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January 12, 2008 

Dozens killed, missing in Afghan snow storms
Sat Jan 12, 7:27 AM ET
HERAT, Afghanistan (AFP) - At least 43 people have been killed in a remote western Afghanistan village after days of heavy snowfalls across the country, authorities said.

Afghan journalists seek release of colleague
By Tahir Qadiry Sat Jan 12, 5:35 AM ET
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Dozens of Afghan journalists and activists on Saturday sought the release of a journalist detained by security officials for allegedly making blasphemous comments.

Dion makes surprise Afghan visit
Globe and Mail Update and Associated Press January 12, 2008 at 11:45 AM EST
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and his deputy, Michael Ignatieff, made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where they met Saturday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Pakistan kills over 50 militants near Afghan border: officials
ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistani troops killed more than 50 Taliban militants after fighting off an attack on a military fort in a troubled tribal region bordering Afghanistan, security officials said Saturday.

Japan cabinet rating rises despite Afghan law - poll
TOKYO (Reuters) - Support for Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's government has risen over the past month, though nearly half of respondents said the passage of a law to restart an Afghan naval mission was inappropriate, a poll showed on Saturday.

Japanese divided over return to Afghan mission: poll
Sat Jan 12, 5:43 AM ET
TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese people were divided over the nation's resumption of refuelling operations in the Indian Ocean in support of a US-led Afghanistan mission, an opinion poll showed on Saturday.

NATO targets Taliban commander in north of Afghan capital
www.chinaview.cn  2008-01-12 20:31:01
KABUL, Jan. 12 (Xinhua) -- The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) carried out air raid against a Taliban commander and his men in Kapisa province north of Kabul Saturday, a press release of the multinational force said.

U.S. weighs up sending more troops to Afghanistan
Calcutta News.Net Friday 11th January, 2008
If Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approves a proposal to send 3,000 Marines to Afghanistan, it could have a significant impact on operations in the country, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Friday.

The mysterious Afghan warlord trusted to spread peace in a divided province
The Times Online (UK) January 12, 2008
Britain’s last chance of securing this treacherous corner of Afghanistan lies in the hands of a piratical, black-turbaned figure with long beard, white cloak and silver-sequinned slippers with curled toes.

Women earn respect in Afghanistan
Canadian Forces; Female security in demand at checkpoints
Allison Lampert, Canwest News Service Saturday, January 12, 2008
PASHMUL, Afghanistan - Once rejected by a culture that denies women's basic freedoms, Canada's female soldiers and military police are now in demand in Kandahar province.

Afghan aid projects bearing fruit: CIDA
Don Butler, The Ottawa Citizen Saturday, January 12, 2008
Canada's development efforts are starting to transform the lives of Afghans, three members of the Canadian International Development Agency's Afghanistan task force said yesterday.

Medieval Kabul rises from ashes after 30 years of war
Canada's $3.5M gift is helping Afghan masters school young in treasured carving, ceramic, calligraphy skills
Jan 12, 2008 04:30 AM Mitch Potter TORONTO STAR
KABUL–For a city befuddled by the mystery of where all its development dollars have gone, there is a certain comfort in seeing the bones of Old Kabul starting to shine through the rubble. Here in the medieval ruins of Murad Khane

Bid to transform Afghan madrassas
By David Loyn BBC Newsnight Friday, 11 January 2008, 12:50 GMT
The Afghan government has changed its policy on madrassas, the religious schools that inspired a generation of fundamentalists who became the Taliban.

Pakistan takes a step backwards
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online January 12, 2008
KARACHI - At a time when Pakistan's national decision-making institutions are suspicious of international plans to make the country's nuclear program controversial, there is serious consideration for repositioning the country's foreign

Charlie Wilson's brother in arms
The American accused of arming al-Qaeda is the subject of a new film
Angus Batey The Times Online (UK) January 12, 2008
Charles Nesbitt Wilson is not the sort of all-American hero that Hollywood tends to celebrate. The controversial former congressman had a string of affairs, took a belly dancer with him on government trips overseas,

Bush, Gul confer on Afghanistan, war on terror
By: Lalit K Jha - 9/01/2008 - 18:29
NEW YORK, Jan 8 (Pajhwok Afghan News): US President George W. Bush Tuesday discussed the current situation in Afghanistan and progress in the global war against terrorism with visiting Turkish leader Abdullah Gul.

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Dozens killed, missing in Afghan snow storms
Sat Jan 12, 7:27 AM ET
HERAT, Afghanistan (AFP) - At least 43 people have been killed in a remote western Afghanistan village after days of heavy snowfalls across the country, authorities said.

"I can confirm that 43 people have been killed in Ghoryan alone," Agha Mohammad Sidiqi, the head of the government's emergency response committee, told AFP, referring to a district in western Herat province.

"Their bodies have been recovered and most of them are shepherds. They died mostly in avalanches," Sidiqi said.

Seventeen other people are missing in the same area, he added.

The deaths brought to more than 70 the number of people killed by the freezing weather in several western provinces over the past week. Thousands of head of livestock have also died.

Constant snowfalls, the heaviest in years, have blocked roads linking major cities to isolated villages, Sidiqi said.

"Most roads leading to districts and remote communities have been blocked and this has made it even more difficult to reach those communities to help them," he added.
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Afghan journalists seek release of colleague
By Tahir Qadiry Sat Jan 12, 5:35 AM ET
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Dozens of Afghan journalists and activists on Saturday sought the release of a journalist detained by security officials for allegedly making blasphemous comments.
The 23-year-old Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, reporter of Jahan-e Naw daily paper and a journalism student at Balkh University in northern Afghanistan, was detained three months ago.

