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January 19, 2008 

Afghan, NATO troops kill, wound two dozen insurgents
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan and NATO-led forces killed or wounded more than two dozen insurgents in a 21-hour battle in the northeast of the country close to the border with Pakistan, the alliance said on Saturday.

US to deploy 500 mine-resistant vehicles to Afghanistan
by Daphne Benoit
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (AFP) - The US military plans to ship 500 roadside bomb-resistant vehicles to Afghanistan amid a reinforcement of 3,200 extra US troops to be deployed to fight Taliban militants.

Afghan president calls for unity against extremism
Sat Jan 19, 5:18 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on Muslims to unite against "tyrants" carrying out a wave of suicide attacks in the region under the name of Islam.

Taliban now seriously in the fight, war begins: NGO
Sat Jan 19, 12:54 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - The Taliban last year "seriously rejoined the fight" in Afghanistan, an NGO security group said in a report that concluded the country was "at the beginning of a war, not the end of one."

Sarkozy: France To Host Afghanistan Aid Conference
PARIS (AFP)-France will host an international conference on development aid for Afghanistan to follow up on efforts to help rebuild the country, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday.

Bush names general to head Afghan mission
Fri Jan 18, 4:06 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush has named the head of U.S. Army forces in Europe, Gen. David McKiernan, as the new leader of foreign forces in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Friday.

Afghan, Coalition forces detain 4 insurgents, insurgent leader
www.chinaview.cn  2008-01-19 19:27:42
KABUL, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) -- Afghan government troops and the U.S.-led Coalition forces during a Friday operation in Qalat district of southern Zabul Province detained four insurgents and an insurgent leader

Taliban kills Afghan young man on charge of espionage
January 19, 2008
Taliban insurgents have killed a young man on charges of "spying" for Afghan and foreign troops in Musa Qala district of southern province Helmand, an official said Friday.

Call to woo ‘moderate’ Afghan rebels
By James Blitz in London Financial Times January 19 2008
The international community must try to attract “moderate” Afghan insurgents away from the Taliban by giving them financial support that encourages them to support the Kabul government, according to a new report.

The Girl Gap
By Aryn Baker / Karokh District, Herat The Time Magazine Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008
Nothing gives principal Suraya Sarwary more pleasure than the sound of her second-grade girls reciting a new lesson out loud. Six years ago, that sound could have gotten her executed. The Taliban had outlawed education

Making Musa Qala Work
The authorities have a brief window of opportunity to prove they will improve life in this battered town. If they fail, renewed conflict is more than likely.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Aziz Ahmad Shafe in Helmand and Jean MacKenzie in Kabul (ARR No. 279, 17-Jan-08)

Kandahar's cemetery of 'miracles'
Dawood Azami BBC Pashto service Thursday, 17 January 2008
At Kandahar's Arab cemetery, victims of the US "war on terror" are revered by many as shaheed (martyrs) and their graves are believed to possess miraculous powers.

CIA boss names Bhutto 'killers'
Friday, 18 January 2008 BBC News
The CIA has added its support to the view that a Pakistani militant, Baitullah Mehsud, and al-Qaeda organised Benazir Bhutto's killing.

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Afghan, NATO troops kill, wound two dozen insurgents
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan and NATO-led forces killed or wounded more than two dozen insurgents in a 21-hour battle in the northeast of the country close to the border with Pakistan, the alliance said on Saturday.

Afghanistan saw its worst violence last year since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 and more than 5,000 were killed, but fighting has dropped off in recent weeks as most of the country is now carpeted in heavy snow.

The clash began when troops from the Afghan army and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) attacked a group of fighters in the Watapoor district of Kunar province late on Thursday as they were massing to attack an ISAF base.

"Small arms, machineguns, mortars, artillery, attack helicopters and close-air support with precision guided munitions were all used during the engagement," the statement said.

Most ISAF troops in eastern Afghanistan are American.

Allied fighters belonging to the Taliban, former Afghan Prime Minister Gulduddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e Islami and al Qaeda are all active in Kunar province, a heavily wooded, mountainous province which borders tribal areas of Pakistan.

The rough terrain made it difficult to confirm rebel casualties, ISAF said, but "based on intelligence reports received through a number of sources, insurgent losses are estimated at more than two dozen killed or wounded."

There were no casualties among Afghan or ISAF troops or civilians, it said.

(Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Matthew Jones)
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US to deploy 500 mine-resistant vehicles to Afghanistan
by Daphne Benoit
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (AFP) - The US military plans to ship 500 roadside bomb-resistant vehicles to Afghanistan amid a reinforcement of 3,200 extra US troops to be deployed to fight Taliban militants.

While the mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles remain a top priority for Iraq, where US soldiers face frequent attacks from armor-piercing explosives, more MRAPs will be sent to Afghanistan, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

"I think we are going to send more MRAPs to Afghanistan," Gates said Friday as he toured a military factory where every day 50 of those vehicles are equipped with electronic equipment.

