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January 8, 2008 

Afghan former rebel lands state role in ex-fiefdom
By Hamid Shalizi Tue Jan 8, 5:31 AM ET
KABUL (Reuters) - A former senior Taliban commander has been appointed government district chief of the fiefdom he once controlled as an insurgent leader, Afghan officials confirmed on Tuesday.

AFGHANISTAN: "State of alert" declared as snow causes deaths, blocks roads
08 Jan 2008 12:33:38 GMT
 KABUL, 8 January 2008 (IRIN) - The Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) in Afghanistan declared a "state of alert" on 8 January after heavy snowfall killed at least 17 and caused severe road blockages across the country.

77 arrested by Afghan authorities last year in connection with bomb plots
By AMIR SHAH, Associated Press Writer AP - Wednesday, January 9
KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan authorities arrested 77 people involved in suicide bomb plots last year, including 27 people from foreign countries, Afghanistan's anti-terrorism chief said Tuesday.

Suicide attack strikes Afghan border police
Mon Jan 7, 5:06 AM ET
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - A suicide attacker blew himself up Monday near a border police convoy in southern Afghanistan, wounding five officers, officials said.

Marines examine Afghan civilian deaths
By ESTES THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer Mon Jan 7, 6:10 PM ET
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - The Marine Corps launched a rare tribunal Monday to publicly investigate disputed allegations that a special forces unit killed as many as 19 Afghan civilians after the military convoy was rammed by a car bomb.

Afghanistan's Most Wretched Battle Addiction
Swelling Ranks of Heroin Addicts in Kabul Scrap for Meager Resources
By MATT GUTMAN ABC News Internet Ventures
KABUL, Afghanistan, Jan. 8, 2008 Assadullah's blackened hand pushes up a jacket sleeve. As if it were a trophy, he presents a skinny arm notched with track marks. The Afghan heroin addict's veins have gone flat, making the featureless

Report: Bin Laden Bodyguard Arrested in Pakistan
Monday , January 07, 2008, Fox News
The alleged security coordinator and bodyguard for Al Qaeda terror chieftain Usama bin Laden was arrested in Pakistan sometime last week, the influential newspaper The Nation reported Monday.

Afghanistan/Iran: Kabul Pleads With Tehran To Delay Refugee Expulsions
By Farangis Najibullah RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
She's lived in Iran her entire life, but Siddiqa Rezai can't call it home.
Rezai, 20, is the daughter of Afghan refugees who fled war in their homeland 25 years ago. Until now, her family of eight has lived in the town of Boen-Zahra in Qazvin Province, west of Tehran. Rezai and her five siblings were all born there.

US wants Pakistan to bite the bullet
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online, Hong Kong
KARACHI - After more than six years, Pakistan finds itself in probably the most difficult position it has been in since signing on as a partner in the US-led "war on terror".

Britain jails would-be Taliban fighter
By Andrew Hough
LONDON (Reuters) - A London dentist who planned to fight for the Afghan Taliban against British and U.S. forces was jailed on Tuesday for preparing to commit terrorist acts.

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Afghan former rebel lands state role in ex-fiefdom
By Hamid Shalizi Tue Jan 8, 5:31 AM ET
KABUL (Reuters) - A former senior Taliban commander has been appointed government district chief of the fiefdom he once controlled as an insurgent leader, Afghan officials confirmed on Tuesday.

Mullah Salaam, a high-ranking governor during the Taliban's rule and a diehard insurgent after they were toppled by a U.S.-led force in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, is the new head of Musa Qala in turbulent Helmand province.

His appointment is a propaganda coup for the government as it desperately tries to woo "untainted" Taliban insurgents to its side. Thousands of people, mostly civilians, were killed last year in the worst violence since the Taliban's ousting.

"It is consistent with the Afghan government policies," said Humayun Hamidzada, a spokesman for Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

"The president has said before that all those former Taliban who come and accept the constitution and who want to participate in the political process through non-violent means ... they are welcome."

