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March 8, 2008 

Afghanistan welcomes Norway's Eide as new U.N. envoy
By Jon Hemming Reuters - Saturday, March 8 12:12 pm
KABUL (Reuters) - The Afghan government on Saturday welcomed Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide as the new U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, a role meant to better coordinate international efforts to bring development and head off a Taliban insurgency.

Afghan president calls for end to forced marriage
Sat Mar 8, 7:47 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai called Saturday on his countrymen to stop forcing their under-aged daughters to marry, especially to men several decades older, and to allow them to be educated.

Over 1,000 Afghan women take part in International Women's Day in Kandahar
By THE CANADIAN PRESS
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - More than 1,000 Afghan women have gathered in Kandahar to call for peace and equality with women around the world.

Rally backs Afghan women's rights
By Lisa Fernandez MEDIANEWS STAFF Contra Costa Times - Mar 08 3:39 AM
A group of Afghan-Americans is inviting people to take a stand today for women's rights in Afghanistan with a show of support on a Fremont street corner.

AFGHANISTAN: Sharp rise in reported cases of violence against women
08 Mar 2008 07:14:10 GMT
 KABUL, 8 March 2008 (IRIN) - Registered cases of physical violence against women and girls in Afghanistan have increased by about 40 percent since March 2007.

Afghans protest over Prophet cartoons
Sat Mar 8, 4:17 AM ET
HERAT, Afghanistan - Thousands of Afghans demonstrated Saturday in western Afghanistan, shouting angry slogans against Denmark and the Netherlands for alleged insults against Islam.

Report complete on Marine shooting
By ESTES THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer Fri Mar 7, 7:30 PM ET
RALEIGH, N.C. - A special panel that heard testimony about a Marine shooting that killed up to 19 Afghan civilians delivered its report Friday, but it won't be made public.

NATO invites Russia to cooperate in peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan
BAKU. March 8 (Interfax) - NATO would like to cooperate with Russia in performing  a  peacekeeping  mission  in  Afghanistan, NATO Secretary General's Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia Robert Simmons

Hecklers call for Dion to 'show some backbone' in Afghanistan vote
ALLISON HANES, Canwest News Service
Stéphane Dion was heckled by anti-war protesters in Toronto yesterday and urged to "show some backbone" by voting against extending the Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan.

Fate of Afghanistan important for Germany, Merkel says
EARTHtimes.org - Mar 08 2:35 AM
Berlin - The fate of Afghanistan is important for the security of Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Saturday. In her weekly podcast, Merkel raised the issue of whether Afghanistan can develop in a normal way with a strong central

UN steps up efforts for Afghanistan's reconstruction
BEIJING, March 7 (Xinhua) -- The appointment of a new United Nations envoy for Afghanistan is the latest effort of the world body to speed up reconstruction in the war-torn country and it is expected to reinforce the international presence

White Magic in Northern Afghanistan
Whether it is love, money or health, Mazar-e-Sharif’s healers have the cure.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif (ARR No. 285, 06-Mar-08)
“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Relieve any illness, find lost items, remove the evil eye!”
The hucksters around the beautiful Hazrat Ali shrine in Mazar-e-Sharif do a brisk business. Whether customer wants their fortune told or their life prospects improved, they will find an energetic fortune-teller or faith-healer willing to help.

Too Much Power in Karzai's Hands, Critics Say
NPR By Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson 03/07/2008
One reason American troops are still in Afghanistan nearly seven years after ousting the Taliban is to protect the still fragile democracy there. A growing number of Afghans question whether that democracy is worth protecting.

Taleban Declare War on Mobile Phone Firms
Civilians angered at insurgent attacks on the phone networks that provide them with a lifeline.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Matiullah Minapal and Zainullah Stanekzai in Helmand, and Hafizullah Gardesh in Kabul (ARR No. 285, 06-Mar-08)
The Taleban are flexing their muscles again in southern Afghanistan, attacking what is undoubtedly the most dynamic sector of the economy - mobile phone companies.

Pakistan's grand bargain falls apart
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online / March 6, 2008
KARACHI - Over the past few months, the Pakistani military's new leadership has devised a roadmap aimed at national reconciliation without compromising the country's commitment in the "war on terror".

House to probe overseas-contract plan
Provision would exempt firms from reporting abuses
By Lara Jakes Jordan Associated Press / March 8, 2008
WASHINGTON - House Democrats vowed yesterday to investigate why and how a multibillion-dollar overseas-contracting loophole was slipped into plans to crack down on fraud in taxpayer-funded projects.

Congress demands testimony from Nato commander in Afghanistan
Elana Schor in Washington guardian.co.uk, Friday March 7 2008
The US Congress is demanding the senior Nato commander in Afghanistan appear to explain the worsening situation in the country following a series of bleak warnings from the international community.

Clearing canals: In Afghanistan simple projects change many lives
The Canadian Press
ZAKAR KALAY, Afghanistan — Drew Gilmour's eyes widened as the van took a turn on the bumpy rural road and suddenly dry dusty land was replaced by soaking wet earth.

Clinton Says She Would Commit More U.S. Troops to Afghanistan
Kristin Jensen Thu Mar 6, 3:29 PM ET
March 6 (Bloomberg) -- Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said she would commit more U.S. troops to the war in Afghanistan and urge other countries to do so as well.

A woman's eye on Afghanistan
Katie DeRosa , Ottawa Citizen Friday, March 07, 2008
Farzana Wahidy flips through the photographs she took of women in Afghanistan, shopping in the market, carrying babies on their shoulder, all while cloaked under a burqa. But few of her photos depict the violence and carnage of suicide

Turk ‘carried out suicide attack in Afghanistan’
Dawn (Pakistan)
DUBAI, March 7: A suicide attack that killed two Nato soldiers in eastern Afghanistan earlier this week was carried out by a Turk who had come from Germany, a group that monitors Islamist websites reported on Thursday.

Afghanistan welcomes Norway's Eide as new U.N. envoy
By Jon Hemming Reuters - Saturday, March 8 12:12 pm
KABUL (Reuters) - The Afghan government on Saturday welcomed Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide as the new U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, a role meant to better coordinate international efforts to bring development and head off a Taliban insurgency.

Eide's appointment, expected to be confirmed by the U.N. Security Council within the next week, brings to an end a tussle between the Afghan government and the United States and other powers that had wanted a heavyweight diplomat to boost coordination between U.N. and NATO forces fighting the Taliban.

"We look forward to working with Mr. Eide," said Afghan presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada.

"He has been the key person in the Norwegian government focusing on Afghanistan, so he has the knowledge of the country, he has the international experience and the backing of the United Nations and all the major players and the Afghan government supports his appointment," he said.

More than six years after U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government for refusing to give up al Qaeda leaders behind the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, NATO and Afghan forces are still battling a virulent Taliban insurgency.

Frustration is growing among ordinary Afghans with the panoply of U.N. agencies, the more than 40 nations with troops in Afghanistan and the Afghan government over the lack of security, the slow pace of development and widespread corruption.

The Taliban said that because Eide had worked as Norway's permanent representative to NATO between 2002 and 2006, he would be a NATO commander in Afghanistan, not a U.N. envoy.

"The U.N. was established to ensure the rights of nations, but now this organisation supports one side in Afghanistan and wants to eliminate the other side. Therefore, the new U.N. representative, Kai Eide, will not achieve success," the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency quoted Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mojahed as saying.

