by Waheedullah Massoud Tue Oct 2, 2:44 PM ET
KABUL (AFP) - A suicide bomber blew up a police bus in Kabul on Tuesday, killing 13 people including a mother and her two children in a new Taliban attack just days after another claimed 30 lives in the Afghan capital.
The rush-hour suicide blast in the west of the city ripped off the sides and roof of the bus, which was smeared in blood and flesh. Parts of seats were flung into nearby trees.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said the militia was responsible for the carnage. It also claimed Friday's attack on a defence ministry bus that killed 30 -- one of the bloodiest bombings of the insurgency.
The attacker, strapped with explosives, had tried to board the bus but a policeman on the vehicle became suspicious and shot him, interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said.
Wounded, the bomber still managed to detonate his explosives, Bashary said.
"Thirteen Afghans lost their lives -- eight police and five civilians, including a mother and two of her children," Health Minister Sayed Mohammad Amin Fatemi told AFP. Ten others were wounded, two critically, he said.
The minister, who had earlier visited the scene of the blast, expressed outrage.
"This was an anti-human act that scars the heart of every Afghan," he told AFP. "I hope the Afghan nation never forgives the perpetrators. I believe God will never forgive them."
A resident of the area, named only Atiqullah, said he heard a "terrible explosion."
"I stepped out of the house and I saw thick, black smoke. When I ran to the blast site, I saw around four civilians, including a woman and a child, who were dead being carried to a car," the 28-year-old said.
"I cannot describe the scene -- blood, bones and flesh. These poor people in this holy month."
The Taliban had vowed a campaign of attacks for the Islamic month of Ramadan, which will end in two weeks. There have been six suicide attacks that have caused casualties since Ramadan started in mid-September.
President Hamid Karzai said the attack was "savage" and "evil." Those behind such attacks "will face punishment", he said in a statement.
Desperate to end the spiralling violence, Karzai at the weekend offered to negotiate with the fugitive leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, if it could help bring peace.
The Taliban have said they will only talk if foreign troops quit Afghanistan, a demand Karzai has rejected.
Kabul has this year suffered some of its worst attacks since the Taliban were driven from government six years ago in a US-led invasion following the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, which was sheltered by the Taliban government.
A June suicide attack on a police bus in the heart of the city killed 35 people. It was the bloodiest attack since the Al-Qaeda-linked Taliban regrouped and began their fight.
The insurgency has escalated every year, with suicide attacks spiralling to more than 110 already this year compared with 120 in 2006.
In the southeastern province of Paktika one of three men walking together on a district road detonated explosives he was carrying in an apparent premature suicide attack that may have been intended for NATO troops, police said.
"All the three died and were torn into pieces," deputy provincial police chief Farooq Sangari said.
So far this year the insurgency-linked violence has killed around 5,000 people, most of them rebels but including more than 700 civilians, around 700 Afghan police and soldiers, and 178 international troops.
The latest foreign soldier to die was shot dead in the eastern province of Kunar Tuesday, the US-led coalition said.
Also in Kunar, Taliban attacked a police post on the border with Pakistan early Tuesday, killing three policemen, provincial police chief Abdul Jalal Jalal said. Another policeman was missing.
And in the southern province of Uruzgan, 26 insurgents were killed Monday in a battle, the defence ministry said.
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US backs Karzai's offer to talk to Taliban
Tue Oct 2, 8:43 AM ET
BERLIN (AFP) - The United States backs Kabul's offer to hold peace talks with the Taliban but believes negotiations with the radical "hard core" in Afghanistan would be hopeless, a senior US official said Tuesday.
The deputy head of the European and Eurasian Affairs office at the State Department, Kurt Volker, said Washington welcomed President Hamid Karzai's bid to sit down with radical Afghan groups, as long as they rejected violence.
"Those who formerly were fighters who want to return to society ought to be able to do so," Volker told reporters during a visit to Berlin.
"I think for the government of Afghanistan and President Karzai to want to reach out and work with people who renounce violence, who want to support the central government, who will support human rights, who will build peace and security and development in the country -- that's reconciliation, that's an important thing for the Afghan government to do and we support that."
But he warned against lowering the bar for an invitation to the negotiating table.
"There is a hard core in Afghanistan, people who don't believe in those things, people who don't want to see Afghanistan succeed, people who don't believe in human rights, who want to reimpose a very dark regime on Afghanistan and they are willing to use brutal, violence means to do that," he said.
"You can't negotiate with that kind of person -- they're aimed at a physical destruction of the country."
Karzai on Saturday made a direct offer of talks with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and radical warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, both of whom are wanted by Washington, even holding out the prospect of government posts if they gave up violence.
Both have rejected talks as long as there are foreign troops in Afghanistan. There are currently about 50,000, mainly Western soldiers in the country.
The insurgency has claimed around 5,000 lives so far this year, most of them rebels, compared with about 4,000 last year.
The Taliban launched their uprising after regrouping following their ouster from government in late 2001 in a US-led invasion.
Volker said other countries serving in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force including Germany needed to do their share to avoid seeing the country slide further into extremism and violence.
"Within NATO and within the international community more broadly, there are some countries that are bearing a very hard load, like the Dutch, like the Canadians, like the Australians and others.
"They want to feel a sense of solidarity -- that there are other countries that support them, that work with them, that will come in to help them if they get into trouble, that will share some of that burden."
Germany has resisted pressure within NATO to send any of its 3,000 troops to troubled southern Afghanistan where US-led forces are fighting insurgents.
Berlin has kept its contingent in the relatively calmer north and opted to focus on training security forces and rebuilding infrastructure.
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Afghanistan: Karzai Tests Waters With New Peace Overture To Taliban
By Farangis Najibullah Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
October 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A spokesman for Taliban militants has publicly rejected Afghan President Hamid Karzai's latest offer of peace talks, saying foreign troops must first leave the country. But presidential sources insist that a growing number of militants would welcome negotiations to allow a return to the relative peace and comfort of family life.
Karzai had said on September 29 that he was ready to give militants a position in the government in exchange for peace.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yosuf Ahmadi responded to the president's overture with a reiteration that there can be no such talks until U.S. and NATO troops leave Afghanistan.
But Karzai spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said the spokesman's position is not shared by all Taliban militants.
Hamidzada told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that a significant number of those fighters do not rule out laying down their weapons and being included in peace talks.
"The information we have received from tribal elders indicates that different groups operating inside Afghanistan under the Taliban name are discussing this issue seriously," Hamidzada said. "In this case, we don't expect huge developments in the very near future, but we hope that those who want peace and stability in Afghanistan will come step by step to join the ongoing peaceful process."
President Karzai has set at least two preconditions for peace talks. He has said he would negotiate only with Afghan Taliban -- not with foreign fighters -- and he has ruled out including militants with links to Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
Karzai has also said he would personally go and talk to fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar if he knew his whereabouts or "his phone number."
There was no response from Mullah Omar -- who is among the most-wanted men by U.S. authorities, with a multimillion-dollar bounty on his head.
There has been no official U.S. reaction to reports of Karzai's peace offer.
Tim Foxley is a guest researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In comments to RFE/RL, Foxley speculates that the president's willingness to engage extremist leaders like Mullah Omar will not be welcomed by his Western supporters -- particularly the United States.
"These are not people that, certainly, the American government would have any interest in talking to," Foxley says. "So I think it would risk making a split between Karzai and his Western allies."
Some of Karzai's other international supporters appear to have accepted the Taliban presence as a harsh reality, and indicated their willingness to back Karzai's diplomacy with them.
British Foreign Minister Des Browne has suggested that the Taliban will have to be involved in the country's peace process. Browne said the Taliban "are not going away more than I suspect Hamas are going away from Palestine."
Hamidzada said that during Karzai's trip to the UN General Assembly in New York last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and representatives of many countries sought a comprehensive strategy -- involving both military and diplomatic components -- in dealing with the Taliban.
Foxley says that -- in theory -- talking to moderate Taliban and separating them from hard-core fundamentalists and Al-Qaeda supporters would weaken the insurgency.