While the government insists it does not negotiate with the Taliban, it is an open secret that unofficial emissaries regularly try to persuade insurgents to cross lines in exchange for amnesty.

INVALUABLE INTELLIGENCE
Hamidzada said Salaam had played a key role in recapturing Musa Qala from the Taliban late last year and had helped bring unity to the local community. He said Salaam had provided invaluable intelligence to government forces.

"He is now at the service of his people and he enjoys the support of the government as well as the support of the people," Hamidzada said.

The fate of Musa Qala has been a sore point between the government, NATO-led forces and U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

British troops leading the fight against the Taliban in Helmand controversially abandoned the district after striking an agreement with local elders for them to police themselves.

The move apparently angered U.S. and Afghan officials -- especially after Taliban forces swiftly took control of the district, which lies at the heart of Afghanistan's poppy growing and opium producing industry.

Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's heroin and over half of that originates from Helmand alone.

Mullah Salaam was the governor of Uruzgan province until 2001, when the Taliban were toppled and scattered throughout Afghanistan's south and east.

He was captured and jailed for six months, but after being released as part of a plan to win over ex-fighters, he returned immediately to the insurgency and became the Taliban's top commander for Musa Qala.

Married with four wives and 20 children, Salaam is said to be very influential among the Pashtun tribes -- particularly in Musa Qala itself.

Salaam told Reuters that the Taliban had been divided for a while in Musa Qala, but the majority were behind him.

"There are two groups of Taliban fighters in Musa Qala and I have the backing of the major one. The Taliban who are against peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, I will fight them," he said.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by David Fox and Alex Richardson)
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AFGHANISTAN: "State of alert" declared as snow causes deaths, blocks roads
08 Jan 2008 12:33:38 GMT
 KABUL, 8 January 2008 (IRIN) - The Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) in Afghanistan declared a "state of alert" on 8 January after heavy snowfall killed at least 17 and caused severe road blockages across the country.

"The notice of high alert has been communicated to all 34 provinces and it will remain valid until further instruction," said Mohammad Amin Fatimi, Afghanistan's minister of public health.

"From now on over 30,000 health workers across the country are vigilant round the clock, and are being told to immediately deliver health services wherever and whenever needs arise," he said.

At least 17 people died and over a dozen others were injured after heavy snow hit Herat Province, western Afghanistan, and Ghor Province in central-western Afghanistan on 6-8 January, said Noorudin Ahmadi, president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society in Herat Province.

Minister Fatimi told IRIN the MoPH would be working to alleviate the plight of those affected, and called on the UN and aid agencies to be vigilant and provide support and assistance to the government and affected communities.

Adrian Edwards, a UN spokesman in Kabul, said the UN was aware of the current problems and was ready to help the government and other partners to respond.

Heavy snow fell in parts of the country 4-8 January up to over a metre in places.

Hundreds evacuated

About 600 passengers stranded in snowstorms on the Kabul-Kandahar highway on 7 January were safely evacuated by police, according to a press release issued by the Ministry of Interior on 8 January.

"From 9pm [7 January] to 2am [8 January] 120 police and 40 vehicles successfully conducted the life-saving evacuation operation," the press release said.

In the west of the country 15 road workers marooned by the snow in a remote location in Herat Province for over 24 hours were evacuated on 8 January, said Habibullah Timory, head of Herat's public works department.

Roads blocked
The main highway which connects Kabul with the north through the Salaang Pass has remained blocked since 7 January due to avalanches and snow, Abdul Matin Edrak, head of the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA), told reporters on 8 January.

The road between Kabul and Khost and Paktia provinces to the southeast was also reportedly blocked by heavy snow.

Officials in Badakhshan, Daykundi, Bamiyan, Ghor and Logar provinces also said all routes from provincial capitals to districts and within districts had been blocked by snow.