Kambakhsh was accused of mocking Islam and the holy book, the Koran, and for distributing an article which said Prophet Mohammad had ignored the rights of women.

Activists gathered outside at the Human Rights Commission's office in Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh, demanding the journalist's release.

Habibullah Habib, the head of Balkh University, said Kambakhsh was detained following accusations by his classmates and an investigation had begun.

Kambakhsh's brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi who is also a journalist, said the charges were false.

Security officials refused to comment on the matter.

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Islam and Afghanistan is a deeply conservative Islamic country.

Since the ouster of Taliban's radical Islamic government in 2001, dozens of newspapers and other publications, some funded by foreigners, have sprung up in Afghanistan which is going through an unprecedented wave of press freedom in its history.

Several years ago, two journalists were detained for making blasphemous comments, but the pair managed to escape and have been given asylum in a Western country.

In 2006, an Afghan facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity was freed and given asylum in Italy after intervention from Western leaders.

(Writing by Sayed Salahuddin, editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
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Dion makes surprise Afghan visit
Globe and Mail Update and Associated Press January 12, 2008 at 11:45 AM EST
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and his deputy, Michael Ignatieff, made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where they met Saturday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Mr. Dion reiterated the Liberal call for a non-combat role for Canadian troops in the country after the current mandate expires in February 2009.

“We are convinced after the day we've had, that we will have plenty of things to do that will involve, yes, to take risks, but anywhere we will go whether Darfur or Haiti, there are always risks,” he said.

“We are not afraid of the risks. But we want to [be] sure that we have a balanced mission after 2009 that will be optimally helpful for the people of Afghanistan.”

In a statement, Mr. Mr. Ignatieff said the meeting with Mr. Karzai was productive.

"We had a very fruitful discussion about the NATO mission in Afghanistan and Canada's role in it. I hope it was the first of many more to come," he said.

Seventy-six members of the Canadian military have died in Afghanistan since the mission began in 2002.

A blue-ribbon panel led by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley is currently weighing Canada's options in Afghanistan. Mr. Manley, a Liberal, was appointed to job by the Conservative government.

The four options presented to the panel include:

• Continue training Afghan police and soldiers;

• Focus on reconstruction while letting other NATO forces deal with insurgents in Kandahar;

• Shift Canadian efforts to a less dangerous area of Afghanistan;

• Withdraw all Canadian soldiers except a force to protect diplomats.

The Liberal presented their position to the Manley commission earlier this week.

“We believe that Canada and the rest of the world have an obligation to the people of Afghanistan,” the submission said. “But we also believe that it is the Afghan people and government who bear the fundamental responsibility for the achievement of this objective.”

The Liberal submissions adds that “it must be understood that the current three year campaign in Kandahar represents an enormous sacrifice by Canada.

“We must be realistic about our ability to continue such a mission. The [Canadian Forces ] simply cannot continue to engage in an extremely dangerous combat campaign of this scale for an indefinite period of time.”

Instead of a counterinsurgency combat role, Liberals suggest Canada could re-focus on development work, diplomatic efforts, building a justice system, and alleviating water shortages in Afghanistan.
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Pakistan kills over 50 militants near Afghan border: officials
ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistani troops killed more than 50 Taliban militants after fighting off an attack on a military fort in a troubled tribal region bordering Afghanistan, security officials said Saturday.

The clash occurred on the night between Wednesday and Thursday near the town of Ladha in the South Waziristan tribal district, where thousands of Pakistani troops are deployed to fight Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

"More than 50 miscreants were killed in the attack and an unknown number were also injured," a senior security official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Chief military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad told AFP that militants suffered "heavy casualties in the encounter" but said he had no official figures yet.
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Japan cabinet rating rises despite Afghan law - poll
TOKYO (Reuters) - Support for Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's government has risen over the past month, though nearly half of respondents said the passage of a law to restart an Afghan naval mission was inappropriate, a poll showed on Saturday.

The approval rating for the cabinet rose 6.1 percentage points from last month to 41.4 percent, according to the telephone opinion poll conducted by Kyodo news agency on Friday and Saturday. It had fallen more than 11 percent the previous month.

Still, the poll showed the number of those opposed to the cabinet was more than the supporters, accounting for 42.8 percent.

According to the poll, 46.7 percent of the respondents said the passage of a law on Friday to restart the Afghan naval mission was inappropriate.

Japan's government forced the law through parliament to resume a controversial naval mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, keeping a promise to security ally Washington.

The opposition-controlled upper house had earlier voted down the bill to restart the mission to refuel U.S. and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean, a sign of the divisions in parliament that are causing policy paralysis.

In the last Kyodo poll conducted in December, only about a third of Japanese supported Fukuda's government, reflecting growing discontent over its handling of a public pensions crisis and a defence procurement scandal.
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Japanese divided over return to Afghan mission: poll
Sat Jan 12, 5:43 AM ET
TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese people were divided over the nation's resumption of refuelling operations in the Indian Ocean in support of a US-led Afghanistan mission, an opinion poll showed on Saturday.

Japan's parliament on Friday approved a bill to restart the naval mission, which provided fuel and other support in the Indian Ocean to coalition forces in Afghanistan, nearly two months after it was suspended.

