up due to insecurity in the country.
Along with Iran, Turkmenistan would help Afghanistan build a rail network that would enable Iran and Turkey to link up with central Asia, an Afghan official said.
During the four-day conference, ECO representatives discussed investment, transit and transport facilitation, energy, trade, exploration as well as export of gas and oil.
Afghanistan is largely a consumer market for the products of its neighbors. Its annual trade with them has grown to some $4 billion since the Taliban's ouster in 2001, according to Afghan government estimates.
The country has not seen any major foreign and local investment since 2001, largely due to poor infrastructure, corruption and the growing insurgency.
The conference, the first such major gathering hosted by Afghanistan for decades, was held in the western city of Herat, which is regarded as one of the safer areas of the country.
NATO chief urges alliance to stay the course in Afghanistan
The International Herald Tribune By Judy Dempsey Sunday, October 21, 2007
BRUSSELS: Faced with fierce pressure from Taliban insurgents and wavering public opinion back in Europe, the NATO secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, pleaded with member states to stay the course, saying the military alliance was now entering the most difficult phases of its campaign in Afghanistan.
"If we do not prevail, the consequences for the public in Europe will be dire," de Hoop Scheffer said in an interview at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "The security of Afghanistan is directly linked to your and my security and that is the message we have not yet been able to get across."
His plea for national governments to explain to their constituents why Afghanistan is so important reflects increasing frustration inside the 26-member alliance.
Military commanders complain that they lack sufficient equipment and soldiers. High-ranking NATO diplomats want Pakistan to stop providing safe havens for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. Last week, commanders on the ground in Afghanistan said insurgents had attacked NATO forces with weapons from Iran.
There is also resentment about what is seen as a lack of NATO solidarity by countries such as Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States, which do most of the fighting, while other big countries, including Germany, keep their forces in the comparatively safe northern region of Kunduz.
All in all, alliance officials see a bleak picture in Afghanistan, where NATO took over the International Security Assistance Force in 2003, its first mission outside Europe. Since then, the mission, at least in southern Afghanistan, has been transformed from a peacekeeping and security one to a high-level combat operation with casualties on both sides.
By the end of last week, 644 NATO and U.S. troops had been killed. Human rights organizations say thousands of Afghans, including many civilians, have died. NATO forces have swelled in number, from about 5,000 in 2003 to more than 41,000 now, including 7,000 U.S. counterterrorism forces.
"We are now in the most difficult phase in Afghanistan," de Hoop Scheffer said in the interview on Friday ahead of a meeting of NATO defense ministers this week in the Netherlands.
Yet he said there were still substantial gaps in the forces promised by member states.
De Hoop Scheffer, who tends to be upbeat and even optimistic, appeared to be preoccupied with the immense task he faces at the coming meeting. He plans to ask the ministers to provide more troops for Afghanistan.
"The pressure on the armed forces is growing and growing," he said.
He listed the places to which defense ministers are being asked to send troops: Afghanistan, Chad, Congo, Kosovo, Lebanon and Somalia. The demand has become so great that NATO's much-trumpeted reaction force, structured so that 25,000 troops can be sent within days to trouble spots anywhere in the world, has been sharply scaled down.
De Hoop Scheffer is loath to admit that NATO is overstretched or indeed that it should refuse to take on more missions. Instead, he said, the alliance could be "more inventive."
He said, for example, that some member states could take the lead in providing certain military equipment. The alliance could also agree to a system under which the costs of missions are shared.
De Hoop Scheffer has been trying to push these reforms through since he became secretary general in January 2004, but member states are reluctant to pool more of their resources. The result is that the countries that provide the most troops and equipment have to pay for it out of their national budgets.
If NATO wants a victory in Afghanistan and an exit strategy - diplomats do not mention a date - de Hoop Scheffer said more needs to be done to establish a viable Afghan Army and police force.
These goals were set out at the 2001 Bonn conference, where the United States, the European Union, the World Bank and the United Nations agreed on a timetable to rebuild Afghanistan, including the security forces. They now say the training of the army and police force has failed to meet expectations.
"The police training is lagging very seriously behind - it is still a rudimentary force," de Hoop Scheffer said.
