Freed SKorean hostages say they were given gift of life
by Jun Kwanwoo Sun Sep 2, 10:07 AM ET
SEOUL (AFP) - Nineteen South Koreans held captive by Afghanistan's Taliban for six weeks under threat of death arrived home on Sunday, saying they felt as if they had died and then got their lives back.
The former hostages had tearful reunions with their families at a hospital outside Seoul before undergoing medical checks.
"We apologise to the people for causing trouble and thank everyone who helped us return home safely," the spokesman for the Christian aid workers told reporters at Incheon airport after a drama which gripped the country.
"We owe the country and the people a great debt," said Yu Kyeong-Sik.
"We had basically died and have got our lives back. We plan to live in a way that will make you proud, and we promise that to you and we will repay our debt."
Guerrillas posing as passengers abducted 16 women and seven men on July 19 from their bus in insurgency-plagued southern Afghanistan.
The extremists murdered two men last month to press their demands to exchange the Koreans for Taliban prisoners, a condition firmly rejected by the Kabul government.
After starting talks in Afghanistan with South Korean officials, the Taliban on August 13 released two women in what they called a "goodwill gesture" and finally freed the remainder of the group last Wednesday and Thursday.
It was only then that the 19 learnt that two of their colleagues had been killed.
"When we heard about that, all of us were unable to recover from that," said Yu, 55. "We ask that you give us a little bit of time and space and once we are able to rest we will explain everything in detail."
Some of the women in the group sobbed as he spoke to journalists.
"Having my two children back today, I cannot but thank the people," Suh Jeong-Bae, whose son and daughter were held by the Taliban, said in a big smile during the family reunion.
A pastor from the Saem-Mul Presbyterian church at Bundang on the outskirts of Seoul, which organised the mission to Afghanistan, said later Sunday that some of the hostages had been "severely beaten" for refusing to embrace Islam.
"Their ordeal was harder than anticipated as some hostages were severely beaten because they refused to convert," the pastor, Park Eun-jo, told reporters after holding services with the former captives at the hospital.
The two surviving male hostages, Je Chang-hee and Song Byung-woo, were threatened with death for refusing to convert, Park said, adding that some of the woman had been "at risk of being sexually assaulted".
The South Korean government, powerless to meet demands for a prisoner swap, finally reached a deal for their release with the help of an Indonesian diplomat.
Seoul agreed to go ahead with a previously scheduled withdrawal of its 210 non-combat troops from Afghanistan by year-end, and to ban its missionaries from visiting the Islamic nation.
Despite several media reports that a ransom was paid, the head of South Korea's National Intelligence Service -- who was in Afghanistan personally overseeing the discussions -- denied making payments to the Taliban.
"There was no such deal," Kim Man-Bok told reporters upon his return home with the group.
Presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-Seon on Sunday also repeatedly denied that South Korea bought the release of the hostages, telling journalists: "We have never paid any ransom."
"I thank the public for their support. I am sorry for having failed to rescue all 23 kidnapped people," Kim said.
"I hope that the government and the public make efforts so that this kind of incident will not happen again."
While Seoul apparently made no major concessions to the Taliban, the Afghan and Canadian foreign ministers criticised the deal, saying it had given the insurgents legitimacy.
"The government struggled to strike a balance between the international norms and custom concerning this kind of issue and the absolute premise that we have to save the people's lives," Foreign Minister Song Min-Soon said Saturday.
"The international community will understand it well."
Now that the hostages are free, the church has also come in for strong public criticism for organising what was seen as a reckless trip.
The group ignored foreign ministry warnings against travel to Afghanistan, where more than 1,000 South Korean Christians were deported en masse last year because of security concerns.
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British anti-drug effort a failure: Afghan official
Sun Sep 2, 7:36 AM ET
LONDON (Reuters) - British efforts to combat opium production in southern Afghanistan have completely failed, Afghanistan's first vice-president said on Sunday, calling for tougher measures, including aerial spraying.
Ahmad Zia Masood said Britain and the United States had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to combat growing of opium poppies used to make heroin.
Yet United Nations' figures released last week showed opium production rose by 34 percent this year, he said.
