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January 21, 2008 

Terrorism the key challenge, Afghan leader tells parliament
by Waheedullah Massoud Mon Jan 21, 6:55 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - President Hamid Karzai opened the third working year of Afghanistan's post-Taliban parliament saying terrorism was the nation's biggest challenge and must be fought inside and outside the country.

Afghan president calls for unity against extremism
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.

Karzai seeks U.N. clarity on Ashdown's Afghan role
Reuters / January 21, 2008
KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said politician Paddy Ashdown cannot become U.N. envoy to Afghanistan unless the world body clarifies his role, state newspapers said on Monday.

Violence forces Afghan kids from school
By RAHIM FAIEZ Associated Press Mon Jan 21, 6:45 AM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - Around 300,000 Afghan children cannot attend school because of violence in Afghanistan's southern provinces, President Hamid Karzai told the parliament on its opening day Monday.
Afghanistan seeks more foreign aid
January 21, 2008
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's government, largely reliant on foreign help for its security and economy, has called for the launch of another donors' meeting to garner more international aid.

Top Afghan official killed
Kabul, Jan 21 (DPA) A provincial head of Afghanistan's national reconciliation commission was killed by unidentified gunmen in the southern province of Zabul, an official said Monday.

Afghans protest over claim Koran desecrated
Reuters / January 21, 2008
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - A group of Afghans protested on Monday against what they called the desecration of the Koran by British forces, the district governor said, although he and a British spokesman denied any desecration took place.

British soldier, Taliban rebels killed in Afghanistan
January 21, 2008
KABUL (AFP) - A British NATO soldier and seven insurgents were killed in incidents in southern Afghanistan near a town that troops recaptured from Taliban fighters last month, officials said.

Keep troops in Kandahar until 2011, Manley to recommend
BRIAN LAGHI - Globe and Mail Update January 21, 2008
OTTAWA — John Manley's report on Canada's future role in Afghanistan will likely recommend that troops stay in Afghanistan until 2011 while also criticizing the federal government agency responsible for delivering aid to the war-torn nation

US troops recall battle at Musa Qala
By JASON STRAZIUSO Associated Press / January 20, 2008
MUSA QALA, Afghanistan - Chinook helicopters dropped Capt. Don Canterna's company of soldiers on the dusty outskirts of Musa Qala as evening fell. Loaded down with weapons, food, and water, his men walked through the night.

Kabul's Old City Gets Major Renovation
By ALISA TANG Associated Press January 20, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan Last year the streets in parts of the old city dropped by nine feet.

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Terrorism the key challenge, Afghan leader tells parliament
by Waheedullah Massoud Mon Jan 21, 6:55 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - President Hamid Karzai opened the third working year of Afghanistan's post-Taliban parliament saying terrorism was the nation's biggest challenge and must be fought inside and outside the country.

Karzai also paid tribute to eight parliamentarians killed in violence last year, the bloodiest of an insurgency led by the hardline Islamist Tailban who were ousted from government in 2001.

Six of them were killed in Afghanistan's worst suicide bombing, a blast in November that killed nearly 80 people, two-thirds of them school pupils.

"Terrorism is still our main challenge," Karzai told more than 300 members of the upper and lower houses of parliament, the cabinet and other dignitaries gathered for the first session of the year.

He again called for extremism to be fought at its "original sources," a likely reference to neighbouring Pakistan where Afghan and Western officials say Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked rebels have bases.

"Without a broad-based strategy, the fight on terrorism can't be successful and meet its goals," Karzai said.

"Targeting its original sources, drying up its finance sources and stopping the expansion of extremism must be included as the key points in the fight on terrorism."

The president also repeated calls for the tens of thousands of NATO and US-led troops helping his government to coordinate their efforts with Afghan security forces so "the fight on terrorism would be achieved quicker."

This would also help to avoid "mistakes" such as civilian casualties, he said.

Another main challenge was opium production, the president also told the legislators -- who include men accused of atrocities in the country's decades of war and former Taliban officials.

Afghanistan is the world's top opium producer, accounting for more than 90 percent of the global supply of the drug that is the raw ingredient of heroin.

Officials say the Taliban's campaign is funded in part by profits from the drugs trade, which supplies Central Asia and Europe.

"Drugs cultivation, production and smuggling, the existence of international drugs mafia and the terrorism leaders' and drugs mafia connection are another major challenge of our country," he said.