The survey, conducted by Kyodo News, showed that 44.1 percent of respondents backed the bill with 43.9 percent opposed.

For the approval of the bill, the government took the almost unprecedented move of overriding a rejection in the opposition-led upper house.

The poll showed that 46.7 percent said they supported the government's decision to override the rejection while 41.6 percent said it was inappropriate.

Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba on Friday ordered ships back to the Indian Ocean, saying the mission would be relaunched in around six weeks.

The survey also showed that support for Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's cabinet gained 6.1 points from the previous month to 41.4 percent, but disapproval still outstripped approval at 42.8 percent.

The news agency carried out the poll on Friday and Saturday. A sample size for the survey was not immediately available.
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NATO targets Taliban commander in north of Afghan capital 
www.chinaview.cn  2008-01-12 20:31:01
KABUL, Jan. 12 (Xinhua) -- The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) carried out air raid against a Taliban commander and his men in Kapisa province north of Kabul Saturday, a press release of the multinational force said.

"ISAF conducted a precise strike on a compound in Kapisa Province targeting a senior Taliban commander and other Taliban leaders today," the press release said.

The compound, located in the Pasha Qari village of Tag Ab Valley, was the site of a large Taliban meeting and the commander was wanted for attacks in Kapisa, Parwan and Kabul Provinces, it further said.

However, it did not identify the commander and neither said if he was killed. But added he was a key improvised explosive device (IED) facilitator in the valley and is responsible for organizing attacks against ISAF, Coalition and government forces of Afghanistan.

Taliban militants have yet to make any comment. 
Editor: An Lu 
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U.S. weighs up sending more troops to Afghanistan
Calcutta News.Net Friday 11th January, 2008
If Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approves a proposal to send 3,000 Marines to Afghanistan, it could have a significant impact on operations in the country, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Friday.

Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen said during a Pentagon news conference that the proposal is on the table and that the secretary has discussed it with military leaders, including the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill. No decision has been made yet, he cautioned.

The issue of additional forces to Afghanistan speaks to challenges NATO and the United States have faced there, Mullen said. Though there has been a “tremendous amount of success” in the country, it has been uneven, he added.

He said NATO commanders in Afghanistan say their forces have had significant military impact on the Taliban in 2007. “We are in an economy-of-force operation there, and if we are able to create additional forces, we think it can have a big impact,” Mullen said.

The United States has made a conscious decision to economize combat power in Afghanistan. “We do what we can in Afghanistan; we do what we must in Iraq,” said a Joint Staff official speaking on background. “If we had these forces readily available, we would have sent them to Afghanistan already.”

About 27,000 Americans are serving in Afghanistan, 14,000 as part of ISAF and 13,000 operating under Operation Enduring Freedom. The proposal for 3,000 more troops was a NATO request, but no NATO nation has stepped forward to fill that request. If Gates approves the proposal, the United States would fill that gap.

U.S. ground forces are under tremendous strain, Mullen said, and the current deployment tempo is proof of that. Army forces deploy for 15-month tours and then come back to home station for a year. Marine forces deploy for seven months and are back for six before redeploying for another seven.

“The strain on the force is something that is front and center in my mind all the time,” he said. “It is something we calculate when we get any request for forces from any commander, anywhere.”

Mullen said he is concerned about NATO nations not stepping forward with these troops. “I believe strongly that success in Afghanistan, in ISAF, for NATO, is a bellwether for whether NATO succeeds in the long run as an institution,” Mullen said.

The chairman also addressed the situation in Pakistan and reported that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are using the federally administered tribal areas in that country to plan, train and finance operations inside Afghanistan and worldwide.

“We’re mindful that Pakistan is a sovereign country and it is up to President (Pervez) Musharraf and his advisors to address that problem directly,” he said.

The desperate poverty in Afghanistan complicates any security progress made there, Mullen said. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Still, he noted, there have been major infrastructure improvements. Mullen said Afghanistan’s Ring Road connecting the country’s major cities is roughly 80% complete, and a dam project in the south promises economic progress to that troubled area.

“But we’ve got an awful long way to go,” he said. “There are 42 contributing countries. In the long run, we’re going to have to lift the economy to help bring about a stable and secure environment.”
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The mysterious Afghan warlord trusted to spread peace in a divided province
The Times Online (UK) January 12, 2008
Britain’s last chance of securing this treacherous corner of Afghanistan lies in the hands of a piratical, black-turbaned figure with long beard, white cloak and silver-sequinned slippers with curled toes.

Mullah Abdul Salaam may not look much like a white knight. He served as a commander in the Taleban and even today his true loyalties remain suspect. The 45-year-old former Mujahidin guerrilla could, however, decide the fate of the British mission to stabilise the lawless province of Helmand, where this week he was put in charge of the key district of Musa Qala.

“He’s not just the best show in town,” one British officer remarked. “He’s the only show in town.”

Mullah Salaam’s rise to power in Musa Qala, the test case for British efforts to evict the Taleban and install central authority, is a classic Afghan tale of intrigue, bloodshed, farce and fate. In an interview with The Times the former warlord explained how last year he had severed relations with the Taleban, was courted secretly by a foreign diplomat and eventually swapped sides to join the British-led effort.

“The Taleban called a shurah [council] to attack the district centre and coalition forces there but though invited I did not attend nor fight,” he said. “It was not a good thing.”