"It is now clear that your policy in the south of our country has completely failed," he wrote in an article in Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
"In Helmand (in southern Afghanistan), where the British are based, poppies have spread like a cancer," he said. "The province now produces half of Afghanistan's opium."
The main reason the policy had failed was insecurity, he said. "Opium cultivation has continued due to the pressure exerted by the Taliban, who 'tax' every aspect of the poppy crop," he added.
Counter-narcotics policy has been "much too soft," Masood said. "The time has come for us to adopt a more forceful approach. We must switch from ground-based eradication to aerial spraying," he said.
Bringing development and jobs to Afghan people was important, but large sums spent on irrigation projects and road-building had simply made it easier for farmers to grow and transport opium, he said.
Another problem was that counter-narcotics operations were not in Afghan hands, he said. "Poppy cultivation is an Afghan problem and it needs an Afghan solution," he said.
Masood acknowledged there was deep-rooted corruption in Afghan state institutions engaged in combating narcotics and terrorism. "We must wipe out this plague," he said.
Afghanistan's opium crop has risen every year since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in 2001, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said on Monday.
Afghanistan produced 93 percent of the world's opium this year and the area of the country used to grow poppies rose by 17 percent, it said.
Asked about Masood's comments, Britain's Foreign Office said it had nothing to add to a statement released in response to the U.N. report last week.
That statement said the increase in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was a "real cause for concern" and the figures for Helmand "particularly disappointing."
But it said there were signs of progress. In parts of the north and centre, drug cultivation was coming down or stabilizing and the number of poppy-free provinces had increased from six to 13. "Ridding Afghanistan of this curse will take a generation, perhaps more," the Foreign Office said.
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Afghan insurgents HQ destroyed, 25 killed: U.S. military
Sunday, September 2, 2007
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces destroyed an insurgent headquarters near the southern city of Kandahar overnight, killing an estimated 25 guerrillas, the U.S. military said on Sunday.
Troops backed by air support attacked two compounds in Ashoqeh Village, 17 km (10 miles) southwest of Kandahar, the military said.
It was the latest in a series of clashes in the Islamist Taliban-dominated south in recent weeks in which the U.S. military said coalition forces have killed hundreds of insurgents.
"Intelligence suggested that the compounds, comprised of seven buildings, contained multiple insurgent leaders responsible for the deaths of Afghans and Coalition forces during IED attacks and ambushes," the Combined Joint Task Force said in a statement.
"A total of 25 insurgents were estimated killed during the course of the evening's operations," it said, adding that a suicide bomber blew himself up during the initial engagement.
Kandahar's police chief Sayed Agha Saqib said more than 100 Taliban were killed in the clash, but analysts say death tolls are often exaggerated for propaganda reasons.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Qari Mohammad Yousuf, confirmed the clash but said only five fighters were killed. He also said the insurgents destroyed a vehicle in a convoy of the U.S.-led troops in an ambush, though he had no other details.
There was no independent confirmation of any sides' accounts.
Saturday's clash comes on the heels of a series of similar incidents in recent weeks, and just days after a Taliban suicide bomber blew up a car packed with explosives near the Afghan capital's airport, killing two Afghan soldiers and wounding a dozen people.
Copying Iraqi insurgents' tactics, the Taliban largely rely on suicide attacks and roadside bombs as part of their campaign against the Afghan government and some 50,000 foreign troops led by NATO and the U.S. military.
During the past 19 months, more than 7,000 people, including many civilians, have been killed.
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Alleged Pakistani bomb-makers detained in Afghanistan
Sun Sep 2, 7:09 AM ET
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - Authorities in Afghanistan said Sunday they had detained four Pakistanis on suspicion of helping insurgents build bombs, as new blasts killed three soldiers and wounded a dozen people.
The alleged militants were seized on Friday in the southern city of Kandahar soon after they arrived from Chaman, a town just across the border in Pakistan, intelligence official Abdul Qayoum Katawazi told AFP.
"On a tip-off we captured four Pakistanis who are experts in making suicide-bombing vests and remote-controlled bombs," Katawazi told AFP.
He would not provide further details, citing an ongoing investigation.
Afghan officials say Taliban insurgents are being aided by extremist circles in Pakistan.
