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January 25, 2008 

Blast kills four Afghans from U.S.-led force
KHOST, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A roadside bomb killed four Afghan fighters from the U.S.-led coalition force on Friday in southeastern Afghanistan, a provincial official said.

Coalition soldier dies in Afghanistan
Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops clashed with insurgents while searching a compound near the Pakistani frontier on Friday, leaving one coalition soldier dead, a statement said.

US: Afghan air force not combat ready
By PAULINE JELINEK, Associated Press Writer Thu Jan 24, 1:34 PM ET
WASHINGTON - The U.S. general in charge of rebuilding Afghanistan's decimated air corps said Thursday that it will be at least 2013 before the force is ready to fly combat missions now done by foreign airmen.

Afghanistan: Official Says Iranian Mines Found In Taliban Commander's House
By Ron Synovitz RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
An provincial police chief says authorities have discovered a weapons cache in western Afghanistan containing 130 land mines of different types that appear to have been imported from Iran.

World's first oil paintings in Afghan caves: expert
TOKYO (AFP) — Forget Renaissance Europe. The world's first oil paintings go back nearly 14 centuries to murals in Afghanistan's Bamiyan caves, a Japanese researcher says.

Tories need to be open on Afghanistan
Detainee issue a perfect example
John Ivison,  National Post Friday, January 25, 2008
If John Manley had waited an extra few days to release his report on Canada's activities in Afghanistan, he would have had a fresh example to back up his contention that there is an "information deficit" undermining support for the mission.

Being reasonable about Afghanistan is wishful thinking
The Times January 25, 2008
A report on Canada's role in Afghanistan shows commitment tempered with unease that rings true for any Western countryBronwen Maddox, World Briefing
An independent panel in Canada, which reported this week on whether to keep its troops in Afghanistan, has produced an astute and moving description of the dilemma that will ring true for any Western country.

Afghan Reporter's Death Sentence Draws Wide Condemnation
By Nora Boustany Washington Post Foreign Service Friday, January 25, 2008; Page A15
A death sentence handed to a reporter in Afghanistan has prompted the United Nations and several press freedom organizations to urge the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to intervene in the case.

Afghanistan: Journalist Claims Article That Led To Death Sentence
RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan By Golnaz Esfandiari
His pen name says it all: Arash Bikhoda -- or "Godless," in Persian.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, that’s a dangerous name. But Bikhoda is an Iranian-born student and Internet journalist who lives in Europe. He’s also the author of "The Koranic Verses That Discriminate Against Women

The British have made matters worse, says Afghan President
David Charter in Davos, Anthony Loyd in Helmand and Richard Beeston The Times (UK) January 25, 2008
Britain and Afghanistan fell out in spectacular fashion yesterday after President Karzai accused his British allies of bungling the military operation in Helmand and setting back prospects for the area by 18 months.

Black turbans rebound
Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop by Antonio Giustozzi
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia Jan 26, 2008  BOOK REVIEW Asia Times Online, Hong Kong
Shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban government in the twilight of 2001, the new Afghan dispensation began facing a vigorous insurgency that buried hopes of stability and peace. While the American military was

Optimism turns to gloom in Karzai's hometown
Surge in bloodshed viewed as beginning of bigger war
GRAEME SMITH From Friday's Globe and Mail January 25, 2008 at 1:30 AM EST
KARZ, AFGHANISTAN — When journalists wanted to find optimism in the wreckage of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, correspondents bumped along the dirt roads south of Kandahar city to a cluster of mud huts known as Karz.

Afghan Attacks Drop as Al-Qaeda Focuses on Pakistan, U.S. Says
By Ed Johnson
Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces based in Pakistan are reducing raids into neighboring Afghanistan as they focus instead on attacking President Pervez Musharraf's government, a U.S. commander said.

Taliban wield the ax ahead of new battle
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online / January 24, 2008
KARACHI - With the Taliban's spring offensive just months away, the Afghan front has been quiet as Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have been heavily engaged in fighting security forces in Pakistan's tribal regions.

In Kabul, Shattered Illusions
By JEAN MacKENZIE - Kabul, Afghanistan NY TIMES Oped
“WELL, at least we’re not in Baghdad,” we used to say when confronted by the vagaries of the Kabul winter. No heat, sporadic electricity and growing disaffection among the population might make us uncomfortable

ISAF soldiers teach Afghans construction skills
By Pajhwok Reporters - Jan 22, 2008 - 15:31
KABUL, Jan 22 (PAN): NATO soldiers imparted Afghans construction skills during a two-week winter skill labour workshop at the Jalalabad Forward Operating Base in the eastern Nangarhar province.

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Blast kills four Afghans from U.S.-led force
KHOST, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A roadside bomb killed four Afghan fighters from the U.S.-led coalition force on Friday in southeastern Afghanistan, a provincial official said.

The fighters were killed when the device hit their vehicle on a road in Khost province on the border with Pakistan, he said.

He said the blast was the work of "terrorists," a term often used by Afghan officials for describing Taliban and al Qaeda militants.

Also on Friday, a soldier from the coalition force was killed during an operation against Taliban insurgents in the eastern province of Kunar, the coalition said.

Three coalition soldiers, an Afghan interpreter and a local security member were wounded in the operation in which air support was also used, it said in a statement.

It did not identify the foreign victims.

Violence has killed more than 10,000 people, including more than 300 foreign troops, largely in southern and eastern areas over the past two years, the bloodiest period since the coalition overthrew Taliban from power in 2001.

It comes despite the presence of some 160,000 Afghan and foreign troops led by the U.S. military and NATO.

The al Qaeda-backed Taliban who have save havens in border areas of Pakistan, say they will drive out the foreign troops and topple the pro-Western Afghan government.
(With reporting and writing by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
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Coalition soldier dies in Afghanistan
Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops clashed with insurgents while searching a compound near the Pakistani frontier on Friday, leaving one coalition soldier dead, a statement said.

Troops called in airstrikes, which "destroyed an insurgent cell" after the clash in Nari district of Kunar province, the coalition statement said.

The nationalities of the dead and three wounded soldiers were not released. Most of the troops in that area are American.

An Afghan soldier and an interpreter working for the coalition were also wounded, the statement said. It did not say how many suspected militants were killed.

U.S. troops are fighting Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the country's east, which borders Pakistan. The number of attacks in the Afghan border areas has decreased recently, as militants step up assaults on Pakistani forces across the frontier.

Also Friday, Britain defended its forces against comments by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in which he reportedly accused them of making the security situation in the country's volatile south worse.

According to The Times newspaper Karzai was quoted as telling journalists at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday that mistakes by Britain and the U.S. allowed the Taliban to make inroads in Helmand province.

"Both the American and the British forces guaranteed to me they knew what they were doing and I made the mistake of listening to them," Karzai was quoted as saying. "And when they came in, the Taliban came."

Karzai accused Britain and the U.S. of setting the security situation in Helmand back 18 months by dismissing the province's governor without having a proper replacement ready, the report said. He also said forces did not come to Helmand in sufficient numbers and did not have enough information about the province.

Britain's Foreign Office rejected the claim, saying its policy was to work in consultation with Karzai's government.

"Our strategy in Helmand has been to work with the Afghan government to extend their authority throughout the province, creating a secure environment which allows political and economic development," a spokesman said on condition of anonymity in line with ministry practice.