While the police training is not NATO's responsibility, the alliance does require a well-trained force to maintain security once NATO has defeated insurgents.
NATO also desperately needs an Afghan Army to begin to take over control, which is why it now wants to become more involved in the training. It has proposed establishing "operational mentor and liaison teams," in which NATO soldiers would be embedded in Afghan units in order to improve fighting and security.
De Hoop Scheffer said there were now close to 30,000 trained and equipped Afghan soldiers, although the target set in 2001 was to have 70,000 by now. According to a report published last week by the British independent research institute Chatham House, the Afghan authorities "will not be able to assume core security functions as of 2010, as initially planned," because the international community has committed inadequate resources to the training.
Pakistan also has a crucial role to play, de Hoop Scheffer said.
"We have serious problems at the border between both countries," he said.
He said NATO needed "a political dialogue with Pakistan," which has been criticized by NATO and the United States for not doing enough to stop insurgents from using Pakistan as a base.
"We have to start from the bottom line that Pakistan is part of the solution and not part of the problem," de Hoop Scheffer said. "We need a tripartite political dialogue between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the international community."
But the issue, he said, is not just resources or dealing with Pakistan.
"Of course we could do with more forces, be it helicopters" or other resources, he said. "But it is also about political will."
He said it was time for governments to explain to their electorates why NATO cannot afford to lose in Afghanistan.
UK 'may increase Afghan troops'
BBC News / Sunday, 21 October 2007
Britain may increase its military commitment in Afghanistan to help fill gaps in Nato's deployment there, a spokesman said.
James Appathurai, speaking for Nato's secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said the UK was considering "potentially increasing" its force.
The Ministry of Defence has not confirmed any plan to reinforce the 7,700 UK troops already in Afghanistan.
These are mostly in Helmand province, in the south of the country.
Mr de Hoop Scheffer will call on member states to increase their military presence in Afghanistan at a Nato summit in the Netherlands on 24 and 25 October.
He played down the prospect that Canada or the Netherlands might downscale their presence in the south of Afghanistan.
Mr Appathurai told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend: "In the south, we don't think the Dutch are going to leave. The Canadians are looking at exactly what they can do.
"The British are talking in the south not only about keeping what they have but potentially increasing it.
"We are not pessimistic at all. We hope the Dutch will stay, we hope the Canadians will stay and we are working to convince them to do that in one form or another."
Politicians of all parties have previously said the UK is bearing too much of the burden in Afghanistan.
Hosseini rejects British accusations against Iran
Tehran, Oct 21, IRNA
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini here on Sunday rejected Britain's accusations against Iran, saying that Iran's role in reconstruction of Afghanistan and restoration of peace and stability to that country has been defined.
Addressing his weekly press briefing, he said Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki is currently in Afghanistan to inspect the process of Iran's projects in that war-torn state.
Those countries making such accusations, themselves, are posing threat to peace and security, Hosseini added.
On release of the five Iranian diplomats kidnapped in Iraq, he said Tehran is following up the case but Washington is throwing obstacles in the process.
Five Iranian diplomats were taken captive by US forces in the city of Erbil, northern Iraq, in January 2007.
As to the presidential elections in Lebanon, he said, "Iran will support plans that can restore stability and security to Lebanon as well as those supported by various Lebanese groups." The main Lebanese problem is explicit interference of Washington in its domestic affairs, he said.
Hosseini expressed the hope that the Lebanese political officials could restore stability to that country.
"While all Lebanese groups support peace-seeking solutions, the Americans talk about military solutions and try to add fuel to the differences," he reiterated.
US will not be able to use Afghanistan to attack: Iran FM
Sat Oct 20, 3:11 PM ET
HERAT, Afghanistan (AFP) - Iran believes Afghanistan would never allow its soil to be used by the United States to launch an attack, the Iranian foreign minister said here Saturday.
Washington was anyway too weakened by its efforts in Iraq to confront Iran, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters on the sidelines of a regional economic meeting in the Afghan city of Herat near the Iranian border.
The United States has around 27,000 troops and several bases in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as part of its "war on terror".
It has never ruled out attacking Iran to stop its nuclear programme, which Washington alleges is aimed at making nuclear weapons but Tehran insists is entirely peaceful.
