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June 1, 2008 

Scores of Taliban killed in operation - Afghan govt
KABUL (Reuters) - Scores of Taliban militants were killed last week in an operation involving Afghan and foreign troops in Afghanistan, the interior ministry said on Sunday.

1 killed in Kabul blast against Afghan army bus
Sun Jun 1, 4:49 AM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's Defense Ministry says a remote-controlled bomb detonated as a bus carrying Afghan soldiers passed by, killing one civilian and wounding five people.

Court sends Afghan death sentence journalist to hospital
Sun Jun 1, 6:26 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Afghanistan's appeal court referred Sunday a reporter sentenced to death on blasphemy charges to hospital for medical tests after he said he was tortured by security forces who fractured his nose.

Japan may send personnel to Afghanistan
TOKYO, June 1 (UPI) -- Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said Sunday he is considering sending personnel to Afghanistan for "land-based activities."

S Asia 'focus for al-Qaeda fight'
Sunday, 1 June 2008 BBC News
Washington has pinpointed the frontier areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan as the most pressing central point in which to win the war on terror.

Truant MPs named and shamed
Written by www.quqnoos.com Saturday, 31 May 2008
Members who have gone AWOL from Parliament are publicly named
PARLIAMENT has finally named and shamed MPs who have failed to turn up to sessions in recent weeks.

So al-Qa'ida's defeated, eh? Go tell it to the marines
Last week the head of the CIA claimed it was winning the battle. Nonsense, argues Robert Fisk. The extremists in the Middle East are growing stronger
Independent, UK Robert Fisk Sunday, 1 June 2008
So al-Qa'ida is "almost defeated", is it? Major gains against al-Qa'ida. Essentially defeated. "On balance, we are doing pretty well," the CIA's boss, Michael Hayden, tells The Washington Post. "Near strategic defeat of al-Qa'ida in Iraq.

Iran releases Afghan journalist from jail
Written by www.quqnoos.com Saturday, 31 May 2008
Ali Mohaqiq Nasab spent most of his three month sentence in solitary
IRAN has released an Afghan journalist who spent 86 days in jail accused of having “suspicious” relations with foreign embassies.

A Jihad Between Neighbors
Pakistan talks peace with tribal radicals but may just be pushing their fighters across the border into Afghanistan.
NEWSWEEK Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau
Mullah Jihad Yar didn't want the Pakistani recruits when they were assigned to his Taliban unit a month ago. He still has reservations: the Afghan likes the Pakistanis' fighting spirit, but sometimes they get on his nerves. Like now. Scanning the main Kabul-to-Kandahar

Afghanistan's first national park has landmines
Telegraph.co.uk - UK By Eleanor Mayne in Band-i-Amir 01/06/2008
It will undoubtedly be one of the most beautiful national parks in the world. But with would-be visitors facing the threat of terrorism, kidnapping and landmines – plus a gruelling off-road drive of at least 10 hours – Band-i-Amir

Taliban poison
While the poppy is rapidly disappearing from northern Afghanistan, it flourishes as never before in the south, resulting in a less-than-zero reform of the opium industry in areas where Taliban influence prevails
Toronto Star, Canada Rosie DiManno Columnist May 31, 2008

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Scores of Taliban killed in operation - Afghan govt
KABUL (Reuters) - Scores of Taliban militants were killed last week in an operation involving Afghan and foreign troops in Afghanistan, the interior ministry said on Sunday.

The operation occurred in the Bala Boluk and Bakwa districts of western Farah province which lies near the border with Iran, the ministry said in a statement, adding the districts were under the control of the government.

"It is worth mentioning that the operation lasted for three days, as a result of which more than 100 enemies of Afghanistan's peace and stability were killed," it said.

An interior ministry official said there were no casualties among Afghan forces and the U.S.-led troops during the operation.

He did not know if air support was involved.

The government release on the Taliban deaths comes amid other reports from the area about civilian casualties during the operation, but the ministry official said he had no information about these reports.

The Taliban could not be contacted immediately for comment.

If accurate, the reported losses will be the heaviest amongst the militants in many months in Afghanistan where violence has surged since 2006.

Ousted from power in 2001, the al Qaeda-backed Taliban are largely active in southern and eastern areas and the militants mostly rely on suicide attacks and roadside bomb in the face of some heavy losses in conventional battles in recent years.

In capital Kabul on Sunday, a remote-controlled blast aimed at an army bus killed a civilian woman and wounded five, including three army soldiers, the defense ministry said.