"GREAT ADMIRATION"
Washington had strongly backed British politician and former U.N. Bosnia envoy Paddy Ashdown's appointment as 'super-envoy' heading U.N., NATO and European Union missions in Afghanistan.

But the combined post was split up due to sensitivities over associating too closely the U.N.'s humanitarian role and the EU's political role with NATO's military campaign.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai then vetoed Ashdown's appointment following media speculation about the extent of his powers and possible influence over the Afghan government.

Eide, who at one time worked as a U.N. envoy in the Balkans, is known as an effective diplomat with experience in nation-building and dealing with NATO, but until now he did not have a high public profile.

Hamidzada said a number of names were floated for the job in consultations with the Afghan government. "We showed interest and great admiration for Mr. Eide when his name came up," he said.

Eide was expected to be approved as envoy by the U.N. Security Council ahead of a meeting on Afghanistan in New York on March 12 and travel to the Afghan capital Kabul to take up the post shortly afterwards, a U.N. spokesman said.
(Editing by David Fogarty)
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Afghan president calls for end to forced marriage
Sat Mar 8, 7:47 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai called Saturday on his countrymen to stop forcing their under-aged daughters to marry, especially to men several decades older, and to allow them to be educated.

Speaking at a ceremony attended by about 300 women to mark International Women's Day, Karzai also said threats from a Taliban-led insurgency were keeping girls out of school.

"I call on religious leaders, tribal elders and particularly men: stop forcing your under-aged girls to marry, stop marrying them to old men," he said, adding later he was referring in particular to men aged above 50.

Up to 80 percent of Afghan women face forced marriage, and nearly two-thirds are married before the legal age of 16, according to the United Nations.

Karzai also stressed the importance of educating Afghan girls, who were denied schooling under the 1996-2001 Taliban government.

"In parts of Afghanistan, Afghan girls can't go to schools because of the terrorism problem," he said. "In other places, like places without terrorism problems, girls are not allowed to go to schools."

Some Afghan families, particularly in rural areas, do not see the need to educate girls.

Thousands of girls have enrolled in classes since the ouster of the Taliban, but there remains only one girl for every three to four boys in secondary school, the UN has said.

Some of the women at the meeting appealed to Karzai to find ways to end the Taliban insurgency, which was at its deadliest last year with more than 6,000 people killed -- most of them rebels though hundreds of civilians also died.

"Bring us peace, we're losing our husbands, sons and brothers," said one women, Setara Achekzai.

"It's too much. Stop it, we want peace, we want security," said another woman, Ramzia, adding that she lost her police husband and a brother in a Taliban attack in Kandahar.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 women, including Karzai's mother, gathered in Kandahar city to call on the president to help bring peace.
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Over 1,000 Afghan women take part in International Women's Day in Kandahar
By THE CANADIAN PRESS
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - More than 1,000 Afghan women have gathered in Kandahar to call for peace and equality with women around the world.

While war widows sobbed through stories of losing their families to the violence in Afghanistan, young girls said they are optimisitc about their lives as women in Afghanistan.

One 15-year-old attending the International Women's Day event said girls today have a better chance for life than their mothers and grandmothers.

She says they can go to school and get jobs and that men treat them with more respect.

Under the Taliban regime, women were severely repressed throughout the country.

Now many say though they do have more rights, until the country is at peace they won't be able to exercise them.
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Rally backs Afghan women's rights
By Lisa Fernandez MEDIANEWS STAFF Contra Costa Times - Mar 08 3:39 AM
A group of Afghan-Americans is inviting people to take a stand today for women's rights in Afghanistan with a show of support on a Fremont street corner.

Rona Popal, executive director of the Fremont-based Afghan Coalition, said she told police she thought 100 people might show up at 1 p.m. on Fremont Boulevard at Thornton Avenue -- in an area that's been nicknamed "Little Kabul." But she's hoping more will come.

The purpose is to raise awareness about the condition of women living in Afghanistan. While women are now allowed to work and leave the house, they are still treated unequally as traditional thinking, along with Taliban factions, continue to exercise strong influence in the country.

"It's just getting worse and worse," Popal said.

The backdrop of Fremont's protest is International Women's Day. And the demonstrators will be asking people to sign a petition of solidarity for Afghan women, as well as contact members of Congress asking them to help change conditions. Similar peace protests are occurring in New York and Annandale, Va.

Popal said local Afghan-American women were inspired by two women in Ireland who created a women's peace movement in the 1970s to protest violence in Ireland.
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AFGHANISTAN: Sharp rise in reported cases of violence against women
08 Mar 2008 07:14:10 GMT
 KABUL, 8 March 2008 (IRIN) - Registered cases of physical violence against women and girls in Afghanistan have increased by about 40 percent since March 2007.

UN agencies involved in women's development efforts in Afghanistan say a dramatic increase in the number of reported cases of violence against women does not necessarily imply that gender-based violence has increased.

"There is an increased awareness among the law enforcement authorities, so it is not [necessarily] an increasing trend of violence - that has always been there, perhaps it is declining - but what is happening is that there are more people coming forward to report; nobody talked about this when it happened within the four walls of a house," said Ramesh Penumaka, representative of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Afghanistan.

However, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said worsening insecurity in large swaths of the country, a growing culture of criminal impunity, weak law enforcement institutions, poverty and many other factors had contributed to increasing violence against women, such as rape and torture - and oppression whereby, for example, they are often forced into marriages against their will.

AIHRC's concerns were echoed in a recent report by Womankind Worldwide, a UK charity, which said 80 percent of Afghan women are affected by domestic violence; over 60 percent of marriages are forced; and half of all girls are married before the age of 16.

"Seven years after the US and the UK 'freed' Afghan women from the oppressive Taliban regime, our report proves that life is just as bad for most, and worse in some cases," said the report Afghanistan Women and Girls Seven Years On released on 25 February.

Gender violence has reached "shocking and worrying" levels in Afghanistan and efforts must be redoubled to tackle it, the country's human rights watchdog and civil society organisations said. "Our findings clearly indicate that despite over six years of international rhetoric about Afghan women's emancipation and development, a real and tangible change has not touched the lives of millions of women in this country," Suraya Subhrang, a commissioner on the rights of women at AIHRC, said.

Suicide, rape, self-immolation

The number of women attempting suicide in the past year was 626, of whom 130 died. Suicide methods included self-immolation, the slashing of veins and taking lethal doses of drugs, according to the AIHRC.

Cases of rape and self-immolation appeared to be going up: "In 2006 we recorded 1,545 cases of violence against [or severe psychological oppression of] women, which included 98 cases of self-immolation and 34 cases of rape, while in 2007 we listed 2,374 cases of violence, which constitute 165 self-immolations and 51 cases of rape," Subhrang told IRIN in Kabul.

Women affected by poor health services

Not only are Afghan women victims of gender-based violence, thousands of them are also dying and suffering due to a lack of health services in the war-torn country.

Afghanistan is second only to Sierra Leone in the world in terms of maternal mortality ranking with 1,600-1,900 out of every 100,000 women dying in childbirth, according to UNFPA and the Ministry of Public Health.

Every year at least 24,000 Afghan women die due to diseases and during childbirth – 25 times the number of people dying of security-related violence in the country – of which 87 percent are preventable, UNFPA's Penumaka said.

The UNFPA findings indicate that up to 70 percent of pregnant women do not receive medical attention, 40 percent do not have access to emergency obstetric care, and 48 percent suffer from iron deficiency.