"Our armed forces have suffered losses and shown great determination and bravery to achieve that objective," the spokesman said.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was in Davos on Friday, has promised to provide long-term assistance to Afghanistan. Britain has about 7,700 military personnel there, most of them fighting a resurgent Taliban in the country's south.

An Associated Press count based on official figures found that more than 6,500 people — mostly militants — died in insurgency-related violence in 2007, the deadliest year in Afghanistan since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban.
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US: Afghan air force not combat ready
By PAULINE JELINEK, Associated Press Writer Thu Jan 24, 1:34 PM ET
WASHINGTON - The U.S. general in charge of rebuilding Afghanistan's decimated air corps said Thursday that it will be at least 2013 before the force is ready to fly combat missions now done by foreign airmen.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Jay Lindell said the fledgling 8-year rebuilding program is suffering from a lack of aircraft and spare parts and a relatively old corps of Afghan pilots, some of whom haven't flown in 15 years. Afghanistan hasn't trained a new pilot since 1992, he said.

"It'll take many years to develop the Afghan air corps," said Lindell, who commands the 130-member U.S. and Canadian team assigned to the project.

"We're well on our way," he said, noting the program started last spring now has some two dozen planes and helicopters and that Afghans are flying daily supply and transport missions. He said those are the most urgent and critical needs right now of Afghan ground forces, who are taking on an increasing role in the battle against the Taliban.

The U.S. and NATO-led counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan depends heavily on Western air power to transport troops to remote battlefields and to target militants in bombing missions.

Afghan pilots "are picking up every day more and more of the mission" that foreign forces used to fly, Lindell said. But training in those transport missions — and others such as medical evacuations — will remain the focus for the next few years.

The force won't be trained until 2013 or 2014 to play combat roles such as providing close air support for the Afghan National Army soldiers, Lindell told Pentagon reporters via videoconference from Kabul.

The size of the fleet will build slowly to 61 aircraft by 2011, he said. The NATO-US training mission has set a goal of rebuilding the corps to 112 aircraft — including some two dozen attack planes — and a 7,400-person air force by 2015, he said.

"It's not just air frames that we have to acquire," Lindell said "It's obviously the training of the pilots in this close air support role."

Lindell said that although Afghan pilots are very competent and can fly the missions they are assigned, their average age is 43 and many are nearing mandatory retirement.

Some of the pilots now flying will have to be pulled off duty for English language lessons, as well, he said.

Lindell hopes next year to start training 48 pilots a year.

"We plan to bring this air corps up to date with Western technology and do business similar to how ... the U.S. Air Force (does) and teach them close air support so they can take over this mission in Afghanistan," he said.

Afghanistan once had a strong air force that included hundreds of helicopters and Soviet-built MiG-21 and Su-22 warplanes. But that fleet was devastated by two decades of war.

Calling the event the "birth of our air force," Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week opened a new $22 million U.S.-funded military hangar opposite Kabul's international airport.
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Afghanistan: Official Says Iranian Mines Found In Taliban Commander's House
By Ron Synovitz RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
An provincial police chief says authorities have discovered a weapons cache in western Afghanistan containing 130 land mines of different types that appear to have been imported from Iran.

The cache, discovered in Farah Province near the Iranian border, includes about 40 sophisticated remote-controlled mines.

Farah's provincial police chief, General Khailbaz Sherzai, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that the cache was found in the house of a Taliban commander named Mullah Abdul Ghani.

"We discovered a cache containing a large collection of land mines -- antipersonnel and antitank mines -- in the Anardara district of Farah Province," Sherzai said. "They were recently brought from Iran and the man who was responsible for that has escaped. We completely destroyed the cache and the room it was contained in."

It is the latest in a series of weapons caches found in Afghanistan that the U.S. military, NATO, or the Afghan government has said were either made in Iran or transported through Iran and into the hands of Taliban militants.

Tehran has consistently denied sending weapons to the Taliban. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said Afghan officials have no evidence linking the Iranian government to weapons shipped to the Taliban.

In June, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said there is no evidence confirming any direct role of the Iranian government in smuggling weapons to the Taliban, and that militants could be using funds from the opium trade to purchase weapons from criminal groups.

But Gates has also said the large quantity of Iranian-made weapons discovered in Afghanistan during the past year makes it difficult to believe that the weapons are being smuggled without the knowledge of Iranian authorities.

From China Via Iran

In September, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said Washington had also complained to Beijing about Chinese weapons shipped to Iran that appear to be turning up in Afghanistan in the hands of Taliban fighters.

Independent analysts agree that it would be difficult to smuggle the volume of weapons now being found in western Afghanistan without the knowledge of some senior officials in Tehran.

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book "Taliban," insists he has no doubt that Iran has been involved in channeling money and weapons to various elements in Afghanistan -- including the Taliban -- for several years.

"They have long-running relations with many of the commanders and small-time warlords in western Afghanistan," Rashid told RFE/RL recently. "I think Iran is playing all sides in the Afghan conflict. If the Iranians are convinced that the Americans are undermining them through western Afghanistan, then it is very likely that these agents of theirs have been activated."

Alex Vatanka, the Washington-based Iran analyst for Jane's Information Group, says recent discoveries in Afghanistan of several large caches of Chinese and Iranian-made weapons suggests Tehran has had at least an indirect role.

Vatanka says drug traffickers and smugglers are not capable of sending to Afghanistan the volume of weapons that are turning up in the hands of Taliban fighters -- unless, he says, they have approval from at least one senior government official in Tehran.

President Karzai has generally downplayed suggestions of Iranian involvement in efforts to destabilize the government in Kabul, and instead stressed his

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)
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World's first oil paintings in Afghan caves: expert
TOKYO (AFP) — Forget Renaissance Europe. The world's first oil paintings go back nearly 14 centuries to murals in Afghanistan's Bamiyan caves, a Japanese researcher says.

Buddhist images painted in the central Afghan region, dated to around 650 AD, are the earliest examples of oil used in art history, says Yoko Taniguchi, an expert at Japan's National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.

A group of Japanese, European and US scientists are collaborating to restore damaged murals in caves in the Bamiyan Valley, famous for its two gigantic statues of the Buddha which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

In the murals, thousands of Buddhas in vermilion robes sit cross-legged, sporting exquisitely knotted hair.

Other motifs show crouching monkeys, men facing one another or palm leaves delicately intertwined with mythical creatures.

The paintings incorporate a mix of Indian and Chinese influences, and are most likely to be the works of artists traveling on the Silk Road, which was the largest trade and cultural route connecting the East and the West.

The Los Angeles-based Getty Conservation Institute analysed 53 samples extracted from the murals. Using gas chromatography methods, the researchers found that 19 had oil in the paint.

"Different types of oil were used on the dirt walls with such a sophisticated technique that I felt I was looking right at a medieval board painting dating from 14th or 15th century Italy," Taniguchi told AFP.

The discovery would reverse common perceptions about the origins of oil paintings.

The technique is widely believed to have emerged in Europe leading into the Renaissance, which flowered from 1400 to 1600.

Italian artist and architect Giorgio Vasari first wrote of oil painting in his book, "The Lives of the Artists," in the mid-16th century.

Art historians, however, argue that 15th-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck may have known of the technique because he had developed a stable varnish, although he kept it secret until his death.

"It was very impressive to discover that such advanced methods were used in murals in central Asia," Taniguchi said.