Roadside bombs and Iraq-style suicide explosions have become key tactics for the Al-Qaeda-linked rebels, who have intensified their attacks as part of a bloody insurgency they are waging against the government in Kabul.
A new bombing killed three Afghan army soldiers on Saturday in Kandahar province, a hotbed of Taliban activity over the past two years, the defence ministry said in a statement.
The soldiers were on patrol in the Zhari district when they were killed, it said. Two other soldiers were injured.
Around 10 Afghan civilians were injured in a bombing in the normally calm northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif late Saturday, police said.
The bomb, which was attached to a bicycle, was detonated by remote control, police official Abdul Rauf Taj said.
"It was an act of terrorism," Taj said. No one immediately claimed responsibility, but similar attacks have been blamed on Taliban guerrillas.
The Taliban were toppled from power by a US-led invasion in late 2001 but are still able to wage an insurgency which is being fought back by tens of thousands of Afghan and international forces.
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Afghan Police Are Set Back as Taliban Adapt
By DAVID ROHDE The New York Times September 2, 2007
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Aug. 26 — Over the past six weeks, the Taliban have driven government forces out of roughly half of a strategic area in southern Afghanistan that American and NATO officials declared a success story last fall in their campaign to clear out insurgents and make way for development programs, Afghan officials say.
A year after Canadian and American forces drove hundreds of Taliban fighters from the area, the Panjwai and Zhare districts southwest of Kandahar, the rebels are back and have adopted new tactics. Carrying out guerrilla attacks after NATO troops partly withdrew in July, they overran isolated police posts and are now operating in areas where they can mount attacks on Kandahar, the south’s largest city.
The setback is part of a bloody stalemate that has occurred between NATO troops and Taliban fighters across southern Afghanistan this summer. NATO and Afghan Army soldiers can push the Taliban out of rural areas, but the Afghan police are too weak to hold the territory after they withdraw. At the same time, the Taliban are unable to take large towns and have generally mounted fewer suicide bomb attacks in southern cities than they did last summer.
The Panjwai and Zhare districts, in particular, highlight the changing nature of the fight in the south. The military operation there in September 2006 was the largest conventional battle in the country since 2002. But this year, the Taliban are avoiding set battles with NATO and instead are attacking the police and stepping up their use of roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices or I.E.D.’s.
“It’s very seldom that we have direct engagement with the Taliban,” said Brig. Gen. Guy Laroche, the commander of Canadian forces leading the NATO effort in Kandahar. “What they’re going to use is I.E.D.’s.”
The Taliban also wage intimidation campaigns against the population. Local officials report that one of the things that the insurgents do when they enter an area is to hang several local farmers, declaring them spies.
“The first thing they do is show people how brutal they are,” said Hajji Agha Lalai, the leader of the Panjwai district council. “They were hanged from the trees. For several days, they hung there.”
NATO and American military officials have declined to release exact Taliban attack statistics, and collecting accurate information is difficult, particularly in rural Afghanistan. According to an internal United Nations tally, insurgents set off 516 improvised explosive devices in 2007. Another 402 improvised explosive devices were discovered before detonation.
Reported security incidents, a broad category that includes bombings, firefights and intimidation, are up from roughly 500 a month last year to 600 a month this year, a 20 percent increase, according to the United Nations.
The rising attacks are taking a heavy toll. At least 2,500 to 3,000 people have died in insurgency-related violence so far this year, a quarter of them civilians, according to the United Nations tally, a 20 percent increase over 2006.
NATO and American fatality rates are up by about 20 percent this year, to 161, according to Iraq Casualty Count, a Web site that tracks deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Afghan police continue to be devastated by Taliban bombings and guerrilla strikes, with 379 killed so far this year, compared with 257 for all of last year.
Yet the Taliban have been unable to take large towns this year and have carried out 102 suicide bombings, roughly the same number as last year, according to the United Nations. A conventional Taliban spring offensive was predicted by many but never materialized, and Western officials say that raids by NATO and American Special Operations forces have killed dozens of senior and midlevel Taliban commanders this year.
Maj. Gen. Bernard S. Champoux, deputy commander for security for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, said the Taliban’s leadership was in “disarray” and had not been able to carry out the attacks it had hoped this year and would be even weaker next year.