(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Valerie Lee)
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1 killed in Kabul blast against Afghan army bus
Sun Jun 1, 4:49 AM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's Defense Ministry says a remote-controlled bomb detonated as a bus carrying Afghan soldiers passed by, killing one civilian and wounding five people.

The Defense Ministry says the blast in Kabul killed a woman and wounded three soldiers and two civilians. The glass in front of the bus was shattered by the blast.

The attack early Sunday comes a day after a suicide car bomb attack in the eastern city of Jalalabad killed two NATO soldiers.
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Court sends Afghan death sentence journalist to hospital
Sun Jun 1, 6:26 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Afghanistan's appeal court referred Sunday a reporter sentenced to death on blasphemy charges to hospital for medical tests after he said he was tortured by security forces who fractured his nose.

Perwiz Kambakhsh, arrested late October and sentenced to death in January, has denied the charges and alleged security forces used torture to force him into a confession.

His defence lawyer, Mohammad Afzal Nuristani, repeated the allegation in court Sunday and requested the 23-year-old reporter be referred to hospital for forensic tests.

"My client has been tortured while in custody. He has suffered a fracture to his nose and damage to his wrist," he said.

Judge Abdul Salam Qazaizada agreed to allow the reporter to undergo tests and adjourned the case until the results were available.

Kambakhsh was sentenced to death by a primary court in his hometown of Mazar-i-Sharif, where he is a university student of journalism and had worked on a small, local newspaper.

He was accused of distributing an article he downloaded from the Internet which questions the Koran, the Muslim holy book, particularly its views on women.

Afghanistan's judicial system is based on Islamic Sharia law, which forbids criticism of Islam and rules that the death penalty should be applied in cases of blasphemy.

Kambakhsh's case has prompted alarm from international media rights groups and governments, and calls for Western-backed President Hamid Karzai to intervene. Back to Top

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Japan may send personnel to Afghanistan
TOKYO, June 1 (UPI) -- Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said Sunday he is considering sending personnel to Afghanistan for "land-based activities."

''We could be involved in land-based activities in Afghanistan if the conditions there enable us to deploy. I'm always considering such a possibility," Fukuda said.

The prime minister's remarks followed comments by Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura suggesting that Tokyo may consider assisting Afghanistan, Kyodo News Agency reported.

''The government is trying to think about such activities from a broad perspective, including whether the activities could be based at sea or on the ground in Afghanistan,'' Machimura said Saturday.

Under it's post-World War II constitution, Japan is limited in the use of its military outside its borders. However, it has sent troops to Iraq in a non-combat supportive role.
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S Asia 'focus for al-Qaeda fight'
Sunday, 1 June 2008 BBC News
Washington has pinpointed the frontier areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan as the most pressing central point in which to win the war on terror.

Michael Chertoff, the US secretary for homeland security, told the BBC that successes against al-Qaeda should not lead to a weakening of resolve.

He warned that militants in Pakistan were training recruits who could mix inconspicuously in Western society.

He questioned whether Pakistan's rulers had the right strategy to respond.

Mr Chertoff said the US had succeeded in pushing back al-Qaeda in Iraq and argued that Muslims in Iraq were now reacting against indiscriminate militant violence.

But he warned that: "If we lose our resolution, we could find ourselves actually losing ground."

'Freely and inconspicuously'

While the threat from al-Qaeda remained global, he said, there was no specific intelligence now of an imminent attack.

He did not want people to be over-anxious but he warned that al-Qaeda and associated groups were still intent on carrying out attacks on the US, Europe and elsewhere.

"[Al-Qaeda] are using their platform in the frontier areas of Pakistan to train operatives, including operatives who don't fit what perhaps the public believes is the normal profile of a terrorist," he said, during a visit to the UK.

"They are looking for people who can operate freely and inconspicuously in Western society."

He said the "jury was still out" on the strategy of Pakistan's new democratic government to combat the militants.

Addressing Oxford University students during his visit, Mr Chertoff said extremists had "hijacked the language of Islam to mask an ideology that in some respects has more in common with the fascist organisations of the 1930s".
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Truant MPs named and shamed
Written by www.quqnoos.com Saturday, 31 May 2008 
Members who have gone AWOL from Parliament are publicly named
PARLIAMENT has finally named and shamed MPs who have failed to turn up to sessions in recent weeks.

The list, which was handed to the media during today’s (Saturday) session, includes the MPs who missed four sessions last week.

The absence of MPs from parliament means new laws are often delayed.