"My European colleagues were shocked because they always believed oil paintings were invented in Europe. They couldn't believe such techniques could exist in some Buddhist cave deep in the countryside," she added.

Painters of the Buddhist murals used organic substances -- including natural resin, plant gum, dry oil and animal protein -- as a binder, which even today is an important element in paint.

A binder keeps pigment particles together in a cohesive film and allows the paint to resist decay.

The researchers are trying to restore the murals amid international efforts to salvage what is left of Bamiyan.

The Taliban, ignoring global protests, dynamited the two 1,500-year-old statues, the world's biggest representations of the Buddha, in March 2001, branding them un-Islamic idolatry.

The regime was ousted later that year in a US-led military campaign after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Although oil was used in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, there currently exist no examples of their use in painting. The oil was used for medicine, cosmetics or to coat boats, Taniguchi said.

Taniguchi hopes the advanced techniques used to analyse the murals would be put to use in ruins of other ancient civilisations.

Other early civilisations including those in current-day Iran, China, Turkey, Pakistan and India may have used similar techniques as well but their ruins have not been subject to advanced, extensive research, she said.

"In analysing old murals throughout Europe and Central Asia, I look forward to throwing light on the roots of oil paintings," she said.
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Tories need to be open on Afghanistan
Detainee issue a perfect example
John Ivison,  National Post Friday, January 25, 2008
If John Manley had waited an extra few days to release his report on Canada's activities in Afghanistan, he would have had a fresh example to back up his contention that there is an "information deficit" undermining support for the mission.

"Governments from the start have failed to communicate with Canadians with balance and candour about the reason for Canadian involvement, about the risks, difficulties and expected results of that involvement," the report concludes.

He might have been referring specifically to the Afghan detainee issue, which is back to afflict Canadian politicians like a curse that carries a promise of professional ruin for any who are touched by it.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier are the latest senior figures who have been tainted by a blight that previously

claimed Gordon O'Connor, one of Mr. MacKay's predecessors.

The latest chapter was sparked by a Department of Justice letter to Amnesty International in which it was revealed (accidentally, one presumes) that Canadian Forces stopped handing over Afghan detainees on Nov. 5, after Canada's monitoring team found credible evidence of mistreatment of a detainee in an Afghan detention facility.

The problem is that Messrs. Harper, Mac-Kay and Bernier were all asked about detainee transfers in the House of Commons in November and did not mention the change of policy.

For example, on Nov. 22, Liberal defence critic Denis Coderre asked Mr. MacKay to come clean on the suspicions of torture. The Defence Minister replied that "there has not been one single, solitary proven allegation of abuse of detainees ... Rather than producing hogwash and hornswoggle, maybe he can bring some cold, hard facts instead of this torqued rhetoric."

A week earlier, Mr. Bernier answered a Liberal question on detainees by saying that Canada has an "open process. We released details yesterday about what we are doing right now and what we did in the past. It is very clear. It is very transparent."

Even Mr. Harper got in on the act on Nov. 20, although he added an important caveat. "We have said repeatedly that there is no evidence whatsoever of abuse involving the transfer of Canadian prisoners -- until one recently in the past two weeks."

Liberal leader Stephane Dion, who had asked the original question, missed yet another opportunity to nail the Prime Minister by asking the obvious follow-up: "So there is evidence of torture. Give us some more details and tell us what you're going to do about it."

Had he done so, he would inevitably have met with the stonewall response that detainee transfer is an operation-al matter on which the government cannot comment for reasons of national security.

This is a complicated issue, coloured by shades of grey that do not accord with the black-and-white world painted by Amnesty.

It is understandable that Canada has not broadcast its suspension of detainee transfers. The military argues that this would allow the Taliban to attack with impunity and then surrender, knowing they would soon be released.

It is also apparent why the Canadian Forces are reluctant to build a jail in Afghanistan bigger than the holding tank that exists at Kandahar air base.

As General Rick Hillier, Chief of the Defence Staff, told my colleague, Don Martin, before Christmas: "What would that be saying to the Afghan government? We would conduct operations with them, but as soon as they capture somebody, they're not going to be allowed to keep them. The most illogical thing of all would be to take away that expression of sovereignty."

Having said that, it seems clear that in this instance, the government has abused the cover offered by the national security provision. All three senior Conservatives knew, or should have known, by mid-November that there was at least one documented and incontrovertible case of torture -- the detainee reportedly told diplomats where to find the cable and rubber hose used by his torturers.

For Mr. MacKay to then stand in his place and say there has not been a single "proven" allegation of abuse borders on deception.

Although Mr. Bernier acknowledged in November that there had been a recent allegation of mistreatment, to suggest that all details of Canadian policy had been released and that the process is open and transparent, is an exaggeration of the facts.

Mr. Harper's caveat, revealing the existence of a suspected case of abuse, almost absolves him, though he also left the impression that all was tickety-boo on the detainee file.

As it stands, Canadians have no idea whether we are simply releasing Taliban prisoners, have resumed handing them on to the Afghans, or are perhaps sending them to the Americans, who have a prison north of Kabul.

No wonder John Manley and his panel concluded the information deficit is hurting support for the mission and needs to be addressed immediately.

If the curse of the detainee file is not to strike yet another minister, it might be a good idea for the government to follow Mr. Manley's advice and start talking frankly to those Canadians whose support it needs if it wants the mission to succeed.
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Being reasonable about Afghanistan is wishful thinking
The Times January 25, 2008
A report on Canada's role in Afghanistan shows commitment tempered with unease that rings true for any Western countryBronwen Maddox, World Briefing
An independent panel in Canada, which reported this week on whether to keep its troops in Afghanistan, has produced an astute and moving description of the dilemma that will ring true for any Western country.

Its broad answer is that Canada should not pull out quickly but its presence should be conditional on more support from other Nato countries and, in any case, it should begin to ratchet down its efforts.

Behind those carefully phrased recommendations is a mixture of powerful sentiments: that Canada's contribution — and casualties — have not always been acknowledged enough (by the US, is the implication); that there are good, idealistic reasons why it should not pull out quickly; but there is real alarm about the prospects of the Nato mission.

“We find ourselves, with our allies, in a situation of conflict in a land that is far from us, little known by us and where our interests do not seem self-evident,” the panel says. “We are trying to help a country whose recent history has been one long, unending tragedy, and whose prospects still appear bleak.”

That expression of commitment tempered with unease will ring true for many of the 39 countries taking a military part in its revival. The panel expresses deep unease about the lack of benchmarks for progress and the rise of the drug trade, even if education is one of the few solid improvements. The panel's recommendations have weight. Formally called the Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan, it was created by Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister, on October 12 and was asked to advise Canadians and Parliament on options for the mission after the current mandate ends in February 2009. Parliament will make the decision, he has said.

Public opinion has been turning against the engagement, particularly with the heavy casualties suffered by Canada's 2,500 troops. The total, including one soldier killed this week, is 78 military deaths and one diplomat. Canada has also authorised $1.2billion in aid to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2011. Last week's remarks by Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, that other countries' troops in southern Afghanistan lacked counter- insurgency skills, did not help.

The panel calls in detail for more coherence in international efforts; more Nato troops; “forceful representations with Afghanistan's neighbours, in particular Pakistan”; and concerted efforts by the Afghan Government to tackle corruption, provide basic services, and pursue political reconciliation.

