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March 13, 2008 

Suicide car bomb kills 8 Afghans near Kabul airport
By Akram Walizada Thu Mar 13, 8:51 AM ET
KABUL (Reuters) - A suicide car bomber killed eight Afghan civilians in an attack on U.S. troops near the airport in Afghanistan's capital on Thursday, a NATO spokesman said.

Suicide attack, clashes kill 20 in Afghanistan
KABUL, March 13, 2008 (AFP) A suicide car bomb attack on a convoy of US troops killed six Afghan civilians in Kabul on Thursday, while fresh violence in the restive south left at least 15 Taliban fighters and policemen dead.

41 Taliban killed in south Afghanistan
By AMIR SHAH Associated Press Thu Mar 13, 6:30 AM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan and international forces killed 41 Taliban militants in a battle in southern Afghanistan, and a suicide car bomb attack on a convoy of U.S. troops left six Afghan civilians dead in Kabul, U.S. and Afghan officials said Thursday.

U.S. urges NATO allies to back 5-year Afghan plan
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States is urging NATO allies at a summit next month to sign up to a five-year plan stepping up efforts to end the insurgency in Afghanistan, according to a document obtained by Reuters.

US forces in Afghanistan confirm strike in Pakistan
Thu Mar 13, 5:57 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - The US-led coalition in Afghanistan Thursday said it had launched a "precision-guided" strike on a militant compound in Pakistan, after Pakistan's army said four civilians were killed by US fire.

Pakistan protests after US strike kills four civilians
March 13, 2008
MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (AFP) Pakistan lodged a protest with coalition forces in Afghanistan on Thursday after two Pakistani women and two children were killed by US fire from across the border, the army said.

Britain regrets death of civilians in Afghanistan clash
March 12, 2008
LONDON (AFP) Britain voiced regret Wednesday after four civilians were killed and one injured in a counter-strike by its forces in southern Afghanistan.

Afghan's hearing gets off on wrong foot
OMAR EL AKKAD Globe and Mail (Canada) March 13, 2008
GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA The first court appearance of an Afghan charged with terror offences under the controversial U.S. military commissions system was confrontational yesterday, marred by hours of delays, physical compulsion and accusations of torture.

Woman climbs to top of singing contest, irking some conservatives in Afghanistan
By JASON STRAZIUSO Associated Press / March 13, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan - In a first for post-Taliban Afghanistan, a woman from the conservative Pashtun belt is one of the top three contenders in the country's version of "American Idol."

UN call to sharpen Afghan mandate
Thursday, 13 March 2008 BBC News
The head of United Nations peacekeeping operations says the UN mandate for Afghanistan must be sharpened up to help efforts to stabilise the country.

Afghan-born U.S. envoy says no presidential ambitions
Wed Mar 12, 8:27 PM ET
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Washington's Afghan-born ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, rejected suggestions on Wednesday that he might run for president in his country of birth when Afghan President Hamid Karzai's term ends in 2009.

Afghan becomes open heart surgeon
Wednesday, 12 March 2008 BBC News
An Afghan doctor has qualified as his war-torn country's first-ever open heart surgeon.

Suicide car bomb kills 8 Afghans near Kabul airport
By Akram Walizada Thu Mar 13, 8:51 AM ET
KABUL (Reuters) - A suicide car bomber killed eight Afghan civilians in an attack on U.S. troops near the airport in Afghanistan's capital on Thursday, a NATO spokesman said.

Taliban Islamist militants have threatened to step up suicide attacks on the capital Kabul this year in a campaign to wear down the will of NATO countries to carry on the fight in Afghanistan and force a withdrawal of foreign troops.

Thirty-five civilians were also wounded in Thursday's attack, but the four U.S. soldiers inside the two vehicles targeted suffered only minor cuts and bruises.

The Taliban claimed responsibility.

"The foreign occupying forces and their Afghan slaves should get ready for the mujahideen's suicide and guerrilla attacks this summer. This new year will be the bloodiest," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said by telephone from an unknown location.

The Taliban and Afghan government and foreign forces are gearing up for an escalation in fighting after a harsh winter.

But NATO is struggling to come up with more troops with some European alliance members reluctant to let their forces fight in southern and eastern Afghanistan where U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch soldiers clash almost daily with Taliban militants.