“This has been a shaping year,” he said. “I think next year will be a decisive year.”
Afghan Army units have performed well, according to Western officials. The trouble has come when the army and foreign troops withdraw, leaving lightly armed Afghan police forces struggling to hold rural areas. Corruption is rampant among the police, and some units have exaggerated casualty rates or abandoned checkpoints.
Recent visits to three southern provinces revealed territorial divisions that largely resembled those of last year. In Kandahar and Helmand, the government has a strong presence in about half of each province, the local police said. And in Oruzgan Province, where Dutch NATO forces focus more on development programs than on combat, the government controls the provincial capital, several district centers and little of the countryside.
The seesaw nature of the conflict is evident here in Kandahar, where the local governor cites a slight drop in suicide bombings in the provincial capital as a sign of progress. But police officials and villagers bitterly complain that Canadian forces abandoned Panjwai and Zhare.
Syed Aqa Saqib, Kandahar’s provincial police chief, said Canadian and Afghan Army forces began withdrawing from four checkpoints and two small bases in Panjwai in early July. The withdrawals coincided with the rotation of Canadian military units serving in Kandahar in August, he said.
The pullback left two Afghan police posts in Panjwai largely unprotected, he said. On Aug. 7, the Taliban attacked the posts simultaneously. For several hours, the police held them off and called for help from Canadian forces, he said, but none arrived. Sixteen policemen were killed.
“The Canadians didn’t support them,” Mr. Saqib said. “Then, we went to collect our dead.”
General Laroche, the Canadian commander, said an Afghan Army unit was immediately sent to aid the police but it returned and asked for Canadian assistance, citing fears of roadside bombs. Canadian troops then arrived as quickly as they could.
Canadian forces are now establishing joint checkpoints in Panjwai and Zhare where Canadian troops, Afghan Army soldiers and police officers will all be present, he said. And Canadian forces recently retook a checkpoint in Zhare.
General Laroche and General Champoux said it was vital to train Afghan police forces who could secure areas after NATO and Afghan soldiers cleared them, and to find strong, honest local leaders to administer them.
“The most important part is holding it,” General Champoux said. “We’re most effective when we’re holding it with Afghans.”
The Panjwai police chief, Bismillah Jan, said Taliban attacks on the local police began intensifying four months ago. Deploying far more roadside bombs than last year, the Taliban have destroyed 11 police vehicles and killed several dozen policemen.
Today, Mr. Jan has 64 policemen — each with one month of training — and five functional vehicles to defend the district from several hundred Taliban fighters. He said that his men could make forays into Taliban areas but that they could not hold terrain.
“We can go there, but we cannot control it,” he said.
In separate interviews, half a dozen tribal elders from Panjwai described the Taliban attacks on police posts and other new tactics. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from the insurgents.
After moving though the area in large groups last summer, the Taliban now operate in bands of no more than 20. Instead of sleeping in freshly dug bunkers and trenches, they sleep in mosques and houses, apparently to avoid NATO airstrikes, or, in the event of an attack, to increase the likelihood of civilian casualties, villagers said.
“Last year, they had their own trenches and their own places,” one elder said. “Now, they are very close to the houses and families. Their tactics changed.”
Another elder said: “They are very rude. First, they ask you for food. Then, they search you 20 times.”
Officials in Helmand and Oruzgan Provinces described dynamics similar to those in Kandahar. Security improved somewhat in provincial capitals this summer, they said, but rural areas remain no man’s lands dominated by criminal gangs and the Taliban.
In Helmand, where 7,000 British troops are based, residents credited the new police chief, Muhammad Hussain Andiwall, with improving security somewhat in the provincial capital. But opium cultivation and lawlessness are flourishing in the countryside.
Last month, the mayor of Gereshk, Helmand’s second-largest town, was kidnapped as he drove through a stretch of desert separating the town from the provincial capital. When Mr. Andiwall drove to the scene to try to find him, a roadside bomb exploded as his vehicle passed, killing four civilians.
After the mayor’s family paid a ransom to local criminals they freed him.
In Oruzgan, Dost Muhammad Dostiyar, the counternarcotics chief, said people were waiting to see if the government and Dutch forces could reassert themselves.