This is reasonable, but also wishful thinking. More Nato troops cannot be summoned out of thin air after a year's efforts to boost numbers. President Musharraf is only just in charge of Pakistan; the same is true of President Karzai in Afghanistan itself. In these, the panel (and Canada) is bound to be disappointed although it may have more luck in its call for more helicopters and surveillance planes.

Its message otherwise is clear: that Canadian forces should begin to hand over responsibility for security to Afghans, that their combat role should then “be significantly reduced” and that its aid should be spent on practical projects in Kandahar province.

The report shows that support is falling — and alarm is rising — in a country which has played a crucial part in a conflict which is a long way from coming right.
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Afghan Reporter's Death Sentence Draws Wide Condemnation
By Nora Boustany Washington Post Foreign Service Friday, January 25, 2008; Page A15
A death sentence handed to a reporter in Afghanistan has prompted the United Nations and several press freedom organizations to urge the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to intervene in the case.

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, 20, a reporter for the daily Jahan-e Naw and a journalism student at Balkh University, was arrested Oct. 27 in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, an area where mullahs hold particular influence over law and cultural life.

His alleged offense was distributing to classmates a report, printed from a Web site, commenting on a Muslim woman's right to multiple marriages. The article, written in Farsi, which is close to the Dari language spoken in Afghanistan, questioned why men are allowed to have four spouses in Islam while women are denied the same right.

Without a lawyer to represent him, Kambakhsh was hustled Tuesday into a small hearing room where three judges and a prosecutor conducted a five-minute proceeding, according to his older brother.

He was then handed a piece of paper saying he had acted against Islam and should be executed, said the brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, who visited him in prison Wednesday night.

"There was no defense lawyer, no human rights adviser, no family member, no discussion, nothing," Ibrahimi, a 26-year-old journalist, said by telephone from Mazar-e Sharif. "They did not let him explain. It was a joke."

On Thursday, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan issued a statement saying: "The pressures for punishment, warnings to journalists, as well as the holding of this case in closed session without Mr. Kambakhsh having legal representation point to possible misuse of the judicial process. This would not serve the cause of justice."

Organizations such as the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which has offices in Kabul, the capital, said the charges against Kambakhsh are aimed at intimidating his older brother, Ibrahimi, who recently published an article implicating an Afghan legislator in a series of killings and kidnappings.

"This is a freedom of expression case," said Vincent Brossel, the Reporters Without Borders official in charge of the Asia-Pacific region. "Ibrahimi, who is the more senior and experienced journalist among the brothers, has been under threat for months. And the arrest and sentence was a way to gag him."

In Kabul, Jean MacKenzie, country director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, which trains Afghan journalists and for which Ibrahimi has written, told the Associated Press that the charges against Kambakhsh were fake.

"We feel strongly that this is a complete fabrication on the part of the authorities up in Mazar," she said.

A prosecutor in Mazar-e Sharif recently warned journalists not to express public signs of support for their imprisoned colleague.

Ibrahimi said he was still writing, but also moving constantly to avoid arrest.

"I am being careful and I am concerned, but I am working and doing my job," he said. "I may be risking death, but I should accept the challenge."

Brossel and Ibrahimi said that in provinces far from Kabul, mullahs and a council of clerics are more powerful than the government. "We hope the power of international pressure on President Karzai will influence him to act," Brossel said.

Under the Afghan constitution, which acknowledges the precedence of sharia, or Islamic law, Kambakhsh could not be held for more than three months without charge.

According to Afghan law, defense lawyers may appeal the lower court's decision. Ibrahimi, who has consulted with mullahs, said he was told that his brother could have been released after three days if he had apologized.

Said Tayeb Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, confirmed that Kambakhsh has the right to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. "This is just a recommendation by the council of clerics," Jawad said of the sentence, adding that he has taken the matter up with the foreign affairs minister. "It does not have binding power."
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Afghanistan: Journalist Claims Article That Led To Death Sentence
RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan By Golnaz Esfandiari
His pen name says it all: Arash Bikhoda -- or "Godless," in Persian.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, that’s a dangerous name. But Bikhoda is an Iranian-born student and Internet journalist who lives in Europe. He’s also the author of "The Koranic Verses That Discriminate Against Women," a controversial article that, a world away in Afghanistan, has landed journalism student Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh on death row.

In what media reports called a secret trial, a three-judge panel in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif on January 22 sentenced Kambakhsh to death for “blasphemy.” The ruling, which highlights the tension between international human-rights law and some conservative interpretations of Islam, has been widely condemned by human-rights organizations in Afghanistan and around the world.

Kambakhsh was arrested in October after reportedly distributing the article among fellow students. Authorities apparently believed he was its author, but his brother told RFE/RL this week that Kambakhsh had copied the article off a website.

Bikhoda has confirmed to Radio Farda that it was his website -- and his article. He also expressed sadness over what has happened and appealed to the Afghan government to ensure that Kambakhsh's death sentence is not carried out.

"But from a legal and moral point of view I don’t feel responsible," Bikhoda says. "In the rules of my websites, it has been written that many people consider the articles blasphemous and that they might seem insulting. The publishing and use of these articles in Islamic countries is usually not in line with the laws in these countries, and it is also written that the articles contain the personal views of the authors."

'No Right To Arrest Him'

One chief judge from northern Afghanistan's Balkh Province says Kambakhsh confessed to the crime, and that only President Hamid Karzai can pardon him. While it remains unclear what the journalist might have told the authorities, the question of whether he penned the article appears to be vital in determining his guilt.

"If the convicted person doesn't accept that he wrote the article, and if he denies being quoted, then no court can judge his faith [according to Islamic Shari'a law]," Abdullah Attaei, an Afghan expert in Shari'a law, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan. “When he denies that he wrote the article, then no one has the right to arrest or investigate him or even to try to prove him guilty."

In Kabul, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has expressed concern about the case against Kambakhsh.

UNAMA says cases involving religion and freedom of expression occur in many countries and require care and sensitivity in their handling. UNAMA urged a proper and complete review of this case as it goes through the appeals process. "The pressures for punishment, warnings to journalists, as well as the holding of this case in closed session without Mr. Kambakhsh having legal representation point to possible misuse of the judicial process," UNAMA says. "This would not serve the cause of justice."

Afghanistan's constitution commits it to uphold both Islamic values and universal human rights. Some see those values as compatible -- but not Bikhoda.

The journalist, who asked that his location not be identified due to security concerns, says his article tackles important issues facing the Islamic world. "In the article, [I have cited] Koranic verses that are discriminatory -- for example, the legal superiority and superiority in status of men over women, or the possibility for men to have several wives," Bikhoda says. "These kinds of issues were cited from the Koran and made clear that they are not in line with international human rights laws."

But while expressing concern over Kambakhsh's fate, Bikhoda says he is also heartened to see that Afghanistan has people brave enough to express their views -- even at great personal risk. "I am happy that people such as Kambakhsh live in Afghanistan," he says. "Now there will be more world attention on the issue of intolerance toward intellectuals in Islamic societies -- that this is how Islamists deal with those who oppose them. Instead of giving them a logical answer, out of weakness they use violence and death sentences against them."

Islamic authorities in Mazar-e Sharif defend the sentence against Kambakhsh.