Access to several districts in Herat, Badghis and Faryab provinces was also cut-off, local officials reported.

The Afghan government has contracted several private companies to keep the country's main highways open throughout the winter, ANDMA said. Local councils have also been tasked in vulnerable locations to keep minor roads open.

"We have called on our contractors and local people to immediately start work," said Ghulam Haider, an official at the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.

Food prices up

The delivery of food and non-food items to a number of already vulnerable locations has been delayed due to the bad weather.

As a result, the price of food and fuel has risen sharply, making it more difficult for low-income families to meet their food and heating requirements, officials say.

Officials in some affected provinces have warned that if roads remain blocked and food and non-food items do not reach vulnerable communities in the near future, the current shortages could lead to a possible humanitarian crisis.
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77 arrested by Afghan authorities last year in connection with bomb plots
By AMIR SHAH, Associated Press Writer AP - Wednesday, January 9
KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan authorities arrested 77 people involved in suicide bomb plots last year, including 27 people from foreign countries, Afghanistan's anti-terrorism chief said Tuesday.

Gen. Abdul Manan Farahi, the anti-terrorism chief of the Afghan Interior Ministry, said that most of the 27 foreigners were from Pakistan, but that three came from Russia, a couple came from Iran and some came from Arab countries.

The 77 included would-be suicide bombers and their accomplices. Militants set off roughly 140 suicide bomb attacks in Afghanistan last year.

Police authorities in Helmand province captured two would-be bombers 10 days ago, Farahi said.

One was an 18-year-old who said he was from Quetta, Pakistan. The teenager, who said his name was Hamidullah, was shown to journalists at a news conference by Farahi.

Hamidullah told reporters he was taken to a cell of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan after being passed through a network of people in Pakistan. He asked for forgiveness from the people of Afghanistan for planning to set off the bomb attack.

Farahi said the two targets in Helmand were the governor and a British military base where soldiers primarily do reconstruction work.

Afghanistan last year saw a record level of violence. More than 6,500 people _ mostly militants _ were killed, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials.
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Suicide attack strikes Afghan border police
Mon Jan 7, 5:06 AM ET
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - A suicide attacker blew himself up Monday near a border police convoy in southern Afghanistan, wounding five officers, officials said.

Three police vehicles stopped at a petrol station in Spin Boldak town, Kandahar province, when the attacker walked towards them and detonated his bomb, border police commander Abdul Razeq told AFP.

"Five border policemen were wounded in the suicide attack. One of them is in critical condition," Razeq said.

Initial reports indicated there were no civilian casualties, he added.

Spin Boldak is the scene of frequent Taliban attacks including roadside and suicide bombings.

Afghan authorities claim militants cross the border from Pakistan to conduct operations in the area.

Radical Islamist militants have launched a bloody insurgency which has claimed thousands of lives since a US-led invasion forced them from power in late 2001.

Last year saw over 140 suicide attacks, a tactic copied from Iraqi insurgents.

An Indian engineer and seven Afghan policemen were killed on January 3 in a suicide attack in western Afghanistan, the first this year.
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Marines examine Afghan civilian deaths
By ESTES THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer Mon Jan 7, 6:10 PM ET
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - The Marine Corps launched a rare tribunal Monday to publicly investigate disputed allegations that a special forces unit killed as many as 19 Afghan civilians after the military convoy was rammed by a car bomb.

The court of inquiry, an administrative proceeding last used by the Marine Corps more than 50 years ago, will focus on the actions of Maj. Fred C. Galvin, commander of the 120-person unit, and platoon leader Capt. Vincent J. Noble.

The officers were members of a Marine special operations company that opened fire March 4 along a crowded roadway in Nangahar province after an explosives-rigged minivan crashed into their convoy. No Marines were killed and only one was wounded.

Witnesses said the Marines fired indiscriminately at pedestrians and people in cars, buses and taxis in six locations along a 10-mile stretch of the road, according to a report issued by Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission.