The list of names includes: Burhanuddin Rabbani , Habiba Danish, Khalid Pashtoon, Zalmay Mujaddidi, Zoofnoon Safi, Qazi Habibullah Ramin, Shakila Hashimi, Abdul Haq, Abdul Rawoof, Fatima Nazari, Fatah Ullah, Feriba Ahmadi, Alim Saai, and Naz Parwar.

In today’s session, part of the oil and gas law was confirmed by members but, because of the absence of many MPs, some articles have been delayed.

The absence of MPs from Parliament in the last few days have forced several sessions to end without any decisions being taken.
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So al-Qa'ida's defeated, eh? Go tell it to the marines
Last week the head of the CIA claimed it was winning the battle. Nonsense, argues Robert Fisk. The extremists in the Middle East are growing stronger
Independent, UK Robert Fisk Sunday, 1 June 2008
So al-Qa'ida is "almost defeated", is it? Major gains against al-Qa'ida. Essentially defeated. "On balance, we are doing pretty well," the CIA's boss, Michael Hayden, tells The Washington Post. "Near strategic defeat of al-Qa'ida in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qa'ida in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qa'ida globally – and here I'm going to use the word 'ideologically' – as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam." Well, you could have fooled me.

Six thousand dead in Afghanistan, tens of thousands dead in Iraq, a suicide bombing a day in Mesopotamia, the highest level of suicides ever in the US military – the Arab press wisely ran this story head to head with Hayden's boasts – and permanent US bases in Iraq after 31 December. And we've won?

Less than two years ago, we had an equally insane assessment of the war when General Peter Pace, the weird (and now mercifully retired) chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said of the American war in Iraq that "we are not winning but we are not losing". At which point, George Bush's Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said he agreed with Pace that "we are not winning but we are not losing".

James Baker, who had just produced his own messy report on Iraq then said – reader, please do not laugh or cry – "I don't think you can say we're losing. By the same token, I'm not sure we're winning." Then Bush himself proclaimed, "We're not winning; we're not losing." Pity about the Iraqis. But anyway, now we really, really are winning. Or at least al-Qa'ida is "almost" – note the "almost", folks – defeated. So Mike Hayden tells us.

Am I alone in finding this stuff infantile to the point of madness? As long as there is injustice in the Middle East, al-Qa'ida will win. As long as we have 22 times as many Western forces in the Muslim world as we did at the time of the Crusades – my calculations are pretty accurate – we are going to be at war with Muslims. The hell-disaster of the Middle East is now spread across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, even Lebanon. And we are winning?

Yes, we've bought ourselves some time in Iraq by paying half of the insurgents to fight for us and to murder their al-Qa'ida cousins. Yes, we are continuing to prop up Saudi Arabia's head-chopping and torture-practising regime – no problem there, I suppose, after our enthusiasm for "water-boarding" – but this does not mean that al-Qa'ida is defeated.

Because al-Qa'ida is a way of thinking, not an army. It feeds on pain and fear and cruelty – our cruelty and oppression – and as long as we continue to dominate the Muslim world with our Apache helicopters and our tanks and our Humvees and our artillery and bombs and our "friendly" dictators, so will al-Qa'ida continue.

Must we live this madness through to the very end of the Bush regime in Washington? Is there no one in that magnificent, imperial city who understands what "we" are doing out here in the Middle East? Why on earth does The Washington Post even give room to the fantasies of a functionary from the CIA, the very organisation that failed to prevent 9/11 because – if we are to believe what we are told – a phone call in Arabic about crashing planes into the twin towers hadn't been translated in time? Are we going to bomb Iran? Is this what we are waiting for now? Or is it to be another proxy Iranian-American war in Lebanon, fought out by Hizbollah and the Israelis? And does Mike believe al-Qa'ida is in Iran?

Israel continues to build settlements for Jews – and Jews only – on Arab land. And Washington does nothing. Illegal though these settlements are, George Bush goes along with it. They fuel anger and frustration and a righteous sense of grievance – and Washington will not prevent this outrage from continuing. I open my Arab papers each morning to find new reasons why the Bin Ladens of this world will not go away.

Take the story that came out of Gaza this week. Eight Palestinian students won grants from the Fulbright scholarship programme to study in the United States. You'd think, wouldn't you, that it was in the interest of America to bring these young Muslim people to the land of the free. But no. Israel won't let them leave Gaza. It's all part of the "war on terror" which Israel claims it is fighting alongside America. So the US State Department has cancelled the scholarships. No, it's not worth turning yourself into an al-Qa'ida suicide bomber for such a nonsense. But it would be difficult to find anything meaner, pettier, more vicious than this in yesterday's papers.