But the defense chief emphasized that Iraq, where nearly 4,000 US soldiers have been killed since the 2003 US-led invasion, is still "the first priority."

"IEDs are the tactic of choice of our enemies," he said. "They are cheap and deadly and difficult to detect and they have been the biggest killer of our troops in Iraq."

The V-hulled vehicle "is a proven life saver on the battlefield and provides the best protection against these attacks," Gates told employees of the factory with banners reminding workers that "Your Work Contributes to the War on Terrorism."

Amid criticism that he was slow in sending equipment aimed at improving the security of US troops in Iraq, Gates made MRAPs a priority in 2007 after learning that no marine has ever died inside such vehicles.

Up to 1,200 MRAPs are built every month and 2,225 were delivered as of mid-January, most of them to Iraq, said John Young, the Pentagon's under secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Of those vehicles 1,508 are already being used by US soldiers in Iraq and while 45 of them are in operation in Afghanistan, he said.

But the number of MRAPs is likely to grow in Afghanistan, where 3,200 US reinforcements begin deploying to as early as March for a seven-month mission to help international forces battle a fierce Taliban insurgency.

The US government has ordered 500 RG-31 models from the military contractor General Dynamics. The 11.6-tonne vehicle is the lightest MRAP, whose heaviest model is the 25-tonne "Buffalo."

"It turns out that's the preferred vehicle (RG-31) for Afghanistan because they're a little lighter, a little more maneuverable" for the country's treacherous terrain, Young said.

The Pentagon has ordered 12,000 MRAPs from defense contractors and plans make more acquisitions in March to bring total orders to 15,400 vehicles with a budget of 22.4 billion dollars, Young said.
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Afghan president calls for unity against extremism
Sat Jan 19, 5:18 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on Muslims to unite against "tyrants" carrying out a wave of suicide attacks in the region under the name of Islam.

Muslim nations should work together to safeguard their religion, Karzai told about 2,000 people gathered at a Kabul mosque for Ashura ceremonies to mourn the death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson in the seventh century.

"Our duty, the duty of Islamic nations and particularly the people of this region, is that we must join hands against those tyrants who, by killing themselves, kill ... Muslims under the cover and the name of Islam," he said.

Hundreds of people, mostly civilians, were killed in Afghanistan last year in more than 140 suicide attacks predominantly carried out by the extremist Taliban.

In the most recent attack in the capital, several Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers stormed the five-star Kabul Serena hotel on Monday and killed at least eight people, including three foreigners.

Pakistan, where many hardliners fled after the Taliban government was toppled in 2001, has also been hit by an increasing number of such attacks.

On Thursday a teenage suicide bomber blew himself up at a packed Shiite mosque in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar as people were marking Ashura. Eight people were killed and 20 wounded, officials said.
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Taliban now seriously in the fight, war begins: NGO
Sat Jan 19, 12:54 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - The Taliban last year "seriously rejoined the fight" in Afghanistan, an NGO security group said in a report that concluded the country was "at the beginning of a war, not the end of one."

It has also become clear that the Taliban's "easy departure" in 2001, when a US-led invasion drove them from power, was "more of a strategic retreat than an actual military defeat," the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) said.

"A few years from now, 2007 will likely be looked back upon as the year in which the Taliban seriously rejoined the fight and the hopes of a rapid end to conflict were finally set aside by all but the most optimistic," ANSO said.

About 1,980 civilians were killed in 2007 -- half by insurgents and the rest almost equally by soldiers or criminal groups, the group said.

Insurgents killed 15 NGO workers, four of them foreigners, last year, compared with 24 in 2006 and eight in 2005, the group said. Eighty-eight NGO staffers were abducted in 2007, most of them by insurgents, out of a total 555 kidnappings, it said, without providing numbers for previous years.

Abductions and killings were likely to escalate this year, with growing links between insurgents and criminal gangs increasing the threat, ANSO said.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is helping the government fight insurgents, is "in fact just now entering a period of broad and deep conflict, the outcomes of which are far from certain," it said.

ISAF may number about 41,000 soldiers but "realistically" could not have more than up to 7,000 for combat, with the rest mostly support staff or prevented from fighting because of national restrictions, the group said.

The size of the Taliban force was unknown, but estimates ranged from 2,000 to 20,000.

"There would not appear to be any capacity within ISAF to stop or turn back anticipated AOG (armed opposition groups) expansion," the report said.

"In simple terms, the consensus amongst informed individuals at the end of 2007 seems to be that Afghanistan is at the beginning of a war, not the end of one."
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Sarkozy: France To Host Afghanistan Aid Conference
PARIS (AFP)-France will host an international conference on development aid for Afghanistan to follow up on efforts to help rebuild the country, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday.