“One of the big reasons the people have distanced themselves from the government is that the government only has control of the capital,” he said. “The rural areas are totally under the control of the militants.”
Afghan officials in all three southern provinces said the Taliban had evolved as a movement as well. Taking advantage of popular frustration with government corruption, the Taliban have broadened from a close-knit, ideologically driven movement to an amalgam of loosely affiliated groups fighting the government.
Across the south, the term “Taliban” now encompasses a shifting array of tribes, groups, criminals, opportunists and people discontented with the government. In private, some Western officials say a political approach to more moderate insurgents is needed. Elders from Panjwai blamed the United States and President Hamid Karzai for not including more southern tribes in the government formed after the fall of the Taliban.
“When the Americans came, they didn’t contact the right people,” one elder said. “They empowered two or three tribes and they pushed away others.”
Christopher Alexander, the deputy special representative for the United Nations in Afghanistan, said there was disorientation among insurgent groups. The Taliban have lost much of their senior leadership, he said, and other insurgent groups are not gaining popular support. At the same time, Pakistan is showing signs of cracking down on Taliban leaders there. All of these factors, present an opportunity for the Afghan government and NATO forces, he said.
“The Taliban are vulnerable in many ways,” he said. “Enormous achievements haven’t yet been made, but there has been progress.”
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Afghans hurt themselves through tribalism
blog.al.com/afghanistan by Michael Tomberlin September 02, 2007 11:35 AM
GHAZNI, AFGHANISTAN -- The Afghans call it "tribalism," as if it is somewhat noble in its purpose; as if it's akin to "patriotism" on a smaller scale.
Certainly it sounds better than calling it what it really is: racism.
For decades, the people of this once-great country banded together to drive out invaders only to revert back to infighting among the various groups, ethnicities, "tribes."
There are many obstacles today's Afghanistan has to overcome to reach and surpass the modernity of its neighbors, to become an advanced society.
Its biggest obstacle to progress, its biggest obstacle to stability, its biggest obstacle to peace is tribalism. Afghanistan has seen the enemy, and it is itself.
Generally speaking, Pashtuns hate Tajiks and Tajiks return the sentiment. Both look down on the Hazaras, though Tajiks have historically formed alliances of convenience with Hazaras and Uzbeks to match the strength of the Pashtuns. The Uzbeks don't have enough numbers to impose any will on anyone alone.
Pashtuns account for about 45 percent of Afghanistan's population. Among Pashtuns, half are of the Durrani tribe, and the other half is the Ghilzai tribe. Pashtuns think of themselves as being of Arab descent, and the majority of the Arab and Muslim world view Afghanistan as a Pashtun country. They speak their own language known as Pashtu.
Tajiks are the next largest group with more than 25 percent of the population. They were the original inhabitants of what we know today as Afghanistan. They speak a Persian Farsi language known as Dari, which is the official language of Afghanistan.
Hazaras hold 10 percent of the population. Their ancestry goes back to the days when Genghis Khan invaded and controlled the country. They are mostly a poor, agrarian people who occupy an area in central Afghanistan.
Uzbeks make up less than 10 percent of Afghans with the rest made up of smaller tribes such as Turkmen, Baluchi, Kyrgyz, Qizilbash, Kazakhs, Aimaq, Wakhis, Sikhs, Nuristanis and others.
It is unknown exactly why the Pashtuns (and to a lesser extent the Tajiks) look at Hazaras as second-class citizens. Some theorize it is retaliation for the brutality Genghis Khan showed the people of Afghanistan during his control of the country. Others believe the intermixing of Mongol blood with that of other tribes is the root of the racism.
But the real reason Pashtuns and Tajiks look down on Hazaras may have its roots in religion.
Pashtuns and Tajiks are primarily Sunni Muslims. In fact, both are predominantly of the same Hanafi sect of Sunni. Hazaras, on the other hand, are Shiite Muslims.
But unlike other Muslim countries, the infighting in Afghanistan is rarely along religious lines such as we see in Iraq. The more critical factor seems to come down to tribe or race.
It was the disunity of the country that created the environment for the Taliban to come into power.