Asked at a media briefing if Tehran was concerned Washington could use its resources in Afghanistan to attack, Mottaki said Kabul would not let this happen.
"The people of Afghanistan will never allow America to use Afghanistan against any other country. This our belief, this is our trust," Mottaki said.
The United States is one of the main financial and military backers of post-Taliban Afghanistan, which says Iran is also a firm ally despite US and British claims that rebels here are supplied from across the Iranian border.
Mottaki added that the United States had exhausted itself with the war in Iraq and "is not in a position to create another conflict in our region."
"Americans, not based on our statements ... but based on statements by American politicians have been defeated in Iraq," the foreign minister said.
Iran has vowed never to initiate an attack on the United States but has warned of a crushing response to any act of aggression against it.
"If they decide to do such madness, we have announced to Americans what is going to happen and they know it," Mottaki said, without elaborating.
Afghans lend reality to mock war
Immigrant role players at CFB Wainwright give soldiers a chance to learn from mistakes
Elise Stolte Edmonton Journal (Canada) Sunday, October 21, 2007
EDMONTON - Four Afghan villagers were shot at CFB Wainwright Tuesday.
The villagers were role players, Afghan immigrants helping to train soldiers heading to Afghanistan in February.
Late in the afternoon, the villagers approached the soldiers for help and shuffled forward, even when the soldiers yelled "Stop."
The soldiers thought they were suicide bombers and opened fire. Nearby Taliban forces shot back and, in the end, the Canadians "turned the whole village against them," said director Doug Berquist afterward. "Now the Taliban are heroes."
When the scenario ended, the four slain villagers picked themselves up and the soldiers stopped to debrief.
Berquist, a professional film director, and the Afghans working with him count this as a successful event.
"They should do the mistake here, better than doing it in real life and costing a life there," says Taqi, 51, who's afraid printing his last name would bring the wrath of the Taliban on his relatives in Kabul. "That's the point of everything here."
Despite the risks, Taqi and about 40 other Afghan immigrants will spend the next two weeks training soldiers heading for their homeland. It's the army's fifth such training session since August 2006.
But role players aren't teaching soldiers to kill, Taqi says. They're teaching soldiers to understand Afghan culture.
"We are trying to save lives on both sides."
The civilian role player's part lasts three weeks and takes place "inside the box" -- 425 square kilometres of Alberta soil called Afghanistan, located 170 kilometres southeast of Edmonton.
About 2,500 soldiers, medics and members of the provincial reconstruction team spend their days and nights inside the box, immersing themselves in a mock battle in final preparation for the real one.
Each day, Berquist looks at the army's plans and scripts village life to force soldiers into contact with his role players.
On Wednesday, Berquist scripted a wedding. As director, he knew the army planned to send a convoy through the centre of the village of Loy Karezak. So he wrote a wedding into the town square.
The provincial reconstruction team had a meeting with the local governor Wednesday morning, so Berquist made the wedding important: The son of a local con man, who controlled illegal trade in the region, was to marry the daughter of a man who virtually owned the local construction industry.
The governor was anxious to get to the wedding, so the morning meeting flopped. Soldiers hoping to meet the Malik, or mayor, of another village arrived to find everyone gone.
And at Loy Karezak, the road was blocked. The governor and local Maliks were far too important to move out of the way, so the convoy trucks drove back in a cloud of dust.
Meanwhile, tanks surrounded the village and soldiers watched from the hills, taking photographs and sending information back to their bosses at the nearby command centre.
"This is all intelligence. That's how it works," says Berquist. "Our characters can't be shallow because these guys have to go up the ranks figuring out who's who. If you're going to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans, you need to know who's who."
During training in Wainwright, planners rely on Taqi and the other elders to make sure costumes and scenarios are accurate.
The 40 Afghan role players are mostly men, although a few younger women come with their brothers. Most do not want their faces photographed.
"We're not going to say the enemy is too weak," says a man who gave only his last name, Ahmad. "I have relatives, brothers back there. (The Taliban) would come in the middle of the night, take some of them and kill them."
Inside the box, Taqi is the groom's father, the "mafia leader of Kandahar," he says. Outside the box, he drives a taxi in Edmonton.