The president didn't give a date for the conference, announced three weeks after he paid a brief visit to Kabul where he met French troops and held talks with President Hamid Karzai.

"In accordance with President Karzai, France will host the next conference to support Afghanistan and it will strengthen its commitment," Sarkozy told foreign diplomats at the Elysee palace.

Berlin hosted the last development aid conference for Afghanistan in January 2007 to follow up on a meeting the previous year in London when a five-year reconstruction plan was launched.

France has about 1,600 troops serving in Afghanistan in a 60,000-strong force battling the Taliban-led insurgency. They are also providing training for Afghanistan's security forces.
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Bush names general to head Afghan mission
Fri Jan 18, 4:06 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush has named the head of U.S. Army forces in Europe, Gen. David McKiernan, as the new leader of foreign forces in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Friday.

McKiernan will head the 42,000-member NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. ISAF is responsible for fighting insurgents, training Afghan troops and reconstruction in northern and eastern Afghanistan.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on Tuesday ordered an additional 3,200 U.S. Marines to Afghanistan, including 1,000 who will conduct training with ISAF.

With the new Marine deployments in March and April, the United States will have around 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, about half in ISAF and the rest conducting missions ranging from counter-terrorism to training Afghan soldiers.

(Reporting by Paul Eckert, editing by Patricia Zengerle)
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Afghan, Coalition forces detain 4 insurgents, insurgent leader
www.chinaview.cn  2008-01-19 19:27:42
KABUL, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) -- Afghan government troops and the U.S.-led Coalition forces during a Friday operation in Qalat district of southern Zabul Province detained four insurgents and an insurgent leader, said a statement issued Saturday by the Coalition.

The combined force found and detained five insurgents with suspected ties to the Taliban during the course of search operations, it said, adding that one of the detainees identified himself as a Zabul-area Taliban commander.

An over 50,000-strong foreign force, separately under the flag of NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the U.S.-led Coalition forces, are deployed in war-torn Afghanistan, assisting in Afghan government's anti-militants and reconstruction efforts.

Rising militancy-related violence killed over 6,000 people in the post-Taliban nation last year and analysts and NATO commanders have expected an upsurge of guerrilla-style attacks by Taliban militants in 2008.
Editor: Sun Yunlong 
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Taliban kills Afghan young man on charge of espionage
January 19, 2008
Taliban insurgents have killed a young man on charges of "spying" for Afghan and foreign troops in Musa Qala district of southern province Helmand, an official said Friday.

"Abdul Wali, 22, a civilian and seller at a local market with a cart, was found hanged on a tree Friday morning," Mullah Salam, the newly-appointed district chief of Musa Qala, told Xinhua via phone.

A letter left near the civilian's dead body warned that any others working as spy for Afghan government and foreign troops would be treated in the same way, according to officials.

The man, married, was kidnapped by the militants Thursday evening on his way home, local Taliban told media, saying there were reports indicating his involvement in spying activities.

Killings of people on charge of "espionage" have been common in remote Afghan regions, especially the southern provinces where Taliban-led militancy has been active since the Taliban regime fell six years ago.

Rising militancy-related violence in Afghanistan claimed over 6,000 lives in 2007, the bloodiest year sine 2001.

NATO military commanders and local analysts have expected an upsurge of militancy this year in the post-Taliban nation.
Source: Xinhua
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Call to woo ‘moderate’ Afghan rebels
By James Blitz in London Financial Times January 19 2008
The international community must try to attract “moderate” Afghan insurgents away from the Taliban by giving them financial support that encourages them to support the Kabul government, according to a new report.

As Paddy Ashdown, the former British politician, prepares to take over as the new United Nations envoy in Afghanistan, the report, written by one of his former political aides, suggests the European Union should fund a “reconstruction benefit package” that could win over insurgents.

With Nato continuing to struggle against the Taliban, some western leaders, such as Gordon Brown, the British premier, have talked about the need for the international coalition to encourage insurgents to change sides. The new report – to be published next week and written by Daniel Korski of the European Council on Foreign Relations – goes further.

Mr Korski, who was political adviser to Lord Ashdown when he was UN high representative in Bosnia, suggests the EU should fund a €50bn ($73bn, £37bn) pilot scheme under which money can be paid in instalments to local leaders who want to develop clinics and schools.

He says: “The international community must encourage President Hamid Karzai to engage mid-ranking ‘moderate’ insurgents by developing a package of financial and other incentives which could encourage them to support the government rather than the Taliban.”

Mr Korski says the EU needs to step up its security activity in Afghanistan. It should commit to meeting the shortfall in police trainers. Only 93 are currently working in Afghanistan compared with the 434 originally pledged.

He also notes that, in the short term, an extra 2,000 to 2,500 Nato troops are probably required for operations in the south, alongside the expected deployment of 3,500 more US marines.