But he acknowledges that it is not easy to identify "moderate Taliban" and find their partner for discussion.
Even Karzai has suggested that his government has had trouble finding a proper channel of communication with the Taliban.
"We are ready to negotiate to bring peace [to] this country," Karzai said. "Continuation of the war, explosions, and suicide attacks should be stopped in any way possible. There were some contacts with [Taliban] in the past. But there is no specific, clear-cut line of communication -- I mean, there is no official place for communication with the Taliban. I wish there were such a place."
So as Karzai sends out trial balloons for peace talks, the question remains as to how authorities will verify the authenticity -- and firmness -- of the responses.
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Al-Qaeda wants a part of Afghan talks
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online / October 2, 2007
KARACHI - While the Taliban and the Afghan administration of President Hamid Karzai play political football with the idea of peace talks, the stumbling block remains al-Qaeda, which is firmly opposed to any dialogue unless it can gain something for itself.
Over the past few weeks, the Taliban have responded positively to Karzai's offer of talks, but just when it appeared there might be progress, there's a setback.
Speaking on his return from the United States on Saturday, Karzai said that he was ready to meet Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of another insurgency group, Hezb-e-Islami, for peace talks aimed at sharing power.
But on Sunday, Qari Mohammad Yousuf, a Taliban spokesman, was quoted by Reuters as saying that peace talks with Kabul would not take place as long as the more than 50,000 foreign troops remained in the country. "The Karzai government is a dummy government. It has no authority so why should we waste our time and effort?" Yousuf was quoted as saying. Previously, the Taliban have said that they would talk without preconditions, and they could well revert to this position.
Coincidentally or not, Karzai made his offer hours after one of the biggest bomb attacks in six years killed 30 people in Kabul.
Karzai said that President George W Bush and Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, had both supported the idea of peace talks when he met them in the US. Karzai said he would allocate some government posts to the Taliban and that both Hekmatyar and Mullah Omar could stand in elections scheduled for 2009, if they wanted power.
Although Karzai has offered talks before, this was the first time since the Taliban's ouster in 2001 that the Washington-anointed leader had gone as far as to effectively legitimize the insurgency.
Recently, several top Taliban commanders met again in the Pakistani city of Quetta to hold talks with the Afghan government through Afghan tribal elders acting as go-betweens.
These talks are claimed by the Karzai government as proof of debate among Taliban commanders for peace. However, what is overlooked is the ideological strength of al-Qaeda, which has once again wrested control of the hearts and minds of the Taliban, at least in southeastern Afghanistan. And until al-Qaeda's leaders are drawn into the talks, any other dialogue is bound to fail.
Mushahid Hussain Syed, chairman of the foreign relations committee of the Pakistani Senate and also the powerful secretary general of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, told Asia Times Online: "Only a year ago when I made the proposal that if Mullah Omar is too hardline to talk too, and the Afghan government should start negotiations with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Afghan government was so upset that it officially protested to Pakistan. But I am happy that now Mr Karzai himself has endorsed the same proposal."
There is a delayed realization in the Western camp that the Taliban are a reflection of Afghanistan's majority Pashtun population and that their brand of Islam in fact blends strongly with conservative Pashtun traditions. Even after the Taliban defeat in 2001 by the US and its allies, that same brand of Islam is reflected in Afghan court decisions and in many other matters dealt with by the present administration.
The upshot is acceptance that the Taliban should be accommodated politically as well, yet the Western coalition still does not have the stomach to talk with al-Qaeda, which is exerting its influence from the Pakistani tribal areas of North Waziristan and South Waziristan.
People forget that the reason Afghanistan was invaded in the first place was because of the sanctuary that the Taliban offered al-Qaeda. The majority of Afghanistan's tribal and clerical councils recommended to expel Osama bin Laden after September 11, 2001, but al-Qaeda's influence prevailed.
The US and Pakistan, as partners in the "war on terror", made numerous efforts to split the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and at times they succeeded. Notably, there was major disagreement on strategies between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2006, which led to many al-Qaeda leaders leaving the Waziristans and Afghanistan. And this year, a Pakistani-sponsored massacre was carried out in South Waziristan against Uzbek militants by Pakistani Taliban commander Haji Nazeer. Prominent al-Qaeda commanders were expelled from the area, yet after a few months al-Qaeda had regained its influence and all Pakistan Taliban groups and al-Qaeda members are fighting side-by-side against the Pakistani armed forces.
If the al-Qaeda factor is to be neutralized, the group needs to be engaged, just as attempts are being made to embrace the Taliban. When Prince Turki al-Faisal (now ambassador to the United States) was the Saudi intelligence chief, the kingdom kept its channels of dialogue with al-Qaeda open, even after September 11, by using the Taliban leadership.
And recently, Saudi Arabia made a fresh approach at dialogue with al-Qaeda by sending an envoy to speak with it in North Waziristan. (See Military brains plot Pakistan's downfall Asia Times Online, September 26, 2007.)
These talks did not make too much progress, but al-Qaeda is certainly looking for some kind of "amnesty" for itself. Until this happens, the Taliban's commanders in southwestern Afghanistan might win some breathing space, but there can be no guarantee of any lasting political settlement in the region.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief.
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Taliban leader to remain on UN blacklist
October 1, 2007
KABUL (AFP) - Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and other top insurgents will likely remain on a UN "blacklist" even if they join peace talks proposed by President Hamid Karzai, the world body said Monday.
Karzai on Saturday made a direct offer of talks with Omar and radical warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, both of whom are wanted by the United States, even saying he would give them government posts if they gave up violence.
The Taliban and Hekmatyar have both rejected talks as long as there are international troops in Afghanistan. Karzai has refused demands that the troops leave before negotiations can take place.
However, the latest development has renewed interest in the chances of peace negotiations.
"If talks bring peace, then we of course welcome that," United Nations spokesman in Afghanistan Adrian Edwards told reporters in Kabul.
"However, there are certain things that are not negotiable. The constitution is not up for discussion, nor is deviating from our duties under UN Security Council resolution 1267 on measures to do with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda," he said.
The resolution includes the UN Security Council's "Consolidated List," which establishes travel, arms and other sanctions against Taliban and Al-Qaeda individuals and groups.
"No, I don't think they will be taken off the blacklist," Edwards said.
Omar and Hekmatyar are wanted by the United States as "terrorists" and carry multi-million-dollar rewards on their heads.
Their groups work alongside each other -- but apparently not in cooperation -- attacking mainly international and government targets as part of an insurgency launched after the Taliban government was toppled in late 2001.
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Afghanistan: Would-Be Suicide Bomber Speaks Of Indoctrination, Fear
By Ron Synovitz Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
October 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Akhunzada is a 46-year-old would-be suicide bomber from Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province.
The father of 10 children, Akhunzada spent years studying Islam in Afghanistan and as a refugee in Pakistan.
Until early this year, Akhunzada was teaching at a religious boarding school for the poor, a madrasah, in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province. He says he saw two Taliban commanders come to his madrasah repeatedly in order to recruit young students as suicide bombers.
In February, amid intense pressure from others at the madrasah, Akhunzada says he joined a group of three dozen young men who were recruited by Pakistani militants to become suicide bombers.
"It was in the middle of the night [when we left]," he told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "They took us in a specially prepared vehicle when it was dark. [There were no windows but] there were some small holes in the roof [of the vehicle] to allow air for us to breathe. Through those small holes, we could see the sky. They took us from Kuchlagh [a small town in Baluchistan near the city of Quetta]. Then we went to a madrasah in Quetta. But I don't know where they took us after that.
"On the way [to a training camp somewhere near the Pakistan-Afghan border], I was looking at the mountaintops [through the holes in the roof] and I was trying to draw them on paper," Akhunzada says. "I was imagining that these could be mountains in Afghanistan. That's when I began to think that this work was not being done for God's sake. It is against Islam and it is against Afghanistan. That's when I realized that this is absolutely a case of interference [by militants] of Pakistan within Afghanistan."