An alliance of Afghan opposition groups and US-led forces overthrew the 1996-2001 Taliban regime when it did not surrender Al-Qaeda leaders after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The country was set on an internationally supported path to democracy that included the first full parliamentary elections in September 2005.

The house is due to sit for five years but Karzai has been pushing for an election in 2009, at the same time as the next presidential vote.

The president and his government clashed with parliament on several occasions last year.

One of the biggest disputes was over Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta whom parliament demanded should be sacked over the forced repatriation of hundreds of Afghans from Iran. Karzai refused.

The parliament was meanwhile internationally criticised for expelling for the rest of its term an outspoken female parliamentarian, Malalai Joya, after she compared parliament to a barn.

Her comments referred to "warlords" who have seats despite allegations that they were involved in the 1990s civil war, when around 80,000 people were killed in the capital alone, and whom she has demanded should go on trial.
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Afghan president calls for unity against extremism
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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Karzai seeks U.N. clarity on Ashdown's Afghan role
Reuters / January 21, 2008
KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said politician Paddy Ashdown cannot become U.N. envoy to Afghanistan unless the world body clarifies his role, state newspapers said on Monday.

A Western source close to talks over the post said last week Ashdown, the former U.N. High Representative and EU special envoy for Bosnia, had agreed with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to be his special envoy for Afghanistan.

The United States wants Ashdown to have greater powers than previous U.N. envoys to coordinate with Karzai's government, the European Union and NATO which commands some 42,000 troops fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, Western sources said.

Karzai is wary that a powerful 'super-envoy', particularly one from former colonial power Britain, might make his government look weaker than it already is, diplomats say.

There was "some vagueness" about Ashdown's role, the Kabul Times state newspaper quoted Karzai as telling a cabinet meeting on Sunday, and unless the U.N. cleared it up, Ashdown could not begin his job.

"The administration is trying to resolve the issue with U.N. consent," it quoted the president as saying.

Using the words such as 'super-envoy' will cause indignation among the Afghan people and create difficulties in the coordination and cooperation between the government and the international community, another state-controlled daily said.

"Ashdown should know that he is only the coordinator of U.N. programmes in Afghanistan. He is void of competence to determine our policy," the Anis newspaper said.

The growing Taliban insurgency is benefiting from discontent over the slow pace of development in Afghanistan resulting from poor coordination between U.N. agencies, the 39-nation NATO-led military force, dozens of non-governmental organisations and the Afghan government, analysts say. Back to Top

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Violence forces Afghan kids from school
By RAHIM FAIEZ Associated Press Mon Jan 21, 6:45 AM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - Around 300,000 Afghan children cannot attend school because of violence in Afghanistan's southern provinces, President Hamid Karzai told the parliament on its opening day Monday.
The number of children unable to go to school is sharply up — by 50 percent — from a year ago, when 200,000 children were forced to stay home because of security concerns, Karzai said.

Most closures were in the country's southern provinces where the Taliban insurgency is at its most violent, Karzai said.

"The Islamic Government of Afghanistan is going to fight with all its power against terrorism," including those who kill religious clerics and school children, Karzai told lawmakers.

The president said 5.8 million Afghan children attend classes throughout the country — a huge increase from the less than 1 million students who attended school under the Taliban regime. However, they have been increasingly targeted across Afghanistan by insurgent attacks in recent months.

In November, 61 students were killed in Baghlan province by a suicide bomber and ensuing gunfire from security guards. The bomber, who detonated his explosives during a large procession outside a sugar factory, also killed eight lawmakers. In June, gunmen killed two students walking outside a girls school in Logar province.

Karzai listed terrorism, the country's opium poppies and drug trade, and endemic poverty as the country's biggest challenges. He reiterated that the government is ready to welcome back militant fighters who lay down their arms and accept the country's constitution, a theme Karzai has been hitting hard in recent months.

"We keep the doors open for peace, reconciliation and negotiations for those countrymen who want to return to their country and accept and respect the constitution of Afghanistan," he said.
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Afghanistan seeks more foreign aid
January 21, 2008
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's government, largely reliant on foreign help for its security and economy, has called for the launch of another donors' meeting to garner more international aid.

More than six years after U.S.-led and Afghan rebel forces overthrew the Taliban government, frustration is rising among many Afghans over growing insecurity and the perceived lack of economic development, despite some $18 billion (9.2 billion pounds) of foreign aid spent since then.

The last donors conference on Afghanistan was held in London in 2006 and its major benchmarks will be completed by the end of this year.