Does Mike Hayden read this stuff? Or is he, like most of Washington, so frightened of Israel that he wouldn't say boo to a goose? Doesn't the CIA realise – or imagine – that as long as we allow the Middle East to fester under a cloak of injustice, al-Qa'ida will continue? Why are our forces – and this is a question I was asked in Baghdad – in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria (yes, US special forces have a base near Tamanraset), Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Tajikistan? (Yes again, French bomber pilots are based at Dushanbe to fly "close air support" for our lads in Afghanistan.)

And as long as we have stretched this iron curtain across the Middle East, we will be at war and al-Qa'ida will be at war with us. This new iron curtain, by the way, starts up in Greenland and stretches down through Britain and Germany, through Bosnia and Greece to Turkey. What is it for? What's on the other side? Russia. China. India.

These are questions we do not ask; certainly they're not the kind of questions that The Washington Post would dare to put to Mike and his chums at the CIA. Yes, we huff and we puff about democracy and freedom and human rights, though we give little enough of them to the Muslim world. For the kind of freedom they want – the kind of freedom that allows outfits like al-Qa'ida to flourish – is freedom from "us". And this, I fear, we do not intend to give them.

Mike Hayman may think the Muslim world is "pushing back" al-Qa'ida's "form of Islam", but I doubt it. Indeed, I rather suspect al-Qa'ida is growing stronger. Mike says they're defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But are they defeated in London? And Bali? And in New York and Washington?
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Iran releases Afghan journalist from jail
Written by www.quqnoos.com Saturday, 31 May 2008
Ali Mohaqiq Nasab spent most of his three month sentence in solitary
IRAN has released an Afghan journalist who spent 86 days in jail accused of having “suspicious” relations with foreign embassies.

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) welcomed the released of Ali Mohaqiq Nasab who edited the monthly magazine Haquq-e-Zan (Women’s Rights).

Nasab was left to languish in a jail in Iran’s holy city of Qom for three months.

He spent 81 of his 86 day prison term in solitary confinement and suffered kidney and chest pains which were never treated.

RWB said: "The conditions were difficult and he was in solitary confinement for most of the time. He has been released conditionally and is not allowed to leave the country. We urge the authorities to drop the charges against him."

Nasab said: "According to the arrest warrant I was shown, I was accused of having suspicious relations with foreign embassies but the interrogation to which I was submitted was mainly about my journalistic activities and the articles published in Haquq-i-Zan."
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A Jihad Between Neighbors
Pakistan talks peace with tribal radicals but may just be pushing their fighters across the border into Afghanistan.
NEWSWEEK Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau
Mullah Jihad Yar didn't want the Pakistani recruits when they were assigned to his Taliban unit a month ago. He still has reservations: the Afghan likes the Pakistanis' fighting spirit, but sometimes they get on his nerves. Like now. Scanning the main Kabul-to-Kandahar highway from a brush-covered knoll in Ghazni province, Yar calls spotters he has stationed miles to the north and south on the road. If they report Americans or Afghan police approaching, the Taliban officer and his men—three Afghans and two Pakistanis on this mission—will close in for an ambush. One of the recruits, Abrar Ahmed, can hardly control his itch for combat. The 25-year-old Pakistani keeps interrupting—"Is it time to go?" With a hint of irritation, Yar tells a NEWSWEEK reporter: "These Pakistanis are too hot-blooded. They want to fight every day."

Taliban commanders say hundreds of impatient young militants like Ahmed have poured into Afghanistan from Pakistan this spring. It's impossible to pin down the numbers precisely, but Western diplomats, NATO brass and U.S. military sources all say there's been a "significant increase" in cross-border attacks and traffic since March, and it worries them. It's not just the usual spring offensive, they say. One detail is especially troublesome: the burst of insurgent activity has coincided with Pakistani government efforts to cut a peace deal with tribal militants who have tormented Pakistan with kidnappings and suicide bombings since last summer. In return for a halt to attacks within Pakistan itself, the Army has agreed to pull back from its forward positions within the tribal areas. The gates into Afghanistan have essentially been left wide open, and the Taliban's friends are running wild. "We are extremely concerned," says a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, asking not to be named on such a delicate issue.

