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January 27, 2008 

Ashdown pulls out of bid to be Afghanistan envoy
by Katherine Haddon Sun Jan 27, 6:14 AM ET
LONDON (AFP) - Briton Paddy Ashdown, the international community's former envoy to Bosnia, withdrew his bid to be the United Nations' new representative in Afghanistan Sunday, citing insufficient support from Kabul.

No problem with Ashdown, says Afghan government
27 January 2008, 17:17 CET Eu Business
(KABUL) - The Afghan government insisted Sunday it had not had a problem with Paddy Ashdown becoming UN envoy but with the powers of the job and "negative" perceptions in the media of his potential role.

Ashdown calls for stability in British-Afghan relations
LONDON (AFP) - Briton Paddy Ashdown said Sunday he decided against taking up the job of UN representative in Afghanistan partly because he wanted Britain's relations with Kabul to "get back on to an even keel".

Afghanistan opposes Ashdown as UN envoy: report
Sat Jan 26, 8:55 PM ET
LONDON (AFP) - Paddy Ashdown, the international community's former envoy to Bosnia, should not be the United Nations' new representative in Afghanistan, the country's ambassador to the world body has told the BBC.

Afghan police search for abductors of US aid worker

by Nasrat Shoaib Sun Jan 27, 7:12 AM ET
KANDAHAR, Pakistan (AFP) - Police in Afghanistan's southern city of Kandahar were hunting for the abductors of a US aid worker and her driver as the Taliban militia said it could not "yet" take responsibility.

US shift seen to Pakistan, Afghanistan
By ROBERT BURNS, AP Military Writer
WASHINGTON - In a shift with profound implications, the Bush administration is attempting to re-energize its terrorism-fighting war efforts in Afghanistan, the original target of a post-Sept. 11 offensive. The U.S. also is refocusing

Threat to Indians in Afghanistan; security stepped up
Ajay Kaul in New Delhi rediff.com - Jan 27 5:06 AM
In the wake of the recent terror attack on a convoy of Border Roads Organisation workers in Afghanistan, the security of Indians engaged in reconstruction work in the trouble-torn country is being beefed up.

Afghanistan dismisses allegation over Iran mines supply to Taliban
(Recast to add background about Afghan war with Ex-Soviet Union) Kabul, Jan 27, IRNA
Spokesman of Afghan Interior Ministry Zemaira Bashary on Sunday rejected allegation over mines supply from Iran to the Taliban fighting with the Afghan government in western Afghanistan.

Karzai: Iran has “been helping us in Afghanistan”
Tehran Times, Iran
DAVOS, Switzerland (Washington Post) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is in Davos to participate in the World Economic Forum, has said Iran has been supporting his country since the ouster of the Taleban regime in 2001.

Exclusive Afghanistan
The Sunday Times (UK) January 27, 2008
The military has got itself into a pickle in Iraq and been given a fright in Afghanistan. But there’s one thing the bods in uniform have done exceptionally well, and it’s the thing you’d imagine they’d be most hopeless at: media management.

Prisoner transfer resume once Canada sees 'improvements' in Afghan jails: MacKay
Sat Jan 26, 6:17 PM By Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA - Canada will resume handing over captured Taliban fighters to Afghan authorities as soon as the army is confident there is no risk of torture, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Saturday.

Afghanistan wants int'l community to canalize aid through gov't
www.chinaview.cn  2008-01-27 22:39:04
KABUL, Jan. 27 (Xinhua) -- Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said Sunday that Kabul would call on the donor nations at the coming Paris Conference to canalize their contribution through the government of Afghanistan.

New Taliban Chief Entering Limelight
By KATHY GANNON January 26, 2008
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Sometime in mid-December, as the winter winds howled across the snow-dusted hills of Pakistan's inhospitable border regions, 40 men representing Taliban groups all across Pakistan's northwest frontier

Taliban sacks its Pakistan Chief
Press Trust Of India Islamabad, January 26, 2008
Taliban chief Mullah Omar has removed the wanted militant leader Baitullah Mehsud as the commander of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for fighting the Pakistani army, a news report has said.

Germany protests Afghan reporter’s death sentence
(AFP) 27 January 2008 via Khaleej Times
BERLIN - German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he would raise objections with Kabul to an Afghan court’s sentencing of a young reporter accused of blasphemy to death, in an interview broadcast Sunday.

Pakistan troops battle militants to control tunnel
By Mohammad Hashim Sun Jan 27, 6:11 AM ET
KOHAT, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani troops, backed by helicopter gunships, are battling pro-Taliban militants to recapture a key road tunnel leading to the volatile tribal belt on the Afghan border, the military said on Sunday.

Sharif picked to tame Pakistan's militancy
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online / January 26, 2008
KARACHI - Seven years after the invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, Dell Dailey, the US State Department's counterterrorism chief, reveals there are "gaps in intelligence" about militants in the Pakistani border regions

Lack of quorum mars Wolesi Jirga session
By Makia Munir - Jan 24, 2008 - 18:18
KABUL (PAN): Most of the legislators of the lower house or Wolesi Jirga of the parliament have not attended the parliament sessions in the third day after the parliament resumed its session following 45 days winter holidays.

Int'l aid sought to overcome flour crisis
By Pajhwok reporter - Jan 24, 2008 - 18:30
KABUL (PAN): The Government of Afghanistan and the United Nations Thursday called for over US$81million to help people hit by the rising price of wheat flour.

Narcotics seized, one arrested in Paktia
By Syed Jamal Asifkhel - Jan 24, 2008 - 17:05
GARDEZ (PAN): Police recovered more than four tons of heroins and other materials used in its production from a market in Gardez, capital city of the southeastern Paktia province and also arrested a suspected person, an official said.

Three projects initiated in Helmand
By Akram Noorzai - Jan 24, 2008 - 17:40
LASHKARGAH, (PAN): Construction work on the projects of a museum, library and a separate building for women on the occasion of offering condolence to a bereaved family  have been initiated at cost of six millions afghani

Ashdown pulls out of bid to be Afghanistan envoy
by Katherine Haddon Sun Jan 27, 6:14 AM ET
LONDON (AFP) - Briton Paddy Ashdown, the international community's former envoy to Bosnia, withdrew his bid to be the United Nations' new representative in Afghanistan Sunday, citing insufficient support from Kabul.

The move came after Afghanistan said it would block Ashdown's appointment and expressed concern about how the move had been heralded in the media before it was formally confirmed.

"This job can only be done successfully on the basis of a consensus within the international community and the clear support of the government of Afghanistan," Ashdown said in a statement.

"It is clear to me that, in Afghanistan at least, the support necessary to do the job effectively does not exist.

"I have therefore reluctantly decided to withdraw my name from consideration for this position."

In an interview with the BBC Saturday, Zahir Tanin, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United Nations, confirmed a Times newspaper report Saturday that President Hamid Karzai was against Ashdown's appointment as "super-envoy".

Tanin said Kabul's preferred choice was NATO's deputy commander in Europe, General John McColl.

McColl was the first head of the international security force in Afghanistan in 2002 after the hardline Taliban were ousted.

"A negative atmosphere was generated through the media inside and outside Afghanistan, particularly in Britain, which hit a lot of nerves and paved the way for misunderstanding and concerns," Tanin was quoted as saying.