Canada's parliament is expected to pass a motion on Thursday to extend the mission of its 2,500 troops in southern Afghanistan till 2011, but only on the condition that NATO allies come up with another 1,000 soldiers to reinforce its combat forces.

So far no country has come up with any concrete offer.

FRUSTRATION
There are currently just over 50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, compared to some 160,000 in Iraq, a country only two-thirds the size and with a smaller population.

The Afghan army currently has around 70,000 troops and NATO countries have been slow answering U.S. calls to provide more trainers and mentors to help expand the force.

Afghan Defence Ministry officials have also called for a greater effort to build a bigger army, pointing out it can fund 60 Afghan troops for the cost of keeping one foreign soldier in Afghanistan.

Last year, the Taliban carried out around 140 suicide bombings across the country. Many Afghans commonly react by blaming the presence of foreign troops for the attacks and their own government for failing to stop them.

A U.S. military official and counter-insurgency expert said on Wednesday the tide of conflict was running against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan.

In the southwestern Afghan province of Nimroz, Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces killed 41 Taliban militants in a ground and air assault on Wednesday, the provincial governor said.

"The Taliban were traveling by car when the operation was launched. Forty-one Taliban were killed," he told Reuters.

Nimroz, a sparsely populated desert area bordering Pakistan and Iran, has seen an increase in Taliban activity in recent months as fighters spill over from neighboring Helmand province where mostly British forces are fighting the insurgents.

A roadside bomb also killed three Afghan police officers and wounded four more in Wardak province, just southwest of Kabul, on Thursday, a provincial intelligence official said.

(Reporting by Kabul newsroom and Saeed Ali Achakzai in Spin Boldak; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
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Suicide attack, clashes kill 20 in Afghanistan
KABUL, March 13, 2008 (AFP) A suicide car bomb attack on a convoy of US troops killed six Afghan civilians in Kabul on Thursday, while fresh violence in the restive south left at least 15 Taliban fighters and policemen dead.

The extremist Taliban movement claimed responsibility for the rush-hour blast on the road to the capital's international airport, in which four US troops also suffered minor injuries and 33 Afghans were wounded.

Kabul police chief General Salim Ahsas told AFP that six people were killed in the suicide car bomb attack on US-led coalition forces. Health minister Mohammad Amin Fatimi said 33 civilians were wounded and blamed the attack on "enemies of Afghanistan".

The US-led coalition in Afghanistan confirmed that one of its convoys was attacked on the road to the international airport, which has seen several attacks in recent months.

"There were four coalition soldiers that were part of this convoy and again none of them were seriously injured," coalition spokesman Lieutenant Colonel David Johnson told AFP.

Two coalition armoured vehicles were damaged, an AFP reporter at the scene said. Blood and scraps of human flesh littered the road along with the wreckage of cars, some of which were on fire.

The Taliban, an Islamic militant group that was in government in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, said it was behind the blast -- similar to scores of others carried out by the insurgents.

"We claim responsibility for the suicide attack in Kabul today," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a telephone call from an unknown location.

"The attack was against two foreign military vehicles which killed all the soldiers in the two vehicles."

The Taliban have often made claims about casualties from attacks which subsequently prove exaggerated.

President Hamid Karzai, who is on an official visit to Senegal for a summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, condemned the attack in a statement.

The heavily guarded capital has suffered a rash of recent suicide bombings.

The last attack in Kabul was on January 31 when a suicide attacker detonated his explosives-laden vehicle near an army bus, killing a civilian and wounding a handful of people including an army officer.

The most brazen came on January 14 when Taliban militants staged a multiple suicide attack on the five-star Kabul Serena hotel that killed at least eight people, three of them foreign nationals.

In southern Afghanistan's violent Helmand province, US-led coalition forces said in a statement Thursday that they had killed nearly a dozen Taliban militants in raids on rebel hideouts.

Separately in southern Zabul province Afghan and NATO forces attacked a Taliban hideout in Daychopan district overnight, killing three "foreign" Taliban and wounding six others, district governor Mullah Fazel Bari said.

In a separate incident a roadside bomb struck a police convoy Thursday on a highway in southern Wardak province, killing three policemen and wounding four others, provincial police chief Muzafarudin told AFP.

Meanwhile neighbouring Pakistan lodged a protest with the US-led coalition after saying that a US artillery strike on a Pakistani village in a tribal area near the border left two Pakistani women and two children dead.