Islamabad claims to be dealing only with tribal elders, not with bloodthirsty Qaeda supporter Baitullah Mehsud, but everyone knows he's in charge. Over the past two years, Mehsud and his hard-liner friends have killed roughly 200 moderate tribal leaders who dared to oppose them—"which makes a very effective message to the remaining ones," the diplomat adds. While Mehsud has denied responsibility for the December 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, his network of trained suicide bombers is believed to have carried out more than 50 attacks on Pakistani military targets since last summer. In recent months Afghan security forces have intercepted dozens of intended suicide bombers from Pakistan. "This Pakistani influx is a terrible trend," says the head of Kabul's counterterrorism force, Maj. Gen. Abdul Manan Farahi, whose men have apprehended nearly 50 would-be martyrs from across the border in the past year.

Not all the detainees have been willing volunteers—or adults. In a cell at a National Security Directorate lockup in downtown Kabul, an illiterate 14-year-old Pakistani named Shakirullah says he was pressed into service by the extremists. He had been a pupil at a little religious school of 50 or so students in Jandola district, near the North-West Frontier province town of Tank. One night in early March, just before bedtime, his mullah came to the dormitory and announced that Shakirullah had successfully completed his memorization of the Qur'an. In the morning the man gave him more news: the boy had demonstrated himself ready "to join the jihad against the American infidels." There was no need to fear, Shakirullah recalls his mullah promising: if the boy became a martyr, he would soon be born again as an even better Muslim.

The man took Shakirullah by cab to Miram Shah, a border town in North Waziristan largely controlled by militants. The boy was frightened by all the long-haired, bearded gunmen he saw in the streets before the mullah packed him into another taxi with a half-dozen other passengers for the bumpy journey to the Afghan town of Khowst. As they left, Shakirullah heard his teacher phoning ahead to say the boy was coming. "I had lost the will to resist," he says. "I only wanted to go home to see my mother." Another man, an Afghan, was waiting for him in Khowst and took him to a local mosque, where the boy spent the next three nights. Then the man and another Afghan came and picked him up in a car. The boy noticed a large package on the floor in front. On March 21, Afghan police stopped the car at a roadblock and arrested all three. Shakirullah considered himself lucky after the police showed him what was in the package: an explosive device. He remains in custody, wondering whether he'll be convicted as a terrorist or released.

Of course, most Pakistanis with the Taliban are grown men who have joined willingly. Many Pakistanis fought for the Taliban when they held sway in Afghanistan, but cross-border enlistments dropped to practically zero after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. This year the numbers have rebounded, and the pool has expanded beyond the mostly unlettered, Pashto-speaking mountaineers of the borderlands. Yar's impatient recruit Ahmed is clearly motivated by something besides rockbound tribal loyalty; he grew up in Taxila, a historic town just west of Islamabad in Punjab province. And the other Pakistani on the knoll, Sajad Shah, 25, comes from Haripur, an Urdu-speaking area in North-West Frontier province.

Shah is in a talkative mood. The tall, well-built high-school graduate, son of a farmer and shopkeeper, says he was driven to join the Taliban by news coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially stories on the Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay prison scandals, and by Qaeda and Taliban propaganda DVDs that are widely available in Pakistan. Early this year he met a roving Taliban recruiter who told him how and where he could sign up, and in early March Shah made his decision. He told his family he was going to Karachi to look for work. Instead he wrote his will, entrusted it to a friend and climbed aboard a bus to Miram Shah.

He was sent to a training camp near town where he learned to fire an AK-47 and a grenade launcher and studied basic guerrilla tactics. After two weeks the trainers lined him up with more than 100 other new graduates, ready for assignment to Taliban units inside Afghanistan. About three quarters were from the tribal areas, he says, and most of the others were from North-West Frontier province and Punjab, but a few had come from as far away as Sindh. Several of the Punjabis had some previous combat experience against Indian soldiers in Kashmir. Many of the camp's instructors had fought there, too.
Yar initially balked at the order to get some trainees from Miram Shah. He had plenty of local volunteers, Yar told his provincial commander. But Yar says his boss insisted: "It would be against Islam to prevent a believer from joining the jihad." So Yar made the trip, examined the candidates and chose Ahmed, Shah and another Pakistani. Yar says Taliban subcommanders came to the recruitment fair from as far away as Kandahar and Helmand. One of Yar's neighboring subcommanders, Sher Agha, gleefully tells NEWSWEEK he brought home 14 Pakistani fighters, including several from Punjab, bringing his unit's total strength to 50.