Afghanistan's preference for McColl was based on "who is going to be more helpful and who is going to be more able to work with the Afghan government and with different elements of the international community in Afghanistan," he added.

In a separate letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Ashdown mentioned reports that Karzai opposed his appointment "partially based on my nationality and Britain's role in Afghanistan".

"I have always been of the view that this job only stands a chance of being successfully carried out if it enjoys consensus within the international community and the whole-hearted agreement of the government of Afghanistan," he wrote.

"I just do not believe it is feasible in the face of opposition from the elected government of Afghanistan.

"It is with regret that I have therefore concluded that it would now be impossible for me to do the job you asked me to do in Afghanistan and that it would be best for me to withdraw my name from this process."

Ashdown, former leader of Britain's second opposition party the Liberal Democrats and an ex-marine, gained a tough reputation during his time as the international community's envoy to Bosnia from 2002 to 2005.

He pushed through a string of sensitive reforms, which included efforts to merge two ethnically divided armies, and the sacking of 60 officials suspected of belonging to a support network for war crimes suspects.

But the Times quoted unidentified diplomats as saying that Karzai thought Ashdown wanted too much power.

He had raised his objections with figures including United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week, it added.

Ashdown's announcement comes against a backdrop of recent tensions between London and Kabul.

In Davos, Karzai was reported to have blamed British and US troops for contributing to worsening security in southern Afghanistan that had allowed the Taliban to return.

His comments provoked a furious response from the families of some of the 87 British troops who have died since the start of combat operations in Afghanistan in late 2001, as well as some British opposition politicians.
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No problem with Ashdown, says Afghan government
27 January 2008, 17:17 CET Eu Business
(KABUL) - The Afghan government insisted Sunday it had not had a problem with Paddy Ashdown becoming UN envoy but with the powers of the job and "negative" perceptions in the media of his potential role.

Afghanistan also needs to learn to stand on its own two feet, Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta said when Ashdown withdrew his candidacy after reports that Kabul objected to his appointment.

The senior British politician, who was the UN and US favourite for the key job, said in a statement: "It is clear to me that, in Afghanistan at least, the support necessary to do the job effectively does not exist."

Spanta reacted, saying: "It's better if our friends let us learn more and more by walking on our own feet, with our own experience."

The minister praised Ashdown, saying he was one of the "very small number of diplomats who has a good understanding of the region."

The Afghan government had however had concerns about the powers of the job, which had previously been that of special representative of the United Nations but which international circles had wanted to expand.

Initial suggestions that it would grow so the envoy would become the leading representative of the UN, NATO and the European Union were "not acceptable," Spanta said.

The United States has said it wants a leader who would direct and coordinate sometimes fractured international military and civilian efforts to help post-Taliban Afghanistan.

But Spanta said Afghan and international media had created a "negative atmosphere regarding the responsibilities of Mr Ashdown in Afghanistan."

One British report had said, for example, that Ashdown would be tasked with addressing the dominance of ethnic Tajiks in government. Spanta described this as the "politicisation" of the country's sensitive ethnic issues.

"Maybe we have some difficulties but that is our domestic problem," Spanta said.

"In Afghan public opinion there was a lot of reaction, a lot of misunderstanding about the competence of Mr Paddy Ashdown in Afghanistan.

"That is the reason that Mr President (Hamid Karzai) decided... unfortunately we had to decide that we need to have some other international diplomat," he said.

"The reason is not the nationality of Paddy Ashdown or any other thing but it is the negative atmosphere created by the press, the public opinion in Afghanistan and also European countries, especially in the UK."

Spanta said Kabul's preferred choice was NATO's deputy commander in Europe, General John McColl, who had been the first head of the international security force in Afghanistan in 2002 after the hardline Taliban were ousted.

One Western diplomat said the international community was likely to take Kabul's attitude negatively.

The US embassy said it was disappointed that Ashdown had "had to withdraw."

"We still believe that he would have been an excellent international representative and would have made an extraordinary contribution in support of the government of Afghanistan to stability, democracy and development here," a spokesman told AFP.
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Ashdown calls for stability in British-Afghan relations
LONDON (AFP) - Briton Paddy Ashdown said Sunday he decided against taking up the job of UN representative in Afghanistan partly because he wanted Britain's relations with Kabul to "get back on to an even keel".

In an interview with BBC television, Ashdown said Afghan President Hamid Karzai had initially supported his candidacy before changing his mind because of "internal Afghan politics".

He added that he had never demanded the same powers he enjoyed as the international community's former envoy to Bosnia following the 1990s Balkan wars, stressing that the government of Afghanistan was sovereign.

"One of the reasons why I've withdrawn is precisely because I think it's important that Britain's relation with Afghanistan should get back on to an even keel," said Ashdown, former leader of Britain's Liberal Democrat party.

"When you generate these kinds of feelings in a country like Afghanistan, that can cost lives and I wouldn't want to be the instrument of that."

He said that Karzai had agreed his candidacy at the end of last year but had now "changed his view", adding: "I think that's far more to do with internal Afghan politics than it is with the international community."

And Ashdown said he thought that recent tensions between London and Kabul were about a disagreement over his candidacy rather than wider issues.

In Davos, Switzerland at last week's World Economic Forum, Karzai reportedly blamed British and US troops for contributing to worsening security in southern Afghanistan, prompting a furious reaction from the families of some dead servicemen.

Ashdown said that Karzai's comments in Davos stirred up anti-British feeling which "was much more about sending a message to me than it was about sending a message to Great Britain," he said.

He stressed that, if he had taken the job, his powers would have been significantly different to those he had in Bosnia.

The emphasis would have been firmly on coordinating the response of the international community to help Karzai, he said.

"It was never the case that I sought the same powers as we had in Bosnia and if they had been offered I would have rejected them.

"The government of Afghanistan is a sovereign government, it's a proud nation, President Karzai is its president," he said.

"The important thing here is that we need to get this thing back on track.

"The only reason I accepted this job is that one of the reasons for our failure so far... is the complete lack of coordination of the international community."

Afghanistan has said its preferred choice for the job is General John McColl, NATO's deputy commander in Europe.

But although Ashdown said he would do a "brilliant job", he said that proposal "would cause, I think, considerable discomforture in the United Nations."

"The concept of stalking horses is not unknown to us, you can be sure it isn't unknown to them either," he added.
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Afghanistan opposes Ashdown as UN envoy: report
Sat Jan 26, 8:55 PM ET
LONDON (AFP) - Paddy Ashdown, the international community's former envoy to Bosnia, should not be the United Nations' new representative in Afghanistan, the country's ambassador to the world body has told the BBC.

In an interview published on the broadcaster's website late Saturday, Zahir Tanin confirmed a newspaper report that Afghan President Hamid Karzai wanted to block Ashdown's appointment.

The Times quoted unnamed diplomats as saying Saturday that Karzai thought Ashdown wanted too much power and had raised his objection with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week.

Tanin told the BBC that the Kabul government's preferred choice instead would be NATO's deputy commander in Europe, General John McColl.

McColl was the first head of the international security force in Afghanistan in 2002 after the ouster of the hardline Taliban.

Tanin said government officials had been surprised to see Ashdown portrayed in the media as the final choice for the post when no formal announcement had been made.