The Afghan government hopes a similar meeting will be held in France and the issue was discussed between Afghan and French leaders last month, the Afghan Foreign Ministry said on Monday.

Like the London conference, the Paris meeting will be focused on ways of combating militancy and illegal drugs production, as well as reconstruction and the development of state institutions, the ministry's spokesman said.

"We will put forward our assessment and plans for assurance of sustained aid and new assistance," Sultan Ahmad Baheen said.

Baheen could not say how much money Afghanistan would ask the donors to pledge at the Paris conference and had no specific date for when it would take place.

He said only 25 percent of the $18 billion allocated in the past for Afghanistan, was spent through the Afghan government.

Much aid has been squandered due to poor coordination between aid agencies and the government resulting in overlap in some areas, quick fix projects lacking long-term financial support and a lack of an overall strategy, analysts say.

(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
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Top Afghan official killed
Kabul, Jan 21 (DPA) A provincial head of Afghanistan's national reconciliation commission was killed by unidentified gunmen in the southern province of Zabul, an official said Monday.

Unidentified armed men, who intercepted Qayyum Mujaddedi's car Sunday afternoon, shot him dead and abducted his driver and one of the guards, said Gulab Shah Alikhel, a spokesman of Zabul's provincial governor.

Mujaddedi's body was found in Kakaran area near Qalat, the capital of Zabul, Alikhel said.

Mujaddedi was the director of the Commission for National Reconciliation, established by the Afghan government to persuade militants to eschew violence and join the government's peace efforts. He was on his way to Kabul.
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Afghans protest over claim Koran desecrated
Reuters / January 21, 2008
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - A group of Afghans protested on Monday against what they called the desecration of the Koran by British forces, the district governor said, although he and a British spokesman denied any desecration took place.

Numerous people describing themselves as demonstrators and residents also telephoned a Reuters reporter in the southern city of Kandahar to say some 600 people took part in the protest in Girishk district of neighbouring Helmand province.

Abdul Manaf, Girishk's district governor, said 150 people had demonstrated in the town, but that there had been no desecration of the holy book and Taliban fighters had spread false rumours to provoke a protest.

One self-described protester who introduced himself as Ghulam Mohammad said British soldiers knocked copies of the Muslim holy book out of the hands of villagers.

"The villagers told them that there were no Taliban hiding in the villages and swore by copies of the Koran they had in their hands," he said by telephone. "The British soldiers threw away the Koran and began searching the houses."

Chanting slogans against the Afghan government and foreign troops, the protesters will continue unless the culprits are punished, another man said.

British forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Simon Millar said a small protest had taken place, but there had been no desecration of the Koran. He added that there would be a shura, or tribal council, held on Tuesday to discuss the matter.

There was no way of independently confirming the conflicting reports of the desecration.

Bloody protests have sometimes been held across Afghanistan against alleged desecration of the Koran by U.S. soldiers in Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba where the U.S. military is holding hundreds of suspected militants.

Insurgents loyal to the hard-line Islamist Taliban movement are fighting a bitter guerrilla war mainly in the south and east. They have increasingly used suicide and roadside bombs in their campaign to oust the pro-Western Afghan government and eject more than 50,000 foreign troops from the country.

(Reporting by Mirwais Afghan; Writing by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Katie Nguyen)
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British soldier, Taliban rebels killed in Afghanistan
January 21, 2008
KABUL (AFP) - A British NATO soldier and seven insurgents were killed in incidents in southern Afghanistan near a town that troops recaptured from Taliban fighters last month, officials said.

The latest deaths in a Taliban-led insurgency came as President Hamid Karzai told parliament that terrorism is the country's chief challenge and must be tackled at its roots, including those outside of the country.

The International Security Assistance Force soldier was killed and five wounded Sunday when a bomb blew up their vehicle near the town of Musa Qala in troubled Helmand province, the Ministry of Defence in London said.

"The company were disrupting enemy forces and reassuring local Afghans when a vehicle they were travelling in was hit by a roadside minestrike," the ministry said in a statement.

The death took to 10 the number of international troops killed in Afghanistan in the past three weeks, mostly in Taliban-led violence.

Seven rebels were also killed near Musa Qala Sunday, the Afghan defence ministry said.

Musa Qala was in Taliban hands for 10 months until it was retaken by Afghan and international troops in December, having served as an important rebel base.

Another rebel fighter was killed Sunday in the neighbouring province of Zabul, the defence ministry said.

The head of a national reconciliation mission in Zabul, Abdul Qayoum Mujadeddi, was also killed Sunday in an incident already reported by police.