Just before dawn one morning in late March, Yar and his Pakistani recruits crossed the rugged, isolated border on foot, accompanied by two bodyguards. They hiked over goat trails to a pro-Taliban village a day's walk away and went on from there, sometimes by hired motorbike and sometimes on foot, for nearly a week before they reached Yar's base. Shah is clearly enjoying the adventure. "I had a good life back home," he says. "But I prefer this past month's hardships, dangers and struggle to my past 25 years."

Yar appreciates the Pakistanis' enthusiasm but says they can be a problem at times. "Some villagers don't like them," he says. "They make mistakes with the people, as they don't know the local customs and values." Punjabis who don't speak Pashto are especially prone to offend and upset the locals, he says, and they can be picky about their rations, too. They prefer black tea to the green tea local Pashtuns drink, and they crave chili-spiced foods that are not part of the local diet. Even so, Yar adds, the Pakistanis tend to be more aggressive and motivated than some of his local recruits, so their presence is a worthwhile trade-off.

Most Western analysts estimate that Pakistanis still constitute less than 20 percent of the Taliban's total fighting forces. Although the Afghan insurgents suffered heavy casualties last year in Afghanistan, Yar insists that's not why so many Pakistanis are being brought in now. Western military experts agree. "However many insurgents were killed last year—5,000, 7,000 or more—the numbers don't really matter," says a senior NATO officer who is not authorized to speak for attribution. "In a country of 32 million, including 6 million Pashtun [males] from the ages of 14 to 44, that's fertile recruiting ground."

Raw recruits from Pakistan also can't offset the Taliban's most serious losses. More than 100 midlevel Taliban commanders were killed last year, the NATO officer says—and Yar admits the insurgents suffered heavy losses of key men. He estimates that perhaps up to half the deputy commanders in Ghazni have died, seriously impairing the Taliban's command and control capability. As a result, senior Taliban chiefs have ordered their midlevel commanders not to meet in groups larger than two, and to concentrate on small-unit ambushes and on IED and suicide bombing attacks instead of more-conventional ground attacks.

Some Afghan security officials angrily accuse Islamabad of deliberately exporting its problems across the border; the Afghans note the once close ties between radicals who fought in Kashmir, for instance, and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. "A lot of these Kashmiri groups and their unemployed guys with guns have turned to the tribal areas and the Afghan border," agrees the senior Western diplomat in Islamabad. But the diplomat and other Western officials in the region tend to think the Pakistanis are not directing the radicals to turn their fire elsewhere so much as looking the other way and hoping they do. And the White House has decided to support Pakistan's fledgling democracy even if it does give more breathing space to the Taliban.

The Pakistanis deny condoning cross-border attacks, even tacitly. They say they're negotiating with the tribals from a position of strength: Mehsud's men took a beating earlier this year in their sanctuary in South Waziristan. The Pakistani military brought a group of journalists to a former Mehsud stronghold in the village of Spinkai last week. The mud-and-brick homes stand empty now, apparently abandoned in haste. The Army has dynamited and bulldozed the bazaar and several walled compounds that were identified as bomb factories and schools for suicide bombers. Mehsud's fighters are nowhere to be seen. "We have the entire Mehsud territory encircled," says Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, the regional military commander. "Nothing moves in this area except my troops." But that's not entirely true. While the military controls the main roads to the rest of Pakistan, the Afghan border remains wide open. And the Army is preparing to "thin out" its troop presence, pulling back to the largest villages and relinquishing the countryside to Mehsud and his men.

The worst of it is that Islamabad's peace efforts are almost sure to prove useless. Previous deals with tribal militants have collapsed after no more than a few months, the most notable examples being a ceasefire with Mehsud in early 2005 and a similarly doomed attempt in North Waziristan in 2006. Each time, the Army honored its pledges to free captured militants, return their weapons and pull back its troops to neutral areas. The militants, meanwhile, seized the chance to regroup, ignoring their promises to end the flow of fighters to and from Afghanistan and to expel Qaeda Arabs and other foreign jihadists from tribal lands.

Like those deals, the one on the table now has no enforcement provisions—and this one doesn't even bother to ban cross-border attacks. "Every time we go through this drill, the main interest of the Pakistanis is to relieve themselves of being attacked by militant forces," says an experienced Western military officer in Islamabad who asks not to be named speaking so bluntly about his hosts. "They are much less concerned about the militants crossing into Afghanistan." Pakistan's soldiers and their new civilian leaders may welcome the break in the violence for now. But the jihadists across the border will be coming home someday.
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Afghanistan's first national park has landmines
Telegraph.co.uk - UK By Eleanor Mayne in Band-i-Amir 01/06/2008
It will undoubtedly be one of the most beautiful national parks in the world. But with would-be visitors facing the threat of terrorism, kidnapping and landmines – plus a gruelling off-road drive of at least 10 hours – Band-i-Amir in Afghanistan may struggle to pull in the tourists.