"A negative atmosphere was generated through the media inside and outside Afghanistan, particularly in Britain, which hit a lot of nerves and paved the way for misunderstanding and concerns," he was quoted as saying.

Their preference for McColl was based on "who is going to be more helpful and who is going to be more able to work with the Afghan government and with different elements of the international community in Afghanistan", he added.

Ashdown, a former leader of Britain's second opposition party the Liberal Democrats, has declined to comment on reports of his appointment.

The ex-marine gained a reputation as a no-nonsense operator during his time in Bosnia from 2002 to 2005, pushing through sensitive reforms and sacking 60 officials suspected of belonging to a support network for war crimes suspects.

Karzai's opposition comes at a time of tension between Kabul and London.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, he was reported as having blamed British and US troops for contributing to worsening security in southern Afghanistan that had allowed the Taliban to return.

That prompted outrage from relatives of some of the 87 British service personnel who have died since the start of combat operations in Afghanistan in late 2001.
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Afghan police search for abductors of US aid worker
by Nasrat Shoaib Sun Jan 27, 7:12 AM ET
KANDAHAR, Pakistan (AFP) - Police in Afghanistan's southern city of Kandahar were hunting for the abductors of a US aid worker and her driver as the Taliban militia said it could not "yet" take responsibility.

There was a heavier-than-usual police presence in the area where Cyd Mizell, 49, and her Afghan driver were seized while travelling to work on Saturday and police were searching every vehicle, an AFP reporter said.

"Our goal is to stop the suspected abductors from taking the hostage out of town and hopefully, with God's help, arrest those who have abducted her," said one of the police officers, who gave his name only as Hashmatullah.

The Afghan government said no one had contacted police to claim the kidnapping of Mizell, who works for a small Philippines-headquartered community development organisation.

"The police are working on the case and we are trying our best to make her release safe," interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told AFP. "As yet no one has made contact with the police."

The US embassy said it was continuing to look into reports of the abduction.

Officials said Mizell had been wearing a burqa -- the all-encompassing garment that most Afghan women wear and which covers the face -- when she was captured in the city, one of the most risky in Afghanistan for foreign nationals.

Few foreigners live and work in Kandahar because of the threat from Taliban insurgents who are most active in southern Afghanistan.

The Al-Qaeda-linked militia, in government between 1996 and 2001, was involved in a series of abductions of foreigners last year and has said the tactic was effective in putting pressure on the government and its allies.

The organisations's main spokesman told AFP Sunday however that he did not yet know if any one affiliated to the group was involved.

"We don't have information on the abduction of this woman so far. We cannot take responsibility for it as of yet," Zabihullah Mujahed told AFP.

The Taliban killed two of their foreign hostages last year, both South Korean Christian aid workers, when the government did not bow to a demand to release certain of its men from jail.

The other 21 South Koreans were released after negotiations between the militia and Seoul that resulted in a secret deal that reportedly involved a ransom payout.

One of two Germans taken hostage by Taliban at the same time was shot dead after suffering a health breakdown; the other was released after several months in captivity.

Mizell's organisation, the Asian Rural Life Development Foundation, said in a statement on its website (www.arldf.net) that it had not been contacted by the kidnappers.

"We hope that Cyd Mizell and her driver will be released safely and quickly. We are doing all we can to resolve the situation," it said.

Mizell had been in the Kandahar area for nearly three years working with women and on income generation projects, it said. She taught English and embroidery and spoke the local language, Pashtu, it said.

Taliban militants have targeted aid workers and reconstruction projects in an attempt to undermine efforts to extend the reach of the government in the provinces.

One of the men searched in Kandahar Sunday condemned the kidnapping as a shameful act for his Pashtun culture, more so because it involved a woman.

"Such abductions have never happened in the history of Afghanistan but in the past couple of years," said Habibullah Khan, in his mid-50s.

"This is a group which hijacks our history, our name and culture," he said, referring to the Taliban.
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US shift seen to Pakistan, Afghanistan
By ROBERT BURNS, AP Military Writer
WASHINGTON - In a shift with profound implications, the Bush administration is attempting to re-energize its terrorism-fighting war efforts in Afghanistan, the original target of a post-Sept. 11 offensive. The U.S. also is refocusing on Pakistan, where a regenerating al-Qaida is posing fresh threats.

There is growing recognition that the United States risks further setbacks, if not deepening conflict or even defeat, in Afghanistan, and that success in that country hinges on stopping Pakistan from descending into disorder.

Privately, some senior U.S. military commanders say Pakistan's tribal areas are at the center of the fight against Islamic extremism; more so than Iraq, or even Afghanistan. These areas border on eastern Afghanistan and provide haven for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters to regroup, rearm and reorganize.

This view may explain, at least in part, the administration's increasingly public expressions of concern.

At a Pentagon news conference last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that while the U.S. respects the Pakistani government's right to decide what actions are needed to defeat extremists on its soil, there are reasons to worry that al-Qaida poses more than an internal threat to Pakistan.

"I think we are all concerned about the re-establishment of al-Qaida safe havens in the border area," Gates said. "I think it would be unrealistic to assume that all of the planning that they're doing is focused strictly on Pakistan. So I think that that is a continuing threat to Europe as well as to us."

The Pentagon says it has fewer than 100 troops in Pakistan, including personnel who are training Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps in the western tribal region along the Afghanistan border.

The U.S. military has used other means, including aerial surveillance by drones, to hunt Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida leaders believed to be hiding near the Afghan border. Ground troops on the Afghan side sometimes fire artillery across the border at known Taliban or al-Qaida targets, and U.S. officials have said special operations forces are poised to strike across the border under certain circumstances.

In recent days, administration officials have said they would send more U.S. forces, including small numbers of combat troops, if the Pakistani government decided it wanted to collaborate more closely.

It is far from certain that U.S. combat troops will set foot in Pakistan in any substantial numbers. On Friday, Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, said his country opposes any foreign forces on its soil. "The man in the street will not allow this — he will come out and agitate," he said. Musharraf said the U.S. instead should bolster its combat forces in Afghanistan.

The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has grown over the past two years from about 20,000 to the current total of 28,000. That is the highest number of the war, which began in October 2001. The total is to jump by 3,200 this spring with a new influx of Marine reinforcements, including 2,200 combat troops who will bolster a NATO-led counterinsurgency force in the south.

"There is strong pressure now from the international community to find some solution to Afghanistan because of the fear that this could quickly go south," said Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 2006-07, he was an adviser to Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs.

"We haven't lost the war yet, but we could be on our way to doing so," Tellis said in a telephone interview Friday. He strongly recommends strengthening the U.S. military presence in southern Afghanistan.

The vast majority of deployed U.S. troops are still in Iraq, although the force of nearly 160,000 is set on a downward trend. In recent weeks U.S. officials have spoken of Iraq as moving toward stability, with al-Qaida-affiliated fighters weakened and possibly forced to make a last stand.

So there is no wholesale shift of U.S. military firepower from Iraq to Afghanistan. Gates recently rejected a Marine Corps proposal to move the 20,000-plus Marine contingent in Iraq to Afghanistan, reflecting a worry that Iraq's progress is still fragile.

Just last month Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the war in Afghanistan is a secondary priority. "In Afghanistan we do what we can. In Iraq we do what we must," he said.