Investing more in women

In his message on International Women's Day, 8 March, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on governments and international organisations to increase meaningful investments in women and girls, particularly in their education, health and empowerment.

By 2020 Afghanistan is committed to eliminating gender disparity at all levels of education, promoting gender equality, empowering women, giving everyone access to justice, and reducing the maternal mortality rate by 75 percent, according to the country's third and fifth national Millennium Development Goals (nMDGs).

The AIHRC and some aid agencies are concerned that Afghanistan will not achieve its nMDGs unless strong measures are implemented urgently to reduce widespread violence towards women and improve their access to health, education and other services.

"Only by investing in the world's women and girls can we expect to reach our destination [MDGs]," said Ban Ki-moon's message.
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Afghans protest over Prophet cartoons
Sat Mar 8, 4:17 AM ET
HERAT, Afghanistan - Thousands of Afghans demonstrated Saturday in western Afghanistan, shouting angry slogans against Denmark and the Netherlands for alleged insults against Islam.

The protesters walked through the city of Herat on their way to its main sports stadium. They denounced Denmark, where cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad were recently reprinted in several newspapers.

They also criticized the Netherlands, where a lawmaker plans to release a short film critical about Islam, police spokesman Noor Kahn Nekzad said.

He estimated that more than 10,000 people took part in the protest. An Associated Press reporter put the crowd at about 5,000.

Demonstrators shouted "Death to Denmark for insulting our prophet" and "Death to the Netherlands for insulting our religion." They also shouted "Death to America."

Last month, Denmark's leading newspapers reprinted a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad after Danish police said they had uncovered a plot to kill the artist, whose drawing was one of 12 cartoons that sparked deadly riots across the Muslim world in 2006.

The reprinting triggered another wave of protests in Islamic countries in recent weeks.

The protesters were also angered by an upcoming short film by right-wing Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders that reportedly portrays the Quran as a "fascist book."

Afghanistan is a Muslim nation where criticism of the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran is a serious crime that carries the death sentence. Most Muslims consider any physical representation of Islam's prophet to be blasphemous.

Last week more than 200 Afghan lawmakers gathered at the parliament, shouting "Death to the enemies of Islam" and urging the Danish and Dutch governments to prevent blasphemy against Islam.
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Report complete on Marine shooting
By ESTES THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer Fri Mar 7, 7:30 PM ET
RALEIGH, N.C. - A special panel that heard testimony about a Marine shooting that killed up to 19 Afghan civilians delivered its report Friday, but it won't be made public.

The findings of the Court of Inquiry are classified, said Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Sean Gibson. The court, a rarely used administrative hearing, was expected to recommend whether to file criminal charges against two officers who led the special operations unit accused in the March 2007 incident.

The officers' military attorneys aren't allowed to discuss the case, and their civilian lawyers didn't immediately return messages seeking comment Friday.

The report by a panel of Marine officers was filed with Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command in Tampa, Fla. The general's attorneys will review the report and send it to Helland for final action, Gibson said. No timetable for a decision has been released.

Gibson said he didn't know whether any part of the report eventually would be made public. More than half the 47 witnesses testified at least partly in classified sessions during the 17-day hearing in January.

"Due to the inclusion of classified information, the overall report is classified," Gibson said.

Several members of the special operations unit testified that a car bomb targeted their convoy as they returned from a patrol to the Pakistan border. The Marines said the suicide bombing initiated a well-planned attack, and they fired back when fired upon.

But an Afghan human rights organization accused the Marines of firing indiscriminately at pedestrians and motorists along a 10-mile stretch of highway. It also called the suicide bombing an isolated event.

An Army report determined up to 19 Afghans were killed, but the officers' lawyers said they believed the death toll was no more than five.

Helland will decide whether to file charges against the company commander, Maj. Fred C. Galvin, and a platoon leader, Capt. Vincent J. Noble. Possible charges include failure to obey a lawful order and dereliction of duty.

Galvin and Noble were leading the first company deployed by the Marines' new special operations command.

Eight members of the company were sent back to Camp Lejeune after the incident. The rest of the company was ordered out of Afghanistan and sent to ships of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Persian Gulf.

About two months after the shooting, Army Col. John Nicholson, then in charge of regular ground forces in Nangahar Province, publicly apologized for the shootings. Marine Corps commandant Gen. James T. Conway said the apology was premature.
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NATO invites Russia to cooperate in peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan
BAKU. March 8 (Interfax) - NATO would like to cooperate with Russia in performing  a  peacekeeping  mission  in  Afghanistan, NATO Secretary General's Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia Robert Simmons said at a press conference in Baku on Saturday.
    
First,  NATO proposes Russia setting up a joint training center for improving  the  qualification  of  Central  Asian  and  Afghan  military institutions, Simmons said.
    
Second,  Russia  could  supply  its  equipment  for training Afghan specialists, Simmons said.
    
Third,  Russia's  transportation  infrastructure  could be used for delivering cargos to Afghanistan, he said.
    
Simmons  said  he  had held preliminary talks on these proposals in Moscow,  and  Brussels  is  currently  expecting a Russian delegation to discuss them.
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Hecklers call for Dion to 'show some backbone' in Afghanistan vote
ALLISON HANES, Canwest News Service
Stéphane Dion was heckled by anti-war protesters in Toronto yesterday and urged to "show some backbone" by voting against extending the Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan.

The Liberal leader was taking the podium alongside former Ontario premier Bob Rae, who is campaigning for election as a Liberal in a by-election this month, when demonstrators from the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War burst into the room at the historic St. Lawrence Market.

As Liberal support staff sought to lock the doors and push back the sign-waving crowd from the stage, Rae took the microphone and offered it to one of the group.

James Clark, a spokesperson for the coalition, urged the Liberals to side with the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois in a vote Thursday on whether to keep Canada in Afghanistan until 2011.

Dion then gave an address calling Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives "a bad government" and criticizing them over the budget, their handling of the slowing economy, the Afghanistan file and the surfacing of two recent scandals.

As he spoke, Clark shouted out: "Then don't vote for them!"

Dion argued later that the Conservative government is finally giving in to Liberal demands to get relief for Canadian troops in the volatile Kandahar region, dispatching the defence and foreign ministers to NATO headquarters in Brussels this week.

If the compromise works, Dion said, the Liberals feel they must support it.

"The mission must change," he said. "We need to have a replacement to allow our troops and our citizens to focus on reconstruction, security and training. ... Otherwise we cannot stay.

"It will not be only military, it will be a mission that we Liberals think will be good for Canada, for NATO and for the people of Afghanistan."

Despite his complaints, Dion refused to say when the Liberals will pull the plug on the Tory minority and go to the polls.
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Fate of Afghanistan important for Germany, Merkel says
EARTHtimes.org - Mar 08 2:35 AM
Berlin - The fate of Afghanistan is important for the security of Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Saturday. In her weekly podcast, Merkel raised the issue of whether Afghanistan can develop in a normal way with a strong central structure or whether "it again becomes an ungovernable country."

This was a matter of "essential importance for Germany," she said.

"If terrorists are trained in Afghanistan, it poses a threat to the free world," she said.

Germany has around 3,500 troops as well as police and civilian development aid workers in Afghanistan. Most are engaged in reconstruction projects in Kabul and the north of the country.

Germany was doing its best to ensure their mission was a success by increasing economic assistance to Afghanistan and providing the troops with good equipment, Merkel said.

"On the one hand we need military resources, on the other hand there can be no security without civilian reconstruction," she said.