The European council’s report argues that EU governments should agree to lift the operational restrictions on existing deployments of troops to Afghanistan. Mr Korski believes that European states should begin to move their troops from the west to the east. This would allow the US to transfer its forces to the south, where fighting is heaviest, in support of the British, Canadians and Dutch.
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The Girl Gap
By Aryn Baker / Karokh District, Herat The Time Magazine Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008
Nothing gives principal Suraya Sarwary more pleasure than the sound of her second-grade girls reciting a new lesson out loud. Six years ago, that sound could have gotten her executed. The Taliban had outlawed education for girls, but a few brave teachers taught them in secret. Sarwary, now the principal of Karokh District Girls High School in Afghanistan's Herat province, recalls gathering students furtively in her home and imparting lessons in whispers for fear that her neighbors might report her to the Taliban.

These days the biggest risk posed by the girls' enthusiastic recitation is that it may drown out the math lesson next door. Basira, a thin 8-year-old whose obligatory white head scarf is actually a cotton dish towel printed with Korean characters, stands before the class. She is learning to read today's lesson, which the teacher has written out on a makeshift blackboard propped up on a wobbly easel. "A vegetable should be washed before it is eaten," she reads aloud as she slowly traces each word with her fingertip. Her teacher beams, and her classmates applaud.

Karokh District Girls High School is one of the most successful in Herat. And in terms of girls' education, Herat is the most successful province in Afghanistan. Even so, conditions are far from ideal. Sarwary's tiny school doesn't have enough classrooms: second-graders huddle in a ragged tent in the courtyard, where a torn strip of khaki canvas hangs between rusting metal struts, blocking many of the girls' view of the blackboard. The fierce desert wind howls through the holes and threatens to tear the class's one textbook from the students' hands as they pass it around for reading lessons. There is no playground or running water. The toilet, a pit latrine located at the far corner of the school compound, serves 1,500 students. Only two of the 23 female teachers have graduated from high school. Half the second-grade students, ranging in age from 7 to 12, can read; the rest just recite from memory. The freedom to study is a blessing, but Sarwary knows it is not nearly enough. "Our students have talent and a passion for learning I've never seen before," says the slim, stylish 33-year-old. "But we still have problems."

The parlous status of girls' education belies one of the greatest hopes raised when the Taliban was toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2001: the liberation of Afghanistan's women. Yes, they can now vote, they have a quarter of the seats in parliament, and they are legally allowed to find jobs outside the home. Foreign donors and nongovernmental organizations have expended a great deal of energy and capital on building women's centers and conducting gender-awareness workshops. But more than six years since the fall of the Taliban, fewer than 30% of eligible girls are enrolled in schools, and the infrastructure is so poor that only a tiny fraction are likely to get the education they need to enjoy the fruits of emancipation.

The stakes for Afghan society are high. Every social and economic index shows that countries with a higher percentage of women with a high school education also have better overall health, a more functional democracy and increased economic performance. There's another payoff that is especially important to Afghanistan: educated women are a strong bulwark against the extremism that still plagues Afghanistan, underscored by the Jan. 14 bombing of a luxury hotel in Kabul, which killed eight. "Education is the factory that turns animals into human beings," says Ghulam Hazrat Tanha, Herat's director of education. "If women are educated, that means their children will be too. If the people of the world want to solve the hard problems in Afghanistan--kidnapping, beheadings, crime and even al-Qaeda--they should invest in [our] education."

For girls in much of the country, education remains a dream no more attainable now than it was under the Taliban. In the past six years, 3,500 new schools have been built across the country, but fewer than half of them have buildings. Most are in tents, in the shade of trees or wherever open space can be made available. This has a direct bearing on the number of girls enrolled: most Afghan families won't allow their daughters to be where they may be seen by men. "Girls in this society have certain needs," says Education Minister Hanif Atmar. "They cannot be in a tented school or in an open space with no sanitation facilities, so they simply do not go." Competing demands for government money and more obvious problems such as a raging insurgency, poppy cultivation and widespread corruption leave education to nibble from the crumbs. Atmar figures he needs $2.5 billion for the next five years just to cover basic improvements such as training teachers, printing textbooks and building 73,000 classrooms--even tented ones--that might just accommodate all Afghan schoolkids if they study in shifts.

But a five-year plan is a luxury. Atmar can't find enough money for his most pressing needs. He got only $282 million this year, $216 million short of his bare-bones operating budget. Of the 40,000 teachers the Education Ministry said were necessary to meet the demand for schooling this year, the central government has been able to budget for only 10,000.

The shortage of university-educated instructors means that the higher grades suffer the most. Najeeba Behbood, 26, an 11th-grader at Karokh High School, was lucky to land in a chemistry class taught by a former college professor. Even then, the course was pure theory: with no laboratory, the teacher had to make rough drawings on the blackboard to demonstrate the use of cathodes and anodes in producing electricity. But Behbood is happy to be in the class at all--it was a struggle persuading her parents to permit her to attend, because the professor was male.