Yet it is apparent that as security conditions in Iraq improve, the administration is looking closer at what needs to be done in Afghanistan to counter recent gains by the Taliban. The Taliban ruled the country in the late 1990s and provided haven and support for bin Laden as his global terrorist network laid the groundwork from Afghanistan for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Gates is leading a NATO effort to produce a statement of goals for Afghanistan that spells out clearly what is at stake. The purpose is to bolster NATO governments' efforts to convince their publics that fighting and dying in Afghanistan is an investment worth making. The statement is supposed to be ready for adoption by President Bush and other NATO leaders at a summit meeting in April.

Also, the administration is showing more interest in deepening its involvement in Pakistan.

Teresita C. Schaffer, director for South Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Friday that an important indicator of that approach was the recent visit to Pakistan by Adm. William J. Fallon, the commander of American forces in that region. Fallon met with senior officials, including the new chief of the Pakistani army, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.

"Why is that happening now?" Schaffer asked. "It suggests to me that the administration is taking this much more seriously than it was." That has meant more attentiveness to the needs of U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, including officers' concerns about countering the threat inside Pakistan.

"The sense I get is that at least in military terms they are getting a response from Washington which they weren't getting all along," said Schaffer, a career foreign service officer who was deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia in the administration of former President Bush.
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Threat to Indians in Afghanistan; security stepped up
Ajay Kaul in New Delhi rediff.com - Jan 27 5:06 AM
In the wake of the recent terror attack on a convoy of Border Roads Organisation workers in Afghanistan, the security of Indians engaged in reconstruction work in the trouble-torn country is being beefed up.

The security measures are being intensified by the Afghan government after a fresh assessment suggested increased threat to the Indians, particularly those engaged in construction of a crucial highway from Delaram to Zaranj, sources said.

The assessment of the threat was carried out by a two-member team of senior officials of the External Affairs Ministry which went to Afghanistan. The team, led by Joint Secretary (Afghanistan) T C A Raghavan, was sent in the backdrop of a suicide attack on a BRO convoy in South West Afghanistan earlier this month, in which two Indo-Tibetan Border Police jawans were killed and five injured.

The team held detailed discussions with the officials of Afghan Foreign and Internal Security Ministries and concluded that threat to Indian workers was high, the sources said.

The officials also went to Jalalabad, where the Indian Consulate and the Mission staffers are facing a high degree of threat from Taliban militants, the sources said.

The Consulate has come under attack in the recent times but all staffers are safe and no damage has been done to the heavily-fortified Mission, they said.

After a thorough review of the security, the team gave its report to the government. Subsequently, India asked the Afghan government to step up security measures for Indians and its Missions there, the sources said.

The Afghan government, despite facing severe manpower crunch, has assured that additional security personnel will be deployed to ensure safety of Indians there, the sources said.

This is the second time in over two years that India has sent a team to Afghanistan to assess security of its nationals there. The earlier one was in January 2006, after the abduction and killing of a BRO driver Maniappan Kutty, by the Taliban.

After that review, India had sent additional ITBP commandos to Afghanistan for security of the BRO workers. At present, about 380 ITBP personnel are providing security to the BRO workers and Indian Missions in Afghanistan, in addition to the local policemen.

Over a thousand Indians are engaged in reconstruction and developmental works in Afghanistan for the last six years, as part of New Delhi's commitment to help in rehabilitation of the war-torn country.

Of them, over 300 personnel of the Border Roads Organisation are engaged in construction of the Delaram-Zaranj highway, which will provide a shorter connectivity between Kabul and Iran.
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Afghanistan dismisses allegation over Iran mines supply to Taliban
(Recast to add background about Afghan war with Ex-Soviet Union) Kabul, Jan 27, IRNA
Spokesman of Afghan Interior Ministry Zemaira Bashary on Sunday rejected allegation over mines supply from Iran to the Taliban fighting with the Afghan government in western Afghanistan.

"No document has been available to prove Iran has supplied 130 mines to Taliban terrorists in Farah province," Bashary told IRNA.

Western media reports claimed on Saturday that a number of the mines discovered in a military operation on Thursday in Taliban's cache in Farah province bearing Iran trade mark.

This would be "a prejudgment" to get Iran involved in the case, the Afghan spokesman said.

He added, if it was proved that the mines belonged to a third country, then "the significant point is to find out when they were transferred to Afghanistan."
He stressed that Afghan military experts were investigating the case and would announce the result afterwards.

The commander added that the name of the producer country has been removed from the mines back.

Out of the more than 12 million of mines planted in Afghanistan during the country's three decades of war against occupation of the former Soviet Union, only five million have been discovered and defused so far.

The terrorist group of Taliban, who led the government from 1996 until being ousted by Western forces in 2001, are fighting against the government of President Hamid Karzai.
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Karzai: Iran has “been helping us in Afghanistan”
Tehran Times, Iran
DAVOS, Switzerland (Washington Post) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is in Davos to participate in the World Economic Forum, has said Iran has been supporting his country since the ouster of the Taleban regime in 2001.

In an interview with the Washington Post published on Saturday, he said, “We have had a particularly good relationship with Iran the past six years. It's a relationship that I hope will continue. We have opened our doors to them.

“They have been helping us in Afghanistan. The United States very wisely understood that it is our neighbor and encouraged that relationship.

“I hope Iran would also understand that the United States is a great ally of ours and that we value that alliance with the United States. So that is the foundation of our relations with them, and I hope that it will continue as it is.

Karzai added the United States supports good relationship between Iran and Afghanistan as two neighbors.

He said, “The United States has been very understanding and supportive that Afghanistan should have a relationship with Iran.”

U.S. officials have conceded that Iran has been very helpful in assisting Afghanistan establish security.

Iran has been a great contributor to Afghan reconstruction efforts and has hosted millions of Afghan refugees since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
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Exclusive Afghanistan
The Sunday Times (UK) January 27, 2008
The military has got itself into a pickle in Iraq and been given a fright in Afghanistan. But there’s one thing the bods in uniform have done exceptionally well, and it’s the thing you’d imagine they’d be most hopeless at: media management. When was the last time you saw a mildly critical or even questioning story about the armed services? Now think back to the relentless press over Northern Ireland, the investigations into shoot-to-kill and military excess; and, if you’re old enough, remember the sceptical coverage of Aden, Malaya and Cyprus, not to mention the military idiocy and belligerence during the cold war. But something happened during the Balkans, and the camouflaged guys have managed to make-believe that they fight wars without any responsibility for them. The army has brilliantly cast itself only as victor or victim.

The arguments about the politics go on, despite the military. The reasons for this, of course, are access and danger: journalists have to be embedded, and for them to go to the front line in Afghanistan or Iraq without the protection of the military would be bonkers and, more important to most newspapers and television channels, far too expensive. Get too close to soldiers and you lose your even-handedness; you identify with them. So, military news on television is limited to shaky phone video taken by amateurs or junior reporters in flak jackets, paraphrasing military press releases from the roof of an international hotel, out of harm’s way. Then there are the reality shows that look at a regiment with an invariably adoring, sentimental eye; in truth, it’s difficult not to like soldiers when they’re on your side. Finally, there are the first-person diaries, such as Chris Terrill’s recent paean to the marines and Ross Kemp in Afghanistan (Monday, Sky One), about his trip there with his local East Anglian regiment, the Vikings, an unfortunate nickname.