Felt Unable To Speak Out
Akhunzada says that despite his doubts, he completed a short training program with the other recruits. Often militant trainers indoctrinate young men -- using passages from the Koran out of context to justify the killing of innocent people, including Muslims.
Akhunzada says he became convinced that his militant trainers were manipulating and misleading the younger students. But he feared for his own safety if he spoke out. Instead, he kept his thoughts to himself until after the training was completed and each recruit had been given explosives along with instructions to carry out suicide attacks in Afghanistan.
"There were 36 of us [including one Chechen], who were transported [to the training camp]," Akhunzada continues. "We all completed our training. And after we finished the training, we were allowed to return to our homes for a week to 10 days to say goodbye to our families, to pray, and to prepare ourselves mentally for a suicide attack. This is the normal process for suicide bombers. But I didn't return [to the militants]. They were very much on my trail, trying to catch me. But I went into hiding instead."
During the six months that have passed since Akhunzada went into hiding, he says four suicide attacks have been carried out in Helmand Province by men that he knew from the mountain training camp.
Akhunzada says he managed to convince two young recruits from the group to abandon plans to commit suicide attacks in Afghanistan. Those two also have gone into hiding, fearing that they would be killed by militants because of what they have learned about the Taliban's recruiting and training infrastructure.
Recruits Often Impressionable Youths
At the age of 46, Akhunzada is an unusual recruit for a suicide attack. Officials in Kabul say it is more common for suicide bombers and Taliban fighters to be recruited from among impressionable youths at madrasahs in Pakistan's border regions near Afghanistan.
In July, Afghan President Hamid Karzai pardoned a 14-year-old Pakistani boy who was caught wearing a suicide bomber's vest while riding a motorbike in the southeastern Afghan city of Khost. The boy's father says he lost contact with his son after he sent the boy to a madrasah in Pakistan to study the Koran.
Another would-be suicide bomber told RFE/RL that he felt trapped and helpless once he had been trained for a suicide mission.
Mohammad Feroz, a man from southern Afghanistan, says he was recruited by militants who trained and paid him to carry out a suicide attack in Kandahar in late 2006.
Feroz went into hiding and contacted Radio Free Afghanistan by telephone after he decided not to detonate the suicide bomber's belt that his trainers had given him. He credited a Radio Free Afghanistan report on suicide bombers with dissuading him from carrying out the attack.
"I am in Kandahar right now," Feroz said. "I want to get out of this place. I was listening to Radio Free Afghanistan and they had a report. Thank you for such a good message -- it has saved my life. I received [the equivalent of $10,000 in afghanis] from a man who told me that I must become a suicide bomber in Kandahar. [But] I have escaped and I am in hiding now."
Feroz's whereabouts today are unknown. Radio Free Afghanistan has been unable to contact him since his initial telephone calls to the station.
(Contributors to this story include Hashem Mohmand and Freshta Jalalzai of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. The name of the man identified as Akhunzada has been changed at his request to protect his safety.)
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Suicide Bomb Brings Taleban War to Kabul Suburbs
Insurgents strike with apparent impunity, and promise an intensifying campaign of attacks.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Jean MacKenzie and Wahidullah Amani in Kabul (ARR No. 267, 02-Oct-07)
Kart-e-Parwan counts as one of the safest areas in Kabul. Largely residential, it does not boast the large foreign presence of flashier neighbourhoods. There are no embassies or big offices, just houses, shops, a cinema and a park.
In the early morning, herds of goats and sheep cross the main road, and day-labourers gather on the corner near a fruit seller’s cart, waiting for someone to come and hire their muscle for a few hours. Children hurry by on their way to school, the girls in white headscarves, the boys with rucksacks slung over their backs.
IWPR’s offices are in the heart of Kart-e-Parwan, nestled beside a family-planning clinic and over the road from a mosque and a bread kiosk. The latter is closed in the mornings because it is the month of Ramadan, and it will not open until closer to evening, when the fast is broken.
It is the kind of place where neighbours know each other and swap greetings in the street, and where a foreign woman can walk alone and do her fruit and vegetable shopping in peace, attended only by friendly cries of “Salaam” and “How are you?”, from the locals, even the occasional “Bonjour” or Russian “Zdravstvuyte”.
The kidnappings and killings that have marred other parts of the city seem very far away here.
That cheerful calm was shattered at seven in the morning on Saturday, September 29, when a suicide bomber wearing the uniform of an Afghan National Army soldier climbed onto a military bus and detonated his explosives. Eyewitnesses say he was carrying a bag.
Officials say at least 30 people died, the majority of them from the Afghan military. Another 29 people were injured.
“I saw the bus stop, and three people with military uniforms got on,” said a security official in Kart-e-Parwan, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “One minute later there was a big explosion, and I saw people lying on the ground on either side of the bus. When we went into the bus, we were able to get 15 injured people out. The rest were dead.”
The security officer said the force of the explosion threw body parts up to the sixth floor of a nearby building which houses the famous Baharistan Cinema. “I collected body parts from up there and we put them in plastic bags,” he said.
Windows in local shops and offices, including IWPR’s premises, were blown out. A small piece of shrapnel penetrated into the newsroom.
A hellish scene greeted eyewitnesses once the smoke had cleared.
“The blast knocked me into a ditch,” said 18-year-old Mustafa, who sells cigarettes by the roadside. “When I got up, there were hands and legs everywhere. I was very scared.”
Faraidun, 21, said friends and neighbours were among those who were killed.
“I saw three brothers - they were house painters,” he said. “They were all dead.”
Two days after the bomb, city workers were still cleaning bits of flesh and broken teeth from trees in the area.
But the real legacy of this bombing is likely to last much longer.
It is now apparent that the Taleban can strike anywhere in the capital. Residents of Kabul will be looking nervously over their shoulders as they go about their daily business, never sure when the next attack will come.
The explosion was one of the largest to date in a city that has seen a rapid rise in violence over the past few months. In June, a bomb rocked a bus full of police officers, killing 35. Just one week ago, a suicide bomber targeted a convoy of the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, killing a French soldier.
Kart-e-Parwan was isolated from such horrors, but that is no longer the case.
“This was the most secure area of Kabul,” said Faraidun. “Now the Taleban can target even this kind of place. The government has to do something about it; things are getting worse every day.”
But the Afghan government seems as much at a loss as everyone else.
Zahir Azimi, spokesperson for the defence ministry, limited himself to the usual platitudes about enemies of Islam and the nation.
The Taleban, on the other hand, were full of certainty. Their spokesman for central Afghanistan, Zabiullah Mujahed, claimed responsibility for the bomb.
IWPR was not able to contact him, but his more media-friendly colleague, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, who speaks for the insurgents in the violence-torn south, was ready to comment.
“This is jihad, and the enemy is going to sustain casualties,” he said. “We are upset about the civilian deaths, but the attack was carried out early in the morning. There are not so many people on the streets at that hour, and the people near the bus worked for the government; they were leaving for their offices.”
The official tally lists six civilians among the injured. The dead were all military personnel, as were the rest of those wounded by the blast.
Qari Yusuf added that with the onset of the holy month of Ramadan, the Taleban had begun a new operation codenamed Nasrat or “Victory”.
“We hope to intensify this operation in the course of the month,” he added.
Kabul residents were unmoved by the Taleban bluster. Instead, they were angry and bitter about the attack and its timing.
“Those who kill during Ramadan are not Muslims,” said Mohammad Saboor, 45. “People are getting ready for Eid, and now all these families will be mourning instead of celebrating.”
Eid al-Fitr is the holiday of feasting and family gatherings that marks the end of the Ramadan fast,
“Whoever the attacker was, he will go to hell,” said Sayed Rahim, 38. “God never gave anyone permission to kill.”
As this report was published, reports came in of a new suicide bombing on October 2, this time targeting a police bus.
Jean MacKenzie is IWPR’s Programme Director in Afghanistan. Wahid Amani is lead trainer and reporter. Aziz Ahmad Tassal, an IWPR staff reporter in Helmand, also contributed to this report.