The Taliban policy of keeping girls out of school was based on a very strong cultural prohibition against having women mix with unrelated men. Those traditions still define large swaths of Afghan society--even in urban areas like Kabul. "My family says that they would rather I be illiterate than be taught by a man," says Yasamin Rezzaie, 18, who is learning dressmaking at a women's center in Kabul. Her parents refused to let her go to her neighborhood school because some of the teachers are male. Both her parents are illiterate, and they don't see the need for her to learn to read when the risk of meeting unrelated men is so high.

"In Afghan culture, women are seen as the repository of family honor, and the education of girls--whether in terms of the design of school buildings or in the way in which classes are conducted--needs to reflect that reality," says Matt Waldman, the Afghan policy adviser for Oxfam, which released a damning report in 2006 on the state of education in Afghanistan. It shows that the ratio of boys to girls in primary school is roughly 2 to 1, but by the time girls enter secondary school (and puberty), the ratio drops to four boys for every girl. In more than 80% of rural districts, there are no girls in secondary school at all. Overall, only 10% of girls in school actually obtain a diploma.

The Oxfam report identifies another critical factor holding back girls' education: only 28% of the country's accredited teachers are women. "It is absolutely crucial to increase the number of female teachers if you want to see more girls in school," says Waldman.

But if there are so few girls completing their education, how do you grow the next generation of female teachers? The first answer, says Atmar, is to remove all other impediments to girls' going to school. That means constructing new buildings so classes aren't held in the open. In the meantime, unconventional inducements can help. In a successful program in some rural areas, girls are given a free ration of oil and flour at the end of every month. This encourages their poor families to keep sending them to school. Increasing teachers' salaries would convince more parents that their daughters should take up the profession. Teachers with high school diplomas earn $50 to $75 a month, a tiny return on investment for families whose daughters could be spending those 12 years at home weaving carpets, tending the fields or taking care of the household.

While struggling to build the new infrastructure, educators must also contend with Afghanistan's old demons: the Taliban is making a comeback in several provinces and reimposing its rules. In little over a year, 130 schools have been burned, 105 students and teachers killed and 307 schools closed down because of security concerns. Many of those schools were for girls, and most of them were in the southern provinces, where a Taliban-driven insurgency has made it nearly impossible to secure the schools. But the violence is creeping closer to the capital. In June 2007, two gunmen on a motorcycle shot dead three female students coming out of high school in the central province of Logar, a 1 1/2-hour drive from Kabul.

But if Afghanistan has any reason for hope, it is the sheer determination of the girls who do have a chance to go to school. Lida Ahmadyar, 12, whose sister was one of the girls killed in the Logar shooting, has started going back to school. Every day she walks past the spot where her sister died, but she clings to her dream of becoming a doctor. "I am afraid," she says. "But I like school because I am learning something, and that will make me important. With education, I can save my country." If enough of Afghanistan's girls get the chance, they may do just that.

with reporting by Ali Safi / Kabul
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Making Musa Qala Work
The authorities have a brief window of opportunity to prove they will improve life in this battered town. If they fail, renewed conflict is more than likely.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Aziz Ahmad Shafe in Helmand and Jean MacKenzie in Kabul (ARR No. 279, 17-Jan-08)

Musa Qala, a dusty town in the north of Helmand province that was recently retaken from the Taleban, attracts the A-list these days. The American ambassador has been there, as have various Afghan ministers and the governor of Helmand.

They all have the same message to deliver - this time round, Musa Qala and the district around it will receive the assistance and money they need to rebuild, as well as the level of security required to keep the insurgents at bay.

“I have come here to Helmand with full hands,” the minister for rural rehabilitation and development, Mohammad Ehsan Zia, told tribal leaders in Lashkar Gah on January 17.

“I have money, lots of money, particularly for Musa Qala. Just ask for as much money as you need, and the ministry’s provincial head will give it to you.”

Zia was scheduled to visit Musa Qala but was prevented from getting there by bad weather. In all, he spent just a few hours in Helmand’s administrative centre Lashgar Gah.

That did not go down too well with his audience.

“You spent eight days in Kandahar. Helmand is a wartorn province and you should be here for a month,” complained Helmand’s deputy governor Pir Mohammad Akhundzada. “Instead you arrive at 10 am and leave at 2 pm. This isn’t going to work.”

Such reactions have significant implications. If central government and the international community cannot convince the people of Helmand that help is forthcoming, there is a good chance that the growing Taleban insurgency will gain an even firmer foothold.

“You must help Musa Qala as soon as possible,” said Hajji Zaher, representing the council of the Alizai tribe, a major Pashtun group in the area. “If you do what you did before and ignore this district, then you will lose the people’s trust.”