In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, Balkh Province Attorney-General Hafizullah Khaliqyar said Kambakhsh had insulted Islam, misinterpreted the Koran, and distributed the article to others. He denied there had been any violation of the journalist’s rights and said the trial was held in a "very Islamic way." Khaliqyar also threatened to arrest any journalist who defended Kambakhsh.

The case is now set for the first of two appeals. Kambakhsh will remain in custody during the process.

(Golnaz Esfandiari is the director of Radio Farda. RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report)
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The British have made matters worse, says Afghan President
David Charter in Davos, Anthony Loyd in Helmand and Richard Beeston The Times (UK) January 25, 2008
Britain and Afghanistan fell out in spectacular fashion yesterday after President Karzai accused his British allies of bungling the military operation in Helmand and setting back prospects for the area by 18 months.

Mr Karzai, Britain’s key ally in Afghanistan, had little praise for the efforts of the 7,800 British troops deployed in his country. Most are in the restless southern Helmand province, where Britain has invested billions of pounds in trying to defeat the Taleban, bolster central government authority and begin reconstruction.

But Mr Karzai said that they had failed in the task, particularly the initial military mission launched nearly two years ago by 16 Air Assault Brigade — a unit that is returning for its second tour this year.

“There was one part of the country where we suffered after the arrival of the British forces,” Mr Karzai told a group of journalists at the Davos Economic Forum. “Before that we were fully in charge of Helmand. When our governor was there, we were fully in charge. They came and said, ‘Your governor is no good’. I said ‘All right, do we have a replacement for this governor; do you have enough forces?’. Both the American and the British forces guaranteed to me they knew what they were doing and I made the mistake of listening to them. And when they came in, the Taleban came.”

Asked if he was blaming British failure for the return of the Taleban, he added: “I just described the situation of mistakes we made. The mistake was that we removed a local arrangement without having a replacement. We removed the police force. That was not good. The security forces were not in sufficient numbers or information about the province. That is why the Taleban came in. It took us a year and a half to take back Musa Qala. This was not failure but a mistake.”

Britain had no immediate comment to the criticism. But senior military commanders and diplomats in Afghanistan have bemoaned privately the lack of co-operation with the Karzai administration and its controversial appointments of key provincial posts to the police and local government in Helmand. So far they have refrained from public criticism of President Karzai, who remains the West’s only credible figurehead.

The same is not true of the Americans, however. David Satterfield, the US Co-ordinator on Iraq, told The Times this week that Iraq would turn out to be America’s “good” war while Afghanistan was going “bad”. “In many ways Iraq may be seen to be the success story with all reservations and cautions that are appropriate. And Afghanistan the much more threatening, bad picture.”

Mr Satterfield added that Afghanistan’s problems went beyond differences with Nato and the lawlessness across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where al-Qaeda and other militants are openly helping the Taleban.

“It is the nature of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has many deficits not present in Iraq. Iraq is a wealthy country, it has resources — badly used — but it is rich. Iraq for all its difficulty in unifying politically has many quasi-democratic recognisable political forces. Afghanistan has warlords.”

Mr Karzai angrily rejected that when it was put to him by The Times and denied that his country was suffering from a rise of extremism. He also rejected responsibility for appointing inappropriate representatives in Helmand. But British Forces believe that, in many respects, their Afghan allies pose more of a challenge to their mission than the Taleban, which was defeated in the key town of Musa Qala last month and has since failed to launch a single attack in the area. It is the Afghan Government that is now proving more of an obstacle to stability in an area where a mixture of official corruption, ineptitude and paranoia are stymying British efforts.

In Musa Qala itself, Mr Karzai’s assessment must seem ironic. The Afghan President lambasted Britain for encouraging him to remove Sher Muhammad Akhunzada as Helmand governor in 2006, a move which he claimed undermined the security situation. Mr Akhunzada was a fierce fighter against the Soviet occupation and is seen as staunchly anti-Taleban.

However, he was also accused of being a prominent figure in the drug trade and embroiled in numerous personal vendettas. He was removed after British officials told President Karzai that their troops would struggle to bring peace to Helmand if the governor remained in power, he has retained a strong background influence and is angling to be reinstated.

Mr Akhunzada told The Times this week: “I’m not against the British in Helmand but they should listen to President Karzai on matters of structuring local government.”

Now a senator, he and Mr Karzai are old friends, their relationship cemented during the years of fighting in the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation. The British, however, regard him as such a destabilising influence that Gordon Brown is reported to have tried to exact a promise from Mr Karzai to keep the former governor on the sidelines.

Mr Karzai also accused the British of forcing him to remove key police officials, such as Abdul Wali Khan, also known as “Koka”. who was notorious for his human rights abuses and so disgusted local people that they allowed the Taleban into Musa Qala as a favourable alternative to government authority.

Yet now his reinstatement, along with a hundred of his fighters, is being considered as a serious option by the Karzai Government, despite top-level requests from Nato commanders and diplomats to block the appointment.

“The UK does not want Koka here,” one British commander in Musa Qala said. “All our good work could be undermined by the baggage he brings with him.” Afghan civilians in the bazaar agreed. Wali Mahmoud, a village elder, said: “He was like a king here, doing whatever he wanted. He killed more people than I could count.”
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Black turbans rebound
Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop by Antonio Giustozzi
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia Jan 26, 2008  BOOK REVIEW Asia Times Online, Hong Kong
Shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban government in the twilight of 2001, the new Afghan dispensation began facing a vigorous insurgency that buried hopes of stability and peace. While the American military was triumphantly announcing the demise of the Taliban, their trademark black turbans were back in view by 2003 and spread into the south and east of Afghanistan over the next four years.

In a revelatory new book, Antonio Giustozzi of the London School content  of Economics analyzes the violence, its perpetrators and their backers. Though the author does not underestimate the role of Pakistan in the renewed activity of the Taliban, he emphasizes that internal weaknesses of the Afghan state opened the window for the insurgents to establish themselves deep inside Afghanistan and pose a serious challenge.

Compared to the old Taliban movement of 1994-2001, the new insurgents have less orthodox attitudes towards imported technologies like video production. By 2005, some district commanders were equipped with laptops, despite the scarcity of electricity. The neo-Taliban have no qualms in exploiting free-market principles for military operations. They protect opium traffickers' convoys in exchange for favors and pay non-hardcore members by piece work, such as firing a rocket or carrying out an assassination. By late 2006, their commanders were even relaxing harsh imposition of their infamous moral codes.

Giustozzi partially attributes the re-entry of the Taliban to the feebleness of President Hamid Karzai's administration, which is geared to accommodating tribal strongmen and warlords rather than to building a professional bureaucracy. Corruption, infighting and arrogance among provincial authorities delegitimize the government and open space for the Taliban to re-emerge. For instance, the abuses of Helmand's governor, Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, turned an uncommitted population into Taliban sympathizers by 2006. Harsh methods of the government's intelligence service drive many into the lap of the insurgency. The general weakness of the provincial administration alienates tribal elders who otherwise resent the Taliban's impudence.

Despite persistent efforts of the US and Afghan governments, Pakistan has arrested just a handful of Taliban on the whole. Under pressure to cooperate, Islamabad deports hundreds of suspects of little value to Afghanistan. Giustozzi cites evidence that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) protects Taliban leaders and bases "by keeping away unwanted presences" and allowing free passage of insurgents across the border.