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Al-Qaeda 're-emerging' in Pakistan sanctuaries: US military
October 2, 2007
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (AFP) - The US military said Tuesday it expected Al-Qaeda to continue its "re-emergence" in sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas from where it supported attacks in Afghanistan.
Sanctuary was provided to Al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels after Islamabad signed a peace deal with militants in a desperate attempt to quell the unrest in its federally administered areas in September 2006, a US military official said.
The militants called off the deal in July this year after Pakistani security forces raided a radical mosque in Islamabad where rebels had massed. Dozens were killed in those raids.
"This area remains a support and sanctuary area for the insurgency as results of those peace accords," US Major Tim Williams, future operations intelligence planner, told reporters at Bagram Air Field, the main US base in Afghanistan.
He said the Islamic rebels were likely to maintain their presence in those areas despite apparent efforts by Pakistani army to root them out.
"In the federally administered tribal areas, we anticipate sanctuary in this region to continue the Al-Qaeda re-emergence," Williams said.
"What we're looking into over the next 12 months ... is the ability and the capability of the enemy to attempt to retain the success, some of the successes, that they have had in that area."
This "sanctuary" could shelter the fugitive Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's supreme chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the officer said.
Most Taliban leaders fled to the Pakistan's mainly Pashtun tribal belt following the 2001 US invasion which toppled the largely Pashtun group from power for sheltering Al-Qaeda, which had training camps here.
Asked if there was an increased Al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, Williams said Al-Qaeda operatives did not normally cross into this country to carry out operations but provided the necessary resources and training.
The Taliban's insurgency has grown steadily, particularly in the past two years, with suicide bombings in a hallmark of the violence. The militia claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Kabul Tuesday that killed 11 people.
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ADB gives Afghanistan $176 mln for highway project
AFP / October 2, 2007
MANILA -- The Asian Development Bank (ADB) said Tuesday it will lend Afghanistan $176 million to complete a "ring road" highway that will link the northern part of the country to the west.
The grant will be used in the construction of a 193-kilometer (120-mile) stretch of road between the western towns of Bala Murghab and Amalick, the ADB said in a statement from its Manila headquarters.
The new, all-weather road will link northern Afghanistan with the country's western region, cutting travel time and lowering transport costs between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, the ADB said.
Since resuming operations in Afghanistan in 2001, the ADB has approved more-than-1-billion dollars in assistance, including $600 million in road reconstruction.
via Middle East Times
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Afghanistan Carpet Industry Prepares for Global Market
via newsblaze.com October 2, 2007 By Phillip Kurata
Increased sales could reduce lures of terrorism, poppy growing
Afghanistan's drive to resurrect its fabled carpet industry with U.S. assistance is a key element in the economic reconstruction of the land-locked Central Asian country, according to U.S. officials.
The Afghan carpet industry employs more than 1 million people, about 3 percent of the population. Millions more work in related industries, such as wool production, cutting, washing and design. Because these dominant industries have significant growth and export potential, the carpet sector has become a major focus for Afghanistan's government and private-sector support organizations.
In 2005, Afghanistan sold abroad $140 million worth of carpets, its largest official export. If the country could repatriate the portion of its carpet industry that has migrated to Pakistan, the size of the industry would double, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Projected to grow 11 percent a year, Afghan carpet exports could reach $350 million by 2015, according to the study.
For centuries, Afghanistan was recognized as a global leader in carpet production. But after the Taliban took power, many Afghan carpet makers fled to Pakistan. Since the Taliban were defeated in 2001, some 60 percent of the carpet makers who fled have returned to their homeland and are producing goods of exquisite beauty.
A recent article published by a newspaper in Pittsburgh described how Afghan women weavers are channeling their artistic talents into carpets because weaving is one of their few outlets for expression. The article described one woman weaver who created the design of a falling leaf to symbolize her loss of a child.
Unfortunately, just a small fraction of Afghanistan's intricate and beautiful rugs are sold abroad as Afghan products. The reason for this is that more than 90 percent are sent to Pakistan for cutting, washing and finishing. Those carpets are exported to foreign markets with labels that say "made in Pakistan."
The Commerce Department's director of the Iraq and Afghanistan investment and reconstruction task force, Susan Hamrock Mann, says, "We're helping Afghanistan get its identity back and return the entire production to Afghanistan so that they can start stamping the carpets made in Afghanistan."
In January, the Commerce Department orchestrated the first Afghan carpet exhibition in the United States in Atlanta.
A media commentator wrote afterwards, "I've never seen anything quite like what I saw in Atlanta last week at the January rug show. Because it wasn't just another bunch of people selling another bunch of products. It was a group of people trying to change the world."
Carpet makers changing the world? As the commentator explains, his assertion was not far-fetched.
"It doesn't take an economics major to figure out that if the business climate improves over there because we are buying more of their products, then perhaps the Afghan people will be more focused on business than on some of the other things that have torn that country apart over the past 25 years," he writes. "Making rugs is a lot easier, safer and productive than making war or making drugs."
To burnish the allure of Afghan carpets at the Atlanta show, the Commerce Department arranged for rug merchants to exhibit artifacts, art work, and other textiles along with rugs to give the customers a flavor of the country's exotic culture.
Working with the Afghan government, the department helps Afghan rug merchants and government officials deal with import procedures into the United States, marketing, wholesalers, financing, transport and other issues, according to Hamrock Mann. The director and her colleagues played a key role in supporting the first Afghan International Carpet Fair, which took place in Kabul August 26-28. By the end of the third day of the fair, $3 million in sales had been rung up. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who led the U.S. delegation, said, "The industry is expected to grow substantially over the coming years, and this event is a truly historic moment in the re-emergence of Afghanistan in the global carpet market."
The next major event in the Commerce Department's efforts to integrate the Afghan carpet industry into the global market is an international rug show in Las Vegas January 28-February 1, 2008.
"There is a lot of money and many Afghan Americans in the West of the United States," Hamrock Mann said. "We're working on having Afghanistan as a key feature of the show."
Source: U.S. Department of State
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Teenager hanged by Taliban in latest child killing
KABUL, 2 October 2007 (IRIN) - The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has condemned the hanging of a teenager boy by Taliban insurgents in Sangin District of volatile Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.
"We share the revulsion of the Afghan people that children and young people are being targeted so cynically," Aleem Siddique, a UNAMA spokesman, told IRIN on 2 October.
"This goes against all norms in Afghan society, is against international law and we condemn such actions unreservedly," Siddique added.
On 30 September armed Taliban men hanged a 15-year-old boy on charges of espionage for foreign forces based in Afghanistan, said Ezatullah Mujahid, the administrator of Sangin District.
For hours the dead body of the boy was hanging from a tree with warning notes stuffed in his mouth ordering locals not to collaborate with foreign troops, according to Mujahid.
The teenager had US currency in his pockets and a notepad with several telephone numbers on it, and was immediately sentenced to death, Mujahid said.
A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, confirmed the incident, adding that anyone working for the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his international supporters would face a similar fate.
Children targeted by Taliban
In the early morning of 2 October a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a bus carrying Afghan police officers, west of Kabul. "The explosion killed 11 people including three children," read a statement by Afghanistan's Interior Ministry. The Taliban have reportedly claimed responsibility for the blast.
In another incident on 30 September two children died and five others were wounded in Khost Province after a bomb planted in a toy exploded, provincial officials said. Wazir Pacha, a provincial police spokesman, said the toy was purposely left in front of a house in Baak District. No group has claimed responsibility for the toy bombing so far.
Afghan officials and international forces based in the country have repeatedly accused Taliban rebels of using children and civilians as "human shields" in their ongoing insurgency. During a military operation in Uruzgan Province on 19 September, "Coalition forces as well as aircraft identified several insurgents in one compound using children as 'human shields'", said a US military press release.
On 15 June a suicide attacker blew himself up while schoolchildren were coming out of a school in Tarinkot, the provincial capital of Uruzgan Province, killing 11 children and wounding several others.