A defense attorney said evidence would show the patrol followed regulations. Testimony was to start on Tuesday.

Military prosecutors declined to comment. In a statement, the Corps said the court would explore conduct of the convoy, rules of engagement, fire discipline, reporting of the incident and the "command climate" of the company.

At the end of the inquiry, which is scheduled to last two weeks, the panel will recommend whether the officers should be charged with a crime.

That decision will ultimately rest with Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, commander of U.S. Marine Forces Central Command.

Army Lt. Gen. Francis H. Kearney III, who led special operations forces in the Middle East at the time of the shootings, ordered eight Marines back to Camp Lejeune and removed the rest of the company from Afghanistan.

An Army brigade commander, 10th Mountain Division Col. John Nicholson, apologized in May, saying he was "deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people." Initial reports pegged the number of dead at 10 or 12, but Nicholson said officials had concluded 19 died and 50 were injured.

But the next week, Marine Corps commandant Gen. James T. Conway said Nicholson's apology was premature because an investigation remained under way.

In November, Maj. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, the commander of the Marine Special Operations Command, said that the Marines responded correctly when they were attacked and that he disagreed with Kearney's decision to pull them out of Afghanistan.

The Defense Department's inspector general has since opened an investigation into Kearney's actions, responding to concerns raised by Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., who said the Army had "discarded the presumption of innocence."

Defense attorneys were told Monday they would not be allowed to call Kearney as a witness.

They have interviewed each of the 30 Marines in the six-vehicle reconnaissance patrol.

After the convoy's second vehicle was hit by the bomb, "the evidence is quite clear that the patrol received small arms fire from that location for approximately the next three miles," said Mark Waple, a civilian lawyer for Galvin.

"There is such a very clear line between the forensic evidence and the testimony of the Marines when compared to some of the statements of the Afghan civilians," Waple said.

A Navy investigation also found that at least one of the Afghan citizens who said they were injured "were told to make their claim for being injured so they could receive compensation. That's been a confusing factor in this situation," Waple said.

The Marine Corps last used the administrative fact-finding process in 1956, to investigate allegations a drill sergeant marched a group of recruits into a South Carolina creek, where six died.
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Afghanistan's Most Wretched Battle Addiction
Swelling Ranks of Heroin Addicts in Kabul Scrap for Meager Resources
By MATT GUTMAN ABC News Internet Ventures
KABUL, Afghanistan, Jan. 8, 2008 Assadullah's blackened hand pushes up a jacket sleeve. As if it were a trophy, he presents a skinny arm notched with track marks. The Afghan heroin addict's veins have gone flat, making the featureless landscape of his forearm look like a child's.

Rolling down his Shawal Kamis trousers, he then displayed the only entry point left on his body: his femoral vein high up on the inside of his thigh.

Assadullah's fellow addicts impassively watch the spectacle here at a bombed out cultural center, built by the Soviets in the 1980s and promptly destroyed by Afghan warlords during the civil war in the early 1990s. The Soviets called it the Center of Knowledge and Culture.

Ghostly figures slouch through the structure, beneath the spot where Lenin's dour face has been chipped off an enormous mural. Piles of syringes and feces are left where junkies dropped them.

Assadullah, 37, is one of tens of thousands of Afghan addicts. They crowd the city's bombed-out buildings, often deploying by the thousands to score a dose, and then slouching back to these fetid lairs.

Abundant Supply
Their ranks have swelled the past two years, thanks largely to two years of bumper poppy crops and a botched narcotics war waged by the Afghan government -- whose own woefully paid police and anti-narcotics officials either smuggle the drug or turn a blind eye to it if bribed well enough.

Corruption is by no means limited to anti-narcotics officials. Border police at the Kabul Airport often find invented "contraband" on foreigners, in the hopes of coercing "bakshish," or a bribe.