The coalition confirmed a "precision guided ammunition strike" in Pakistani territory but said it targeted a Taliban commander's network and said it was not aware of casualties.

Last year was the deadliest of an insurgency launched soon after the Taliban's five-year government was ended in an invasion led by the United States with the backing of anti-Taliban Afghan movements.

Around 6,000 people were killed, most of them insurgents but also about 1,500 civilians.
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41 Taliban killed in south Afghanistan
By AMIR SHAH Associated Press Thu Mar 13, 6:30 AM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan and international forces killed 41 Taliban militants in a battle in southern Afghanistan, and a suicide car bomb attack on a convoy of U.S. troops left six Afghan civilians dead in Kabul, U.S. and Afghan officials said Thursday.

None of the four American troops traveling in the two armored vehicles of the convoy was badly wounded in the Thursday attack, said Lt. Col. David Johnson, a spokesman for U.S. forces. The troops were traveling in one SUV and one truck, he said.

Six Afghan civilians were killed and up to 20 others wounded in the blast, Deputy Interior Minister Munir Mangal said. The attacker was driving a white Toyota Corolla, he said, a favorite among suicide car bombers.

In a mobile phone text message to an Associated Press reporter in Pakistan, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid identified the suicide bomber as Abdullah.

The suicide car bomb turned into a fiery hull that burned on the main airport road long after the attack, which also damaged several other vehicles.

U.S. troops and international security contractors surrounded the area after the blast.

Insurgents detonated 160 suicide attacks in 2007, a record number, the U.N. has said. Last year was the deadliest in the country since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion with more than 8,000 insurgency related deaths year, the U.N. said.

In southern Helmand province, Afghan and international forces attacked Taliban militants Wednesday morning as they traveled by motorcycle toward the Pakistan border, said Ghulam Dastagir Azad, governor of neighboring Nimroz province.

The troops employed airstrikes during the four-hour battle and killed 41 militants, including 17 from Nimroz, he said. A Taliban commander from Nimroz was among the dead.

The U.S.-led coalition could not confirm the attack. NATO said they were looking into the report, but did not immediately have any information.

In other violence, U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces killed nearly a dozen suspected militants in Helmand during a clash Tuesday in Garmsir district, the coalition said in a statement. The troops had been searching compounds for Taliban traffickers of weapons and foreign fighters when they were came under fire.

In Wardak province, a remote-controlled bomb hit a police vehicle Thursday in Saydabad district, killing one policeman and wounding four others, said district police investigator Mohibullah Khan.

In Zabul province, Afghan security forces and NATO troops launched an operation Wednesday against Chechen fighters meeting in Daychopan district, said district chief Fazel Bari. The ensuing two-hour gun battle left three Chechens dead and six wounded, he said.

On Wednesday in Farah province, authorities recovered the dead body of the Pusht Rod district police chief, a day after he was kidnapped along with five other policemen, said Bariyalai Khan, spokesman for the Farah provincial police. There was no information on the fates of the five other men.
___

Associated Press writer Noor Khan contributed to this report from Kandahar.
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U.S. urges NATO allies to back 5-year Afghan plan
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States is urging NATO allies at a summit next month to sign up to a five-year plan stepping up efforts to end the insurgency in Afghanistan, according to a document obtained by Reuters.

Under the plan, alliance members would commit to plug troop shortfalls and supply enough well-trained and flexible forces to combat insurgents, while providing the support, training and equipment needed by Afghanistan's own security forces.

The U.S. proposals also set out benchmarks for measuring success, such as the ability of Afghanistan to hold elections undisrupted by violence, and to field a trained army of 70,000 troops and a professionalized 82,000-strong police force.

While they do not explicitly refer to the refusal of allies such as Germany to send troops to the thick of the fighting in south Afghanistan, the proposals call on allies to acknowledge a need to "share the burden" of the battle.

The Afghan mission is the toughest ground war faced by the 59-year-old alliance and has led to open differences among allies over tactics and troop levels of its 43,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The proposed U.S. plan is part of an input paper for a "strategic vision statement" to be unveiled at an April 2-4 summit in Bucharest affirming NATO's long-term commitment to defeating the Taliban-led insurgency.

Alliance diplomats in Brussels are currently drafting the statement and say the final version is far from finished. The U.S. paper is dated February3 but a source familiar with the U.S. position said it still closely represented U.S. thinking.