His body was found hours after he was captured by Taliban with his driver and bodyguard, who were still missing Monday, police said.

Karzai condemned the killing in a statement Monday, saying it would not stop efforts to promote reconciliation.

Thousands of people have joined up to the reconciliation programme, in which they agree to stop fighting in return for amnesty.

The past year was the deadliest in Afghanistan since the remnants of the 1996-2001 Taliban regime launched an insurgency to topple Karzai's Western-backed government.

The insurgency sees almost daily attacks, including suicide bombings, roadside explosions and guerrilla-type run-and-hit strikes on Afghan and international troops.

Karzai said in an address to the opening of the third working year of the post-Taliban parliament terrorism was the nation's biggest challenge and must be tackled at its bases outside the country, a likely reference to Pakistan.

"Targeting its original sources, drying up its finance sources and stopping the expansion of extremism must be included as the key points in the fight on terrorism," he said.
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Keep troops in Kandahar until 2011, Manley to recommend
BRIAN LAGHI - Globe and Mail Update January 21, 2008
OTTAWA — John Manley's report on Canada's future role in Afghanistan will likely recommend that troops stay in Afghanistan until 2011 while also criticizing the federal government agency responsible for delivering aid to the war-torn nation, CTV News reported last night.

The widely anticipated report from the former Liberal foreign affairs minister is also expected to criticize NATO for not taking on its share of the burden and will say that Canada's role should be reconfigured from counterinsurgency to training the Afghan police. The Canadian International Development Agency and Foreign Affairs will also come under fire for their aid programs, CTV said.

Mr. Manley, who was asked by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to chair a blue-chip panel to make recommendations on the mission, is expected to issue his report Tuesday.

Earlier Sunday, a University of Toronto expert said she expected that the report's analysis of Canada's effectiveness will be just as critical as its recommendations. Most informed sources have suggested over the past week or two that Mr. Manley will likely recommend retaining a Canadian presence in the area.

“I think the story of the report will not be only in the recommendations, but in the analysis that the commission does,” Janice Gross Stein, co-author of The Unexpected War, a book on how Canada got involved in the Afghan mission, told CTV's weekly current events program Question Period.

“I think we're going to have a look, a hard look at counterinsurgency, which we've really never had before.”

Ms. Stein said she believes the current strategy has not been an effective one. Sources told CTV that individuals Mr. Manley has spoken to believe that the report will be hard-hitting.

“I think Mr. Manley will really focus on effectiveness. There's no point in having a role, but not being able to be effective in that role,” she said.

“I'd be very surprised, knowing Mr. Manley, if he didn't have something to say about what it's going to take to be effective.”

On the same program, a military expert said Mr. Manley has been clear recently that Afghanistan has given Canada a significant role in the world and it shouldn't be given up easily.

“I would hope that would be reflected in his report,” said Colonel Alain Pellerin, the executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations.

The appointment of Mr. Manley in October as head of the panel raised eyebrows among some Liberals. But Mr. Manley insisted he still remains a strong Liberal.

The Conservative government is in favour of extending the current military mission, and a parliamentary vote on the mission is expected this spring.

The panel has been asked to examine four options including the status quo; complete withdrawal from Afghanistan; a transfer to another region of the country; or refocusing efforts on reconstruction that would allow for a new military contingent from another country to take the Canadian combat role. When his appointment was announced, Mr. Manley said he would not be restricted to the four broad policy options enumerated by Mr. Harper.

At the time, Mr. Manley said the panel would canvass a cross-section of specialists on foreign relations, defence and foreign aid. He said the panel would visit Afghanistan and meet with Canada's partners in the Afghan mission.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who recently visited the war-torn country, has made no secret of his minority government's desire to stay until 2011 — and possibly even longer. “We do not want to leave work undone. We want to make sure Afghanistan is a fully functional, secure, self-sustaining country,” he told reporters in Afghanistan last month. “That's the mission. And we want to complete that mission.”

On Monday, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion reiterated his call to alter the Afghan mission, saying Canada's goal should be to end its combat operations to focus on reconstruction, development and training Afghan soldiers and police to increase security.

"We will not abandon Afghanistan," Mr. Dion said at a Liberal caucus retreat in Kitchener, Ont., Monday morning.

"After February 2009 what we want is a mission to help Afghanis to build that country; a mission in the tradition of Canada."