Kemp has been one of the great surprises of popular documentaries. Who would have thought this soap actor would turn in the most watchable and exciting documentaries of the past year, winning a Bafta from a list of nominees that included David Attenborough? Dozens of actors try a bit of presenting, imagining it’s all eyes and teeth and hitting your mark. What makes Kemp so good on gangs, and soldiers, is the stuff the snobbish Soho Tristrams sneer at him for. He talks haltingly, his observations are broad-brush and not particularly cute, but he has masses of intense empathy and a dogged inquisitiveness that borders on bravery, and he says what most of us would say if we were there.

Aside from all the excitement of this well shot and edited film of Afghanistan, the bits that stood out were the conversations with ordinary soldiers and their families. They talk to Kemp in a way they don’t to professional reporters or documentary-makers because, I suppose, they know he’s like them, and they like him. There is nobody else doing what Kemp does. He’s not what executives look for when they want a bit of working-class rough diamond; he’s the wrong sort of stereotype, and all the better for it. We are still, though, desperately short on reporting from our nasty little wars, and the military is dead lucky that the other side are rubbish at media handling. Sawing the heads off journalists with bread knives isn’t the way to get a favourable feature in a magazine or an hour’s prewatershed reality show.

A colleague who reviews TV for a tabloid once told me I had no idea how lucky I was not to have to write about soaps. One of the nice things about watching television for a Sunday broadsheet is that I am free to assume you lot don’t want to know what I think about every screaming twist on every rolling drama. I understand they’re the most popular things on the box, and I can sort of see why. I can also understand that, as a genre, they are television’s great gift to narrative fiction, but they all fill me with bleak despair. It’s the thought of them going on and on and on without end, a Sisyphean commitment. They are not things you can dip in and out of. If you ever watch an episode of a strange soap, what you note is that there’s nothing perceptible happening, and that it’s not happening with an inexplicably uniform intensity.

So I waited for a couple of episodes of Echo Beach and its sister show, Moving Wallpaper (Friday, ITV1), before writing this review. The conceit, rather than the concept, of this double-header is that Moving Wallpaper is about the making of Echo Beach, so it’s a sitcom about making a soap opera, while Echo Beach is just a soap opera that has someone else making fun of it, starring Martine McCutcheon and Jason Donovan, both of whom were made famous by other soap operas. So, with your irony bucket overflowing, you can sit down and watch it either as a soap opera or as a postmodern “soap opera”.

Now, as a plot device, irony and deconstruction don’t move you very far. Moving Wallpaper is better because it’s written about something writers care about: writers. And Echo Beach is just about Corn-wall and kids – who gives a toss about them? It’s like a cross between Hollyoaks and Eldorado, on the set from Crossroads. My guess is that everyone will get fed up with the joke and bin it, or maybe they’ll bin Echo Beach and keep Moving Wallpaper as a sitcom about a soap that doesn’t exist. And maybe one day soon, when you turn on the television, there’ll just be a shot of you sitting on a sofa staring into a camera. Anyway, if Echo Beach does get binned, I promise I’ll keep reviewing it. Just because a programme’s not broadcast, it doesn’t mean it can’t be criticised. And, if it’s criticised, then who’s to say it doesn’t exist?

Messiah (Sunday, BBC1) is back. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s Midsomer Murders made for goths. It’s always biblical: “’Ere, sarge, we’ve got a woman complaining about Armageddon outside her back door. Do you wanna go? I’m all tied up with the Apocalypse.” In a previous incarnation, the detective in Messiah was played by Ken Stott, an Old Testament actor if ever there was one. They should name a plague after him. Now the part has been taken over by Marc Warren, who is more New Testament, more Pauline, though he brings precious little good news.

Oddly, nobody seems to care much about the corpses. I certainly didn’t. There was little wailing, gnashing or rending. They weren’t really people, more ciphers and puzzles. I’ve always thought the way to catch mass murderers who leave elaborate clues is to ignore them. As soon as you know it, the killer will be banging on your door, telling you how stupid you are. In this case, he could have snuffed the entire cast in the manner of the plagues of Egypt. None of it was as properly spooky and spine-chilling as watching Tom Cruise put us right with messianic hysteria about scientology. This week’s lesson, best beloved, was that religions are really crap at PR.
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Prisoner transfer resume once Canada sees 'improvements' in Afghan jails: MacKay
Sat Jan 26, 6:17 PM By Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA - Canada will resume handing over captured Taliban fighters to Afghan authorities as soon as the army is confident there is no risk of torture, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Saturday.

The agreement signed with President Hamid Karzai's government last May will be honoured, MacKay insisted at the end of a closed-door strategy session by the government caucus.

The handovers will recommence once "we see there are improvements... in the Afghan prison," he told reporters.

But MacKay was adamant that military commanders on the ground will make the determination as to whether conditions in Afghan jails are good enough to allow for transfers.

He threw a blanket of operational security around what criteria field commanders will use to make their decision.

"We are not going to give the Taliban our playbook," he said. "We are not going to discuss the things we are doing operationally."

His comments will likely steel the determination of human-rights activists, who've been fighting in Federal Court to end the practice once and for all.

Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association have fought a protracted legal battle, arguing that Canada is in danger of violating international human rights law when it delivers prisoners into the hands of possible torture.

Government lawyers tried last week to have the case thrown out, arguing the transfers had been suspended, but human-rights groups countered that the handovers could resume at any time.

The international agreement governing the reconstruction of Afghanistan estimates it will be 2010 before that country's prison system is in good enough shape to be considered free of possible abuse.

"I don't think Canada or the Canadian Forces can be confident for a few years that that country will have the capacity to safely manage prisoners," said Paul Champ, the lawyer for Amnesty.

The halt in transfers was kept secret for nearly three months and came about only one day after Canadian diplomats saw a clear-cut case of torture on Nov. 5, 2007 in a Kandahar jail, belonging to the notorious Afghan intelligence service.

A prisoner, who had initially been captured by Canadians, showed signs of having been beaten unconscious with an electrical cable and a hose.

MacKay, who was in Afghanistan at the time, acknowledged that he was made aware of the incident right away, but he defended the decision to keep silent, insisting that Canadian lives were at stake.

Champ said the Canadian army churned out reports all last year that suggested torture might be taking place.

"Mr. MacKay should be asking the army why they didn't stop the transfers earlier," he added.
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Afghanistan wants int'l community to canalize aid through gov't 
www.chinaview.cn  2008-01-27 22:39:04
KABUL, Jan. 27 (Xinhua) -- Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said Sunday that Kabul would call on the donor nations at the coming Paris Conference to canalize their contribution through the government of Afghanistan.

"At Paris Conference we would call on the international community to spend its aid through the budget of the government of Afghanistan," Spanta told reporters at a press conference here.

He also admitted that only a small part of the international community's contribution had been spent through the government of Afghanistan.

He made this statement while majority of Afghans have been criticizing their government for what they described its failure to utilize billions of U.S. dollars flooded by international community for the reconstruction of the war-torn nation.

International community has pledged more than 16 billion U.S. dollars since Tokyo Conference held in 2002 for the reconstruction of the post-Taliban Afghanistan.