"Cool" ISI advisers may be helping the Taliban develop aspects of strategy like bomb attacks. Some dissenting Taliban members accuse the ISI of forcing attacks on schools and development projects to undermine the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

By consensus, Afghans believe that "the Pakistani state is behind the Taliban" and resent Washington's failure to curb this sponsorship. While the total number of Taliban forces was around 17,000 men by 2006, it was supplemented by 2,000 "international volunteers" (affiliated to al-Qaeda) and a whopping 40,000 "Pakistani Taliban". More than 20% of total insurgent losses in the new Afghan jihad are "Pakistani martyrs".

Since many Afghan families still send children to study in Pakistani madrassas (seminaries), they offer "an inexhaustible flow of new recruits" for the Taliban. (p 38) Pakistani policy in the North-West Frontier Province to patronize only pro-Taliban groups also swells the insurgents' ranks. Most Afghan mullahs are trained in Pakistan's Deobandi schools, and this too works to the advantage of the Taliban as a natural constituency in rural Afghanistan. Pro-government clergymen are being silenced through "night letters" and killings throughout Afghanistan.

Other "collaborationist" targets of the Taliban include teachers, doctors, judges, policemen and non-governmental organization workers. Beheading, mutilation and suicide attacks are being used by the insurgents as part of a "strategy of demoralization of the enemy". (p 108) From early 2007, frisking and execution of "informers" and "strangers" have become routine events as the Taliban grow vulnerable to intelligence penetration of the government and its foreign allies who employ "benefits-for-information" schemes.

American reliance on aerial bombardment, house combing and "clear and sweep operations" produces large numbers of displaced persons whose situations are tailor-made for joining the Taliban. Culturally disrespectful behavior of North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops generates nostalgia for the time when the Taliban were in power. From 2006 onward, there are widely shared feelings that Afghanistan is "again drifting towards a generalized jihad against foreigners". (p 71)

Personal rivalries and disputes within and between the Quetta shura and the Peshawar shura of the Taliban exist, but not at the expense of strong cohesion in the insurgency. The well-adhered layeha (Taliban's rulebook) helps maintain discipline and a unified chain of command in the field. As "spiritual instructions" predominate military training in the camps, obedience to commanders is honored with few exceptions. Unified Pakistan-based control over revenue sources also limits factionalism in the organization.

Unlike the old Taliban movement, the neo-Taliban have a more sophisticated propaganda machine that foxes opponents by manipulating the press. Motivational magazines, music tapes, VCDs, and DVDs exhorting jihad that are manufactured by sympathetic Pakistani businesspersons are available plentifully in Afghan towns and villages. The Taliban's priority is "mobilization of Muslim opinion worldwide as a source of funding, moral support and volunteers". (p 138)

To forge a countrywide revolt, the Taliban have been parleying with their former enemies of the Jamiat-i-Islami since 2005. Northern militias that feel marginalized by the Kabul government and enthused by anti-foreigner sentiments are working with the Taliban. The Karzai government itself has been negotiating with Taliban leaders since 2003 through United Nations auspices. For the latter, departure of foreign troops is a precondition for any agreement, while the former is "prepared to negotiate even with [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar as long as he freed himself from foreign slavery, ie Pakistan". (p 136) These mutually unacceptable prerequisites epitomize Afghanistan's predicament as a victim of chronic external interventions.

Giustozzi assesses the impact of NATO's counter-insurgency intervention as blurred overall, and counter-productive in Helmand and Kandahar. Rifts among the American, German, British and Dutch contingents have been inimical to formulating a joint strategy.

The government's militia conglomerate, Afghan Military Forces (AMF) suffers from serious indiscipline and primitive structure that rules out significant resistance to the Taliban. Karzai encourages private armies and village militias to fill the vacuum, but their notoriety for misbehaving with civilians wins few allies. The meagerly paid Afghan National Police (ANP) indulges in illegal activities and is, ironically, "a contributing factor to the insurgency". (p 175) Several police officers are alleged to be collaborating with the Taliban against foreign troops.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) has been heavily dependent on embedded foreign mentors and is incapable of autonomous action. Over-representation of Tajiks in the officer ranks causes public relations disasters with authorities in the Pashtun south. Irregularities and absence of communication with local people are eroding the ANA's reputation.

Although NATO forces make development aid a component of the counter-insurgency, villagers and town dwellers are "more concerned about the lack of security and death of relatives at the hands of foreign troops". (p 198) "Winning hearts and minds" of the Afghan public is difficult in a scenario where "many civilians are being killed and branded as Taliban". (p 202) Fearful of collateral damage, local residents in Kandahar and Helmand are asking for the withdrawal of foreign troops from their environs.

Belated moves by Karzai to implement "good governance" in the provinces are failing to appease local communities fearful of the reviled American hand behind these measures. Giustozzi considers the Taliban insurgency to be "nearing its metastasis" (p 216), a stage where slow improvement of governance is obsolete as a counter-insurgency ploy.

Kabul is also trying to reconcile insurgents at the grassroots level through the Peace Strengthening Commission, but this runs into mistrust about the genuineness of the amnesty offers. Also, the ISI is said to be actively trying to prevent Taliban militants from defecting to the other side. Local truces with individual insurgent commanders have been struck, but the Taliban are neither disbanding nor disarming.

Giustozzi concludes that the Pakistan-abetted insurgency is "probably inevitable", but the neo-Taliban could have been blocked from building a huge constituency had the Karzai government ensured a "de-patrimonialized subnational administration". (p 231) The future augurs indefinite war, especially as the neo-Taliban continue to get fully incorporated into "a global jihadist perspective". (p 236) It appears that the eventual fate of Afghanistan will be decided less by the battles on the ground and more by the international oscillations of radical Islam.

Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop. The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan by by Antonio Giustozzi. Columbia University Press, New York, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-231-70009-2. Price: US$ 24.95, 259 pages.
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Optimism turns to gloom in Karzai's hometown
Surge in bloodshed viewed as beginning of bigger war
GRAEME SMITH From Friday's Globe and Mail January 25, 2008 at 1:30 AM EST
KARZ, AFGHANISTAN — When journalists wanted to find optimism in the wreckage of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, correspondents bumped along the dirt roads south of Kandahar city to a cluster of mud huts known as Karz.

Many people celebrated the Taliban's retreat, but the joy was especially intense in the hometown of the country's new leader, Hamid Karzai. His tribesmen gathered around the cameras and listed their hopes for the new government: a school, paved roads, maybe even a soccer team.

That optimism has vanished in Karz. The village where the President spent his childhood is now crowded with the makeshift tents of people running away from recent battles, and the local view of the coming year fits with the bleak consensus that grew stronger in the first weeks of 2008: The situation is getting worse.

One analysis shows violence in the country has already increased 15 per cent, compared with the beginning of last year, and some Western observers have started referring to the surge in bloodshed as the beginning of a bigger war.

Even among the usually upbeat commanders at Kandahar Air Field, the mood seemed grim Thursday after the death of another Canadian soldier, Corporal Étienne Gonthier.

Combat deaths in Afghanistan are typically followed by statements from military officials who describe the sacrifice as part of a winning effort, or progress on the battlefield. Brigadier-General Guy Laroche broke with that tradition as he talked with reporters about the incident, saying little about the security picture except that an expected winter lull in Taliban attacks has not happened.

“The thing is, this year, we don't see a big difference between what we've seen this summer and what we're seeing at the present time,” Brig.-Gen. Laroche said. “The tempo is essentially the same.”