The staircase of six dazzlingly blue lakes, separated by dramatic, steep-sided natural dams and backed by towering red cliffs, will become Afghanistan's first national park once the country's government passes a new protected area law, a goal now within reach after two years of talks.

The dams are formed from a so-called "living rock", created when calcium-rich spring water interacts with algae, causing calcium carbonate to leak out as a deposit. But creating a national park in a war zone has presented its challenges. The lakes, in Bamiyam province north of Kabul, were on the front line of fighting between the Taliban and Northern Alliance in 2000 and the area has needed extensive work to clear mines.

The southern access road from the Afghan capital is plagued by Taliban insurgents and banditry, and staff from the Wildlife Conservation Society – an American charity working with Afghan authorities to create the park – have struggled to convince the impoverished local communities that they will benefit. Under plans for the site, grazing and fishing will be limited to specific areas, worrying tribesmen for whom those are their livelihoods.

Chris Shank, a biologist with the society, said: "Local people are very nervous that there are going to be such restrictions that life there will be impossible. We want to use the lakes to attract tourists, then recycle the money into the community."

None the less, there were riots last December when a newly erected bazaar of wooden shacks set up close to one of the lakes was torn down by the authorities. Officials had deemed it an environmental hazard and a possible eyesore for future tourists.

Another point of contention has been the fate of a motorised tour-boat called Donald Duck, which is thought to be affecting the water quality. The boat is owned by businessmen in a Band-i-Amir village, who are expected to protest if told they can no longer run it.

Planned entry charges have been particularly controversial as they will go to central government, so are unlikely to benefit the local people.
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Taliban poison
While the poppy is rapidly disappearing from northern Afghanistan, it flourishes as never before in the south, resulting in a less-than-zero reform of the opium industry in areas where Taliban influence prevails
Toronto Star, Canada Rosie DiManno Columnist May 31, 2008
TALOQAN, AFGHANISTAN
The wheat, golden, is almost ready to be harvested.

It is an honest and blessed crop.

Despite drought this year, it should also be bountiful. Indeed, a torrential rainstorm on this morning has flooded huge swaths of the province.

And given that grain prices have doubled, profits will be handsome.

To everything there is a season. In this northern basin, nourished by streams that flow from the glaciers of the Hindu Kush and irrigation tributaries from the Amu Darya River, there are actually two seasons for planting. After the grain is threshed, rice will take its place.

What farmers in this region don't plant so much any more is poppy.

In 2007, poppy cultivation in Takhar province decreased 42 per cent. Government-forced eradication accounted for some, but not all, of that opium absence.

Neighbouring Kunduz, for the first time, recorded no poppy cultivation at all, making it the 13th zero-opium province.

Provinces are rewarded up to $3 million for regional development projects – a "special gift from President Hamid Karzai" – when they hit absolute zero.

While the poppy is rapidly disappearing from northern Afghanistan, it is flourishing as never before in the south, resulting in a less-than-zero reform of the opium industry in areas where Taliban elements wield influence.

The total area under opium cultivation in this country increased by 17 per cent in 2007, from 165,000 hectares to 193,000 hectares. Afghanistan's share of global poppy cultivation remains static at 82 per cent, but its contribution to the world opiate market is a colossal 93 per cent.

In Afghanistan's north, opium is increasingly seen as poisoning minds – and the land.

Mohammad Hassan, spading the okra patch that abuts his wheat field, spits on his hands.

"Allah has been kind to us with this good land," he says. "It would be a crime to plant opium here – a crime against our country's laws and a crime against Islam."

He claims, and this is impossible to verify, never to have planted a single poppy plant in the three decades he's tilled this loess-rich soil.

"Farmers who plant poppy are thinking only of their immediate benefits. It actually ruins the land, makes it useless for anything else.

"It becomes cursed."

Mohammad Ayabi, who owns the field on the other side of the tree line, explains further, grabbing a fistful of dirt to make his point: "Opium changes the composition of the soil. Yes, you can continue to grow opium, year after year. But you will never be able to cultivate any other crop on the same land."

Perhaps that's just a superstition, though these life-long agrarians seem to know whereof they speak.