The chancellor listed improved schooling for children, better medical care and wider access to clean drinking water as some of the successes of the German commitment.

Merkel said German security forces were playing an important role in other world flashpoints such as Kosovo and Lebanon, where German ships are part of a UN task force patrolling the Lebanese coast.
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UN steps up efforts for Afghanistan's reconstruction
BEIJING, March 7 (Xinhua) -- The appointment of a new United Nations envoy for Afghanistan is the latest effort of the world body to speed up reconstruction in the war-torn country and it is expected to reinforce the international presence in face of a growing Taliban insurgency.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday named Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide Eide, a former Norwegian ambassador to NATO and who also once worked as a UN envoy in the Balkans, as his new envoy for Afghanistan.

Known for his working style of getting things done, Eide, 59, is expected to play a more significant role in beefing up coordination of the international reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, where NATO is fighting a growing Taliban insurgency seven years after the militant group was ousted from power.

Eide became one of a handful of candidates for the post after Afghan President Hamid Karzai turned down British candidate Paddy Ashdown.

Kabul expelled two British nationals in December who worked as senior employees for the United Nations and the European Union, saying their activities were undermining their authority.

Eide is expected to be tasked with coordinating the work of the UN, NATO and various other international, charity and nongovernmental organizations, and extending the UN presence throughout the country, according to a diplomat from a Security Council member country.

Some countries also hope that Eide would play more of an international role, the diplomat said.

A stable security environment is vital to reconstruction work in Afghanistan, which has suffered years of war and is now struggling to cope with such thorny problems as refugee flows and drug smuggling, observers say.

With a long-term commitment, the UN has been stepping up efforts to promote the country's reconstruction and development in the fields of economy and education, as well as coping with security issues.

The UN World Food Program (WFP) on Wednesday began to distribute emergency assistance to about 650,000 Afghans suffering from food shortages due to a surge in the price of wheat, which has risen by 70 percent over the past years.

The UN and the Afghan government joined forces in January to appeal for more than 80 million U.S. dollars in aid to help those affected by the rise in food prices. The WFP has already received pledges for two-thirds of the 77 million dollars it requested as part of the joint appeal to deliver 89,000 tons of food to the poorest Afghans.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan (UNODC) has also called on the Afghan government to do more to dismantle major trafficking and criminal networks in the strife-torn nation which remains the world's largest producer of opium and heroin.

UNODC is assisting the government in several ways to tackle the drug problem, including by training intelligence officers within the Afghan police and providing legislative assistance on issues such as extradition.

In February, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization delivered some 80 tons of feed for the livestock of Afghan farmers who were badly affected by the harsh winter, and it appealed for more than 2 million dollars.

In the same month, the United Nations Fund provided learning materials and teacher kits for Afghan schools in efforts to ensure that more than six million Afghan children could start their new school year in time.

Early this year, the UN also allocated more than 100 million dollars in grants for lifesaving work in some of the world's trouble spots, including Afghanistan.

Taliban-related violence and conflicts claimed more than 5,200 lives in the Central Asian country last year alone.

The Taliban, which was toppled in a U.S. invasion in late 2001, has waged a year-long war against the Afghan administration and the international troops currently being deployed to fight militants and keep security.
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White Magic in Northern Afghanistan
Whether it is love, money or health, Mazar-e-Sharif’s healers have the cure.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif (ARR No. 285, 06-Mar-08)
“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Relieve any illness, find lost items, remove the evil eye!”
The hucksters around the beautiful Hazrat Ali shrine in Mazar-e-Sharif do a brisk business. Whether customer wants their fortune told or their life prospects improved, they will find an energetic fortune-teller or faith-healer willing to help.

Some are mullahs who enlist the power of religion for their remedies. Others claim to have traditional healing powers, handed down through generations. Still others predict the future by examining a customer’s palm.

No problem is too great or too small for the small army of faith healers, psychic advisers, and outright charlatans who populate the area around Mazar’s most famous site and earn a living by offering help to those in distress.

“I have been in love with a girl for three years,” said one customer, Abdul Latif, 28. “I adore her with all my heart, but she doesn’t really like me. So for the past month I have been getting amulets from a mullah here.”

The amulet is a piece of paper on which is written some verses, perhaps a few numbers, or some astrological signs. The customer is advised to wrap the charm in at least three layers of multi-coloured cloth, and then either wear it on his body, or – as in Abdul Latif’s case - place it in a strategic location.

“I’ve buried the amulet under her gate,” confided Abdul Latif. “Each time she steps over it, her passion for me increases. I will marry her in a month or so.”

If he can afford it, that is – he has spent close to 600 US dollars on his magic amulets, which might leave him a bit short on cash for the wedding ceremony.

Afghanistan’s faith-healing tradition goes back many hundreds of years. Some say it goes back to Alexander the Great, who brought in a lot of foreign practices when he traversed the region in the fourth century BC.

Through Afghanistan’s many wars, the faith healers have flourished. Briefly banned under the Taleban, they are back with a vengeance. Even highly educated people express a grudging faith in the “falbin”, as fortune-tellers are known.

The Muslim clerics in charge of the Hazrat Ali shrine strongly disapprove of superstitious beliefs, and periodically attempt to drive the motley crew of falbin away from their buildings. Despite one such eviction earlier this year, this reporter can confirm that they are back.

All around the shrine, which includes a magnificent mosque and extensive grounds, healers and fortune-tellers camp out under the trees. Surrounded by carpets, cushions, books and the various tools of their trade, they vie for customers.

Some display small banners depicting the palm of a hand or magical animals. Others go for a more literary approach, listing their specialisations on signboards - “increase your income”, “repel black magic”, or “cures for illnesses”.

Still others advertise their services via portable loudspeakers, creating a din as they compete to drown each other out.

Mullah Ayub Nazar has attracted a particularly large crowd. His eight-year-old son is beside him, loudhailer in hand.

At 43, Mullah Nazar has spent half his life writing out amulet charms.

“People have so many needs, so many problems,” he told IWPR. “I had to set up this business. I wanted to serve my people.”

Nazar specialises in charms which can be used in a variety of ways. Some are submerged in water, which the petitioner then drinks. Others are burned and the smoke inhaled by those seeking some cure or relief. Nazar also makes amulets that people can wear around their necks.

“People believe in my work,” he said confidently. “One hundred per cent of those to whom I have given amulets have been helped.”

Those who have tried conventional medicine come to him as a last resort, he explained.

“I can cure even the most serious diseases,” he said. “Ordinary illnesses take just one charm. I have cured patients who’d been to the best hospitals in India and still hadn’t got better.”

Sayed Kateb, 31, has abscesses on his face, and has come to ask for help.

“I have a skin disease. I’ve been to normal doctors but they weren’t able to help me,” he told IWPR. “I got a charm from the mullah and now I’m better. I’ve been doing the treatment for a week now. I place the charm in water, then bathe in it. I have also got another charm which I have buried in my home.”

Nazar charges between 20 and 500 afghani (40 cents to ten dollars), depending on the service required.

“Some things take a lot of time, so they cost more,” he said.

Women and girls are particularly keen to amulets, or charms, and many in the crowd around Mullah Nazar are female.

Zulaikha, 36, has come to him with her younger sister, who has yet to find a husband.

“Her fate has been stalled,” said Zulaikha, pointing at her sister.