He was then approached by Michael Semple, an Irish diplomat working for the European Union in Kabul. Mr Semple, a fluent Pashto-speaking veteran of Afghanistan, was expelled last month by the Government in Kabul for his back-channel contacts with the Taleban.

Before being ordered out he managed to put together a deal with the former Taleban commander. “We discussed reconciliation and unity in Afghanistan,” Mullah Salaam said of the first of his several meetings with Mr Semple. “I was surprised to hear of his recent expulsion.”

Mullah Salaam went to Kabul for a meeting with President Karzai last autumn. He caught the Afghan leader’s imagination with the promise of a tribal uprising against the Taleban, which could, potentially, deliver Musa Qala into government hands with barely a shot being fired. The idea led to a War Cabinet meeting in Kabul, which included the British and American ambassadors, President Karzai and General Dan McNeill, the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan.

The result was operation Mar Karadad, which had to be accelerated at the end of November when Kabul heard news that Mullah Salaam, now back in Musa Qala, had attracted the attention of the Taleban and the uprising was imminent.

There was no uprising. When Afghan, British and US units closed in on Musa Qala last month, Mullah Salaam stayed in his compound in Shakahraz, ten miles east, with a small cortège of fighters, where he made increasingly desperate pleas for help.

“He said that he would bring all the tribes with him but they never materialised,” recalled one British officer at the forefront of the operation. “Instead, all that happened was a series of increasingly fraught and frantic calls from him for help to Karzai.”

In spite of his broken promises Mullah Salaam was still one of the few credible local leaders prepared to work with the British. He also proved to be a skilled orator. This week he took his antiTaleban campaign to elders in the rainswept village of Chaghali, ten miles from Musa Qala.

“It is enough now,” he urged the 30 men huddled around him. “Our dead have been eaten by the dogs.” He gestured at a small group of British and American officers. “You can see around you these people from noble nations have come to build you streets and schools. If they should ask you to leave your religion then you have a right to fight them, but not because they come to bring you streets and schools.”

The village was in an area roamed by Taleban led by Mullah Abdul Bari, who remains at large. Mullah Salaam wasted little time in using his own past connection with the militant commander in his address.

“Abdul Bari is our brother,” he said. “He can come and sit among us . . . He is from this land. Speak with him. But don’t let him be stupid. If he is not on the right path then don’t let yourself be sacrificed for him. Tell him to take his jihad somewhere else.”

His eloquence and leadership have impressed the British, who reconsidered him for the job of district governor, not least because there were few volunteers for the post.

“The first time we heard Mullah Salaam speak he spoke bloody well,” said Major Guy Bartle-Jones, the head of the British Military Stabilisation Team. “In fact, he dominated the whole show. He gave the government message: antiTaleban, counter-narcotics, interspersed with Koranic verses. He came across as an accomplished politician, far away from the reports from Kabul, where he had been pilloried as a fraught and frantic man. So we reported back up the chain that he was a charismatic, good orator. And the question was suddenly: ‘Is this a credible governor?’.”

Today the new governor’s challenge is to navigate the dark waters of Helmand’s politics, unite warring clans and reconcile his erstwhile Taleban comrades into the political process. His very survival will be an issue in itself: he claimed that two suicide bombers have already been sent to kill him. He remains, however, Musa Qala’s best hope, and has certainly won the backing of the British, albeit with a small caveat.

“We have in him a credible governor who is making an impression upon us and the people,” an officer in Musa Qala concluded. “He is a compelling individual. But we still don’t know what his ulterior motives are.”
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Women earn respect in Afghanistan
Canadian Forces; Female security in demand at checkpoints
Allison Lampert, Canwest News Service Saturday, January 12, 2008
PASHMUL, Afghanistan - Once rejected by a culture that denies women's basic freedoms, Canada's female soldiers and military police are now in demand in Kandahar province.

Initially barred from working with male Afghans for fear of upsetting southern Afghanistan's conservative sensibilities, female security forces are now badly needed to search women at checkpoints.

With insurgents dressing up in burkas to escape detection, demand for female officers at police stations and Afghan military outposts is rapidly growing.

"We are always worried about people who disguise themselves," Canadian Forces Colonel Stephane Lafaut says.

"The use of Canadian women at police stations will help us. What we are hoping to have one day are female Afghan police officers [at the stations]."

There are now three Canadian women working as mentors to Afghan police officers at stations in Kandahar's Zhari district. One female soldier is working in a similar capacity with the Afghan National Army, said Col. Lafaut, commanding officer of the Canadian mentoring team that's working with Afghan police and soldiers in Kandahar.

It is a dramatic change in attitude since November, when Quebec-native Corporal Jennifer Lettre, 26, became the first Canadian military police officer assigned to mentor Afghan forces. She works at a police substation in Pashmul, a cluster of mud-walled compounds in the Zhari district.

In September, Afghan resistance to the idea of a woman mentoring a male officer was so great, Cpl. Lettre and two other females had to be separated from the men in their platoon. While the men were sent to mentor the fledgling Afghan police force --long plagued by underfunding, poor training, and corruption -- the women were sent to work with prisoners at a detention centre.

"What we tried to do was to respect the Afghan culture," Col. Lafaut said, "and, unfortunately, within the Afghan culture the women aren't respected like men.

At the same time, Cpl. Lettre's platoon wanted her back.

"We all know that she is capable," said her friend, military police Corporal Eric Dagenais. "I would trust my life in her hands just as I'd trust my life in the hands of any of the guys."

Cpl. Dagenais, 30, and other members fought to bring her to their police station, where they wanted a female to search women at their checkpoints.