In London Conference held nearly two years ago, the international community besides pledging 4.5 billion U.S. dollars to Afghanistan agreed to canalize only 20 percent of the contribution through Afghan government.

Paris Conference with the support of France is going to be held in early June this year with an objective to review the outcome of international support to Afghanistan and renewing the commitment for the rebuilding of the post-Taliban nation.

"We are sure that the international community once again renews its commitment for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and war on terror at Paris Conference," the Afghan top diplomat said.
Editor: Yan Liang 
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New Taliban Chief Entering Limelight
By KATHY GANNON January 26, 2008
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Sometime in mid-December, as the winter winds howled across the snow-dusted hills of Pakistan's inhospitable border regions, 40 men representing Taliban groups all across Pakistan's northwest frontier came together to unify under a single banner and to choose a leader.

The banner was Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, with a fighting force estimated at up to 40,000. And the leader was Baitullah Mehsud, the man Pakistan accuses of murdering former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

The move is an attempt to present a united front against the Pakistani army, which has been fighting insurgents along the border with Afghanistan. It is also the latest sign of the rise of Mehsud, considered the deadliest of the Taliban mullahs or clerics in northwest Pakistan.

Mehsud is based in the rugged, heavily treed mountains of South Waziristan, one of Pakistan's so-called tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, where Western intelligence says al-Qaida is regrouping. His organization has claimed responsibility, often backed up by videos, for killing and kidnapping hundreds of soldiers, beheading women and burning schools that teach girls anything other than religion. He also claims he has a steady supply of suicide bombers and strong ties to al-Qaida.

"Al-Qaida has succeeded in building a base in the last two or three years mostly with help from Mehsud," said Ahmed Zaidan, a reporter for Al-Jazeera Television in Qatar who interviewed Mehsud three weeks ago. "They are moving freely in the tribal areas where it is difficult for the Pakistan army to move."

During the interview, Mehsud said in halting Arabic that he had never met Osama bin Laden but knew Abu Musab al-Zarqawi well. Al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born head of al-Qaida in Iraq, was killed in a U.S. air raid two years ago.

Al-Qaida gives Mehsud money and logistical advice, according to one of his Taliban allies, Maulvi Muslim, who spoke to The Associated Press in a voice that barely rose above a whisper and fell silent when a stranger walked by.

The Al-Qaida funds don't always come in cash. Rather, Afghan and Pakistani businessmen — usually in the United Arab Emirates — are given money to buy high-priced goods like cars. The goods are shipped to Pakistan and sold, often tripling al-Qaida's investment. The businessmen, with sympathies to al-Qaida, take a small cut while al-Qaida spreads the wealth among its allies.

The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan share ideological goals but have separate structures, Muslim said. The spiritual head of both is the one-eyed Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of Afghanistan's Taliban before being ousted by the U.S.-led coalition in November 2001 and to whom Mehsud swore allegiance in 2001, according to Muslim.

Mehsud, thought to be in his 40s, is secretive and, like Mullah Omar, hates to be photographed. He is described as devoted to the Taliban and not well educated.

"They say he is free from all vices, walks around covering almost half his face all the time," said Mehmood Shah, a retired Pakistani brigadier who was the government's former point man for the tribal regions. "He is very modest in his manners and polite."

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has also accused Mehsud's men of carrying out most of 19 suicide bombings in Pakistan over just three months. Newspapers quoted him as threatening Bhutto's life, but he denied it, and also denied Pakistani accusations that he was behind her Dec. 27 assassination.

Mehsud is also quoted as saying jihad is the only way to peace, a belief reflected in his history.

Muslim says Mehsud's first battlefield experience was in Afghanistan in the late 1980s against Soviet invaders. His mentor at the time was Jalaluddin Haqqani, a powerful commander in eastern Afghanistan backed by the United States against the Soviets. Now Haqqani is wanted as a terrorist by the U.S. and NATO.

According to both Muslim and another Taliban source, when the U.S. invaded in 2001, Mehsud fought with the Taliban in Shah-e-Kot in eastern Afghanistan. Scores of Uzbek, Tajik and Arab fighters are believed to have escaped from Shah-e-Kot to South Waziristan, where Mehsud rules. The Mehsud tribe is not the largest in South Waziristan, but it has a reputation for being the fiercest.

Mehsud's ascent reflects the failure of Pakistan's army with its U.S. funding to win control of its tribal areas.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Mehsud was not prominent among the Pakistani militants who supported Afghanistan's Taliban, according to Shah, the former army officer.

"Mehsud was a small fry, but I could see in time he could be of some problem," Shah said. "I was trying to get big tribal people onto the government side and religious people onto the government side to isolate these hard-core types like him."

It was a long process. Pakistan got tribal leaders to put up money or weapons as guarantees that they would keep peace __ a traditional tribal strategy that makes sure one tribe doesn't renege on its promise to another. If they misbehaved, Pakistan tried to strangle their businesses and hammer them with force.

Shah recalled destroying 80 shops belonging to a renegade tribal leader.

At the time, Shah said, Mehsud was not even the definitive leader of South Waziristan. At one point, he became embroiled in a power struggle with another in his tribe, Abdullah Mehsud, an Afghan war veteran who had spent time in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay. Abdullah Mehsud opposed any agreement with the Pakistani government.

Shah said he made a point of operating within the tribal structures and dealing with the tribal leaders and not the Pakistani Taliban commanders emerging at the time.

But by the end of 2004, the Pakistani army had started negotiations with the militants, Shah said. The pressure to negotiate came from the provincial government of the frontier, a coalition of right-wing religious parties sympathetic to the Taliban and opposed to the Western troop presence in Afghanistan.

Musharraf, whose rule as both Pakistani president and army chief of staff was being challenged in 2004, agreed to talks in exchange for the support of the provincial government. As a result, the Pakistani government on Feb. 7, 2005 signed a peace agreement with Mehsud.

According to Shah, Mehsud's troop strength then went from less than 100 to about 20,000, or roughly half the total thought to be under Taliban command in the northwest region that straddles the Pakistan-Afghan border. The agreement gave Mehsud the time to consolidate his forces and kill pro-government tribal leaders.

"The government policy of appeasement gave Mehsud a free hand to recruit and motivate," said Shah, who described Mehsud as "very cool and calculating."

Within a year of the agreement, Shah said, 123 pro-government tribal leaders were gunned down on Mehsud's orders, accused of spying. Other suspected spies were publicly hanged or beheaded. In the Bajour region of the tribal belt, many residents say they buy Taliban protection by letting one son join its ranks.

Mehsud also negotiated a prisoner exchange with Musharraf in November. Mehsud handed over a couple of hundred soldiers who had surrendered to the Taliban without firing a shot. In exchange, Musharraf gave up 19 men who were in custody on terrorism charges, including a son of Mehsud's mentor, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who had been in Pakistan custody.
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Taliban sacks its Pakistan Chief
Press Trust Of India Islamabad, January 26, 2008
Taliban chief Mullah Omar has removed the wanted militant leader Baitullah Mehsud as the commander of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for fighting the Pakistani army, a news report has said.

Asia Times Online quoted Mullah Omar as telling other Taliban commanders to turn their focus on NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan even as President Pervez Musharraf has ordered intensified military operations against the pro-Taliban militants in South Waziristan.