Zulaikha was sure the mullah would be able to help. “Our neighbour’s daughter came and got a few charms, and then she got married. My sister’s fate will also be resolved,” she said.

She also obtained an amulet for her own one-year-old son, who is not sleeping and cries constantly.

Shamsia is an older woman in a burqa who has come to see Mullah Nazar because she suffers from irrational fears.

“I have nightmares all the time, and during the day I am afraid of everything,” she said. “I’m losing my mind because of it.”

Advised by a neighbour to seek treatment with Nazar, she is hoping for the best.

“Where else could I go?” she said. “I have come for a charm, and, God willing, it will help me to calm down.”

Nazar loves his profession, and hopes to create a dynasty. “I will never stop practicing my craft,” he said. “I will pass it down to my sons.”

There are many different specialisms at the shrine.

Hanif, who has installed himself some way away from Mullah Nazar, is a palm-reader, who tells prospective clients that his craft is rooted in science.

“We measure palms; it is based on mathematics and it is exact,” he said. “The fate of each man and woman is printed on their palm, and no two hands are the same. We tell people about their future, and they are able to act to rid themselves of their problems.”

Hanif charges 100 afghani (two dollars) for his services, which is a bit steep by local standards. “But they can save hundreds of thousands of afghani with my advice,” he insisted. “They can even save themselves from death.”

One young man getting his fortune told bears out Hanif’s testimony.

“I have no reason to lie,” said Hayatullah, 21. “What this man has told me about my past is almost all true, and I hope his predictions will also prove correct. He told me that my life has been spared twice, and that is exactly right. Now he has said I will marry the girl of my dreams. I hope he is right.”

There is a good deal of rivalry between the mullahs, fortune-tellers, and healers competing for business at the shrine. Some of the banter is far from collegial.

“Those others are just charlatans,” said Shah Mohammad, sitting under the broad branches of a mulberry tree, surrounded by books and pens of various colours. “I use verses from the Koran to cure illnesses. That is legitimate and based on Sharia law. The others are wrong.”

Shah Mohammad, 53, has a colour-coded system for treatment.

“Verses about love should be written out in red,” he explained. “Money matters go in black. Education requires blue ink, and disease is in green.”

The efficacy of the treatment, however, depends on the patient’s degree of faith.

“We do our work, and if someone believes in us completely, and does not doubt the Koran, God will help him,” said Shah Mohammad.

Nasrullah came to the Hazrat Ali shrine after being told his intestinal tumour was incurable.

“I went to India and they said there was nothing they could do for me,” he said. “But for three months, I have been undergoing the amulet cure, and now I am getting better day by day.”

The mainstream clergy condemns soothsaying and other forms of speculative prediction as fraudulent and irreligious. Maulavi Mohammad Qasem, an Islamic scholar, said those who peddled such ideas were preying on human weaknesses.

At the same time, he indicated that properly used, religious texts could alleviate illness.

“If we use verses of the Koran honestly for the treatment of illnesses, not just to cheat people out of their money, then it is fine. The Koran can cure all diseases,” he said.

But Qasem insisted this should be left to those who knew how to do it.

“Amulet-writing should be done by those who are pious, virtuous, and knowledgeable about Islamic principles,” he said. “Other practices, such as changing one’s fortune, getting rid of evil spirits, and other such beliefs are not true. Those who believe in them have no knowledge of Islam, and are taking advantage of people’s weaknesses.”

Some members of the medical profession are ambivalent about faith healers. Dr Nur Alam Sherzai told IWPR that while he had seen many patients failed by the faith healers, there might nevertheless be some psychological benefits.

“Mental disorders in most modern countries are treated by various methods including therapeutic dialogue, group workshops, consultations and psychotherapy,” he told IWPR. “Unfortunately, Afghanistan lacks the facilities for that. When someone faces a psychological difficulty, they put their faith in an amulet. After many visits to a [faith-healing] mullah, a patient may recover his or her mental health. It’s a kind of psychotherapy.”

For those who believe, there is no substitute for the falbin.

“Amulets are better than prescriptions,” insisted another women also called Zulaikha, 34, who brings her four children along to get protective amulets once a month. “Doctors just prescribe medicine which never has any effect. I used to go to the doctor frequently because one of my children was always crying. Then I began the amulet treatment, and now I feel a bit more comfortable.”

She concluded, “If we get positive results, it doesn’t matter what doctors or others who don’t understand might think.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.
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Too Much Power in Karzai's Hands, Critics Say
NPR By Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson 03/07/2008 
One reason American troops are still in Afghanistan nearly seven years after ousting the Taliban is to protect the still fragile democracy there. A growing number of Afghans question whether that democracy is worth protecting.

They complain that the government they've elected is corrupt and that it does a poor job of providing basic services, let alone law and order. They accuse the West of caring more about backing President Hamid Karzai, than addressing his government's problems.

Some are so frustrated that they've taken matters into their own hands.

One by one, the elders of the Mohammadzai tribe arrive for their weekly meeting in the southern city of Kandahar. They sit cross legged on the floor in front of cups of steaming green tea.

This gathering, or shura, is a tradition the elders resurrected 18 months ago to address people's economic and security needs. They say they did so because they no longer trust their government to take care of them.

Locals Plan to Tackle Problems
The elders debate a new plan by their tribe and 26 six others in Kandahar province to form a council that would, in effect, take over the duties of the existing provincial government.

Members of the new council say they plan to tackle the Taliban, drug traffickers, unemployment — even girls' education.

One of the key proponents is Mohammad Issa Durazai, a former Kandahari attorney general whose son was killed in a suicide bombing last summer.

Durazai says he'd like to see the homebred council duplicated in other provinces. And he's convinced it can accomplish more in a few months than the government of fellow Kandahari Hamid Karzai has in years.

"The West kicked out the powerful Taliban regime and replaced it with a government people don't like and a person who cannot be a strong leader," Durazai says.

Such criticism of Karzai and his government is common in Afghanistan these days. So far, only Kandahari elders are trying to replace it.

But Afghan and Western experts warn there'll be more trouble if things don't change.

Controlling the Levers of Power
While Karzai's government is widely viewed here as ineffective, experts note he still controls the levers of power. It's the president who appoints the cabinet ministers and provincial governors. That means government officials answer to the president and his advisers, rather than to the people they are supposed to serve.

Even parliament is unable to force the president to fire ministers. The legislators impeached the Afghan foreign minister last year, but he's still in office.

"There are signs that if we are not careful, we might be moving towards a dictatorship," says Mahmoud Saikal, a former deputy foreign minister who also served as ambassador to Australia. Saikal is helping establish an internationally mandated development strategy for his country. And he has plenty of concerns.

"I've seen lately some documents emerging from the States and also from Europe referring constantly to supporting the government of President Karzai," Saikal says. "I'm sure the president himself and a lot of us are quite happy to call it supporting the Afghan government. If we are looking for a durable and sustainable solution to the problems of Afghanistan, we have got no other choice but to support the state institutions and make sure that they are working, make sure that they are transparent, and make sure that they can deliver the goods to the people of Afghanistan."

A Decentralized Approach
Joanna Nathan, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, says that can't happen in the current climate.

"Far too much has been hung on individuals, and I think the system chosen here was a wrong one — a very centralized presidency, a sort of winner-takes-all system — when you actually have a country that has wide divisions." Nathan says. "It would actually be far more appropriate here to take a very regional approach."