In September, a Canadian soldier -- and one of Cpl. Dagenais's closest friends -- was shot in the head during a patrol with Afghan police, after being ambushed by two insurgents who were hiding assault rifles under their burkas. The friend survived.

With her cropped blond hair hidden by a helmet and pale blue eyes covered by ballistic eyewear, Cpl. Lettre isn't overtly feminine on patrol. Yet for Afghans unaccustomed to seeing female soldiers -- and for women unaccustomed to being searched -- Cpl. Lettre remains an unusual sight on the road.

"At checkpoints it surprises them," she said. "They're not used to seeing a woman."
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Afghan aid projects bearing fruit: CIDA
Don Butler, The Ottawa Citizen Saturday, January 12, 2008
Canada's development efforts are starting to transform the lives of Afghans, three members of the Canadian International Development Agency's Afghanistan task force said yesterday.

But, they warned at a public forum at the International Development Research Centre, there's still a very long way to go.

"My major message would be sustainable development takes a long time," said Diana Youdell, former head of aid for CIDA in Kabul. The same is true of strengthening security and governance.

In all three areas, Ms. Youdell said, "we are making progress." Living conditions for ordinary Afghans are improving, with advances in educational and health services leading the way.

But for that to continue, she said, "it is very critical that we maintain ourselves as key members of the international community in Afghanistan."

Kevin Rex, former development adviser to the Canadian Forces at Kandahar airfield, echoed Ms. Youdell's comments.

"This is going to take a long time," he said. "But it's worth it. We have all seen the change and the positive impact every single day we were there."

One important development is the election of 17,500 community development councils at the village level.

"Local governance is what is going to help Afghanistan get on its feet," said Ms. Youdell.
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Medieval Kabul rises from ashes after 30 years of war
Canada's $3.5M gift is helping Afghan masters school young in treasured carving, ceramic, calligraphy skills
Jan 12, 2008 04:30 AM Mitch Potter TORONTO STAR
KABUL–For a city befuddled by the mystery of where all its development dollars have gone, there is a certain comfort in seeing the bones of Old Kabul starting to shine through the rubble. Here in the medieval ruins of Murad Khane, a project that is simplicity itself, yet immensely ambitious, is taking shape one hand-hewn timber at a time.

What the Turquoise Mountain Foundation wants in a few years is nothing less than medieval Kabul reborn – a process that involves reviving a riverside neighbourhood studded with nearly collapsed examples of traditional Afghan architecture and the near-extinct Afghan craftsmanship that first created it.

With the growing list of donors – Canada's own foreign aid branch recently added $3.5 million to the kitty – it may yet come to pass, thanks primarily to the vision of British diplomat-turned-author Rory Stewart, best-known for The Places In Between, the startling 2006 account of his walkabout across Afghanistan after the fall of the Islamist Taliban.

Stewart enlisted the backing of old chum Prince Charles for his notion of reviving a dilapidated patch of the capital's Old City. By June 2006, with start-up funding in place and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on side, they began to break ground.

One-and-a-half years along, the scene just beyond the north bank of the Kabul River is impressive. A fleet of more than 50 wheelbarrows criss-crosses constantly, hacking through and carting away decades of chest-high waste from the last of four traditional courtyard houses targeted for renewal.

In their wake, aging craftsman lead teams of young men newly schooled in Afghan joinery in restoring the skeletal timber-frame buildings. A few of these homes remain diamonds in the rough, but one, known as The Peacock House for its distinctive feathered Nuristani marquetry panels, is already a shining jewel.

Part of Turquoise Mountain's success stems from careful consultation with all levels of Afghan authority. Even so, not everyone got the memo right off the bat, according to site manager Andre Ullal.

"One day, the Kabul building inspector came down and he was shocked to see people working with timbers. `Why aren't you using concrete?' he wanted to know," said Ullal.

"But now he gets it, like everyone else. One of the keys is that we are showing results quickly, with high visibility. We want this to be a site of constant activity ... to build confidence in the work. Because the goal is to make this a living area – an area that hopefully will be a destination for foreign travellers, once Kabul becomes a safe destination to visit."

Ahmad Fawad, an Afghan engineer overseeing elements of the restoration, said the project already is a kind of soothing medicine for Afghan eyes.

"The young Afghans who come to see what we are doing are shocked to see these carvings and beautiful old windows. But some the older people recognize it from their childhood, before Kabul was destroyed.

"Just seeing the reaction in a child's face, you realize the value," Fawad said. "We are saying to them: `This is your country. This is your history. This is the beauty of Afghanistan.'"

Journeyman carpenter Abdul Baqi and an apprentice join the talk, momentarily pausing in the task of replacing rotted window frames.

"I'm really not that old – I just look old because of all the fighting," laughs Baqi, 66. "My father taught me joinery but, for many years, it was impossible to pass these skills to others. But now, finally, we are training the youngsters. Already, a few of them are as good as me."

Twenty minutes by car from the site, the training arm of the Turquoise Mountain project is every bit as active. Nestled in an old fort alongside the former British embassy, master classes are underway in calligraphy, ceramics and the two primary schools of Afghan woodcarving, classical and Nuristani. With classes in session, work crews expand the site, baking mud bricks in the midday sun that will extend a courtyard into a marketplace for the traditional wares now in production.