Armed men allegedly associated with Taliban insurgents have also frequently attacked schools, schoolchildren and teachers in insecure parts of the country. As a result, about 400 schools remain closed in southern provinces. Almost half of all Afghan children do not have access to basic education, according to Afghanistan's Ministry of Education.
In April, Taliban insurgents circulated a video depicting a 12-year-old boy beheading a man who was allegedly accused of anti-Taliban activity. International human rights organisations, religious leaders and the government of Afghanistan expressed outrage and denounced the video.
Under international humanitarian law all warring parties must respect the safety of children and other civilians and avoid using them for military purposes.
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Crossing the Taleban Line
A reporter visits the area where he was born to find civilians traumatised by recent air attacks and angry with the government in Kabul.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Aziz Ahmad Shafe (ARR No. 267, 01-Oct-07)
Hyderabad is only 80 kilometers north of Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, but it takes you four days to get there.
Those 80 kilometres are neatly divided between followers of President Hamed Karzai and supporters of Mullah Omar. In other words, the first 40 kilometers are controlled by the government, and the last 40 belong to the Taleban.
I was born in Kajaki, a district just to the northeast of Hyderabad, so I should have felt at home there.
But no man entering a country illegally could have been more afraid than I was when I approached the Taleban “border”.
I had tried to plan ahead, and had made contact with local Taleban commanders. I followed their instructions, but I was still nervous and had no idea how I would be treated.
I also hedged my bets – after setting out for Hyderabad, I called the Helmand police chief and told him of my travel plans.
He was very angry, and began shouting at me.
“What can I do for you now? You didn’t call me until after you went into the area. All I can do now is pray that God will bring you back alive.”
That did not make me feel much better.
Shortly after we arrived in Hyderabad, our car was surrounded by a group of Taleban. They pointed their guns at us and shouted, “Give us as much money as you can.”
I turned out my pockets - you see, I have a real love for life. After taking some money, they turned their guns away and let us go.
When we got to our destination, Hyderabad bazaar, we were again surrounded by armed Taleban. I gave them my press card, thinking that since it was written in English, they would not understand. But it seems that the Taleban are also linguists, and they understood very well.
Afterwards, I relaxed a little, and began talking to local people.
They were not happy to see us. Among them were people whose family members had been killed in a recent air strike, and the way they were looking at us, you would think that it was we who killed them.
“What are you doing here?” said one of them. “First you kill us, then you come to take our pictures.”
I tried to tell him that no, I was here to listen to them; to make sure that their voices were heard.
Finally, some residents agreed to talk to me.
One man, Mohammad Gul told me how five members of his family had been killed in the bombing.
“The troops must have been able to see us. It’s in the desert, and there isn’t a single tree. We entered a house and tried to hide, but the jets came and began bombing us,” he said. “How is it that the foreigners say they can aim at one specific person, but here they can’t tell whether they are killing a woman or a child?”
Like many in the area, Mohammad Gul was angry and bitter at the international forces deployed in Helmand province.
“The foreign troops don’t kill the Taleban, they only kill us,” he said. “They don’t build roads or do anything useful. They just ruin us. Some people here have lost their entire families. They say they will go off and become suicide bombers. They are tired of living .”
Mohammad Gul was not comforted by the prospect of receiving compensation for his loss - the idea made him furious.
“The government gives us 100,000 Afghani [2,000 US dollars] for each person killed in the bombings,” he said. “I want to say to the president, ‘What am I supposed to do with this money?’ My family is dead, buried in the ground. I will give the government two million afghani [40,000 dollars] if it gives me the head of one of its officials. For Karzai’s head, I would pay 100 million afghani.”
He challenged the Afghan president, “Karzai can invite all of us to go to see him and he can butcher us with a knife, rather than kill us with bombs.”
“We sent tribal elders to the foreign troops, asking for permission to bury our dead,” he said. “They told us to wait until after they’d gone. I myself buried 14 people in one grave. I couldn’t do it the proper way – we were all on the run, trying to find a place of safety.”
After Mohammad Gul had finished, I took a walk around the area – after first obtaining permission from the Taleban. It looked to like a place that had been abandoned hundreds of years ago; the houses were all destroyed.
I did see one house that looked intact. It was not until I got closer that I saw the hole in the wall. When I stepped inside, I saw that everything had been destroyed. There were clothes, dishes and children’s books all mixed up in the rubble.
The owner, Fatih Mohammad, told me how four members of his family were killed in an air strike.
“We were having dinner when the jets came,” he said. “I stood next to a wall, and God kept me alive. But when I saw my children and wife dead, I was sorry I hadn’t been killed, too. I asked God, “If You did not want me to die, why did You make me see this?”
Fatih Mohammad asked, “Who will help me bury my dead?”
Many people in the area seemed lost, and were shaking as if their dead were still lying in front of them.
I saw a tractor sitting just one kilometer outside the village, pitted with holes and with blood mixed with fuel staining the ground around it.
Villagers say the tractor was hit while it was taking 35 civilians away from the bombing.
“There were old men, women and children who wanted to seek refuge with the foreign troops,” said local resident Habibullah. “The men were trying to collect the dead from houses that had been bombed, but someone called to us, ‘Rahmatullah’s children are on fire in the tractor’. I rushed over there, and saw that everyone was burning. We could do nothing except pour water on them.
“When the flames were extinguished, we saw that they were all dead. Some were headless, others had lost arms or legs. I saw one child, the bones of his hand were still burning. That was the most shocking thing for me. There were children aged from three months old to ten years old.”
“We collected the dead, their flesh and body parts, and wrapped it all in patus,” said Habibullah, referring to the long scarves worn by Pashtuns. “We buried them all in one grave, because we could not identify individuals.”
He paused, his face creased with sorrow and rage.
“This is the work of Hamed Karzai,”he said. “If he cannot put an end to the killing, he must resign. These jets do not recognise women and children. When there is a bombing like the one here, the foreign troops announce that 60 Taleban have been killed. But I want to tell them that there was not even one Taleb among the dead.”
Locals said the tractor was hit as a deliberate reprisal for a Taleban attack which destroyed foreign armoured vehicles some two kilometers away.
The Taleban took me to the scene of a battle with foreign troops. There were some armoured vehicles, which they said they blew up with improvised explosive devices.
They also showed me about 15 fuel tankers that had been used to supply the international forces. The Taleban say they siphoned off the fuel and sold it before torching the tanker trucks.
I could not visit many other places, as the whole area was mined. So I took my leave of the Taleban and left for home. I did not feel safe until I reached the government-controlled stretch of road.
When I finally reached home, I felt that I had been given a new lease of life.
Aziz Ahmad Shafe is a journalist based in Helmand.
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Five Afghans kidnapped
October 1, 2007
KABUL (AFP) - Five Afghans linked to international groups working in Afghanistan have been kidnapped, officials said Monday in the latest slew of abductions blamed on Taliban rebels or criminals.
Two workers with the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees (DACAAR) were abducted on Sunday in the province of Logar about 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Kabul, their organisation told AFP here.
The two men had wrapped up a water supply project and were heading home when they went missing, said director Arif Qaraeen.
Later Sunday one of their superiors was called by a man who said, "We have taken your people and you have to pay us some money," Qaraeen said.
"We have called the police, the intelligence, the relevant people, the kidnappers, the elders of the community to try to find a solution," he told AFP.
Logar police said the men had "disappeared." "We are searching for them," provincial police chief Ghulam Mustafa said.
A Bangladeshi national working with a microfinance development project was kidnapped in the same area on September 15 by men who demanded ransom through a video clip sent to a local television station.
Three men driving trucks to supply foreign soldiers in the central province of Wardak were meanwhile kidnapped early Monday, a local police official said.
A purported Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, claimed responsibility for the abduction and said the drivers were seized because "they are helping the invading forces."
Taliban rebels in Wardak on Saturday freed four Red Cross workers, two of them foreigners, whom they held for three nights last week. The four were captured "by mistake," a Taliban spokesman said.