Afghanistan has cornered the poppy and heroin market, now producing more than 90 percent of the world's heroin. That huge supply has driven down the street price for the drug here. A 1-gram dose now goes for 60 Afghan rupees, or about $1.10.

The poppy industry has also set off a "secondhand" epidemic; children and spouses of heroin or opium refiners have become hooked from the particles on spouses or father's clothing.

Dr. Nasimullah Bawar, the director of Zindag-i-Nawin, one of the city's 40 rehab centers, says his 10-bed detox center, not far from the Center of Knowledge and Culture, can't possibly handle the volume.

"We have thousands on our waiting list," Bawar said. "They come here looking for help, but we don't have the resources or the beds to treat them. So we tell them to start reducing their use and come back."

Assadullah is one of those rejected by the rehab centers. Short of stature and boyish of face, he is of Hazara descent, a minority ethnic group of at least partial Mongol descent. Assasullah's story is punctuated by a rattling cough.

Assadullah got hooked on heroin 10 years ago, and he has been gripped by addiction ever since. Before he became an addict, he was a machine gunner for the Hazara militia, Hezb-e-Wahdat, during the so-called jihad against the Soviets, but he was kicked out of Kabul by the Taliban in the late 1990s.

One Toke
"I found himself working construction in Iran," he says. "It was hard work. I was always hurting. One day my boss offered me a toke of opium."

He inhaled, felt his body warming from the inside out, and quickly graduated to smoking heroin. After two years, smoking wouldn't slake his thirst for the drug. Injections shortly followed.

He takes me upstairs to the second floor of the bombed-out theater. We climb the remnants of a staircase where the snow drifts in, as he leads me to his favorite shooting up spot on the second floor. "Heroin makes you feel warm," he says, hugging himself for effect.

As we talk, he darts between euphoric proclamations that he'll join the Afghan National Army, to disconsolate depression.

"I am disgraced. I haven't seen my family in six months, I can't go home like this. It is shameful," he says.

In Afghanistan, shame appears to be one of the strongest motivations for rehab.

Crouched by a vomit stain on the carpeted floor of Bawar's rehab center, Khan Mamat is 48 hours into detox. Like the rest of the emaciated sunken-eyed inmates, the 22-year-old's head was buzzed.

"They have lice and when they arrive, their hair is so matted, we have to cut it off," explains Bawar.

His eyes are glazed over. The razor-stab pains he says he felt during the first 24 hours are abating. It was during those first hours that he, like so many of Bawar's inmates, tried to toss himself out of the detox room's window. Others have smashed the window and sliced at their wrists with fistfuls of glass.

He lost his car and his family to heroin. "What made me quit? My brother told me either I quit heroin or I quit the house."

The Afghan government and the international community have been sluggish to respond to the soaring rate of addiction, and a concurrent rise in HIV. Official government estimates put the total number of HIV-positive Afghans at about 350. Bawar says the number is likely much higher.

However, with the government's assent the center has begun to distribute sterile needles at places like the Center of Knowledge and Culture. But it's a battle Bawar says he can't win.

Assasullah knows he has already lost. In a flicker of lucidity, he points to his groin and says, "If I lose this vein, then I am dead."
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Report: Bin Laden Bodyguard Arrested in Pakistan
Monday , January 07, 2008, Fox News
The alleged security coordinator and bodyguard for Al Qaeda terror chieftain Usama bin Laden was arrested in Pakistan sometime last week, the influential newspaper The Nation reported Monday.

Amin al-Haq, 48, also known under the alias Dr. Amin Ah Haq, was arrested last week in Lahore during a special police operation and is being interrogated by Pakistani intelligence, the newspaper reported citing an anonymous law enforcement source. Pakistani officials have not yet confirmed the arrest.

Amin al-Haq was part of the Afghan delegation flown to Sudan in 1996 to bring bin Laden to Afghanistan. Amin al-Haq is believed to be an active member of the Hizbe Islami Afghanistan party, which joined the Taliban movement in 1996.