The paper calls on NATO partners to commit to develop a five-year security plan but offers no target date for an actual exit of NATO troops, instead saying peace could take time.

"ISAF and the international community must agree to make a long-term commitment to Afghanistan," the paper says.

"Success in Afghanistan is nothing less than a test of our solidarity and commitment to each other and to our values ... Failure would show that the will of the NATO allies is one of short-duration, close-to-home and non-risky engagements."

It calls on NATO allies to work with other agencies to ensure each Afghan province has its own Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) -- reconstruction units complete with military back-up -- for as long as needed.

It further urges allies to support Afghan efforts to combat the huge narcotics trade, "including through interdiction, eradication, alternative livelihood and other programs."
(Writing by Mark John)
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US forces in Afghanistan confirm strike in Pakistan
Thu Mar 13, 5:57 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - The US-led coalition in Afghanistan Thursday said it had launched a "precision-guided" strike on a militant compound in Pakistan, after Pakistan's army said four civilians were killed by US fire.

Pakistan, which forbids all foreign military activity on its soil, said it had lodged a "very strong protest" after two women and two children were killed by stray US shells in the North Waziristan tribal region on Wednesday.

A Kabul-based spokesman for the coalition, which led the toppling of the Taliban regime in late 2001, said it could not comment directly on the Pakistani account but confirmed it had launched a strike.

"We can confirm a precision-guided ammunition strike on March 12 on a compound connected with Haqqani network 1.5 kilometres (about a mile) across the border in Pakistan," coalition spokesman Major Chris Belcher told AFP.

The Haqqani network refers to Islamist militants led by Taliban commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is allegedly based in Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan.

"I do not have any information on any casualties that may have occurred," the spokesman said.

Chief Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said earlier that "The coalition forces were firing at a group of militants when five shells landed in Pakistan, destroying a house and killing two women and two children."

"We have lodged a very strong protest with the coalition forces across the border," he said.

President Pervez Musharraf, a key US ally, said in a newspaper interview in January that any incursion by the US-led coalition in Afghanistan without permission would be treated as an invasion.

Belcher said that "The information I have is that the government of Pakistan was notified immediately following the strike."

"It is not the first time that they (coalition forces) have had to respond to an imminent threat across the border in Pakistan. Every time we do, we clear that with Pakistani authorities."

Several previous missile strikes in the region have been attributed to the United States, including one that killed senior Al-Qaeda commander Abu Laith al-Libi in North Waziristan in January.
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Pakistan protests after US strike kills four civilians
March 13, 2008
MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (AFP) Pakistan lodged a protest with coalition forces in Afghanistan on Thursday after two Pakistani women and two children were killed by US fire from across the border, the army said.

The US-led coalition, which helped to topple Afghanistan's Taliban regime in late 2001, confirmed that it had launched a "precision guided" strike on Pakistani territory but said it targeted a militant compound.

The issue of foreign military intervention in Pakistan is sensitive, with President Pervez Musharraf, a key US ally, saying earlier this year that unauthorised actions would be treated as an invasion.

Chief Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said coalition artillery fire destroyed the victims' house in the troubled tribal region of North Waziristan, an alleged haven for Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

"The coalition forces were firing at a group of militants when five shells landed in Pakistan, destroying a house and killing two women and two children," Abbas told AFP.

"We have lodged a very strong protest with the coalition forces across the border," he said.

Local officials said the house in the town of Lwara Mundi, a hotbed of militancy on the frontier where there have been frequent clashes between security forces and militants, belonged to a local tribesman.

In Kabul, a spokesman for the US-led coalition said it could not comment directly on the Pakistani account but confirmed it had launched a strike on the other side of the porous 1,500-mile (2,500-kilometre) frontier.

"We can confirm a precision-guided ammunition strike on March 12 on a compound connected with Haqqani network 1.5 kilometres (about a mile) across the border in Pakistan," coalition spokesman Major Chris Belcher told AFP.

The Haqqani network refers to Islamist militants led by Taliban commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is allegedly based in Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan.

"I do not have any information on any casualties that may have occurred," the spokesman said.

Belcher said that "The information I have is that the government of Pakistan was notified immediately following the strike."

"It is not the first time that they (coalition forces) have had to respond to an imminent threat across the border in Pakistan. Every time we do, we clear that with Pakistani authorities."