Taqi fled Afghanistan in 1992. Russia had pulled out of the country a few years before and when the socialist government it sponsored fell, the country descended into civil war.
Taqi was a chemical engineer who worked out of a lab in the Afghan capital of Kabul. In the midst of war, he hid with his wife and two toddlers in a basement for 40 days while fighters perched high on the mountain turned their guns on anything that moved.
"After that, they decided to attack the whole city," he said. "(Before the fighting) I didn't even dream I would leave Afghanistan."
Taqi's mother, three brothers and two sisters still live in the country with their families. "I was so hopeful that by this time the situation would be all better.
"We're a wartorn country, obviously," he said. "This is a country that got attacked by Russia, and then with the Taliban and the war, so much was destroyed and gone.
"We're looking for the international community's help. (Now as Canadians), we are part of that. We're helping to bring them back on their feet."
In Wainwright, Berquist uses a team of makeup artists and costume designers to prepare role players for the field. In addition to the Afghan immigrants, Berquist uses actors with roots in neighbouring countries, and some Caucasian or other Canadians with professional acting experience.
Other soldiers, not directly in line for deployment, play Taliban fighters. They fill the villages overnight, sleeping in old shipping crates arranged to form a police station, mosque, hospital and village square.
Taqi sees it as a small way to help. If soldiers can learn to stop trying to speak to women before addressing the men, if they never wear shoes in a mosque or drop a Qur'an on the ground, they will avoid a lot of violence. And the taxi driver says he knows it's working.
"I live very close to the military base so I pick (soldiers) up sometimes. I bring them to Whyte Avenue and we talk," he says. "Some of them are back from Afghanistan and some of them are going. I ask them how it was and they're telling me that (the training is) helping there.
"They have a lot of questions about everything."
AFGHANISTAN: ICRC warns of growing humanitarian emergency
KABUL, 21 October 2007 (IRIN) - Intensifying armed conflict has restricted independent humanitarian access and has caused a complex humanitarian emergency in huge swathes of already impoverished Afghanistan, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned.
"We do observe that large areas in the south, the southeast, the east and also growing parts in the west do see what we would call an emergency situation," Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan, told IRIN in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on 21 October.
This "emergency situation" means civilians face continuous insecurity and an absence of basic services, while the capacity of state and humanitarian organisations to promptly address these problems is limited, Stocker said.
Six years after the Taliban regime was ousted by a US-led coalition and the international community vowed to rebuild the war-ravaged country, there is a pressing need for neutral and independent humanitarian intervention to help millions of vulnerable Afghans, aid agencies say.
For its part, the ICRC, which mainly provides assistance for conflict-affected civilians, has approved a 30 percent increase in its budget for Afghanistan in 2008, Stocker said. The organisation currently spends about US$35 million on protection, humanitarian relief and medical assistance in battle-affected areas of the country, which will be increased to over $45 million next year.
Radicalisation of views
The ICRC's warning comes at a time when the UN has also acknowledged a "considerable" change in the nature of security incidents in Afghanistan.
Contrary to previous wars in Afghanistan, the current armed conflict has had a greater negative impact on independent humanitarian operating space, aid specialists say.
Never before have aid workers been so widely and repeatedly targeted, threatened and restricted by different warring parties during the more than 26 years of armed hostilities in the country, concede aid agencies with extensive experience in Afghanistan.
Aid experts say a radicalisation of views among warring parties; an increased blurring of military and independent humanitarian lines; and limited adaptability to a changing socio-political environment among some aid agencies are some of the main reasons for Afghanistan's diminishing neutral and impartial humanitarian space.
Attacks on aid workers
Overall insurgency-related violence has increased by up to 30 percent in 2007, causing at least 1,100 civilian casualties, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported on 21 September. [http://wwww.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/AllDocsByUNID/839b9fde94e8f83e85256c62007c5ffa]
Intimidation and violence towards humanitarian and development workers in the country has also increased, the report said, stating that from 1 January to 6 August 2007, 41 humanitarian aid convoys were attacked, 69 humanitarian workers working for various local and international agencies were abducted (44 national, 25 international), and 41 aid workers were killed (34 national, seven international).