That would mean empowering village and district councils that operate by popular consent to deliver services. Nathan also says more should be done to ensure ministries are running effectively as well as developing political parties with platforms that address people's needs. And, she says, law enforcement and the judiciary must be beefed up so that corruption is held in check.

Saikal agrees on the need for decentralization:

"Two or three years ago, I could see the merit of having a strong presidential system because we still were going through the recovery phase," he says. "But perhaps now, the time has come that we revise that system, and see if we could move somehow toward a strong parliamentary system where ministers of the government could come from the people."

But instead of reform, the only change seems to be the growing number of Afghan politicians looking to take charge. Some are openly flouting the law.

In a case that's making headlines in Afghanistan, a former warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, has refused to appear in court on charges he and his men brutally assaulted a rival and his relatives last month.
The only punishment for his defiance so far has been his suspension from a largely ceremonial post.    
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Taleban Declare War on Mobile Phone Firms
Civilians angered at insurgent attacks on the phone networks that provide them with a lifeline.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Matiullah Minapal and Zainullah Stanekzai in Helmand, and Hafizullah Gardesh in Kabul (ARR No. 285, 06-Mar-08)
The Taleban are flexing their muscles again in southern Afghanistan, attacking what is undoubtedly the most dynamic sector of the economy - mobile phone companies.

Over the past week, four transmission masts belonging to different phone companies have been destroyed – two from the country’s largest service provider, Roshan, one belonging to its close competitor the Afghan Wireless Communications Company, AWCC, and one owned by the relative newcomer Areeba.

The attacks have taken place in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where the Taleban have their stronghold and hold down large swathes of the countryside.

But in targeting mobile networks, the Taleban may be losing one of their most precious assets – the tacit support of the local population. While villagers in Helmand may turn a blind eye to public executions and grudgingly let their beards grow as the fundamentalists demand, they are extremely unhappy at the prospect of losing their phone service, for many their one link with the outside world.

“This has affected people very badly,” said Nazar Gul, a resident of Helmand’s Nad Ali district, where phone services were interrupted last week. “Our phones didn’t work and we couldn’t contact our relatives. This must not be repeated. The Taleban should pursue their aims in some other way. If they continue doing this, people are going to get upset and they will withdraw their support.”

Afghanistan leapt headfirst into the mobile phone age after the Taleban were ousted in 2001. After two decades of war, the country had little in the way of infrastructure and almost no land lines.

Two providers, Roshan and AWCC, shared the fledgling market for three years, investing hundreds of millions of US dollars to get the industry up and running.

It was a huge success. Now, after close to one billion dollars in investment, Afghanistan has four major providers with close to five million subscribers. From illiterate farmers to government ministers, everyone seems to rely on the cell phone for almost all communications.

The Taleban themselves are customers. In past years, spokesmen for the insurgents could only be reached via satellite phone. Now they have several mobile phone numbers through which they communicate with media outlets and each other.

In late February, though, the Taleban issued a warning to cellphone companies, demanding that they switch off their services between five in the evening and three in the morning, in order to prevent foreign military forces from tracking their movements through phone signals.

Hours after a deadline set by the Taleban expired, militants took out a phone mast belonging to Areeba in Kandahar. Two days later, a Roshan relay mast was destroyed, also in Kandahar. Over the next few days, Roshan and AWCC masts came under attack in Helmand.

“The companies did not comply with our demands,” explained Qari Yusuf, Taleban spokesman in the south. “We ordered them to stop the service at night. If these companies do not observe our rules and principles, we will attack them in all the regions under our control.”

He set out the Taleban’s reasoning for their night-time ban, “When Coalition forces launch operations against us during the night, they target our hideouts through these antennas and it damages us a lot.”

Abdul Hadi Hadi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s telecommunications ministry, rejected any suggestion that the mobile phone network was being used for surveillance.

“The Americans and the Afghan government have other ways of collecting information about the Taleban,” he told IWPR. “Telecommunications services are part of the public sector, and those who sabotage these facilities are enemies of the people.”

Whatever the reason for the attacks, they have placed central government in an uncomfortable position. While the police claim to be in control of most of the territory in question, they are plainly unable to stop the insurgents destroying telephone antennas and other facilities.

“We can’t place police checkpoints beside each mast,” complained an employee of the interior ministry, who did not want to give his name. “We don’t have the capacity. The antennas are dispersed widely; if we try to cover the whole area we will be stretched too thin and we can easily be attacked.”

The official did, however, say that the police would endeavour to work with the provincial authorities and assist the phone companies.

Helmand police chief General Muhammad Hussain Andiwal told IWPR that security in his province was satisfactory.

“We are ready to help the telecommunications companies if they want us to,” he added. “We will ensure security in the areas where their antennas are installed.”

His remarks came after the destruction of two masts in Helmand.

According to a high-ranking Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity, one of the Taleban’s aims was to embarrass the government.

“The Taleban are trying to increase the distance between the people and the government,” he told IWPR. “I don’t know about this espionage - I think it’s just an excuse. They want to show the people of Afghanistan that they are strong and the government is weak. They want people not to trust the government.”

The telecommunications ministry speculated that the runaway success of the mobile phone business might have angered the fundamentalists, who could be trying to curb development and scare off investors.

“Six years ago our compatriots could not even call from one province to another, and had to travel to Pakistan to make international calls,” said spokesman Hadi. “But now people can solve all of their problems with these mobile phones. And investment worth one billion dollars is a remarkable achievement. Perhaps this has raised certain sensitivities among the Taleban.”

He insisted, “The security agencies should take serious measures.”

The telephone companies refused to comment.

While many people in Helmand were angry at the Taleban attacks on phone masts, some were still prepared to excuse their tactics.

“It is true that some people really do use mobile phones for espionage,” said one resident of the Nawa district. “I don’t blame the Taleban. I think they had to do what they did.”

Matiullah Minapal and Zainullah Stanekzai are IWPR trainees in Helmand province. Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul.
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Pakistan's grand bargain falls apart
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online / March 6, 2008
KARACHI - Over the past few months, the Pakistani military's new leadership has devised a roadmap aimed at national reconciliation without compromising the country's commitment in the "war on terror".

The plan centered on developing an understanding with the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas that at the onset of a planned military offensive there, both sides would attempt to keep losses to the minimum; that is, they would go through the motions while Pakistan fulfilled its obligations in the eyes of the world in cracking down on militancy.

Initially, the project went well. But, coinciding with the visit this week to Pakistan - the second in a month - of the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and a series of suicide attacks, the situation has changed.

Mullen was due to meet with President Pervez Musharraf and military leaders to discuss US assistance for a massive military operation in Pakistan, under US supervision, against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

In the latest suicide attack on the military, the fourth in five days, bombers on Tuesday targeted the Navy War College in Lahore, killing six people and injuring 18. This string of attacks leaves the new military chief, Lieutenant General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, with the unpopular choice of having to take off the velvet glove to reveal an iron fist against militancy.

The chief beneficiary of this would be Musharraf, who has rapidly been losing his grip in the wake of Kiani's popular steps of reconciliation. Politicians elected in last month's polls for a new Parliament have already indicated they want to oust Musharraf for his heavy-handed role in prosecuting the "war on terror" during his eight years as a military ruler.

The militants are also concerned now. Under Kiani's initiative, they would have been restricted to isolated areas on the border areas and, apart from token raids against them by the Pakistani military, been allowed to get on with their "business".

The understanding was that once the Taliban and al-Qaeda were thus contained, it would create space for the forces of democracy to assert themselves in the country under the new government, and Musharraf could walk into the sunset.