Several previous missile strikes in the region have been attributed to the United States, including one that killed senior Al-Qaeda commander Abu Laith al-Libi in North Waziristan in January.

The border between the two countries has been wracked by fighting since US-led forces invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 to oust the hardline Taliban regime following the September 11 attacks on the United States.
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Britain regrets death of civilians in Afghanistan clash
March 12, 2008
LONDON (AFP) Britain voiced regret Wednesday after four civilians were killed and one injured in a counter-strike by its forces in southern Afghanistan.

The Ministry of Defence said an investigation was launched after the incident, in which two Afghan women and two children were killed according to NATO forces in the country.

"We can confirm UK forces were involved in an operation in the south of Helmand Province," the MoD said in a statement.

"We deeply regret that this incident happened and do everything we can to mitigate this from happening. This incident is currently under investigation and it would be inappropriate for us to comment."

According to British media reports citing military officials, the incident happened when air strikes were called in by the British ground forces against Taliban positions.

Earlier, a statement released by NATO-led forces in Afghanistan said that two Afghan women and two children were killed when troops returned fire at insurgents who had attacked them.

"Tragically, a group of civilians received fire causing the death of two women and two children," it said. Neither the British nor the NATO statements said where the attack occurred.

The question of civilian casualties caused by international soldiers helping the Afghan government defeat a Taliban-led uprising is deeply sensitive, and President Hamid Karzai has regularly called on the troops to take more care.
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Afghan's hearing gets off on wrong foot
OMAR EL AKKAD Globe and Mail (Canada) March 13, 2008
GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA The first court appearance of an Afghan charged with terror offences under the controversial U.S. military commissions system was confrontational yesterday, marred by hours of delays, physical compulsion and accusations of torture.

The public got its first glimpse of Mohammed Jawad yesterday as he was led in shackles into a Guantanamo Bay courtroom. Mr. Jawad was 16 or 17 when he was captured in Afghanistan in late 2002. He is charged with attempted murder in connection with a grenade attack in Afghanistan and faces a possible life sentence if convicted.

Mr. Jawad was to be formally arraigned yesterday, but refused to leave his cell and was forcefully carried out by soldiers, his lawyer said. Normally, detainees attend court free of shackles and without prison clothes. However, Mr. Jawad had his ankle cuffed for the duration of the two-hour appearance and wore an orange jumpsuit of a type issued to the least compliant prisoners in Guantanamo.

Mr. Jawad's unwillingness to take part in the court process led to hours of delays, as a hearing that was set to begin early in the morning instead began about 4 p.m.

Only a few minutes after it finally began, the hearing hit another bump, this time because of translation issues. Two Pashto translators were brought in for Mr. Jawad, but it quickly became apparent that Mr. Jawad could not hear the translator on the headphones. After the judge eventually tried out the headphones, it was discovered that they had not been switched on.

The judge, Marine Colonel Ralph Kohlmann, then tried to ask Mr. Jawad whether he wanted his current U.S. military lawyer to represent him, an exchange that lasted more than an hour, as Mr. Jawad refused to answer the question.

"I have been treated unfairly, I have been tortured," Mr. Jawad said through one of his translators. "I have been brought here illegally."

For almost an hour, Judge Kohlmann tried to get the accused to say what kind of representation he wanted. Mr. Jawad would not recognize his U.S. military lawyer, or say he wanted to represent himself.

Instead, Mr. Jawad went on a tirade against the court process.

"When I was arrested I was only 16," he said. "Is this in the U.S. Constitution, to treat a 16-year-old unfairly?"

When asked if he had anyone in mind to represent him in court, Mr. Jawad replied: "I should be given freedom to find a lawyer."

"That's not going to happen," Judge Kohlmann said, moments before his patience with the accused finally ran out and he moved on without an answer from Mr. Jawad.

Eventually, the 23-year-old slammed his headphones on the table and laid his head on his forearms, losing interest in the proceedings.

Mr. Jawad's case faces even more complications because his current U.S. military lawyer is leaving active duty for undisclosed personal reasons, a decision made earlier this week and revealed publicly just yesterday. The trial is now on hold while Guantanamo's chief of defence council tries to find a new lawyer.

Also yesterday, the Pentagon released a few details of a new policy that is expected to allow detainees to phone their relatives back home. The policy is expected to be implemented soon, but would require family members to take the call at a U.S. embassy.