The international community, too, is trying to woo over a sceptical public.

“The eyes of the world will be on Musa Qala,” said United States ambassador William Wood during a January 13 meeting with Musa Qala’s newly-appointed district governor Mullah Abdul Salaam, according to a Radio Liberty report. “We want the eyes of the world to see success, to see peace, to see reconciliation, to see health, to see education, and to see good governance.”

MUSA QALA SEEN AS A TEST CASE

But a battered and bitter population will need more than fine words to convince them.

“May God oppress the infidels as they have oppressed us!” cried Fazel Mohammad, a resident of Musa Qala who fled the fighting and is now living a miserable existence as a refugee.

“We had a good life in Musa Qala before, when the Taleban were there.”

Musa Qala has become a symbol of the insurgency in troubled Helmand province, where Taleban and opium poppy have flourished to the detriment of the local population.

The district has changed hands several times in the past 18 months: First the scene of a punishing standoff between the British forces and the insurgents, Musa Qala was all but ceded to the Taleban when the British withdrew in October 2006, under an agreement in which local tribal elders were supposed to keep the peace.

The Taleban made their domination official in February, 2007, and set up a district government.

In December, a combined NATO and Afghan operation dislodged the insurgents from their stronghold.

NEW MAN IN CHARGE HAS A MIXED RECORD

No sooner had the dust settled than the government announced the appointment of a new district governor, Mullah Abdul Salaam.

Abdul Salaam is a controversial and contradictory figure, not least because he used to be a high-ranking Taleban commander who was believed to be quite close to the movement’s leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

His most recent defection to the government side, accompanied by some 200 of his men, took place some time before the December assault on Musa Qala and was hailed as a great victory for the counterinsurgent effort.

But Abdul Salaam’s allegiance has shifted many times over the past half decade, say observers, and owes more to a complicated web of tribal feuds and personal grievances than to any conversion to democratic values.

Under the Taleban, Abdul Salaam served as governor of Uruzgan province, then moved to Helmand, where he was district governor of Kajaki. He had a reputation for being a harsh leader, but people who remember his time in Kajaki recall that Mullah Omar would not hear a word said against him.

“Mullah Abdul Salaam treated his own people very badly,” said Din Mohammad, a resident of Kajaki. “He especially abused the Hassanzai.”

The Hassanzai are one of the three major branches of the Alizai tribe, which largely controls northern Helmand. Abdul Salaam is from the Pirzai sub-tribe; the other major branch of the tribe being the Khalozai.

The sub-tribes have historical disputes going back decades, and according to residents, Abdul Salaam used his position to attack his Hassanzai enemies.

One of the Hassanzai, however, Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, became governor of Helmand after the fall of the Taleban regime in late 2001.

During Sher Mohammad’s tenure, Abdul Salaam was briefly imprisoned and badly beaten.

Despite this, he left the Taleban and eventually joined the government. He even served as head of Sher Mohammad’s security detail.

However, his fellow-tribesmen never forgot the past affront. “They said, ‘this day will pass, our turn will come’,” said Din Mohammad.

According to local sources, when the Taleban re-emerged as a major force in the northern districts of Helmand, Abdul Salaam rejoined them, only to leave again several months later.

In September last year, the Taleban became convinced that Abdul Salaam was spying for the government and decided to eliminate him. Warned of the danger in advance, he managed to escape with the support of tribal elders and his own private militia.

At that point, he found it prudent to join forces with the provincial authorities again.

“When he was with the Taleban, Abdul Salaam was a good man,” said local Taleban spokesman Qari Yusuf. “But we decided to punish him because he was a spy. He was playing a double game.”

The Taleban have made no secret of their distaste for those who cooperate with the government. They have assassinated several provincial and district governors, and attempted to kill many more.

Qari Yusuf made it clear that Abdul Salaam is firmly in their sights, “Now he is completely out of the Taleban, and we will treat him just like any other governor.”

Abdul Salaam’s new constituents seem less than impressed by their leader.

“I don’t think Mullah Abdul Salaam is going to last long as governor,” said a Musa Qala resident who did not want to be named.

“He just wants revenge for what happened to him under Sher Mohammad. He will begin to carry out his acts of cruelty again.”

MUCH YET TO BE DONE TO WIN HEARTS AND MINDS

The residents of Musa Qala are weary of being buffeted by opposing forces, and are nearing the end of their patience. Abdul Salaam, and the government he represents, will have a limited window of opportunity to make good. If they cannot convince the local populace that they are better off with the central authorities than with the Taleban, local support for the insurgency will grow.

Many of those who stayed in Musa Qala during the “liberation” from Taleban control in December are longing for what they already see as the good old days.

“The situation was very good under the Taleban,” said Hajji Abdul Qayum, a Musa Qala shopkeeper. “We could leave our shops open until 10 pm. Now we have to close them as soon as the sun sets.