Mehsud, appointed by Omar as the chief of the Pakistani Taliban, was expected to provide support to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but instead directed all his fighters against Pakistani security forces. Now, Omar has sacked Mehsud for fighting against the Pakistan Army instead of with NATO forces, said the report of the Hong Kong-based online.

“The Afghan front is quiet because the Taliban and al Qaeda militants are heavily engaged in fighting Pakistani security forces in Waziristan. Therefore, Mullah Omar has put his foot down to reset goals for the Taliban: struggle in Afghanistan and not against Pakistan, as was being done by Mehsud,” the report said.

It quoted intelligence sources as saying that the top Taliban cleric appointed Maulvi Faqir Muhammad as TTP chief. However, Faqir has refused to accept the post, after which the local Taliban were trying to find a replacement for Baitullah.

With the isolation of Baitullah, who has already been named by the government as the main suspect behind former premier Benazir Bhutto's assassination, his loyalists are on their own to fight against the Pakistani forces.
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Germany protests Afghan reporter’s death sentence
(AFP) 27 January 2008 via Khaleej Times
BERLIN - German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he would raise objections with Kabul to an Afghan court’s sentencing of a young reporter accused of blasphemy to death, in an interview broadcast Sunday.

‘You can be sure that I will protest against this type of behaviour to the Afghan government, just as I have in previous cases,’ Steinmeier told public radio station Deutschlandfunk.

A court in the northern province of Balkh sentenced Perwiz Kambakhsh, 23, to death Tuesday for distributing articles downloaded from the Internet that were said to question the Koran and role of women in Islam.

A group of Afghan Islamic clerics on Saturday welcomed the ruling and warned the international community against ‘interfering in Afghanistan courts’ decisions.’

The statement came after the United States expressed its concern to the Afghan government Friday over the death sentence for the reporter, who has been jailed since October.

Several local and Afghan media rights groups have condemned the reporter’s detention and sentencing.

Steinmeier said Germany aimed with its contingent of about 3,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to put the country on the road to democracy.

‘We want to establish a democratic state, perhaps not one that takes the same path as the exemplary democracies of Europe, but one that maintains its independence,’ he said.

‘However, we would like to be able to expect and must expect that at the very least the rules comprised in UN accords are respected. I do not think that was the case here.’

Steinmeier said Berlin and Paris were preparing an international conference for countries involved in Afghan reconstruction ‘in the coming months, probably in May or June’ to coordinate their assistance for the war-ravaged country.

‘We want to see where we are, where we need to make adjustments and where individual states could do more,’ he said.

‘That is necessary and we will do it together.’
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Pakistan troops battle militants to control tunnel
By Mohammad Hashim Sun Jan 27, 6:11 AM ET
KOHAT, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani troops, backed by helicopter gunships, are battling pro-Taliban militants to recapture a key road tunnel leading to the volatile tribal belt on the Afghan border, the military said on Sunday.

Militants captured the Japanese-built tunnel on the main road link between Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province, and the tribal belt during fighting near Darra Adam Kheil tribal region on Saturday.

The clashes erupted on Friday after militants seized four trucks carrying ammunition and other supplies for the troops. Around 45 militants and two soldiers have been killed in the clashes.

The military said troops had captured some heights in the nearby areas and were trying to wrest control of the tunnel.

"The militants are still in control of the tunnel and surrounding heights," military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said.

"The operation is underway to recapture the tunnel and clear the area of militants. Helicopters are also being used in the operation."

Residents said army helicopter gunships were pounding militants positions in the hills.

Abbas said militants had suffered more casualties during the latest fighting but could not give details.

Violence has spread across Pakistan, mainly in Frontier Province, after an army assault on a militant mosque in the capital Islamabad in July last year. Hundreds of people, including soldiers, have been killed in suicide and bomb attacks since then.

But analysts said fighting in Darra Adam Kheil on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Peshawar, posed a new challenge to President Pervez Musharraf, a staunch ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Troops are already battling militants loyal to a Taliban commander, Baitallah Mehsud, in South Waziristan tribal region, a sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban militants.

The government says Mehsud is linked to the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a gun and bomb attack last month.

"Militants' action in Darra Adam Kheil shows that they want to open new fronts to put pressure on the army and to ease pressure on Baitullah Mehsud," Rahimullah Yusufzai, a newspaper editor and expert on tribal areas.

Mehsud, who has also been blamed for a string of suicide bomb attacks, ordered his fellow Taliban commanders on Friday to step up attacks on Pakistani security forces, according to a spokesman for the militant commander.

Known as haven for smugglers, the small dusty town of Darra Adam Kheil until recently had been relatively free of the militant violence.

But the militants intensified their activities in the town in recent months with attacks on music shops, and an intelligence agent was killed there last year.

In South Waziristan, the military said troops had launched a mop up operation after driving out militants from several areas.

Around 150 militants and more than 20 government soldiers have been killed in South Waziristan in week-long clashes with Mehsud fighters.

(Additional reporting and writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
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Sharif picked to tame Pakistan's militancy
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online / January 26, 2008
KARACHI - Seven years after the invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, Dell Dailey, the US State Department's counterterrorism chief, reveals there are "gaps in intelligence" about militants in the Pakistani border regions and there is not enough information about what's going on there.

There's not enough information on al-Qaeda, on foreign fighters and on the Taliban, yet speculation is rife that nuclear-armed Pakistan will soon be under siege by Islamic militants. And Major General David Rodriguez, who commands US forces in eastern Afghanistan, warned this week that Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have postponed their spring offensive in Afghanistan as they want to focus their efforts on destabilizing the Pakistani government.

Therefore, given the assassination of the "great hope" Benazir Bhutto last month, the million-dollar question is: What political force can calm this visible storm raging in the country?

It is now emerging that Washington and London, the two major stakeholders in the "war on terror", see former premier Nawaz Sharif as the answer.

The British Foreign Office played a crucial role in backroom talks with Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shebaz Sharif to get them, since their recent return from exile, to play a major political role once Parliament is in place after next month's general elections. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML) is expected to win a considerable number of seats, if not a simple majority.

Should this happen, the issue will then become Sharif's working relationship with President Pervez Musharraf. International and Pakistan players are now trying to address this problem.

Enter, therefore, retired Brigadier Niaz Ahmad, one of the country's richest ex-serviceman. He owns and operates several companies with international business, including one which supplies material to Pakistan's atomic laboratory at Kohota. He was retired general Musharraf's senior in the army and a family friend of Sharif's. He is trying to bridge the gap between Musharraf and Nawaz, an animosity that dates to Nawaz being deposed as prime minister by Musharraf's coup in 1999.

Senior PML leaders admit that Niaz met Sharif's brother in London, but say there was no political dealing. "It was purely a personal meeting. We braved eight years of the military dictatorship of Musharraf and at this stage, when he is on his way out, we will not strike any deal with him," the central vice president of Sharif's PML, Mushahidullah Khan, told Asia Times Online.

He added his party will not be part of any international agenda. "We have been opposing the policies of the [George W] Bush administration in the region and we will not support them in any form," Mushahidullah maintained.