The U.S. froze Amin al-Haq's assets after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
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Afghanistan/Iran: Kabul Pleads With Tehran To Delay Refugee Expulsions
By Farangis Najibullah RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
She's lived in Iran her entire life, but Siddiqa Rezai can't call it home.

Rezai, 20, is the daughter of Afghan refugees who fled war in their homeland 25 years ago. Until now, her family of eight has lived in the town of Boen-Zahra in Qazvin Province, west of Tehran. Rezai and her five siblings were all born there. It's the only home they've ever known.

Rezai's father works as a brickmaker. Most of his income goes to pay rent. Speaking Farsi with a strong Iranian accent, Rezai tells RFE/RL she would like to study or work to contribute to her family's income but can't "because all doors are closed to Afghan refugees."

She says she wanted to attend university but "wasn't allowed."

"I was told that I have had only the right to go to school, but I have no right to be admitted to university," she says. "I'm looking for a job in Boen-Zahra, but businesses say, 'We don't employ Afghans.' I can't find a job."

Luckier Than Most
Nevertheless, Rezai's parents consider themselves "lucky." They have legal refugee status, a roof over their heads, and food on the table.

Others are less fortunate. An estimated 1.5 million Afghans living in Iran without legal registration face a threat of immediate deportation or arrest. Last week, Interior Ministry officials said they had warned Afghan illegal immigrants to leave Iran or face up to five years in prison.

Iran began forcibly repatriating Afghan refugees in April, when the Interior Ministry said it would send 1 million immigrants back to Afghanistan by March 2008. Despite protests from Kabul, tens of thousands Afghans have so far been forced out.

According to Afghan refugees in Iran, the police have rounded up Afghan men, put them in buses, and dropped them off along the Iranian-Afghan border -- often without even informing their families. Iran's semi-official Fars news agency quotes officials from the Foreigners' Police as saying that as many as 20,000 Afghans were expelled in the first three days of the latest refugee expulsion drive alone.

According to official figures, there are some 900,000 legally registered Afghan refugees living in Iran. Most refugees, regardless of their legal status, work in construction or other low-paying manual jobs.

Tehran has steadily increased pressure on refugees over the past year in a bid to drive them out. Some Afghan immigrants complain that without official permission, they can no longer obtain medical insurance, open bank accounts, or buy homes.

More importantly, refugees' children are denied access to public schools unless they pay tuition fees that many of them cannot afford.

Voices Of Concern

Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and rights activist, is involved in defending the refugee children's right to education.

"Children born to mixed families -- Iranian and Afghan parents -- don't have passports, because the Iranian government has not given them passports, so they are deprived of their right to education," Ebadi tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "Afghans have set up several schools in Tehran for these children, but Iran's Ministry of Education does not officially recognize these schools."

Tehran has defended its decision on expulsion, saying the plan targets only illegal immigrants. The Interior Ministry says those who have been expelled have the right to return if they obtain the proper documents from Iranian consulates in Afghanistan.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Kabul confirms that Iran so far has mostly expelled unregistered immigrants. Nader Farhad, a UNHCR spokesman in Kabul, tells RFE/RL that Iran has expelled some 360,000 Afghan immigrants since April -- and that the majority of them had been living in Iran illegally.

Authorities in Kabul are concerned.
 
A spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, Sultan Ahmad Beheen, told reporters in Kabul this week that the ministry had not been officially informed about Tehran's latest decision. He said that following the recent media reports, the ministry contacted the Iranian Embassy in Kabul to discuss the fate of Afghan refugees.

"These reports are inconsistent with previous discussions and agreements we had [with Iran over the refugee issue], and we hope that at least during the cold winter months, the Afghans will not be forced to leave Iran," Beheen said.

Beheen added that a high-level Afghan delegation would go to Tehran soon to ask the Iranian authorities to delay the deportation of Afghans for a few months to allow Kabul to prepare for their return.
 