Rory Stewart himself is here on this day, busily attending to a tour of potential donors. He has more good news. Commissions are rolling in – a London hotel is ready to pay hard cash for carvings and ceramics and several Arab collectors are in a frenzy of excitement over the quality of Turquoise Mountain calligraphy shown recently at a trade fair in Dubai.

"We expected maybe 60 applications. We got 600," said Anna Woodiwiss, a staff assistant with Turquoise Mountain, who describes the ceramics, calligraphy and woodcarving streams as "three-year programs with an apprenticeship model.

"The goal at the end of three years is to revitalize these crafts, and to prepare the graduates to make a living. We are very confident that livelihoods are in the making, particularly because of the response from donors, especially in the Middle East.

"Handcrafted products from Afghanistan are an interesting selling point. But it is (working) because the school is producing good work, not because it is a charity case."

A handful of women are involved in the woodcarving program but school officials shelter them from attention, both for their own safety and so as not to disturb the across-the-board Afghan acceptance of the project.

Turquoise Mountain's Ullal said Canada's $3.5 million contribution "is a real shot in the arm. It is the single most significant contribution right now, and we hope to stage it over three or four years for maximum effect."

By the end of the three years, Stewart's team hopes to integrate the two sites into one by relocating the Turquoise Mountain school to the newly restored ruins of Murad Khane.

Ultimately, a fuller revival of the historic neighbourhood will be up to its Afghan property owners, who retain title to the restored buildings, having agreed not to raze them in exchange for free restoration. One courtyard house being revived has 16 different owners from the same family, according to Turquoise Mountain staff. They must agree on how to use the building when it's done.

"It is very ambitious, because the neighbourhood is bigger than the pieces we are working on. What we want to see is momentum that will spread ... and become something greater," said engineer Fawad.

"But when you consider that the Russians wanted to completely destroy this neighbourhood – and when the Russians left, the warlords made an even bigger mess of it with their bombs and rockets – it is a victory already to be where we are today. Whatever other pieces of our history have been lost, these pieces are protected. They are here to stay."
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Bid to transform Afghan madrassas
By David Loyn BBC Newsnight Friday, 11 January 2008, 12:50 GMT
The Afghan government has changed its policy on madrassas, the religious schools that inspired a generation of fundamentalists who became the Taliban.

Rather than trying to freeze them out, it is trying to bring them into the state system, providing they widen their syllabus to teach other subjects.

The Education Minister Hanif Atmar says: "We are critical of policies in the past. Actually it was a result of those policies to exclude these madrassas, keep them on the margin of the society, and then entirely hand them over to the fundamentalists."

Under the reform the schools will be able to continue to teach subjects connected to the Islamic faith for 40% of the time, but the other 60% will be taken up with more standard subjects - history, geography, science and languages - as well as computer studies.

Mr Atmar likes to remind people that the founder of modern European medicine, Ibn Sina, born about a thousand years ago, studied at an Afghan madrassa: "I think our madrassas will go back to the historic glory these madrassas had. Four or five centuries ago they were the best institutes of education in the east."

The new policy is a direct challenge to neighbouring Pakistan, where madrassas have been a key recruiting ground for the Taliban.

The Speaker of the Upper House of the Afghan parliament, Sibghatullah Mujadidi, says: "In Pakistan some of our students are studying religious subjects and they have been also trained for terrorism.

"If we have enough madrassas in Afghanistan, there will be no need for students to go to Pakistan. They will study here and real moderate Islam will be taught to them."

Dr Mujadidi was speaking at the laying of a foundation stone for new buildings in one of Kabul's oldest madrassas, funded by the reform programme. The aim is to build a state-funded madrassa in every province in the country, as a spearhead of the new policy.

But many madrassas are opposed to the reforms. At the core of their teaching students learn the Koran by rote, and they say they have no time to learn anything other than the ways of Islam - widening the curriculum as the government wants, would dilute the learning.

So there would be no one wise enough to issue fatwas, legal religious orders.

The Dean of one of these madrassas Mullah Rahimullah Azizi says that if they are forced to introduce other subjects then some of his students will go to learn in madrassas in Pakistan.

"A religious student may want to qualify in Afghanistan. But if he sees there is no way to do that properly here, then he has no option but to go abroad.

"And he gets hatred in his heart. He thinks although I have an Islamic government, I do not have the opportunity to study. He will turn against the government, and problems will be created," says Mullah Rahimullah Azizi.

But in this battle for the minds of the next generation, the government believes the flow of students will be the other way.

The Minister Mr Atmar says if they get the reforms right, more Afghans will want to be educated in Afghanistan.

"In Pakistan across the border with Afghanistan there are around 15,000 madrassas, and around 1.5m students are enrolled there. If we invest adequately, and according to the policy of the government of Afghanistan, in our madrassa system, to a large extent those Afghans who are now being taught in madrassas across the border will come back to their own country," said Mr Atmar.

The other main problem is the lack of resources to carry out the reforms.

The government is struggling to fund the building of standard state schools and has failed to win new funding for its reform of madrassas.

Donations from western military sources have filled some of the gap, but the Dean of a madrassa that does want to reform, Abdul Salaam Abed, said: "I know that they want to raise the syllabus and teaching up to international standards.

"But we do not have the capability for that. We may be getting a new syllabus, and that is good.

"But to implement it requires teachers and books, etc. We do not have that. In the madrassas, even if the new syllabus comes, there is no equipment for it. This is our main problem."
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Pakistan takes a step backwards
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online January 12, 2008
KARACHI - At a time when Pakistan's national decision-making institutions are suspicious of international plans to make the country's nuclear program controversial, there is serious consideration for repositioning the country's foreign policy as neutral in the United States-led "war on terror".