Asked for more information on the policy, such as whether it would be applied to all detainees or just the most compliant, a Guantanamo Bay spokesman forwarded inquiries to a Pentagon spokesman, who in turn forwarded inquiries back to the Guantanamo Bay spokesman.

Today, detained Canadian Omar Khadr is due in court for more pretrial arguments. In comparison with Mr. Jawad's hearing yesterday, Mr. Khadr's recent court appearances have gone fairly smoothly. Mr. Khadr faces a number of charges, the most serious being murder, related to the killing of a U.S. soldier during a gun battle in Afghanistan almost six years ago. If convicted, he also faces the possibility of a life sentence.
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Woman climbs to top of singing contest, irking some conservatives in Afghanistan
By JASON STRAZIUSO Associated Press / March 13, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan - In a first for post-Taliban Afghanistan, a woman from the conservative Pashtun belt is one of the top three contenders in the country's version of "American Idol."

Conservative detractors decry the fact an Afghan woman has found success singing on television, while others _ younger Afghans _ say the show is helping women progress. Under the Taliban regime that was overthrown in 2001, women were not even allowed out of their homes unaccompanied, while music and television were banned.

With her hair tucked under a wispy blue headscarf, Lima Sahar brushes off her critics, saying there can be no progress for women without upsetting the status quo.

"No pain, no gain," she told reporters Wednesday in Kabul.

Sahar beat out 2,000 other hopefuls who auditioned for the third season of "Afghan Star." On Friday, the six-month-long TV show will name the final two contestants, based on votes sent in from viewers via text message. The format is the same as "American Idol," although the shows are not connected.

Afghanistan's conservative cleric's council has protested to President Hamid Karzai over "Afghan Star" and Indian dramas shown on Tolo TV, the country's most popular station.

"In the situation that we have in Afghanistan right now, we don't need a woman singer. We don't need `Afghan Star.' We are in need of a good economy, good education," said Ali Ahmad Jebra-ali, a member of the council. "If Lima Sahar wins 'Afghan Star,' how can she help the poor? This is not the way to help the Afghan people."

Haji Baran Khan, a farmer from Kandahar _ the Taliban's spiritual birthplace and the city Sahar now calls home _ said a Pashtun girl singing on TV goes against the country's culture.

"She is also affecting the minds of other good girls. She should stop singing," said Khan, whose three sons and two daughters told him about Sahar's success.

Sahar says she's just the latest in a long tradition of Afghan artists _ albeit in a more modern form.

"Artists are historical and cultural in our country. Artists have been around a long time," Sahar told a news conference this week. "I came by the vote of the people of Afghanistan."

Several hundred supporters lined up to get the three finalists' autographs at an event this week in Kabul. One of the fans, Shohabidin Mohammad, called "Afghan Star" part of a democratic revival for Afghanistan.

"Women's and men's rights are equal. There are no problems," said Mohammad, dressed in a bright colored shirt, brown hipster hat and a gold necklace that dangles a tiny Koran.

The three finalists represent each of Afghanistan's three main ethnic groups: Pashtuns, Hazaras and Tajiks. Mohammad, who is ethnic Hazara, said he doesn't believe ethnicity should play a role in the vote. But, he acknowledged somewhat sheepishly, he will vote for the Hazara finalist.

Standing beside Mohammad was Abass Nariwal, a fan of Sahar's. Both are ethnic Pashtuns. Another of her fans, Nematullah Khan, is a 25-year-old student at Kandahar University.

"She took a bold step. She has a lot of courage," Khan said. "Whether she wins or not, she's a good example for our youth."

"Afghan Star" has become one of Afghanistan's most popular TV shows, gathering large crowds around TVs in restaurants and homes.

The singers perform in front of a studio audience and three judges, and past winners have been given recording deals. A woman finished fifth in the show's first season, but no female has risen as high as Sahar. The other two finalists are men.

The winner this year will take home around US$5,000 (?3,230) _ a king's ransom in Afghanistan.

Daud Sadiqi, the show's host, said "Afghan Star" has been a runaway hit that shows the world the "peaceful face of Afghanistan."

Another finalist, Hameed Sakhizada, a 21-year-old Hazara with a mop of black hair, said that before the show he was "an ordinary person going to work."

"But now I feel like I'm the representative of a nation," Sakhizada said.