Amid a violent insurgency in its south, Afghanistan is finding it hard to cope with thousands of internally displaced people as well as millions of former refugees repatriated from Pakistan and Iran.
 
Most of them have congregated in the already overburdened capital, Kabul, and other cities, adding to unemployment and housing problems. Thousands live in tents and makeshift homes on city outskirts, or rent places in the poorest areas.

Since 2002, some 4 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan under a coordinated voluntary repatriation of refugees from Iran and Pakistan. They receive limited assistance from the UNHCR to resettle in their homeland.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Zarif Nazar contributed to this report.)
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US wants Pakistan to bite the bullet
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online, Hong Kong
KARACHI - After more than six years, Pakistan finds itself in probably the most difficult position it has been in since signing on as a partner in the US-led "war on terror".

The political turmoil created by the recent assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto and the consolidation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the country just months ahead of another Taliban spring offensive in Afghanistan have made Washington decidedly anxious that Islamabad do something decisive about the situation. But while Pakistan wants to remain on side with the US, and the West, by taking appropriate action against militancy, this carries with it the grave danger of exacerbating the situation, and opening up the country to further terror.

A senior Pakistani security official elaborated for Asia Times Online, "We have actually been thrown into a deep quagmire where we are not left with many options. The CIA's presence in Pakistan has made it impossible for Pakistan to handle the Taliban problem independently and through dialogue. On the other hand, there is no military solution on the horizon against the Taliban and another [Pakistani army] operation against militants would cause more than serious repercussions."

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity as his job does not allow him to speak on the record, continued, "Now we are at a crossroad and we feel threatened that if this problem escalates it may give Western powers and their regional allies a chance to justify an attack on Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Therefore, we are walking a tightrope where, on the one hand our strategic ties with the West are at risk if we don't adhere to their demands, but on the other hand our own internal security is at risk.

"Nevertheless," he added, "nations do take steps on a priority basis for their internal security."

Reports from the US at the weekend indicate that the George W Bush administration wants to expand the authority of the CIA and the military to conduct more aggressive covert operations in Pakistan.

While a Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman has officially dismissed the notion as fanciful, this does not rule out the likelihood of heavy CIA involvement on targets identified through intelligence on both sides of the border.

The overriding goal will be to cut the supply lines of the Taliban and al-Qaeda between Pakistan and Afghanistan by squeezing them between coalition forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan forces across the border.

The boundaries of the operation have been set on the basis of two facts. These are al-Qaeda's bases and the Taliban's supply lines from Pakistan into the three southeastern Afghan provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost and Helmand in the southwest. Al-Qaeda bases have been located in Bajaur Agency and North Waziristan while the Taliban's supply lines have primarily been traced from South Waziristan.

Pakistan's strategic quarters, though, are extremely concerned over the possible consequences of such a pincer operation, planned at a time when general elections have already been pushed back from this month to next and could be delayed even further.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the Pakistani military is fast losing all of its gains in the Swat Valley in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). In response to rising militancy in the valley, fueled by Mullah Fazlullah, over the past few months the army has cracked down, forcing the militants to retreat into the tribal areas.

Al-Qaeda responded by activating its network through Maulana Faqir Muhammad, the local strongman of Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Faqir, from Bajaur Agency, sent men and arms into the valley, while Punjabi and Uzbek fighters from the South Waziristan and North Waziristan tribal areas joined hands with the militants. As a result, the militants have fought back strongly against the Pakistani army, which could pull back in the coming days.

The Bush administration is raising the military stakes at a time when Pakistan is under fire from Washington for not making adequate efforts in the "war on terror". This disenchantment was captured by Chester Bowles, a "liberal lion" of the Democratic Party, who wrote in the New York Times recently, "American military assistance to Pakistan in the last 15 years will, I believe, be listed by historians as among our most costly blunders."