“I left Musa Qala when the fighting started. The Taleban left as well. When I came back, my shop had been looted. I lost mobile phones worth over 300,000 afghani [6,000 US dollars].”

While he still hoped for peace, Qayum was not pleased with the change in administration.

“I was not happy when the Taleban left,” he said. “They treated us well. But I hope that the government will build schools, bridges and power stations, as well as a hospital.”

All this and more has been promised by the current governor of Helmand, Assadullah Wafa, who announced a major aid package for Musa Qala the day after the district centre was cleared of Taleban forces.

But that may not be enough for some residents.

“We don’t want schools,” said one man who identified himself only as Mohmad. “We don’t want reconstruction of the roads. The only thing we want is security. When the Taleban start fighting with the government, the only thing that happens is that innocent people are killed. They may lose ten people, but dozens and dozens of civilians die.”

On balance, Mohmad said he preferred the Taleban.

“I was happy with the Taleban, because there were no thefts during that period. Everyone was sure about his property. Now we have stealing once again,” he said.

UNCERTAINTY OVER WHETHER PEACE WILL LAST

Many people are worried that the last battle around Musa Qala has not yet been fought. Until signs of more lasting stability appear, they plan to maintain a low profile.

“When the Taleban were in charge, the bazaar was full of people. Now it’s empty,” said Mohammad Juma. “One of the reasons is that people aren’t coming in from the districts. In the centre you see Afghan and foreign forces patrolling, but there are Taleban outside the district centre. They patrol at night and warn people not to come in to the centre.”

Another Musa Qala resident, Hajji Naser, was not optimistic that the peace would last.

“I do not think that these forces will stay here for a long time. The Taleban are not a small force. You see, we have forces from 32 different countries, and still the Taleban get stronger by the day. The foreign forces have failed to eliminate them.”

With the withdrawal of the Taleban, Hajji Naser said his problems had only increased. “The moment the military came here, the price of food went sky high,” he said.

Others complain that foreign forces are unable to distinguish Taleban from ordinary residents, and often unfairly target the civilian population.

“The foreigners do not allow us to move around easily,” said Hajji Abdul Razzaq. “If there is a mine or a remote-controlled bomb, they start killing or arresting civilians.”

Noor Mohammad, who was injured in the fighting around Musa Qala, agreed.

“The foreign forces accuse us of being Taleban,” he said. “If they are shot at in a village, they come and bomb everybody. The whole village is not Taleban, and nothing will be improved by bombing.”

The International Security and Assistance Force, ISAF, the NATO-led military contingent that helped the Afghan army mount the Musa Qala operation, insisted that its troops acted with due care for civilians during the assault in December.

Following the fall of Musa Qala, ISAF spokesman Richard Eaton insisted that there had been no civilian casualties at all in the operation. Other sources gave figures ranging from four to 40, but there was no hard evidence on the number of dead.

“We are blamed for supporting the Taleban, but if the foreign forces can’t get rid of them, how can we?” said Noor Mohammad. “I want the government to tell the foreign forces to leave Musa Qala, and just let the Afghan army and police stay. They know our culture, and they know how to treat us.”

There are now several hundred Afghan National Army soldiers stationed in Musa Qala, with a smaller number of police and an undisclosed number of foreign forces. They will be trying to bring the calm needed before reconstruction can begin.

IMMEDIATE AID NEEDED AS WELL AS RECONSTRUCTION

Those who fled the fighting are in a desperate state, often living in makeshift housing during an unusually cold winter.

Helmand, in the south of Afghanistan, is normally quite mild in the winter months, but this year temperatures have dipped well below freezing.

Mohammad Ali 50, left Musa Qala when the fighting began in early December. He and his nine-member family live in one room in the Mukhtar refugee camp near Lashkar Gah. They have no door or windows, and only a tarpaulin for a roof.

“My little son died when the bombing started,” he said. “So we came here. We are afraid that our house in Mazasi district will be bombed and we will all die. We live near the front line between the Taleban and the government forces,” he explained, as his children huddled, shivering, in the corner.

“Recently 250 families have come here from Musa Qala,” he added. “No one is providing any assistance. I go to the bazaar looking for work, which I find once every five days or so.

“We had a good life in Musa Qala. We were happy there. Even if someone left a pile of gold on the road, no one would dare pick it up. Money and property were safe. We did not want anything more than that. Now we will see whether the government can do the same thing.”

Aziz Ahmad Shafe is a journalist based in Helmand. Jean MacKenzie is IWPR’s programme director in Afghanistan.
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Kandahar's cemetery of 'miracles'
Dawood Azami BBC Pashto service Thursday, 17 January 2008
At Kandahar's Arab cemetery, victims of the US "war on terror" are revered by many as shaheed (martyrs) and their graves are believed to possess miraculous powers.