Mr. Dion and and deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff made a surprise whirlwind tour of Afghanistan earlier this month, visiting President Hamid Karzai in Kabul and Canadian soldiers and civilians stationed around Kandahar.

"You feel very proud to be a Canadian there when you see what our military staff, diplomats and others are all doing," Mr. Dion said of the trip. "We're very proud of our country and our generosity."

With files from Darren York
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US troops recall battle at Musa Qala
By JASON STRAZIUSO Associated Press / January 20, 2008
MUSA QALA, Afghanistan - Chinook helicopters dropped Capt. Don Canterna's company of soldiers on the dusty outskirts of Musa Qala as evening fell. Loaded down with weapons, food, and water, his men walked through the night.

Twelve hours later, daybreak found the 82nd Airborne paratroopers facing a line of mud-brick homes — and the first barrage of Taliban bullets fired from hiding places the Americans couldn't see.

"As the sun was coming up was when we first started getting contact," said Canterna, 28, of Lake Geneva, Wis. "A lot of the fighting was at extremely close range."

For the 600 paratroopers who air assaulted into northern Helmand province — the world's largest opium poppy growing region — the Dec. 8 sunrise ambush was the first volley in what battalion commander Lt. Col. Brian Mennes said was almost 72 hours of continuous fighting.

On Dec. 11, after U.S. troops had closed in on Musa Qala's outskirts, Afghan soldiers poured into town, allowing NATO and Afghan officials to say the country's fledgling army had retaken the Taliban-held enclave, a major symbolic victory.

But American troops still stationed in Musa Qala more than a month after the battle said they in fact did the majority of the fighting, and some chafed a bit that U.S., NATO and Afghan officials downplayed their role.

Why the American troops never got much credit for their role in the battle has to do with NATO's strategy to empower the Afghan army. It's in NATO's interest for Afghans to believe their army is strong, dependable and experienced.

Right after the fall of Musa Qala, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on a visit to Kabul, said the most important lesson of the battle was that "we can work together, and progressively Afghan forces are in the lead."

"We didn't get credit for it, but it was a good mission," said Capt. Jesse Smith, a 26-year-old medic from Lorton, Va. "Taking Musa Qala was the Afghans. Securing the perimeter of Musa Qala was the Americans."

The 82nd Airborne paratroopers under Mennes, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment based at Fort Bragg, N.C., have seen almost a full year of constant combat. But Mennes said his men faced their toughest battle at Musa Qala against an insurgent force 350 strong.

"It was the most intense," Mennes said. "I think the (insurgents') resolve here was very high."

Lt. Col. David Accetta, the top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, acknowledged that U.S. forces had a role in Musa Qala, but he saved his praise for Afghan troops.

"The Afghans were really the lead and whatever they accomplished was much more significant from my perspective. You expect our guys to be good and get it done but you don't necessarily think that immediately of the (Afghan forces). But they did step up to the plate and did a great job," he said.

That lack of recognition appeared to irk some of the U.S. soldiers who were gathered in Musa Qala's district center over pre-packaged military meals last week. But Canterna said seeing the bigger picture was more important.

"Recognition is always nice but completing the mission is paramount," he said.

When asked if his men were bothered by a lack of recognition, Mennes said "yeah," but he did not dwell on it.

"I think we know what we did. Our partners here appreciate what we did. The (Afghan) governors that we work for and with appreciate it. I think that's the important thing," he said.

As the Americans approached Musa Qala from the north, British troops were stationed south of town to intercept fleeing militants. The British commander, Brigadier Andrew Mackay, said the cooperation was a model for international missions. "A lot of what we did couldn't have been done without" the U.S. troops, he said.

One American was killed on Dec. 9 by an improvised explosive device. Twelve men were wounded, from shrapnel and gunfire. The U.S. forces were supported by fighter aircraft during the battle.

Mennes said he knows of three civilians killed in the fight, a relatively low number. He said his men understand counterinsurgency battles well, and that he's proud his troops are seen by Afghans as a force for good.

"They understand that you can't come in here and blow up all the buildings and kill everyone in front of you, which doesn't allow you to be where we are today. It doesn't allow you to gain the trust of the people we are here to help," Mennes said during an interview at Musa Qala's government center, a heavily fortified but dilapidated building.

"They understand that the kinetic operations (the battles) are just a price for entry to get in here to do what's important, which is earn the consent of the people toward the government," Mennes said.
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Kabul's Old City Gets Major Renovation
By ALISA TANG Associated Press January 20, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan Last year the streets in parts of the old city dropped by nine feet.