The Red Cross staff were seized while on a mission to try to secure the release of a German engineer and five Afghans held by Taliban-linked militants since July 18.
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Marriage Swaps End in Tears and Blood
The age-old custom of marrying off pairs of brothers and sisters between families is designed to cement ties and save money, but it has tragic consequences when one of the marriages goes wrong.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Mohammad Ilyas Dayee in Helmand (ARR No. 267, 01-Oct-07)
I could not tell which of the two figures before me was Samina and which was her mother. They were identical, both swathed in worn black veils, and I could not see their faces. As is customary in my culture, Pashtun women do not show themselves to men outside their families.
But when I began the interview, one of them moved slightly and began to speak. Her voice was low, barely above a whisper, as she told her story.
“Shirdil was my husband. He was very cruel to me - his mother was even worse. I was beaten every day that I was in their house. You see this wound on my head? Shirdil hit me with a teapot.”
Samina has now been through a divorce, considered a matter of great shame in Pashtun society, but she still found that an improvement on barely one year of marriage.
“My life is better now that I am back in my father’s house,” she said. “No one curses me, no one beats me. I am happy here.”
Samina and Shirdal, who come from a small village in the Marja district of Helmand province, were married under the old Pashtun tradition called “badal”— literally “barter” or “exchange” – under which families swap their daughters as brides for their sons.
The custom is a way of cancelling out the “bride price” – the large amount of money the groom’s family has to pay to the bride’s father. In poverty-stricken Afghanistan, the bride price, often many thousands of dollars, ruins many families and keeps many young men single into their thirties.
If a family looking for a wife for their son find that she has a brother, they can offer their daughter’s hand in marriage to him to even out the transaction.
In this case, Samina’s brother was married to Shirdil’s sister.
Although Samina insists that her brother treated his wife kindly, that marriage fell apart. As the couple fought and separated, their domestic tragedy was replayed between Samina and Shirdil.
Many parents feel that badal offers some measure of protection for their daughter, since her husband should be deterred from mistreating her if his sister is effectively a hostage in his wife’s family.
But it can work the other way round. All too often, as with Samina and Shirdil, it ends in bitterness and pain.
Shirdal said that since his wife had left the house, “our family has been at peace”.
“All this misfortune was caused by my sister. She was being mistreated, so we had to do to [Samina] what her family was doing to my sister,” he said.
Asked whether he had loved his wife, Shirdal sighed and did not give a direct answer.
“I had to do what my family wanted,” he said. “My mother forced me to divorce my wife. I will not feel guilty on the Day of Judgement. I did not mistreat my wife apart from divorcing her.”
This is not an isolated case in Helmand, where women often lead difficult lives, and there is a lot of domestic violence.
Apart from the exchange of siblings, women are also married off to settled feuds or other disagreements.
“Pashtun society can be very harsh,” said Nabi Khan, a Muslim cleric and judge who mediated in the divorce of Shirdil and Samina. “Anyone who has married through badal faces the problem of divorce.”
The case of Samina and Shirdil was fairly typical, he said.
“Samina’s brother divorced Shirdil’s sister some time ago. He had been beating her,” said Nabi Khan. “So Shirdil did to Samina what her brother had done to his sister. They tried to get rid of her without a divorce, but her family was very upset that she would not get formal status. Divorce is very embarrassing in our society, but her father and brother came to me and said that either Shirdil should accept her back as his wife, or grant her a divorce. I am an imam in Shirdil’s mosque, so I was asked to help.”
It is almost impossible for a woman to initiate divorce proceedings in Pashtun society.
Men who are unwilling to go through the shame of a divorce will often take a second wife in such cases, said Nabi Khan. According to Islamic tradition, a man can have up to four wives.
“When a man has two wives, there will be fighting in his house every single day. His home will turn into a battlefield,” he said.
The disturbing case of Tawab, a quiet young man from the village of Chan Jir in Nad Ali district, not far from the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, shows how violent that battlefield can be.
Tawab’s sister was being beaten by her husband, so he took a gun and went off to defend her. Because he was part of a typical badal arrangement, his sister’s husband was his brother-in-law twice over – the man was also his wife’s brother.
Tawab’s attempt to exact punishment went fatally wrong – instead of harming his brother-in-law, he accidentally shot and killed his own sister.
He then came home and divorced his wife in retaliation.
“If my uncle were not mediating, I would have killed her,” said Tawab. “But our family has been very nice about it and we have left her alive.”
He concluded, “Anyone who wants to avoid problems and sorrow should avoid badal.”
Fawzia Olumi, head of the government Women’s Affairs Department for Helmand province, said her office has seen many cases where badal has torn families apart.
“Badal has not been good for our society,” she said. “It is a very old tradition, and many families have made a business out of it. They demand a girl in exchange for their daughter, thinking that it will help her and that if the other family mistreats their daughter, they can take revenge. Families may want good lives for their daughters, but it actually causes relationships to deteriorate.”
Olumi said her department was currently handling the case of a 14-year-old girl who had been married off to a much older man as part of a badal deal. The girl had attempted suicide by taking poison, and was still refusing to return to her husband.
It is against the tenets of Islam to force a girl to marry against her will, but in practice the girl is rarely consulted - she is expected to bow to her parents’ decision.
Sitting in the Women’s Department, the girl looked very young and unhappy. Clad in dirty clothes and worn blue shoes, she had a small blue scarf on her head.
“My parents married me to a kuchi [a nomad], and my brother married his sister,” she said. “But I don’t want to be married to this old man.”
The girl would not give her name, and when pressed for more details, she burst into tears and left the room. Her mother hurried after her, apparently afraid that her daughter would swallow more pills.
Maulavi Ahmad, head of the Ulema or council of Muslim scholars for Helmand province insisted that badal was an honoured Islamic tradition, but acknowledged that it was sometimes abused.
“Mistreating anyone, particularly a woman, is prohibited in Islam,” he said. “Anyone who abuses a woman is considered a criminal before God and the Prophet.”
Mohammad Ilyas Dayee is an IWPR staff reporter in Helmand.
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India expresses concern over growing influence of Taliban
The Times of India October 1, 2007
NEW DELHI: India has expressed concern over the growing influence of Taliban militia and said it could "seriously jeopardise" the process of democratisation in Afghanistan.
"In a large number of southern districts of Afghanistan, the Taliban had regrouped themselves," External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee told TimesNow television channel.
He said the militia had established training camps along the southern border of Afghanistan which were being used as launching pads to push infiltrators across the border.
"The number of incidents of suicide attacks, the number of killings, number of violent incidents all have increased in the last few months," he said.
"So, it is a real danger that if Taliban is not put in check ... the process of democratisation which is going on in Afghanistan would be seriously jeopardised," Mukherjee said.
The minister said that a high level meeting chaired by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon recognised the need for involvement of Pakistan to check infiltration from these porous borders and also cooperate with the international community to check Taliban.
Mukherjee said Karzai would require support and massive assistance for development of Afghanistan.
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Melon Time in Northern Afghanistan
Late summer sees farmers decamp to the fields to gather a rich harvest.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi (ARR No. 267, 01-Oct-07)
“When the flowers bloom on the watermelon plants, we know it’s time,” said Turday, standing beside a pile of green and yellow fruit. “We move out of our regular houses into the chaila, until the picking season is over.”
The “chaila”, a makeshift enclosure made of branches and twigs, can be seen on most farms in the Aqcha district of Jowzjan province in northern Afghanistan.
Ethnic Turkmen make up the majority of the population here, and melon-growing is a way of life for them.
Turday, 46, comes from a long line of melon farmers, who have carefully passed down the secrets of the trade from father to son.
“I was born in the summer when my parents were busy on the farm,” he said, smiling broadly. “When I opened my eyes for the first time, I saw the colours of melons and watermelons. It’s in my blood.”
Turday has 10 jeribs (two hectares) of land, half of which he devotes to melons. For him, the fruit is more than a business; it is a tradition, a way of life.