Each day, hundreds of sick people visit the graves of more than 70 Arab and other foreign fighters and their family members who were killed in US bombing in the southern Afghan city in late 2001.

Soon after their burial, a cult developed around them and the graves became centres of pilgrimage for many in the area.

People started seeing them as miracle workers, healers and intercessors for others before God.

Six years after US-led troops ousted the Taleban, devotion to these "foreign guests" is still alive.

"Most of the visitors are sick people seeking blessings from the dead while others come hoping their social or financial problems will end," says Sangeena, a woman in her 50s who lives nearby and looks after the graves.

For the past several years, Sangeena has come to the cemetery every day. "They are martyrs and it is my duty to serve them."

'Curing the incurable'

Among the dead are Arab women and children.

Many believe that these foreigners were "innocent" people who "died for Islam" when the US and others sent troops to Afghanistan after the attacks of 11 September, 2001.

For many, these graves are holy, and touching them will cure illnesses.

In the first couple of years, thousands of people visited the cemetery daily.

Surprised by the response, local authorities sent armed policemen to discourage people from visiting.

But the cemetery's fame has reached many remote areas of Afghanistan and even the border areas of neighbouring Pakistan.

"People get cured here, that is why they come to the cemetery," says Samad, one young visitor.

Many people talk about miracles that have happened in the cemetery.

Some say many sick people who had lost all hope of recovery were miraculously cured within moments of their first visit.

"Several paralysed people have left the cemetery walking on their own two feet," says Sangeena.

The "cure" is simple - each visitor takes a pinch of salt from one of the many small bowls and eats it. It is believed that the salt has a special connection with the dead and will cure any illness.

Respecting the dead

The graves of Arab fighters who helped sweep the Taleban to power in the 1990s are part of the main cemetery at the edge of the city.

They are clearly marked and neatly built with white stones covering them and green flags fluttering on bamboo poles. In one mass grave, about 20 bodies have been buried together.

"The security situation didn't allow for digging separate graves for each one of them," says a resident of the city.

"As Muslims, it was our duty to bury them with respect."

A few metres from the main mass grave is the tomb of an Arab woman where women tend to go and pray.

From a distance, I could see an ill woman lying there next to the grave.

Veneration of saints, both male and female, and pilgrimages to their shrines and graves to seek blessing, represent an important aspect of popular Islam in many Muslim societies, including Afghanistan.

People visit the Kandahar cemetery to pray quietly and contemplate - and hope for the best.

I am told that in the summer, some visitors from remote areas even spend the night at the cemetery, sleeping under the open sky.

Gul Khan, a university graduate, says the cemetery's popularity also has to do with the fact that most people are poor and have little or no access to health facilities.

"Generally people in this area believe in such things. Once the fame of a shrine or a person having 'miraculous powers' spreads, then more and more people are attracted to that."

Since the Soviet invasion in 1979, fighting has destroyed much of Afghanistan's basic infrastructure.

Post-Taleban reconstruction has made little or no impact in many remote areas.

In a country with high unemployment and low literacy rates, it does not seem surprising that shrines are still the only hope for many sick and needy people.
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CIA boss names Bhutto 'killers'
Friday, 18 January 2008 BBC News
The CIA has added its support to the view that a Pakistani militant, Baitullah Mehsud, and al-Qaeda organised Benazir Bhutto's killing.

CIA Director Michael Hayden told the Washington Post that the former Pakistani prime minister was killed by fighters allied to Baitullah Mehsud.

The Pakistani government accused Mehsud of the attack shortly after Ms Bhutto's death in Rawalpindi on 27 December.

Mr Hayden did not reveal the sources for his claim.

Correspondents say that Mr Hayden's comments are the most comprehensive public assessment by US intelligence of Ms Bhutto's death.

Controversy still surrounds the circumstances of the killing.

One or more attackers shot at her and detonated a bomb as she was leaving a rally in Rawalpindi.

Baitullah Mehsud has denied involvement. The Pakistani government says it intercepted a phone conversation proving that he was behind the attack.

'Organised campaign'

CIA Director Michael Hayden is now backing the Pakistani government's view.

"This was done by that network around Baitullah Mehsud. We have no reason to question that," Mr Hayden told the Washington Post.

He said the murder was "part of an organised campaign" that has included suicide bombings and other attacks on Pakistani leaders.

Mr Hayden said that the same forces were responsible for a new outbreak of violence sweeping across Pakistan which was undermining the stability of President Pervez Musharraf's government.

"You've got this nexus now that probably was always there in latency but is now active: a nexus between al-Qaeda and various extremist and separatist groups," Mr Hayden said.

"It is clear that their intention is to continue to try to do harm to the Pakistani state as it currently exists."

Forces belonging to Baitullah Mehsud have also been blamed by the government for seizing a fort from the military in the troubled region of South Waziristan on Wednesday.
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