This would mean non-interference in the restive tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. These are virtually autonomous areas where Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have established bases and vital supply lines into Afghanistan.

Such a move would have devastating effects on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) efforts to control the ever-growing insurgency in Afghanistan.

Following a meeting of the Pakistan corps commanders headed by the new chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Kiani, a press release said there would be a review of the situation in the tribal areas and, instead of citing any plans for military operations there against militants, the release said the military's decisions would be based on "the wishes of the nation".

Islamabad's rethink has been prompted by the violence and political crisis resulting from the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi last month. In turn, this has fueled intense speculation in the Western media of the possibility of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of militants.

Most recently, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the United Nations' atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, voiced concerns over the this possibility. "I fear chaos ... an extremist regime could take root in that country, which has 30 to 40 warheads," ElBaradei told the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat.

Such comments are viewed in Pakistan's strategic quarters as deliberate mischief on the part of the West. On the one hand it insists that Islamabad come down hard on militancy, but when this is done, the militants react against the government. The West then points to the problem of rising extremism and projects the danger posed to Pakistan's arsenal.

The former chief of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Germany, retired Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, told Asia Times Online, "I don't consider such statements [about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal] even worth commenting on. These are settled issues, any debate on settled issues is unnecessary. Washington is aware of the mechanisms for the protection of those weapons. There is no need to react. Reactions only generate confusion and there is no need to be confused about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. It is in safe hands."

Durrani, who regularly attends international sessions of British and American policy think-tanks, said Pakistan's military operations in the tribal areas as a part of the "war on terror" had resulted in problems in Pakistani cities.

When asked about the corps commanders' conference and the possibility of peace dialogue between the tribals and the government instead of military operations, Durrani said, "I don't know about the exact agenda of the conference, but you can't tell me of any disagreement anywhere in the country that Pakistan should shun military operations and initiate dialogue."

Durrani, who participated in the joint Pakistan-Afghanistan peace efforts in the Pakistani city of Peshawar last year, continued, "Nobody is in favor of operations, not even those who are actually doing the operations. Even people from [the port city of] Karachi, who are considered ultra-liberal [are against operations] and on the Lal Masjid [Red Mosque] operation, I found them calling it irrational." Durrani was referring to security forces storming the radical mosque in Islamabad last year to root out militants.

Should Pakistan scale down or halt its operations in the tribal areas, where it has thousands of troops, the US might be forced to act. Reports have been swirling for some time of US plans to undertake aggressive covert operations inside Pakistan.

The George W Bush administration is concerned over intelligence reports suggesting that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are intensifying their efforts to destabilize the Pakistani government. Reports say that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and top national-security advisers recently met to discuss the proposal, which is part of a broad reassessment of US strategy following the death of Bhutto. Bhutto had been promoted by Washington as an acceptable liberal face to soften the image of President Pervez Musharraf and his administration.

The meeting also discussed how to handle the period from now to the February 18 general elections and the aftermath of those elections. Several of the participants are said to have argued that the threat to the Musharraf government is now so grave that both he and Pakistan's new military leadership are likely to give the United States more latitude. Asia Times Online investigations suggest that Pakistan might submit to US demands and conduct operations in the tribal areas, but they will be half-hearted at best.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, former leader of the opposition in Parliament and probably the most fervent pro-Taliban cleric in the country, told Asia Times Online, "We are hearing a lot of news about operations in the tribal areas. Everybody is talking about the mobilization of troops in the coming days for an extraordinary military operation in Waziristan [tribal area] which would amount to an all-out war.

"A logical outcome of this would be a delay in the election process. But believe you me, we are experiencing an extremely normal situation in the tribal areas, especially in Waziristan. Everything is normal and I don't sense any operations from the Pakistani army. I cannot talk about the American initiative, but as far as the Pakistani army is concerned, I don't see any escalation."

Rehman is head of the Jamaat-ul-Ulema Islam Pakistan (Islamic Party of Religious Leaders) and was the main driver behind the peace agreements of 2006 between the Pakistan Taliban and the government, and he also mediated British- and US-sponsored peace efforts between the Taliban and NATO troops in Afghanistan. These resulted in an agreement to start jirgagai (small tribal councils) which would for the first time give the Taliban representation. The process was stopped when the Pakistani military began intensive operations to combat militancy in the Swat Valley in North-West Frontier Province towards the end of last year.

"Though the government has not contacted me for any mediation, I tell you that I don't foresee any operations in the tribal areas - if it happens, it would be a result of immense US pressure - and there is no indication that Pakistan wants that," said Rehman.

"This has been our principle position, that peace should be given a chance and that's why my party and I have always tried for reconciliation. However. I feel that some vested interests don't want peace in the region," Rehman responded when asked about the chances of successful dialogue between the Taliban and NATO.

"Military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan have only bred extremism. Pakistan should avoid that. The West should learn the lessons of British India days, when the empire stayed away from the tribal areas and even signed an agreement for the independent nature of the tribal areas, and Pakistan also abides by the same agreement with the tribes," Rehman said.

Ironically, while the US is talking about military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and Pakistan is leaning towards peace accords, al-Qaeda itself is against any peace overtures in the tribal areas. This, in a sense, puts al-Qaeda and the US on the same side. A few days ago, al-Qaeda killed nine tribal leaders trying to make peace agreements.