“I love life on the farm,” he said. “When I return home after melon season is over, I feel like I’m going to prison.”
In Jowzjan, Turday explained, farmland turns into small townships in the late summer, when people start moving out to harvest their melons. Some shopkeepers also migrate with the crowds, setting up temporary stalls to service the melon farmers.
Next to Turday’s land is 66-year-old Hazrat Qul, who regards himself as the district’s most experienced watermelon farmer.
“Melons divide into two categories - those with hard seeds and those with soft seeds. Watermelons, too, come in many different varieties. The sweetest is called ‘makayee’ and has small seeds,” he explained.
The soft-seeded varieties are sold locally, as they do not travel well. Some types only grow in Jowzjan, added Hazrat Qul.
“Loblayee and gorgak melons are so sweet that they aren’t found anywhere else,” he said proudly.
Hazrat Qul picked up a small green fruit and explained that this was a gorgak melon.
“Despite its colour and size, it is the sweetest of all the melons,” he said.
Local farmers grow this variety for their own use only, and never sell them, as doing so is considered unlucky.
“If someone tries to sell a gorgak melon, his family or his farm will come to some harm,” said Hazrat Qul. “Four years ago, a farmer treated this as a joke, and sold his gorgak. The next year his melons did not ripen, and he had almost no harvest. His son was bitten by a snake during irrigation, and he almost died.”
According to Hazrat Qul, farmers can expect to harvest 400 to 600 melons or watermelons from a jerib of land. Melons sell for 30 to 70 afghani each, giving an income of approximately 500 US dollars from every jerib, or 2,500 dollars per hectare
No exact statistics are kept, but Shams, the head of the agriculture department in neighbouring Balkh province, said that preliminary surveys indicated that more than 100,000 jeribs of land across northern Afghanistan were planted with melons.
Deputy agriculture minister Ghulam Mustafa Jawad said Afghan melons were prized in neighbouring countries.
“We export melons daily to Pakistan, and we have very good customers there. The agriculture ministry is trying to find other markets as well,” he said.
No precise export figures were available, Jawad added.
Melon season in the north runs generally from July to November, when the last of the fruit ripens.
Sales generally take place on the farms, with buyers coming out from the towns to find the best produce and prices.
Turday’s melons are now ready, and three buyers from Mazar-e-Sharif are haggling over the price.
“I always buy my melons from this district,” said Nawroz, a businessman. “The people here are honest, and Aqcha melons are popular throughout Afghanistan because of their sweetness.”
Nawroz buys melons from farmers and sells them to retailers in Mazar-e-Sharif.
“People come from all over the place, even Kabul, to buy these melons,” said Nawroz. “I buy at least 10 truckloads a week and sell them at a good profit. In my opinion, melon season is a sacred time for people in the north.”
The harvest requires extra hands, and the pickers are often paid in kind.
“I pick melons on all the farms in this area,” said Nooria, 43, from the Chamtal district of Balkh province. “I get five melons for my labour. That’s good for me – I eat one with my family and sell the others in the market for 200 afghani.”
Markets across the north buzz with activity during melon season. Kunduz province in the northeast stands out both as the largest producer and as the site of the largest melon market in the country. People come from everywhere to buy the fruit.
As the night falls on one market in Kunduz, merchants try to offload the last of their produce so that they can return to their homes.
Mohammad Bashir, 22, is sitting on his pile of melons and calling out to passers-by in a loud, singsong voice, “All of my melons are as sweet as honey. First taste them, then buy them. If they aren’t delicious, I won’t charge you for them.”
He told IWPR that he was selling 600 melons and earning about 2,000 afghani (40 dollars) a day.
“We only have this market for four months a year,” he said. “I wish it lasted all year round.”
Hajji Allah Daad had just made a purchase and was tying two melons onto the back of his bike.
“I bought these for 100 afghani,” he said. “That’s a reasonable price. Our whole family is so used to this fruit that we eat it all summer. My sons get upset and refuse to eat if there is no melon or watermelon on the table. We have to buy melons every day.”
There are melons to suit every pocket, ranging from ten to 80 afghani. “Everyone buys them. Those who can’t afford the expensive ones can buy some for very low prices,” said Allah Daad.
One less conventional use for melons is to prolong the high for cannabis users.
Panji Murad, 20, is the son of Turday, the melon farmer in Aqcha. Sitting in the chaila, he seems lost to the world.
“When we smoke [hashish] and eat melon, it lasts longer,” he said dreamily. “During the summer, when the melons ripen, we get twice the pleasure from drugs. Melons are good for your health, and they keep the drugs from having a bad effect. So during this season I like to smoke a lot.”
He laughed, and said, “We know that melons have another use besides just filling the stomach.”
Melon farming is not as easy as it sounds, as the crop can be hard hit by pests.
“This year there’s a sort of mosquito that is harming our melons,” said Najibullah, a farmer in Balkh. “They infect the bushes when they are flowering, and later, when the fruit ripens, the seeds go black and you can’t eat the melon. In many places entire farms have been devastated.”
Once the flies had settled in an area, he continued, it was almost impossible to replant melons for some years.
“The government has distributed some treatments, but it hasn’t been enough,” complained Najibullah.
The agriculture ministry has taken steps to deal with the infestation.
“We distributed soil treatments to all areas where melons are grown, and the problem has decreased,” said deputy minister Jawad. “But we have not been able to control it 100 per cent. It takes time to wipe out the flies. You can’t do it solely with chemicals; there are other ways, and farmers need to learn them.”
These methods included ploughing up infected land, and leaving fields fallow after a melon crop, he explained.
“We have projects for next year, and we will work with all the farmers,” said the deputy minister. “That way, we’ll be able to wipe out the flies.”
Shams, the head of agriculture in Balkh province, claimed that efforts against the pest had been largely successful.
“Last year the farmers suffered damage to 70 per cent of their crop,” he said. “This year, it was down to 15 or 20 per cent. Fortunately, our farmers have enough experience to know how to deal with plagues.”
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.
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Another Bumper Opium Year Looms for Helmand
As the planting season approaches, farmers in Helmand show no sign of abandoning their traditional cash crop.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Mohammad Ilyas Dayee (ARR No. 267, 01-Oct-07)
Rahim Gul is working on his land, a vast tract in the Shawol area of Nad Ali, one of Helmand’s main centres of poppy cultivation. He leans on his rake and sighs.
“I get very tired during the poppy planting season,” he said. “It takes so much work. Growing poppy is like trying to cure a madman.”
Nad Ali is a mostly agricultural district, a large canal supplying its farmers with water. The main crop is poppy, which has made Helmand province into the world’s main supplier of opium and its derivative heroin. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNDC, estimates that close to half of the heroin on the streets of Europe originates in this one province of Afghanistan.
In 2007, Helmand harvested its largest crop to date, the estimated 4,400 tons representing a 57 per cent increase on the previous year, according to the UNODC’s “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007, issued in August. That figure far outstripped the second-biggest producer, Nangarhar, which rocketed to just over 1,000 tons.
If Nad Ali is any reflection of the province as a whole, 2008 could be an even bigger year for Helmand.
The much-vaunted eradication campaign appears to have failed to stem Helmant’s relentless rise as the leading producer. The UNODC report said that the 103,000 hectares under poppy in 2007 represented a 48 per cent increase on last year’s area, but only 4,000 hectares of crops were destroyed, some 20 per cent less than in 2006. Counter-narcotics officials admit privately that the actual area eradicated may well have been even smaller than that.
The United States and British governments have devoted significant resources to alternative livelihood programmes, but Rahim Gul says Helmand’s cautious farmers are reluctant to believe in ephemeral promises.
“To be honest, this alternative livelihood thing is not really a certainty for us,” he explained. “It will never replace poppy. Poppy is a good crop for us, it makes us lots of money and helps us get back on our feet sooner. I have never seen anyone else trying to help us.”