The racial scars were deepened during the rule of the Taliban, members of which were mostly Pashtun and Tajik. The Taliban devastated entire villages of Hazaras. There are heartbreaking stories of Taliban brutality of Hazaras that are recounted among the people here to this day.
This fragmentation of Afghanistan prevents any sort of real unity from taking hold. Such nationalism will be vital for this young and some say fragile government. But if you ask many of the people today whether they are "Afghan" most Pashtuns will take on that label while Tajiks and Hazaras are more reluctant and more likely point to their tribe first, seeing "Afghan" as a Pashtun word.
I am told that is changing as the country progresses, but it will take time.
President Hamid Karzai is Pashtun, but all of the tribes have a voice in the government through representation. Tajiks and Hazaras maintain there was fraud in the election, and an investigation agreed, though not enough to change the outcome.
The country's leader may be Pashtun, but it is Ahmed Shah Massoud, a Tajik, who is its national hero and most believe would have been the country's new leader after the Taliban. Massoud was the commander of the mujihadeen freedom fighters who drove out the Soviets and enjoyed numerous military victories against the Taliban. His murder by agents of Osama bin Laden two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon only helped cement his place in the hearts of Afghans. Billboards and placards bear his image all over the country, and he is talked about in the hallowed tones we once used for our own Founding Fathers.
The Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are a big part of today's desegregation plan of this country. The ANA has made it a point to mix its units for the past five years, and the ANP has followed suit. However, in an effort to retain and recruit soldiers, the ANA is allowing them to re-enlist or enlist into units closer to their home village. Some fear this will lead to segregation within its ranks again because villages themselves remain segregated throughout the country.
The ANP has mixed police of different tribes for some time now, with mostly successful results. There are still instances where a Hazara chief will be slandered in the community by his Pashtun subordinates to the point of making him ineffective at his job. There are cases of a mostly Tajik police force setting up in a police district center in a Pashtun neighborhood and not getting any sort of support from the locals.
As an outsider, it is frustrating to watch this country try to rebound from some very significant setbacks that were not of their own doing while shooting themselves in the foot over something that looks to be so petty, so insignificant.
I recently met an Afghan man, a war hero who has fought the Taliban countless times and today works as a police chief trying to create the Afghanistan he envisions.
He derided his fellow Pashtuns for holding on to their backward ways (his word, not mine). He said if you go to the universities in Kabul today, you will find a large number of Hazaras there -- learning, growing, enlightening, progressing.
"We will wake up one day and find the Hazaras are in control of this country, and maybe they should be," he said, speaking of the idea as something he hopes for rather than fears. "They are the ones showing the real desire to move forward while the Pashtuns want to cling to the old ways and go backward."
His thoughts echo what others have told me is the key to ending tribalism here. The children, they say, are more open to progress and care little for the differences older Afghans cling to. Education is doing much to rid the country of outdated ways of thinking, I'm told.
It's encouraging to look back on U.S. history to see the growing pains our own country went through. The Civil War, women's suffrage and the civil rights movement have similarities to some of the problems the people of Afghanistan need to address and learn from.
I have no doubt they can and will. They can start by looking at "tribalism" as the dirty word it is.
Michael Tomberlin is a captain in the Alabama Army National Guard deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and a reporter with The News. This is another in a series of dispatches from his yearlong tour there.
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Calling all tourists to Bamiyan
By Charles Haviland BBC News, Bamiyan, central Afghanistan Saturday, 1 September 2007
Breakfast is being prepared at the Abdul Hamid Hotel. The proprietor, Abdul Hamid, is rushing around with his helpers preparing a meal of unleavened Afghan bread and a thick white butter, and omelettes.
This is a popular breakfast stop, about two hours up from Bamiyan town into the hills on the way to the popular Band-e Amir lakes.
It is a modest establishment - perhaps not the type of hotel or restaurant that well-heeled travellers would want. But business is buzzing.
In the dining area, 15 young men are already devouring their feast. Others, including us, take their food to the rise across the road and eat al fresco.
There, we unexpectedly find ourselves eating next to the burnt-out shell of a tank - a reminder that Afghanistan is still an abnormal tourist destination.
The dirt road on which the hotel sits is perhaps the spine along which Afghan tourism will develop.