The central government has put immense money and effort into getting farmers off the poppy – often at the business end of a bulldozer – and on to conventional yields, especially the grains so fundamental to a bread-eating nation, but also, in this part of the country, pomegranates, grapes and pistachios.

Successes in this massive turnaround of rural culture, however, have been marginal at best, though expanding.

"This year, it is expected that we will have up to 22 opium-free provinces," says Mohammad Humayon Faizzad, chief of staff for the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics. "The problem is that, where there is no security, we have massive poppy cultivation. In the other provinces, where the rule of law and governances has a grip, we have either decreased it greatly or discontinued it altogether."

Last year, Afghanistan produced an extraordinary 8,200 tonnes of opium (34 per cent more than in 2006), with a total export value (opium and refined heroin) of $4 billion, accounting for more than half of the country's GDP.

By the time that heroin hits the streets, from Moscow to Toronto, it could be worth up to 100 times as much. The profit accrues only minimally to the Afghan farmer, substantially to the Taliban – which feasts on poppy money to fund its insurgency – and astronomically to worldwide criminal syndicates.

Afghanistan, for all intents and purposes, is a semi narco-state, if one of distinct regional discrepancies, a North-South divide that hasn't been bridged, the abyss in fact growing wider since the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001, its leaders – formerly and punitively opposed to poppy cultivation – reversing themselves in anti-government, anti-coalition militancy.

The five southern provinces, overwhelmed with violence, once compromised Afghanistan's breadbasket. Now, they've opted for illicit opium on an unprecedented scale – 5,744 tonnes, according to a 2007 study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and intricately intertwined with the Taliban.

"The Taliban today control vast swathes of land in Helmand, Kandahar and along the Pakistan border," the study declares.

"By preventing national authorities and international agencies from working, insurgents have allowed greed and corruption to turn orchards, wheat and vegetable fields into poppy fields."

Opium poppy cultivation in Helmand alone nearly doubled in 2007, after tripling the previous five years. The province now produces 53 per cent of Afghanistan's poppy yield, which largely explains why insurgents have been fighting so desperately against British troops – lately reinforced by U.S. Marines – to keep their trafficking routes open.

These are not poor farmers, as many moan to journalists and pro-legalizing advocates such as the oft-quoted Senlis Council think tank, which argues strenuously that legalizing opium cultivation for medicinal use around the globe will take much of the starch out of trafficking, thus limiting the insurgency's profits.

"Senseless Council," snorts Faizzad. "We formally rejected this suggestion in 2006 and they are no longer allowed to promote their activities in Afghanistan.

"The world doesn't need more than 300 tonnes of opium per year for medical purposes. Afghanistan is producing more than 8,000 tonnes of it. It we legalize poppies, the country will become a narco-state for sure and this we do not want."

Faizzad points out that 10 per cent of the Afghan population is involved in poppy cultivation. If legalized, "it would explode" – with tens of thousands of farmers abandoning conventional crops for quick money – at a time when the nation is struggling to feed itself, having to imports millions of tonnes of flour.

Opium farmers are, frankly, profiteers, reaping the boon of an illicit trade that wastes the lives of addicts in Afghanistan and around the planet. Moreover, in the "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan," they are profoundly un-Islamic, breaking their faith's covenant against narcotics. They do this, sometimes at the direction of the neo-Taliban, but also because poppy yields are at least a dozen times more lucrative, from the same hectare of land – a hardy plant that doesn't need much watering – than any other crop. "There is nothing to replace that kind of profit," says Faizzad.

When survey-takers asked Afghan farmers willing to abandon poppy cultivation what their reasons for doing so was, "against Islam" was cited overwhelming as the main factor – close to 30 per cent of respondents.

The government is just winding up its annual eradication campaign. Where warnings and wheedling don't work, the ministry sends in its own Poppy Eradication Forces to destroy the crops. It's a dangerous job because furious farmers fight back. So far this year, 60 eradication officers have been killed (including 18 this month in Nangahar province) and 35 have been wounded.

Foreign countries, primarily Britain and America, help fund the eradication campaign and provide force protection, but are not directly involved in destroying the poppy crop.

"For us, it is a start and we are proud of what we've accomplished," says Faizzad. "But we cannot do very much in unstable areas where the security situation doesn't allow us to move in.

"The farmers shoot at us, suicide bombers attack our vehicles, the Taliban fight against us.

"It will take a very long time before Afghanistan can free itself of this poison."

Columnist Rosie DiManno is on assignment in Afghanistan, where she covered the Taliban's fall in 2001.
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