However, Asia Times Online contacts believe the matter transcends local political wheeling and dealing over power-sharing, and that Washington and London want Sharif, as he will rally popular support for the "war on terror" as he is close to the religious segment of society and the most likely to be able to tame militancy.

The next few days could be crucial. After attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Musharraf has a two-day stopover in England. According to the official version, he will spend quite time "at a farm house". But Asia Times Online contacts maintain he will meet with Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri to discuss guarantees and a modus operandi for a relationship between the Sharifs and Musharraf.

Saad's slain father Rafik Hariri previously was the guarantor of a deal between Sharif and Musharraf which allowed Sharif's release from jail in 2000 - he had been sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of hijacking - to go into exile in Saudi Arabia. Sharif initially denied this deal, but later admitted to it.

Retired Squadron Leader Khalid Khawaja commented to Asia Times Online, "We are fully aware of these developments, and you would be surprised to learn that I recently met a person in the UAE [United Arab Emirates] who divulged that America's real point person has always been Nawaz Sharif. The reason is simple, he has inroads to the militants and he is considered among them to be a better person in comparison to all others."

Khawaja was a close aide of Osama bin Laden's after retiring from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)and the Pakistan Air Force. Khawaja also arranged bin Laden's meeting with Nawaz Sharif in the late 1980s in Saudi Arabia to hatch a plan to topple Bhutto's government.

Khawaja would not name the person he had met in the UAE, other than to hint he is part of the ISI's and the US State Department's initiative of backroom meetings between Pakistani officials and the opposition.

A matter of urgency

The need to work out a deal between Sharif and Musharraf is of paramount importance, given the security situation in the country.

The security forces have launched an operation to eliminate former Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in the South Waziristan tribal area, but they have admitted they are clueless about his network.

Mehsud was recently "sacked" by Taliban leader Mullah Omar because of Mehsud's obsession with waging war against the Pakistan state. Mullah Omar wants the Taliban to concentrate on the struggle in Afghanistan.

Recently arrested militants in the port city of Karachi apparently divulged details of Mehsud's plans to attack Pakistan's strategic installations. As a result, security has been beefed up around intelligence and military installations. Officials even fear an imminent country-wide clash between security and extremist forces.

Pakistani intelligence's efforts to eliminate militant cells has been hampered by the loss of several key people. Former members of Musharraf's ruling coalition and ministers such as Sheikh Rasheed and Ejaz ul-Haq have been discredited in the eyes of the militants. This is because of their role in the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) incident last year when the radical mosque was stormed by security forces. They had been close to the militants.

Even former opposition leader Fazlur Rehman, who played a major role in striking a ceasefire deal in the tribal areas, is now on al-Qaeda's hit list for trying to broker a ceasefire between Taliban commanders and Western intelligence agencies in southwestern Afghanistan.

All eyes are now on Sharif to rescue the situation, whether in the role of a friendly opposition (as the six-party religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal did in the past) or as part of a ruling coalition.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief.  
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Lack of quorum mars Wolesi Jirga session
By Makia Munir - Jan 24, 2008 - 18:18
KABUL (PAN): Most of the legislators of the lower house or Wolesi Jirga of the parliament have not attended the parliament sessions in the third day after the parliament resumed its session following 45 days winter holidays.

Only 40 out of 241 people's representatives could show up in this house on Thursday.

Gul Padshah Majeedi head of the Wolesi Jirga commission for security and privileges blamed insufficient security arrangements for the MPs for lack of quorum, he argued, based on our discussions with the MPs most of them (MPs) do not show up in the parliament for security reasons."

There has been several insecurity incidents in this capital, but the recent panic to the representatives have increased since the armed attack and explosion in Serena Hotel.

Six people were killed and five more sustained injuries in this attack here.

Insisting serious security measures to be adopted for security of the MPs, he criticized "Before the winter holidays we proposed a 12-point security draft to the security organs but unfortunately they did not use it."

Sher Aziz Kamawal head of the parliament security agreed that the attack in Serena Hotel had demoralized the MPs and people but said they had taken strong security steps for the parliament.

There were three security belts for the parliament, he added, the parliament security guards were highly trained.

Security needs alertness and good measures rather than heavy equipments, he added.

Besides insecurity other problems such as road blockades, abroad tours and disinclination of the MPs had also added up as impediment against presence of the MPs in parliament.

Azita Raffat peoples' representative from Badghis province was also of the view that about 60 legislators were on tours abroad, she added most MPs had not returned from their homes in provinces.

She alleged those who had qualified to the parliament by their wealth were probably busy in their economic businesses.
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Int'l aid sought to overcome flour crisis
By Pajhwok reporter - Jan 24, 2008 - 18:30
KABUL (PAN): The Government of Afghanistan and the United Nations Thursday called for over US$81million to help people hit by the rising price of wheat flour.

The appeal aims to help over 2.5 million Afghans at risk from food shortages in rural and urban areas over the coming five months.

Dramatic price rises of staple foodstuffs such as wheat flour increase the risk of hunger, as more families find it harder to afford the food they need. There is a pressing need for targeted food assistance now to avoid the situation deteriorating further.

The joint appeal by the Government of Afghanistan, the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the United Nations Childrens Fund (Unicef) will meet these urgent food needs. It will also provide additional nutritional supplements to those most at risk and help people who are already suffering from severe malnutrition.

Bo Asplund, acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General said:

This joint appeal is on behalf of 425,000 extremely poor Afghan families, who otherwise will be unable to meet their most basic need that of food especially during the current harsh winter months, until the next harvest season. I urge all donors to respond generously to the appeal, to ensure that these families can feed themselves, and so that the most vulnerable, who are predominantly children and women, do not succumb to malnutrition.
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Narcotics seized, one arrested in Paktia
By Syed Jamal Asifkhel - Jan 24, 2008 - 17:05
GARDEZ (PAN): Police recovered more than four tons of heroins and other materials used in its production from a market in Gardez, capital city of the southeastern Paktia province and also arrested a suspected person, an official said.

Paktia police Chief Brig. Gen. Asmatullah Alizai told Pajhwok Afghan News two tons heroin placed in 49 bags and other two tons and 310 grams acid were recovered last evening at 6pm from a godown in Spen market.

Alizai said the narcotics worth ten millions Afghanis were smuggled from other provinces for its onward smuggling.

Paktia anti-narcotics Chief Hafeezullah Ahmadzai confirming police claim said one of their officials also accompanied with the police during the raid on market.

Alizai said anti-narcotics ministry has approved one million dollars for the Paktia province which would be spent on agricultural projects in the province.
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Three projects initiated in Helmand
By Akram Noorzai - Jan 24, 2008 - 17:40
LASHKARGAH, (PAN): Construction work on the projects of a museum, library and a separate building for women on the occasion of offering condolence to a bereaved family  have been initiated at cost of six millions afghani in the capital of southern Helmand province, a top official said on Thursday.

Helmand governor Asadullah Wafa told Pajhwok Afghan News the projects would be completed in four months from the income of municipality.

"Such buildings were non-existant in Helamand before and due to it the historical assets would be preserve while library and women condolence place will solve various problems of people," governor hoped

A Lashkargah city resident Sidiqui appreciated the government efforts.

Information and Culture Minister Jan Gul Khan also welcomed the projects and said due to it the historical asset of Helmand province would be preserve.
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