As a result, the UN considers one third of Afghanistan's territory 'inaccessible' and almost half of the country 'high abduction risk areas', making humanitarian access increasingly complex and difficult.
"A classic ICRC relief operation in a rural conflict area would consist of ICRC teams conducting needs assessments, beneficiary identification, aid distribution and a post-distribution assessment," said the ICRC's Reto Stocker. "Because of security restrictions most of these steps are today no longer possible for our staff. And even our partner, the Afghan Red Crescent Society with its 20,000-volunteers-strong grassroots network, struggles to deliver basic commodities in certain areas."
Finding innovative ways to deliver aid
Aid agencies, therefore, have to "find innovative ways" in order to reach vulnerable people and execute their respective humanitarian obligations, Stocker said.
The ICRC seeks to improve accessibility in Afghanistan through regular apolitical dialogue with all warring sides.
This worked in September when a polio immunisation campaign was successfully conducted in volatile southern and south-eastern provinces of the country after the ICRC facilitated direct talks with Taliban insurgents. As a result, the insurgents agreed to support the UN and the Ministry of Public Health's joint exercise, the ICRC said.
For Mat Waldman of Oxfam, however, it is extremely important to keep humanitarian principles intact when aid organisations approach warring parties for access and safety.
"It is entirely right that all agencies operating here seek to expand their operations to the people who need their assistance, but the important point here is that the aid agencies involved do no compromise the principles of humanitarian assistance: the principles of independence, impartiality, neutrality and humanity," Waldman said.
Afghan girl 'killed by ricocheted NATO bullet'
Sat Oct 20, 3:58 PM ET
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - A toddler died when she was struck by a gunshot from a NATO soldier while troops killed four dozen Taliban in two days of battles in Afghanistan's top opium-growing area, officials said Saturday.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said it deeply regretted the death of the child in the southern province of Helmand on Friday.
Helmand provincial police chief Mohammad Hussain Andiwal said the girl was two years old and the incident had happened outside her home.
An ISAF soldier fired a single shot to stop a vehicle from coming too close to a military patrol, the force said in a statement. The bullet allegedly ricocheted and hit the child although the incident was being investigated, it said.
"Sometime later, a family brought a child suffering from a gunshot wound to the head to an ISAF base for medical attention. Unfortunately, the child died," it said.
Several civilians have been killed in Afghanistan this year by warning shots fired to stop people approaching international security force checkpoints and patrols.
Troops are the main target of Taliban suicide bombs, often delivered by car or fixed to a person who launches himself at the soldiers.
The separate US-led coalition, which works alongside ISAF and the Afghan security forces, said meanwhile it had killed around four dozen Taliban fighters in two straight days of fighting elsewhere in Helmand.
Nearly three dozen were killed Saturday and more than a dozen on Friday in fighting in the Musa Qala area, an insurgent hotbed.
Both battles were sparked by ambushes which Afghan and coalition soldiers beat back with return fire and help from war planes, the force said.
The fighting was "part of a larger operation to disrupt terrorist activities in the Helmand province," it said in a statement.
Helmand produces most of Afghanistan's opium which the United Nations says accounts for up 93 percent of world supply.
The top US commander in Afghanistan, General Dan McNeill, said this week he estimated up to 40 percent of the Taliban's income comes from opium, the raw ingredient of heroin.
The Taliban have been in control of the Musa Qala district centre for months and officials have said the small town has become a headquarters for rebels who are assisted by foreign "jihadists" in their bid to topple the US-backed Kabul government.
The Taliban were in power between 1996 and 2001 when they were removed by the coalition for not surrendering their Al-Qaeda allies following the September 11 attacks.
They are leading a campaign of daily attacks joined by other Islamist outfits.
In other bloodshed, two policemen were killed and four wounded Saturday when a bomb blew up their pick-up in the eastern province of Paktia, provincial police chief Ismatullah Alizai said, blaming the Taliban.
Unknown gunmen meanwhile shot dead a tribal elder in the same province, he said.
PAKISTAN: Thousands displaced by renewed fighting in Waziristan
PESHAWAR, 21 October 2007 (IRIN) - After over a week of fierce fighting in and around the town of Mirali, in Pakistan's tribal North Waziristan Agency, lying along the country's mountainous north-western border with Afghanistan, some semblance of normal life is returning slowly.