The other finalist _ and perhaps the odds-on favorite judging by the number of fans seeking his autograph this week _ is Rafi Naabzada, a 19-year-old ethnic Tajik wearing a white leather jacket, who calls the show "a symbol of unity."

"'Afghan Star' belongs to all Afghans," he said. "My idea is not to get votes from just my tribe. I think that attitude is now finished _ he's a Tajik or he's a Pashtun," Naabzada said. "Of course we still have special support from those ethnic groups."

That is what bothers Mohammad Qasim Akhger, an independent political analyst. He says the most talented singers aren't necessarily the ones who get voted through. He singled out Sahar as having little talent.

"Now there is one Pashtun, one Hazara and one Tajik, so now what will happen is that nobody will care about their talents, they will just vote for their tribe," he said. "If Lima Sahar is not talented enough, it doesn't matter for them (Pashtuns). They are just voting because she is Pashtun."

Even gender loyalties don't seem to be a factor. When the crush of autograph seekers surrounded the singers this week, all the women made a beeline for Naabzada. One fan, Shabana, who goes by one name, was dressed in a pink shawl and bright pink lipstick. She said she was supporting Naabzada over Sahar because he was the better singer.

Would she support a woman? "Yes," Shabana said. "But on condition that she has talent."
___

On the Net:
Afghan Star: http://www.afghanstar.tv
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UN call to sharpen Afghan mandate
Thursday, 13 March 2008 BBC News
The head of United Nations peacekeeping operations says the UN mandate for Afghanistan must be sharpened up to help efforts to stabilise the country.

Jean-Marie Guehenno said that while the international community was committed and generous, it was insufficiently united on some key issues.

The UN Security Council is to renew the UN mandate in Afghanistan this month.

Mr Guehenno said more needed to be done to strengthen Afghanistan's government and tackle the massive trade in drugs.

The insurgency had been more resilient than expected, he said.

'Sufficiently broad'

Mr Guehenno urged the Security Council to take these factors into account when it renews the mandate.

"We feel that this mandate is still appropriate and is sufficiently broad to fulfil our objectives," he said.

"We do think, however, that in face of the evolved situation, the mandate needs to be sharpened."

The UN's mission in Afghanistan (Unama) was established in 2002 aimed at supporting the process of rebuilding and national reconciliation after the fall of the Taleban.

The mandate now ranges from political and strategic advice for the peace process to managing all UN humanitarian relief and development activities in co-ordination with the government.
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Afghan-born U.S. envoy says no presidential ambitions
Wed Mar 12, 8:27 PM ET
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Washington's Afghan-born ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, rejected suggestions on Wednesday that he might run for president in his country of birth when Afghan President Hamid Karzai's term ends in 2009.

Asked about such reports while speaking at the Asia Society in New York, Khalilzad, who was US ambassador to Afghanistan after the 2001 US-led invasion, said he would always be happy to help Afghanistan but not by running for office there.

"I am not a candidate and I will not be a candidate," he said.

He said he appreciated the "good thoughts" of those talking about him as a possible president, but he joked they might have another motive.

"These are people who want to get rid of me. Some of them are my competitors for jobs in this country so they want to export me to Afghanistan," he said.

"I made a decision a long time ago to be exported from there to here."

Khalilzad first came to the United States as an exchange student in 1966, attending high school in California, and has long been a US citizen.

A Bush appointee, his term at the United Nations is likely to end early in 2009.

(Reporting by Claudia Parsons)
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Afghan becomes open heart surgeon
Wednesday, 12 March 2008 BBC News
An Afghan doctor has qualified as his war-torn country's first-ever open heart surgeon.

Dr Hashmatullah Nawabi was trained by French surgeons at the French Medical Institute for Children in Kabul.

To mark the occasion, Dr Nawabi carried out a relatively simple closed heart operation in front of the media.

The doctor, who had previously trained in the Soviet Union and worked in Germany, has been deemed capable of performing complex operations alone.

French doctors performed the first open heart surgery in war-torn Afghanistan in 2006.

The country did not previously have the technology to conduct such surgery.

Meanwhile, several hundred doctors and medical workers in the western Afghan province of Herat called off a strike on Wednesday.

They had been demanding better security after a rise in recent attacks - including kidnappings - on staff and their families.

The strike had severely affected medical services in the area, but was stopped after negotiations with a team sent to Herat by President Hamid Karzai.
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