If summer peaks of insurgent activity continued into the winter, it would be a bad sign. The Taliban are usually reluctant to slog through the snow and it would show unusual fierceness if large numbers of insurgents continued to operate in the sub-zero temperatures.

Data analysis by two Kabul security consultancies suggest a slightly less dismal view of the countrywide trends than the situation described by the Canadian commander in Kandahar, as both reports show Taliban attacks falling somewhat in the final months of 2007.

But the violence didn't fall back to the levels of last winter, suggesting a cyclical increase that many believe will continue this year. Vigilant Strategic Services Afghanistan has already counted 389 violent incidents across the country in the first three weeks of the year, up 15 per cent from the same period last year.

The early trend for the year also suggests the Taliban may have refocused their efforts on the south, including Kandahar, as the southern region accounted for 41 per cent of the country's insurgent attacks in the first three weeks, compared with an average of 25 per cent in 2007.

A Western analyst said he expects the insurgency to increase in 2008 and spread further into the country, adding that NATO doesn't have enough troops to halt the trend.

Several observers also pointed to the growing popularity of the insurgency in some districts where Afghans have lost faith in Kabul's ability to govern.

“The government is not making any friends,” said Paul Fishstein, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a leading research group in Kabul. “People have become estranged from the government, and that's a source of dissatisfaction.”

Even in the land where President Karzai's family has ancestral roots, some of his fellow tribesmen say they would not vote for him again when he calls elections.

Mahmad Daoud, 39, says he's a distant cousin of the President and works on the medical staff of a de-mining operation, a job that didn't exist before the current regime. But during a traditional lunch of eggs, yoghurt, eggplant and flatbread, he spoke at length about how Mr. Karzai has lost support by appearing to bungle Afghanistan's chance to recover from almost three decades of war.

“Many people won't vote for Karzai in this election,” Mr. Daoud said.

“All the people say we have everything in Afghanistan now, money and soldiers from all over the world, but still the situation gets worse day by day.”

A tour of Karz doesn't immediately reveal why the villagers are disgruntled; only five kilometres south of Kandahar city, they have received many government services that do not reach more remote and dangerous places. Their main road is paved, and the local school that was closed by the Taliban has reopened with shiny playground equipment installed a few months ago. New classrooms are under construction.

Abdul Baki, the school's deputy director, has decorated his office wall with two large portraits of Mr. Karzai, whom he described as an old classmate.

Despite his apparent fondness for the President, the schoolmaster said he's nostalgic for the days of Taliban law and order.

“The fighting gets worse and worse,” Mr. Baki said. “Under the Taliban, we had better security, no corruption, no stealing, no murders. Now we have a better economy, but the economy is mostly for rich people.”
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Afghan Attacks Drop as Al-Qaeda Focuses on Pakistan, U.S. Says
By Ed Johnson
Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces based in Pakistan are reducing raids into neighboring Afghanistan as they focus instead on attacking President Pervez Musharraf's government, a U.S. commander said.

``Insurgents have declared war against the government of Pakistan'' and are taking advantage of the political turmoil there, Major General David Rodriguez, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.

Rodriguez described al-Qaeda as an ``opportunistic enemy'' that will ``go where it can get the biggest game and the best effect of their operations.''

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in an audio message released in September, called on Pakistanis to rebel against Musharraf to avenge an army assault on a pro-Taliban mosque in the capital, Islamabad. More than 800 people have been killed in suicide bombings and other attacks in Pakistan since the July raid on the Red Mosque.

A suicide bomber killed at least 50 people in northwestern Pakistan in a failed bid to assassinate former Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao on Dec. 21. Six days later, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in a suicide bomb and gunfire attack in Rawalpindi after addressing an election rally. Musharraf has blamed Baitullah Mehsud, an al-Qaeda-linked Taliban leader, for organizing the killing.

Bhutto's assassination sparked countrywide riots that left at least 58 people dead and opposition parties say the terrorist threat is disrupting campaigning for parliamentary elections on Feb. 18.

Briefing reporters, Rodriguez was asked whether cross- border raids into Afghanistan had dropped because insurgents are remaining in Pakistan to fight the government.

``Yes, the enemy will try to take advantage of some of the challenges that they're having over there right now,'' the commander responded.

His comments echo those of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said last month the number of fighters crossing the border is down about 40 percent because ``al-Qaeda right now seems to have turned its face toward Pakistan.''

Improved security by Afghan and coalition forces, and winter weather, which makes it difficult to cross mountain passes, have also stemmed the flow of international fighters across the border, Rodriguez said.
U.S. intelligence officials say that al-Qaeda has established a haven in Pakistan's tribal regions. More than 80 percent of suicide bombers staging attacks in Afghanistan are trained, recruited or sheltered in Pakistan, the United Nations said in a report published last year.

Musharraf, who has survived at least four assassination attempts since backing the U.S.-led war on terrorism in 2001, denies his forces are failing to tackle insurgents. Pakistan has deployed more than 100,000 soldiers in the tribal regions to combat extremists, he said last month.

The president has pledged tight security for next month's ballot to ensure militants don't disrupt the vote.

Musharraf, who is attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, met yesterday with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and briefed her on the counterterrorism effort, the official Associated Press of Pakistan said.

He also reaffirmed Pakistan's commitment to holding free and fair elections, according to the report.
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Taliban wield the ax ahead of new battle
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online / January 24, 2008
KARACHI - With the Taliban's spring offensive just months away, the Afghan front has been quiet as Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have been heavily engaged in fighting security forces in Pakistan's tribal regions.

But now Taliban leader Mullah Omar has put his foot down and reset the goals for the Taliban: their primary task is the struggle in Afghanistan, not against the Pakistan state.

Mullah Omar has sacked his own appointed leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, the main architect of the fight against Pakistani security forces, and urged all Taliban commanders to turn their venom against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, highly placed contacts in the Taliban told Asia Times Online. Mullah Omar then appointed Moulvi Faqir Mohammed (a commander from Bajaur Agency) but he refused the job. In the past few days, the Pakistani Taliban have held several meetings but have not yet appointed a replacement to Mehsud.

This major development occurred at a time when Pakistan was reaching out with an olive branch to the Pakistani Taliban. Main commanders, including Hafiz Gul Bahadur and the main Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan, Sirajuddin Haqqani, signed peace agreements. But al-Qaeda elements, including Tahir Yuldashev, chief of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, undermined this initiative.

"We refused any peace agreement with the Pakistani security forces and urged the mujahideen fight for complete victory," Yuldashev said in a jihadi video message seen by Asia Times Online. Yuldashev's closest aide and disciple, Mehsud, last week carried out an attack on a Pakistani security post and then seized two forts in the South Waziristan tribal area.

As a result, Pakistan bombed South Waziristan and sent in heavy artillery and tanks for a major operation against Mehsud. Other important commanders are now in North Waziristan and they support the peace agreements with the Pakistani security forces.

Pakistan's strategic quarters maintain the planned operation in South Waziristan is aimed particularly at eliminating Mehsud.

"While talking to government representatives in the jirga [peace council] we could clearly discern a grudge against Baitullah Mehsud and the Mehsud tribes by the security forces. And there are signs that the government is obsessed with a military operation to make Baitullah Mehsud a martyr," a leading member of the peace jirga in South Waziristan, Maulana Hisamuddin, commented to Voice of America.