In the longer term, these measures could have ended the hostilities in Pakistani society that were the result of eight years of military rule and Pakistan's active participation in the "war on terror".

Guns at the ready

According to Asia Times Online contacts, a military operation is imminent, starting from a base camp in Peshawar in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The main focus will be Mohmand and Bajaur agencies, and some other tribal areas, to pre-empt the Taliban's spring offensive in Afghanistan.

Under the initial plan, the operation would have been largely symbolic and the militants had been convinced that if they remained at the forefront and fought against Pakistani troops, their positions would be exposed to the foreign supervisors and they would sustain huge losses.

Instead, if they struck ceasefire deals and retreated from forward positions to the border regions, they would be helped with advance information about possible raids and they could take alternative measures for their survival. They were categorically told that the operation was inevitable, so it would be best for them to take rear positions and flit on both sides of the border for their survival.

The military rationale for adopting this approach was based on pragmatic grounds - that it would cause the militants to evacuate the main tribal areas for Afghanistan or the tribal fringes. This would allow secular Pashtun sub-nationalist forces to regain a hold in the area and develop an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation.

The military would ensure that Musharraf could then make an honorable exit. These steps were aimed at ending hostilities between the military establishment and political parties, as well as the militants. At the same time, it would help bring the extremely alienated right-wing military section in NWFP and in Punjab province (mostly non-commissioned officers) on board.

They have been actively involved in leaking information to militants, and in some cases have been hand-in-hand with them in attacking officers and camps. A senior official told Asia Times Online that Tuesday's attack in Lahore could have been done by members of the camp.

The grand bargain is unraveling, though. The recent missile attack by a US Predator drone on militants in the tribal area helped stir the militants' skepticism of any deal and different independent groups continued to attack the security forces.

The first glimpse the iron fist came last week when Kiani ordered more than 1,000 raids in several cities and hundreds of suspected militants were arrested. This was the biggest operation in the past 12 months and followed the assassination of the surgeon-general of the Pakistani army.

Pakistan therefore finds itself back at square one, with the old divisions of pro-American and anti-American revived in the military and no doubt stoked by Musharraf during his meeting with Admiral Mullen. This is Musharraf's chance to regroup in the pro-American camp by presenting himself as being in the best position to serve US interests in the region.

For the militant camps, they realize their attacks on the security forces will benefit their real enemy - Musharraf - and cause unity in the secular camps. But they also have doubts about Kiani's moves that will banish them to rear positions while at the same time facilitating tribal jirgas (councils) to devise a strategy to combat the Taliban!

Last weekend, such a jirga was held in Derra Adam Khail, about 40 kilometers West of Peshawar, in which ideas were discussed among tribal leaders to curb the Taliban in their area. When the jirga concluded, a suicide bomber attacked the crowd, resulting in the death of over 50 people.

With Kiani's hand being forced, and militants not ready to roll over just yet, Pakistan is a long way off peace.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief.
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House to probe overseas-contract plan
Provision would exempt firms from reporting abuses
By Lara Jakes Jordan Associated Press / March 8, 2008
WASHINGTON - House Democrats vowed yesterday to investigate why and how a multibillion-dollar overseas-contracting loophole was slipped into plans to crack down on fraud in taxpayer-funded projects.

The inquiry will look at whether a provision was added at the request of private firms, or their lobbyists, to exempt firms from having to report abuse in US contracts performed abroad.

"Granting this safe harbor for overseas contractors flies in the face of reason," Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, wrote yesterday in a letter asking the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to investigate. The panel monitors government procurement policy.

"By taking this action, the Bush administration is sending an unambiguous message: If you are a US government contractor in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere overseas, you have a green light to defraud our government and waste taxpayer dollars," Welch wrote to Democratic leaders of the committee.

The United States has spent more than $102 billion over the past five years to help rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. In that time, the Justice Department has uncovered at least $14 million in contract bribes in those two nations alone.

Representative Edolphus Towns of New York, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees government contracts, quickly agreed to the inquiry. Mike McCarthy, Towns's spokesman, said the congressman "is alarmed by the loophole and will work with Representative Welch to launch an investigation."

A spokeswoman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, which reviews contract policy, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the investigation.

The White House has declined to say whether the loophole, first reported last month by the Associated Press, will remain in the plans when they are finalized later this year. The government spends an estimated $350 billion a year on contracts.

The inquiry was being made amid bipartisan criticism in Congress and by Bush administration inspectors general who are concerned that the exemption will undercut efforts to curb waste, fraud, and abuse in contracts.

Additionally, the Justice Department and the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction have asked that the loophole be eliminated before the rule becomes law later this year. Prosecutors so far have charged 44 people in investigations into kickbacks, bribes, and other abuses of taxpayer money in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The exemption was written into rules that were proposed by the Justice Department in May. They sought to penalize businesses that fail to root out internal waste and abuse of government contracts.

For decades, contractors have been asked to report internal fraud or overpayment on government-funded projects. Compliance has been voluntary, and over the past 15 years, the number of company-reported fraud cases has declined steadily.

Facing the increased violations, prosecutors sought to force companies to notify the government if they find evidence of contract abuse of more than $5 million. Failure to comply could make a company ineligible for future government work.

But a later version of the rule, reviewed by the OMB and published in the Federal Register in November, specifically exempts "contracts to be performed outside the United States."

Senators Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, and Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, also have criticized the exemptions and demanded that they be stripped from the proposed rule.
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Congress demands testimony from Nato commander in Afghanistan
Elana Schor in Washington guardian.co.uk, Friday March 7 2008
The US Congress is demanding the senior Nato commander in Afghanistan appear to explain the worsening situation in the country following a series of bleak warnings from the international community.

General David Petraeus, the senior US commander in Baghdad, and Ryan Crocker, the top US envoy in Iraq, are due to testify in April at hotly anticipated hearings on the Iraq war. The two senators who will lead those hearings today asked the state department to make the same offer for public testimony on Afghanistan.

"Hearing directly from the commanding general in theatre and the US ambassador to Iraq is critically important … the conflict in Afghanistan must also be a priority," Democratic senators Carl Levin, who chairs the armed services committee, and Joseph Biden, who chairs the foreign relations committee, wrote in letters to the state department and the Pentagon.

Levin and Biden asked for General Dan McNeill, Nato's chief commander in the troubled nation and William Wood, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, to appear in Washington by April 18.

That timeframe would set up a double skirmish between congressional Democrats and the administration over the simultaneous US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Leading Democrats, including presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have accused George Bush of allowing Afghanistan to backslide while the US continues prodding Nato allies to increase their military presence there.

A withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan could throw the already foundering state into violent chaos, according to an independent report released last month by former Nato commander James Jones. More recently, US director of intelligence Mike McConnell admitted that the Taliban controls 10% of the country and the government of Hamid Karzai only 30%.

"[W]e are concerned that the United States and the international community lack a strategy for success in Afghanistan," Levin and Biden wrote. "We want to hear firsthand from our leaders on the ground what they believe they need to succeed."

Clinton has made Afghanistan a centrepiece of her campaign against Obama this week, releasing a broad plan to heal the troubled country and hammering her rival for failing to hold hearings on the war there in a Senate panel that he leads.