A senior security analyst commented to Asia Times Online, on the condition of anonymity, "Pakistan is once again at a strange crossroad where its national interests are at stake. We have been under immense US pressure because of which we abandoned our national Afghan policy [support for the Taliban]. We don't actually have any option because of the huge American pressure. But it should be recalled, we didn't actually succumb on the Kashmir issue. We did compromise in our support for the armed opposition of Kashmiris against Indian forces, but not completely. And I think this is the time for us to reconsider our options and priorities in the region."

Washington may be in the process of losing a friend.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com
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Charlie Wilson's brother in arms
The American accused of arming al-Qaeda is the subject of a new film
Angus Batey The Times Online (UK) January 12, 2008
Charles Nesbitt Wilson is not the sort of all-American hero that Hollywood tends to celebrate. The controversial former congressman had a string of affairs, took a belly dancer with him on government trips overseas, and was accused of snorting cocaine with strippers in a casino whirlpool bath. Yet he is portrayed by Tom Hanks in a heavyweight new film both as a buffoonish playboy, and a single-minded political visionary who helped to win the Cold War.

A member of Congress’s Defence Appropriations Subcommittee, Wilson was one of a handful of Washington lawmakers able personally to affect military budgets. A TV news bulletin from Soviet-occupied Afghanistan gave him his cause, and Charlie Wilson’s War shows how – in ways both fantastical and farcical – he worked in secret with the CIA to channel unspent defence dollars to Afghanistan throughout the decade.

It’s more than a bit weird,” the 74-year-old Wilson chuckles at seeing his life paraded on the silver screen, “it’s very, very, veryweird. I thought Tom Hanks was splendid. If anything, he made me look a little better than I am.”

But the movie is no act of hagiography. The screenwriter, The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, and the director, Mike Nichols ( The Graduate), leave plenty of ambivalence and ambiguity in a story that remains unresolved. Wilson, the CIA and the Afghans won the battle: the Soviet Army’s exit from Afghanistan was followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist bloc. But on September 11, 2001, what Wilson’s biographer, the late TV news director George Crile, called the “unintended consequences” of arming the Afghans became horrifically apparent. On the accusation that Wilson and his diverted millions helped to equip al-Qaeda, the former congressman is unrepentant, but conflicted.

“All of the hijackers on the 9/11 aircraft were Arabs, not Afghans,” Wilson argues. “A lot of them had trained there, but none of them were recruited there, and I think that’s important. George Crile thought that the victory over the Soviet Army gave the more radical Islamists the idea that they had defeated one superpower and they could probably defeat another. I don’t think that’s totally true, but I think it has merit.”

While Wilson never had any direct links with the Arab Mujahidin who formed the nucleus of al-Qaeda, he did tend to forge bonds with men whom history suggests he should have steered clear of. He was a supporter of Anastasio Somoza, despite the Nicaraguan dictator’s clumsy attempts to bribe him during their first meeting. He called the Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani “goodness personified” after Haqqani had given him a wartime tour of the region around Khost. Later the radical Islamist would be ranked No 3 on America’s post 9/11 most-wanted list after Osama bin Laden and the Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar.

“That did give me pause for thought,” Wilson admits. “But Haqqani took care of me, and I’ll never forget that. I’d love to see him again. I would try to persuade him that the Taleban was a force for destruction – which he definitely wasn’t.”

The degree of Wilson’s influence is debatable. Steve Coll’s Pulitzer prizewinning Ghost Wars, the definitive investigation of the CIA’s pre9/11 role in Afghanistan, talks of Wilson only in passing, and with some disdain, while Tim Weiner’s recent (and highly critical) history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, does not mention him at all. But others have underscored Wilson’s importance. The 1980s chief of the CIA station in Islamabad, Milt Bearden, has spoken of Wilson changing history, while Zia, asked by 60 Minutes how the Afghan militias had defeated the Soviet army, simply said that “Charlie did it”.

“I’m comfortable with the way I believe history will judge what we did,” Wilson says. “History is not going to be so inaccurate as not to judge that our efforts were the ones that actually brought down the Red Army in Afghanistan. It’s too obvious. If we didn’t, who did?”

He is optimistic, too, that the film may help to refocus attention on a country whose future he still feels passionate about. “The Iraq war took a lot of the resources out of Afghanistan,” Wilson concludes. “There’s so much at stake: we must make it possible to establish a stable, forward-looking government there, or else we’ll have to do it all again. I think the film can [make a difference], and I hope that it does.” Charlie Wilson’s War is on general release
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Bush, Gul confer on Afghanistan, war on terror
By: Lalit K Jha - 9/01/2008 - 18:29
NEW YORK, Jan 8 (Pajhwok Afghan News): US President George W. Bush Tuesday discussed the current situation in Afghanistan and progress in the global war against terrorism with visiting Turkish leader Abdullah Gul.

The meeting between the two leaders took place at the White House hours before Bush left for a week-long trip to half-a-dozen Middle Eastern countries.

Bush and Gul are understood to have discussed the prevailing situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last month.

The United States considers Turkey as an important player in the region as it has good relations both with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last year, Turkey had played an important role in bridging differences between Presidents Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf.

While details of the meeting were not immediately available, White House spokesman Dana Perino earlier said: They will talk about recent developments in the region, both in the Middle East and in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"We have a shared interest in supporting young democracies and promoting peace and stability in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon," the spokeswoman added.
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