Mehsud came into the spotlight after Taliban commander Nek Mohammed was killed in a missile attack in South Waziristan in mid-2004. Nek was from the Wazir tribe, which is considered a rival tribe of the Mehsud. Haji Omar, another Wazir, replaced Nek, but support from Yuldashev and Uzbek militants strengthened Mehsud's position. He rose through the ranks of the Taliban after becoming acquainted with Mullah Dadullah (killed by US-led forces in May 2007) and Mehsud supplied Dadullah with many suicide bombers.

Dadullah's patronage attracted many Pakistani jihadis into Mehsud's fold and by 2007 he was reckoned as the biggest Taliban commander in Pakistan - according to one estimate he alone had over 20,000 fighters.

The link to Dadullah also brought the approval of Mullah Omar, and when the Taliban leader last year revived the "Islamic Emirates" in the tribal areas, Mehsud was appointed as his representative, that is, the chief of the Pakistani Taliban.

Mehsud was expected to provide valuable support to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but instead he directed all his fighters against Pakistani security forces.

With Mehsud now replaced, Mullah Omar will use all Taliban assets in the tribal areas for the struggle in Afghanistan. This leaves Mehsud and his loyalists completely isolated to fight against Pakistani forces.

Taliban aim for the jugular

According to Taliban quarters in Afghanistan that Asia Times Online spoke to recently, the Taliban have well-established pockets around Logar, Wardak and Ghazni, which are all gateways to the capital Kabul.

Many important districts in the southwestern provinces, including Zabul, Helmand, Urzgan and Kandahar, are also under the control of the Taliban. Similarly, districts in the northwestern, including Nimroz, Farah and Ghor, have fallen to the Taliban.

Certainly, the Taliban will be keen to advance from these positions, but they will also concentrate on destroying NATO's supply lines from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The Taliban launched their first attack in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province on Monday, destroying a convoy of oil tankers destined for NATO's Kandahar air field.

"If NATO's supply lines are shut down from Pakistan, NATO will sweat in Afghanistan," a member of a leading humanitarian organization in Kabul told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. "The only substitute would be air operations, but then NATO costs would sky-rocket."

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief.
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In Kabul, Shattered Illusions
By JEAN MacKENZIE - Kabul, Afghanistan NY TIMES Oped
“WELL, at least we’re not in Baghdad,” we used to say when confronted by the vagaries of the Kabul winter. No heat, sporadic electricity and growing disaffection among the population might make us uncomfortable, but those of us living outside the smothering embrace of the embassies or the United Nations had relative freedom of movement and few security worries.

And of course we had the Serena hotel. Its spa offered solace, a gym and a hot shower; we could pretend for a few hours that we were in Dubai.

But a week ago last Monday, Taliban gunmen burst into the lobby, one exploding his ball-bearing vest, one running to the gym and spa area, spraying bullets as he went. Eight people died, and several more were wounded.

It was a rude shock for those of us who used to feel superior to those who cowered behind their reinforced walls, venturing out only in bulletproof glass surrounded by convoys of big men with big guns.

We shopped on Chicken Street for carpets and trinkets, we dined at the shrinking number of restaurants that still serve alcohol. We partied at L’Atmosphere, “L’Atmo” to its friends, the “in” spot for the international crowd, and had our hair and nails done at the Nova salon. And we patted ourselves on the back because we knew the real Kabul.

None of us was prepared for what happened at the Serena. The Taliban are following a new strategy, their spokesman announced. They will go after civilians specifically, and will bring their mayhem to places where foreigners congregate.

So much for L’Atmo.

I am no stranger to the insurgency, having spent three years in Afghanistan and much of the past 12 months in Helmand Province. Helmand, center of opium and Taliban, may be the most unstable region of the country. It is also the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan, with British troops clashing frequently with the rebels.

For the past several months we have been hearing that NATO is winning, that the insurgency is running out of steam. Each suicide attack is a last gasp, a sign that the Taliban are becoming desperate.

As the enemy melts away only to regroup, we are expected to believe that this time, surely, they will stay put in their hideouts. The head of the Afghan National Security Directorate described the Serena attack as a sign of the Taliban’s weakness. “An enemy that cannot hold territory, an enemy that has no support among the people, has no other means than suicide bombing,” the security chief, Amrullah Saleh, told assembled reporters.

But those of us who have covered the steady decline of hope in Afghanistan over the past three years know where the relative strength lies.

Not with the central government, whose head, Hamid Karzai, has largely lost the respect of his people with his increasingly bizarre behavior: weeping at the plight of children in Kandahar, begging the Taliban to send him their address, confessing that he is powerless to control the warlords, auctioning off his silken robe to feed widows and orphans.

Not with the foreign troops, who have been unable to provide security or usher in the development that Afghanistan so desperately needs. Civilian casualties, often hushed up or denied, have made NATO a curse in some parts of the country.

Not with the international assistance community, with its misguided counter-narcotics policies, high-priced consultants and wasteful practices. Out of the billions that have supposedly come into the country, only a trickle has been used to good effect.

The Taliban, under whose brutal regime Afghanistan became an international pariah, are steadily regaining ground. Even those who deplore their harsh rules and capricious behavior welcome the illusion of security they bring in their wake.

The United States Agency for International Development was talking about “relocating” some of its contractors to Dubai, at least temporarily. A Norwegian friend made plans with us for dinner one night, “provided I am not evacuated.”

Soon we will all be living in reinforced compounds, gathering for desperate, Masque of the Red Death parties, with guests being searched at the door.

Not me. I will be back at the Serena as soon as the blood is mopped up and the windows repaired. I’ll try not to fall off my exercise machine every time a door slams or a car backfires.

But I’ll miss Zeenia, the Serena’s sunny massage therapist. She was shot and killed on that terrible Monday.

Jean MacKenzie is the Afghanistan country director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.
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ISAF soldiers teach Afghans construction skills
By Pajhwok Reporters - Jan 22, 2008 - 15:31
KABUL, Jan 22 (PAN): NATO soldiers imparted Afghans construction skills during a two-week winter skill labour workshop at the Jalalabad Forward Operating Base in the eastern Nangarhar province.

At the recent workshop, Afghans were trained in foundational skills to help them begin to rebuild their country, whose infrastructure has been destroyed by years of war, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said on Tuesday.

The immediate purpose of the workshop was to teach Afghan contractors and their labourers construction skills, specifically carpentry and masonry tasks. The event increased the construction knowledge of 50 unskilled and partially-skilled Afghans.

In a statement, the NATO-led force said local provincial government and Afghan contractors nominated the students to attend the week-long course that consisted of lectures in job safety, tools and their proper uses, as well as basic carpentry workshops.

The event culminated in the construction of a tool shed, masonry and brick and mortar training. At the end of the course, the students received the tools they used during their classes and a certificate of training that graduates can show prospective future employers.

I am very impressed that we built the shed, said Babu, an 18-year-old workshop student. I know some carpentry, but these classes taught more. The Army instructors were very professional at all times.

This is a great experience for the Afghan community; we were able to learn new techniques on measuring and cutting lumber, said Munir, 19, another student at the skill labour workshop. I have never worked as a carpenter and I enjoyed learning how to use a circular saw for the first time. I hope that more labor workshops like this are conducted in the future.

It was the second skill labour workshop hosted by Task Force Pacemaker engineers. The first Afghan skill labour workshop was conducted in February 2006.
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