The reason? A massive garbage haul. Just about every unemployed man in Murad Khane was recruited to clean up years of litter and mud piled on top of the streets. By the time they were done, the streets and alleys were lower.

The garbage project is part of an effort to clean up and restore old Kabul, after six years of relative peace and with millions of dollars from foreign donors.

The Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which is dedicated to traditional Afghan arts and architecture, has spent $1 million on conservation and clean-up in the Murad Khane neighborhood since last year. The Kabul organization is financed by both Western and Middle East donors.

The lower street level at first left Abdul Salaam's door looking oddly out of place, perched three feet higher than the square in front of it. So Turquoise Mountain had to fix his door, too, with fresh mud scars showing where it used to be. The frayed edges of plastic bags still stick out of the wall.

"It looks much nicer," Salaam said about the cleaned-up neighborhood. "And it doesn't smell bad anymore."

Next door to Salaam's house, Turquoise Mountain has just completed its first full restoration, the 130-year-old Peacock House - so called because of the carved wooden peacocks at the corners of the wooden window screens.

Similar houses are tucked away in the narrow alleys of the old city in this war-torn capital. Walk through a wooden portal and a covered walkway, and a visitor emerges in an intimate courtyard, surrounded on all sides by carved screens - as if encased in a wooden jewelry box. The screens lift in warm weather, opening the house to the courtyard.

These intricate, 19th century homes barely survived bombardment in the 1990s, when Kabul became the front line of Afghanistan's bloody civil war, and earlier plans to raze them for apartments. But rocket shells and earthquakes have left most teetering in rickety ruin.

Now the mud and timber homes are being restored to their former splendor, instilling a newfound pride among the mostly working-class residents of the old city.

"It used to be so beautiful, but during the fighting, a couple of rockets landed on the house," said Aminullah, a 63-year-old carpenter whose family has lived in the same two-story wooden structure for nearly two centuries.

The roof has been repaired and the courtyard repaved with bricks.

"The houses in the old city are so old," said Aminullah, who uses only one name. "They were handed down to us from our forefathers. If someone asked me to exchange it (for a modern one), I would not trade it because I'm very attached to this house."

His home is one of 11 restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which has spent more than $8 million on historic conservation in Kabul since 2002, just after the U.S. invasion drove out the Taliban regime.

The Geneva-based organization, which does charitable work mainly in Muslim countries, has focused on the densely populated Asheqan wa Arefan neighborhood. With about 100 residents per acre, it is at least 10 times more cramped than New York, although still less so than Mumbai, India.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has also undertaken two large restorations in Kabul: the late 18th century brick-domed tomb of the ruler Timur Shah, next to the old city bazaar, and a 27-acre terraced garden laid out in the 16th century outside the old city.

But it is the smaller-scale projects - the homes, a public bathhouse, several shrines and smaller mosques - that have had the most impact on people.

The old city is a maze of narrow alleys, houses and shrines woven deep behind Kabul's main arteries. Some of the old homes are squalid, with mud piled high in the courtyard and chickens clucking around murky puddles left from hand washing clothes. Just next door, freshly restored wooden houses almost glow in contrast.

A 1979 master plan to raze Asheqan wa Arefan to make room for multistory, concrete apartment buildings was shelved in 2002.

"There were some businessmen who wanted to put up big buildings here, but this area has been passed on to us from our forefathers for many generations, and we have to respect it," said Sayed Hassan Parwisi, a community leader in the old city. "The mud of this area is like a shrine to us. We're proud of these mud and wood houses that we have because this is our history."

Streets that were once muddy puddles of open sewage have been paved with stones. Mothers told the Aga Khan Trust for Culture that the most important improvement is the drainage installed to keep the neighborhood - and their children - clean and healthy.

Rather than bringing in international experts, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture used local craftsmen to do the restoration work, honing their skills while keeping costs down.

"In a city of billion-dollar (development) programs, it's quite nice to be a bit more modest," said Jolyon Leslie, who manages the organization's program in Afghanistan.

It has not been easy to convince old city residents of the value of their wooden houses, as wealthier Afghans construct enormous cement houses adorned with mirrors and colorful cement flowers. But as residents see the improvements around them, they are chipping in manpower to help, said Parwisi, the old city community leader.

"We would all love to have cement houses, big buildings, beautiful houses, but if it does not have history, then it's useless," he said. "Our main interest in this area is its history. We want these houses because our forefathers have been living here for generations."
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