A few shops in the town's market, which had remained deserted for more than seven days, raised their shutters and some families moved back into hastily abandoned homes, according to local residents.
But the majority of the 80,000 people who have fled Mirali and areas around it as a result of the latest fighting have still not returned, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in the neighbouring North West Frontier Province (NWFP). And many civilians are still missing.
"My cousin has just called from our village, Ipi Faqir, located just a few kilometres from Mirali. He has been searching among the rubble of houses there, but has found no trace of his 17-year-old son," Aurangzeb Ali, 35, told IRIN from Peshawar, the provincial capital of NWFP.
The boy, feared dead, has been missing since 8 October.
Ali fled his native Mirali – the second largest town in North Waziristan - along with thousands of others on the night of 9 October, as villages believed by the Pakistan army to be harbouring militants were bombed by jet aircraft and helicopter gunships.
Government attack on militants
The military attack came amid intensified fighting between pro-Taliban militants and Pakistan government troops, which broke out in the first week of October after militants ambushed a military convoy near Mirali.
Tensions in the region have run high since 2001 – with accusations repeatedly surfacing that tribal leaders in the area, which the government does not fully control, have been assisting wanted al-Qaeda leaders.
Journalists have been consistently barred from entering the area. Renewed fighting erupted after a ceasefire reached between Pakistan authorities and tribal leaders broke down in July this year.
"We have seen plenty of fighting in our lifetimes, but never anything like the aerial bombardment of the last week," Ali said.
The Pakistan military closed off roads leading into North Waziristan at the height of fighting, effectively cutting off the area from the rest of the country.
200 killed in clashes
Pakistan army spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said 200 people had been killed in the clashes, including 45 soldiers and 150 militants. There has been no official estimate on the number of civilian casualties.
However, villagers who fled the area say civilians had been caught in crossfire, wounding and killing some.
"I have heard that around 50 civilians were killed," said Mohammad Arshad, a farmer who lives near Mirali. Arshad has left his three children and wife with relatives in Tank, a small town south of Bannu. "It is safer for them to stay here. We have moved twice in the past two years, and it is too distressing for the children," he said.
Kamran Arif, Vice Chairman of HRCP in NWFP, which has been monitoring the situation, told IRIN that the army's bombing of villages where they suspected militants were hiding "had led to many casualties of innocent people".
Arif said that the "destruction of homes and shops created great hardship" for ordinary people.
HRCP said in a 12 October statement that most of the 80,000 people displaced by the fighting had gone to neighbouring Bannu. Others had headed for Peshawar, some 190km to the north, and a number headed straight for hospitals seeking treatment for wounded family members.
"In most cases, as the fighting intensified, families fled, just heading out along the road to Bannu or elsewhere in lorries, trucks, vans or on foot – even though many had nowhere to go," Aurangzeb Ali told IRIN.
He said almost all women and children left, with Mirali, having a previous population of 50,000, becoming a "virtual ghost town". Many families left just a single male member behind to watch over houses and possessions abandoned as they fled.
No certain ceasefire
The siege placed around Mirali has been lifted, according to media reports, as a result of a ceasefire negotiated between tribal militants and Pakistan's security forces, with the process of talks beginning around the Eid al-Fitr holiday, one of the most important occasions on the Muslim calendar, which was marked on 13 and 14 October.
However, Maj-Gen Arshad denied a ceasefire had been agreed, telling IRIN "all military check posts remain in place and no ceasefire has been finalised". He said that the movement of goods into North Waziristan had been permitted to ease conditions for civilians.
By 18 October, some had reportedly begun to filter back – in some cases merely to recover belongings, in other cases to resume their disrupted lives. Trucks carrying goods, especially food items, had also begun reaching North Waziristan from parts of the NWFP.
However, with intermittent violence and displacement occurring in Wazirstan's remote and rugged territory over the past six years, there is scepticism among those recently displaced that the fighting is over and that their lives will return to normal.
"Waziristan is no longer a place where one can safely bring up children," said farmer Mohammad Arshad.
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