The Washington Post also recently quoted Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the foreign assistance sub-committee of the Senate, as saying, "What is amazing to me about our policy is that Pakistan is brimming with a smart, educated, moderate center. As long as we are pumping our money into security assistance and putting all our eggs in the basket with [President Pervez] Musharraf, we are making a critical mistake."

There are recurrent calls in Washington that Pakistan's multi-billion dollar military aid package be reviewed or even stopped if its performance is not found satisfactory.

Pakistani intelligence, however, is acutely aware that militants are likely to unleash attacks in the softer underbelly of the nation should the Pakistani army (or the US Army) launch new, vigorous attacks in the tribal areas. Cities such as the port hub of Karachi, the capital Islamabad and Peshawar in NWFP would be prime targets.

The best that Pakistan can do is attempt to walk a middle path, as it has done so often in the past, even though both the militants and Washington are demanding that Islamabad complies 100% with their demands.

The difficulties of this position are well illustrated by an incident on Sunday in which al-Qaeda-backed militants shot dead eight tribal leaders involved in efforts to broker a ceasefire between security forces and Pakistani Taliban commanders in the northwest. The men, who were scheduled to meet each other on Monday, were killed in separate attacks in South Waziristan.

Part of Musharraf's problem is that while he is Washington's ally in Pakistan, he is also the representative of the military oligarchy. Further, his political survival has become heavily dependent on slain Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP). New PPP head, Bhutto's widower Asif Zardari, is in contact with US officials and is in tune with the "war on terror" and supports Musharraf in this respect. But this PPP support could be withdrawn at any time should it be perceived that Musharraf is straying from the US agenda.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com
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Britain jails would-be Taliban fighter
By Andrew Hough
LONDON (Reuters) - A London dentist who planned to fight for the Afghan Taliban against British and U.S. forces was jailed on Tuesday for preparing to commit terrorist acts.

Sohail Qureshi, 29, was arrested in October 2006 at London's Heathrow airport as he prepared to fly to Pakistan carrying around 9,000 pounds ($17,800) in cash, medical supplies and night vision gear.

Qureshi, who was born in Pakistan, was sentenced to 4-1/2 years but in practice is likely to be free within a year, after serving half that term and allowing for time he has already spent in custody.

Describing him as a "dedicated supporter of Islamist extremism," prosecutors said material on his computer hard drive showed he had intended to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan against British and U.S. forces.

Police also found a discussion with an associate on a militant Web site referring to his Pakistan trip. "All I know is that it is a two- or three-week operation. Pray that I will kill many, brother. Revenge, revenge, revenge," it read.

Prosecutor Jonathan Sharp told London's Old Bailey court that Qureshi also had fighting and first aid manuals, theological notes justifying terrorism, a book he had written called "My Dad the bomb maker" detailing how he had become a militant, and CD Rom pictures of him brandishing an M16 rifle.

"There were also appalling pictures and videos of mutilated corpses and videos of executions and the 9/11 atrocity," Sharp said. "He was taking it on the trip to keep his mind focused on his terrorist goal."

Qureshi pleaded guilty to preparing for the commission of terrorist acts, possessing an article for a terrorist purpose and possession of records likely to be useful in terrorism.

It was the first conviction under a 2006 law covering cases where suspects are preparing to commit an act of terrorism but fall short of having a concrete plan in place.

The court was told that his arrest also led to the conviction of Samina Malik, 23, who had written poems praising Osama bin Laden, supporting martyrdom and discussing beheading.

Police had uncovered Internet contact between Qureshi and Malik, who worked airside at a shop in Heathrow's Terminal 4.

The court was told that before his planned Pakistan trip, he e-mailed her and asked: "What is the situation like at work? Is the check-in very harsh or have things cooled down a bit?"

Malik was found guilty of possessing terrorism-related documents and was given a suspended sentence last month.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Richard Balmforth)
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