Helmand is now plagued by a growing insurgency. The violence has escalated steadily over the past year, and the resulting instability has hindered the counter-narcotics effort as well as preventing the implementation of any coherent development strategy.
Farmers are not prepared to give the government or international aid organisations the benefit of the doubt. Disappointed by unfulfilled promises, they say they will continue growing poppy as long as they are able to make money from it.
“I will never quit cultivating poppy,” said Rahim Gul. “Even if the government comes with sacks of aid, I still wouldn’t believe them. This Karzai-Bush government is a liar.”
Many Afghans view President Hamed Karzai as a puppet of the United States and President George Bush.
Rahim Gul’s son brought him some tea, which he drank in one gulp, and then turned back to his work.
“I have to get these peanuts harvested so I can prepare the land for poppy,” he said.
In Helmand’s warm, dry climate, poppy is sown in the autumn and harvested in the spring. On a bright autumn day in Nad Ali, farmers were out with rakes and tractors on every plot of land, preparing their fields for planting.
A brief poll revealed that almost all these farmers were planning to grow poppy. The common theme was that there was no viable alternative that would yield the same kind of income.
Finally, one farmer, dressed all in black with a scarf covering his face to protect him from the dust, said that he did plan to stop.
“I never got any benefit from poppy, so I have decided not to grow it this year,” said Sher Zamaan.
However, he insisted his decision had nothing to do with the official eradication effort, which he said could be circumvented through bribery.
“I don’t give a damn about the government’s anti-poppy campaign,” he said. “If I paid them 1,000 afghani per jerib [0.2 hectare], my poppy would be safe. I haven’t quit poppy cultivation because of the government. They have never destroyed our poppy, they just want money.”
Farmers in Shin Kalay, another village in Nad Ali, told a similar story. Hossein, who belongs to the Hazara ethnic group in a province that is largely Pashtun, sided with the majority – he too will be growing poppy this autumn.
“Why not?” he asked. “It’s a very good crop. We make good money.”
Hossein explained that he needed cash for his son, who had just got engaged. Marriage is an expensive business for the groom and his family in Afghanistan.
“We need 600,000 afghani [12,000 dollars] just for him,” said Hossein. “Without poppy, that will be impossible.”
He had never heard of alternative livelihoods, and was not exactly clear about the provincial department of agriculture.
“This is all nonsense,” he said. “No one in this village has heard about this [agriculture] department, and no one has offered to help us.”
In the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, IWPR met Anwar Aka, who was about to return home to the Washir district with a sack of sugar that he had just bought.
Asked about poppy, the large man became angry, and set down his burden.
“We don’t grow poppy in Washir,” he said in a low rumbling voice. “We can’t. There isn’t a single drop of water in our karezes [traditional irrigation system]. We only have one karez for the whole of Washir district, and it doesn’t provide a drop of water. So how are we supposed to grow poppy?”
According to Anwar, Washir is almost completely controlled by the Taleban, preventing the Afghan government and aid groups from working in the area.
In other districts, non-government groups have started project to build karez networks, install drip irrigation systems and encourage alternative crops in other ways.
But given the precarious security situation, monitoring such projects is difficult, and agriculture experts acknowledge privately that they have no control over ensuring that such improvements will slow poppy cultivation rather than facilitate it it.
“No NGO can come to Washir,”said Anwar. “We all think it would be better to get out. If I were living in Nad Ali, I would definitely grow poppy, because without it we can’t afford to support our families. There is no work, no jobs. The government is just stupid.”
He grabbed his sugar sack and stamped off.
Ghulam Nabi, head of the Helmand department for agriculture, was not optimistic that the alternative livelihoods programme was the answer .
“The department does not have the resources to help farmers with alternative livelihoods,” he said. “We did give pepper and tomato seedlings to some farmers in neighbouring districts last year, but it definitely wasn’t enough.”
According to Ghulam Nabi, organisations such as the Central Asia Development Group were working in Helmand to provide assistance to farmers.
“But it is too little for the whole of Helmand,” he added. “We need a large amount of international aid and support. Sending some seedlings to Nawa and Nad Ali isn’t sufficient,” he said.
The problem was well beyond their ability to cope, he added. “It is bigger than our department,” he said. “It is bigger than our entire ministry. And it needs international coordination.”
One thing the government was trying to do was raise the purchase price of crops such as cotton, in a bid to make them seem more attractive, as well as legal, alternatives.
“[Governor] Assadullah Wafa and I are trying to get 50 afghani [one dollar] for a kilo of cotton,” he said. “The farmers might then look on cotton with more favour and leave off growing poppy.”
However, he admitted that it will remain very difficult to prevent poppy being grown given the poor security situation.
“A lot of poppy is grown on reclaimed land such as desert,” he said. “People dig wells, and it makes for a very good crop. The government will be able to control the cultivation only when it can bring security to those areas.”
Barry Kavanagh, an advisor with Britain’s Department for International Development, DfID, at Helmand’s Provincial Reconstruction Team, said that to date, more than 100 million dollars has been spent on alternative livelihood creation in Helmand.
He said most of the funds had been committed by the US Agency for International Development, USAID, while Britain was contributing approximately 20 million dollars a year.
Kavanagh noted that while the US was working through private contractors such as Chemonics, the British were channeling their funding direct to the Afghan ministries for agriculture and for rural reconstruction and development.
“It is for the ministries to decide how to disperse the funds,” he said. “I am not sure of the exact number of farmers who have been helped, but last year we donated 80 tractors to the government. They were supposed to use them during the planting season, to assist the farmers with ploughing and planting, and then, when poppy season came, the same tractors would be used to eradicate poppy.”
Asked why, with all the funds going into assistance, most farmers in the prime poppy-growing districts of Nawa, Nad Ali and Marja remained unaware of alternative livelihood projects, Kavanagh had no ready answer.
“The complexity of the problem here is that poppy produces a lot more money than wheat or cotton,” he said. “The farmers are more inclined to go for the big economic return. We need to show them that there are options away from poppy, which is illegal and causes harm to the people of Afghanistan.”
With drug addiction and all its associated ills on the rise within the country, it was high time that farmers took their responsibilities seriously, Kavanagh added.
“We need to get farmers to think about having a moral conscience,” he said. “If we can help them grow another crop that can give them a good income and sustain their families, then that is the choice they should be making.”
Mohammad Ilyas Dayee is an IWPR staff reporter in Helmand.
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Pakistan calls on international community to step up efforts for repatriation of Afghan refugees
GENEVA, Oct 1 (APP): Pakistan has called on the international community to step up efforts for the repatriation and rehabilitation of the Afghan refugees, underlining that Pakistan had dealt with the heaviest refugee population since World War II. Ambassador Masood Khan, Pakistan's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, made this call while addressing the inaugural session of the Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For its part, Ambassador Khan said, Pakistan had been making consistent efforts: 2.1 million refugees had been registered; a three year (2007 to 2009) strategy had been devised by the Government of Pakistan for the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan; the Kachi Garhi camp had been closed; and the Jalozai camp will be closed down in spring 2008.
The Pakistani ambassador appreciated the efforts being made by the US, NATO-led international security force ISAF - and the Government of Afghanistan for improving the security situation in Afghanistan, but stressed the need for creating the "pull factor". "Besides provision of security, shelter and other essential amenities like health, education and water, one way to achieve this objective is to design individual or family return packages for utilization of skilled and unskilled refugees " in labor intensive reconstruction projects inside Afghanistan, he said. Ambassador Khan also asked the UN and international community as a whole to commit more resources for repairing damage to the environment in Pakistan caused by the prolonged presence of the refugees on Pakistani soil. "Local Pakistani inhabitants and communities also need attention and assistance for restoring their confidence and rebuilding their livelihoods and neighborhoods", he said. The ExCom meeting was addressed by Antonio Gutteres, High Commissioner for Refugees, who congratulated Pakistan and Bangladesh for taking steps to resolve the issue of the Biharis. Sir John Homes, UN Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, asked the international community to commit more funds for dealing with the emergencies such as floods in Pakistan and other parts of South Asia this summer.
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