Afghanistan has mountains galore, sweeping valleys, rushing rivers and deserts. And a culture thousands of years old.
And, in Bamiyan province, it now has relative security.
Two hours' bumpy ride further on, we reach Band-e Amir - long ago declared Afghanistan's first national park but only now being implemented as such.
These are six lakes with extraordinarily blue water, sitting under towering pink cliffs. Each lake is held up by a natural "dam" of limestone, and has a string of waterfalls tumbling out of it.
Today, on a Friday, there are several hundred tourists, nearly all of them Afghan. Some come from other parts of Bamiyan, others from further afield.
The brave plunge into the water, which is chilly here at 3,000 metres up.
Mohammed Ayub and his large family are spending the day here in their big tent.
They, like many others, have come because they believe the lakes have religious importance - an association with Hazrat Ali, an important descendant of the Prophet Mohammad.
"We can buy bread here, and hire boats," he says. But they bring all the rest of their food and a stove. He is happy.
Others, on the busier side of the lake where simple cafés serve meat and rice, are less content with the facilities.
They include almost the only foreigners to be seen, Ivana Stipic Lah from Croatia and her husband Samo Lah from Slovenia. They work in Kabul and have left the city as tourists for the first time.
"Someone has to build a road here," says Samo. "And, let's say, toilets. When we asked someone where we can find a toilet, he said 'all around'!"
"It needs a little more organisation," Ivana agrees. She reflects that in parts of Bamiyan town they had been told they needed tickets but there was nowhere to buy them.
"If you want to be a tourist in Afghanistan you have to be ready for a huge adventure," she adds, laughing.
Zahir, an Afghan usually resident in Belgium, is staying a few days here with his family and relatives. They have had a great time and caught a lot of fish. But he says things could be better.
"The accommodation is just a small house, no showers no lights, so it's very poor," he says.
"Of course, I would like to have proper toilets and proper kitchens, proper beds and proper home."
Asked where else he goes as a tourist in Afghanistan, he mentions the Blue Mosque in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, describing it as "fantastic".
He would like to see Kandahar and the south, but says it's probably not secure enough now.
Once back in Bamiyan town, I climbed a steep fortress - part of an old ruined Muslim city with fantastic views over the valley, including the remains of the 6th-century Buddhist statues destroyed by the Taleban.
My companion on the walk, Amir Fuladi, is a local development expert drawing up a tourism blueprint for the government to consider.
He speaks bluntly about Bamiyan as it is today, saying the roads are not good, there are few good hotels and people simply do not know how to receive tourists.
"The quality of services is really bad," he says. "There is no information centre. There is no guide."
Mr Fuladi says local people need to develop a more commercial attitude - more focused on making a profit.
He is recommending that these pitfalls be gradually rectified, and tourism developed with social care.
"The majority of the benefits should go to the poor families or the local people," he says.
He is recommending that any newly-built hotel should have a fixed quota of local employees and use local materials and foods.
"And then, people who want to invest, they can come."
But he is also concerned that the environment be protected.
On a recent visit to Band-e Amir he was shocked to see cars driving onto the fragile limestone rocks, a vehicle being washed in the lake, and a lot of rubbish. This, he says, must change.
Bamiyan Province has all the natural and cultural potential for tourism. Now, hotels must be built and more roads constructed, as people learn to use local products and resources to increase its attractions.
What would be best of all to bring in the tourists would be for security to take a grip around the country, not just in Bamiyan.
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Accords with Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Zimbabwe take effect
Tehran, Sept 1, IRNA
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Saturday gave executive order for the agreements with Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Zimbabwe to take effect.
The agreements included Iran-Afghanistan cooperation on customs and avoidance of double tax and data sharing on tax over both income and capital between Iran and Zimbabwe.
Iranian parliament and the Guardian Council have ratified the Iran-Afghan agreement on campaign against customs irregularities and adequate implementation of the customs law.
The Iranian and Afghan administrative departments will cooperate on customs as per an executive procedure.
The agreement also envisaged campaign against drug trafficking and production of hallucination drugs and chemicals being used for producing illicit drugs.
The agreement with Zimbabwe on avoidance of double tax and date sharing on tax has also been ratified by Iranian parliament and the government has been authorized to adopt executive procedure in this respect.
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