Clinton's plan for Afghanistan would include a special envoy to increase cooperation with the Pakistani government; a revamped drug interdiction plan that would offer farmers relief in exchange for ending their poppy growth; and greater involvement by Middle Eastern nations in the economic revitalisation of Afghanistan.
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Clearing canals: In Afghanistan simple projects change many lives
The Canadian Press
ZAKAR KALAY, Afghanistan — Drew Gilmour's eyes widened as the van took a turn on the bumpy rural road and suddenly dry dusty land was replaced by soaking wet earth.

"This is just since this week?" he asked, in disbelief. Yes, the Afghan engineer replied proudly. All this, just this week.

What Gilmour was staring at was hundreds of hectares of previously dead farmland now awash in water from a series of irrigation canals finally completed in a village about 18 kilometres from Kandahar city.

Water started running through the first of them this week.

Gilmour's company, Development Works, a private company which receives funding from the Canadian government, is overseeing the clearing of about 26 kilometres of canal altogether in the village.

Eventually, more than 3,600 hectares of farmland will be opened up for use, allowing farmers to increase their harvests by as much as 50 per cent.

Though it's high-profile causes like women's rights, polio eradication or the building of schools that often capture the most attention in developing countries, in Afghanistan, it is the little things that have the potential to make the biggest difference - like canals.

"We are starting everything from scratch," said Mohammad Ehsan Zia, the minister of rural rehabilitation and development in Afghanistan.

"It is the things at the community level which are the most successful."

His ministry, which receives funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, completed more than 350 simple rebuilding projects in Kandahar province over the last year alone.

But the work in Zakar Kalay is different.

Gilmour runs Development Works, whose long-term goals in Afghanistan are to set villages on the path to economic self-sufficiency. The development projects they do are designed to give communities the infrastructure to then develop industry and business.

Development Works' approach is different from that taken by Zia's ministry or by civil-military co-operation teams because they don't just do one project in a village a time, but several at the same time.

"All of this stuff is untested and no one has the right answer," said Gilmour.

"But I think this is the right direction."

Where others might see plain patches of ground, Gilmour sees potential.

In Zakar Kalay, shovels have already hit the ground for a bakery, where 60 per cent of the profits will go to paying teacher's salaries.

Next will be a solar-powered market and then a metal shop.

Over 2,000 metres of sewer have been built and 500 metres of road.

"This place will go from a collection of huts to a real village," said Gilmour.

Development Works has received a $4.9 million grant from CIDA through to December 2008 to carry out its work in Zakar Kalay and in other places.

Altogether in Zakar Kalay, they will spend $300,000.

"You have picked us up off the floor and helped us stand," said the village's deputy district leader Haji Mohammad Khan.

Villagers here don't speak of what happened to them during the time of the Taliban - they weren't around to see it.

Many of them fled to Iran and to Pakistan during the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s.

Haji Ali Mohammad, the village leader, points at the hills overlooking Zakar Kalay.

"From there the Russian tanks bombed us," he said. "And then the Russian airplanes bombed us. They destroyed everything."

Now, Mohammad said, more than 800 families have come back to the village in the last six months.

"They have heard we have sewers, that there is water here now," he said. "So they are coming back to rebuild."

About 700 people from the area are being paid about 200 Afghanis a day (about C$5) to work on the canal-clearing project and on sewer reconstruction.

Anur Gul, an elderly woman whose voice was muffled by a black veil, said the work made her so happy she volunteered to help, bringing jugs of water from the well to wet down the concrete.

"Everything will be safe, everything will be fine," she said.

One of the key socio-economic issues facing Afghanistan is a lack of jobs.

Poverty is cited as a contributing factor to why young men join the Taliban, but also why farmers choose to grow poppies for their valuable opium, making Afghanistan the world's largest producer of the narcotic in the world.

Farmer Lal Mohammad said the canal project can solve both those problems.

With the increased available of land, he said, he'll be able to harvest almost double the amount of grapes this year compared with last year.

"This will be much more profitable than growing poppy," he said.

It wasn't clear how much money the farmer could make from the grapes, though the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has said there is no legal crop in Afghanistan that can match the price paid to farmers for opium.

But, the larger harvest will also mean he'll need to hire workers, and he expects to get about 28 men to help.

"Nobody from here, from anywhere, wants to join the Taliban," said deputy leader Khan.

"Everybody just wants to do a job for themselves."
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Clinton Says She Would Commit More U.S. Troops to Afghanistan
Kristin Jensen Thu Mar 6, 3:29 PM ET
March 6 (Bloomberg) -- Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said she would commit more U.S. troops to the war in Afghanistan and urge other countries to do so as well.

Clinton, 60, a New York senator, used a news conference in Washington today to release a plan for Afghanistan. Surrounded by current and retired military officers who are supporting her, Clinton said President George W. Bush hasn't done enough.

``Those front lines are still largely forgotten,'' Clinton said. She said she would also redouble efforts to quash the drug trade in Afghanistan and help the country rebuild by encouraging international investments in education, infrastructure and other needs.

Clinton is increasingly stressing her national security credentials as she tries to cut the lead held by rival Barack Obama in the race for the Democratic nomination. Political analysts said her wins in the Texas and Ohio primaries this week were due in part to her focus on the issue and an ad she ran depicting a phone ringing in the White House at 3 a.m. and asking voters to consider which candidate was best ready to cope.

``The first and most solemn duty of the president of the United States is to protect and defend our nation,'' Clinton said today. ``And when that phone rings, whether it's 3 p.m. or 3 a.m. in the White House, there is no time for speeches and on-the-job training.''

Iraq Vote

Obama, 46, an Illinois senator, has won many converts among Democrats because of his early opposition to the war in Iraq, expressed in a 2002 speech. Clinton that same year voted to give Bush the authorization for the war, and Obama has attacked her vote as a lapse in judgment.

Clinton today told reporters that she has proven herself equal to taking on presumptive Republican nominee John McCain on the issue of national security. McCain, 71, an Arizona senator, is a veteran and former prisoner of war during Vietnam.

``Senator McCain will bring a lifetime of experience to the campaign; I will bring a lifetime of experience,'' Clinton said. ``Senator Obama will bring a speech that he gave in 2002. I think that is a significant difference.''

Clinton also called for more troops in Afghanistan last year after visiting the region. In January 2007, she held a press conference at the Capitol to oppose Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq, saying, ``our priorities are upside down.''

Delegate Count

Obama is leading in the number of delegates needed to win the nomination. Obama has at least 1,309.5 pledged delegates, compared with 1,198.5 for Clinton, according to The Green Papers, a nonpartisan Web site that is tracking the campaign. A candidate needs 2,025 to win.

Even so, neither Clinton nor Obama will likely get enough delegates allocated by elections to become the nominee. Instead, they will need to win over a majority of the 795 superdelegates - - Democratic Party officials and lawmakers who aren't bound by the results of primaries and caucuses.

The close race has many Democrats worried that the fight may last all the way to the August convention. Because of that, more attention is being paid to the results in Florida and Michigan, which were punished by the Democratic National Committee for moving their primaries ahead of the sanctioned schedule.

All the Democrats agreed not to campaign in the two states and Clinton won both primaries. Now, she's saying their delegates should be seated at the convention. Asked if she would support new contests, such as caucuses, she demurred today.

``I'm going to let the leadership of both states see what they think is the best approach,'' she said. Even so, she stressed that the record turnout in Florida showed people there ``clearly believed that their votes would count.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Kristin Jensen in Washington at kjensen@bloomberg.net
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A woman's eye on Afghanistan
Katie DeRosa , Ottawa Citizen Friday, March 07, 2008
Farzana Wahidy flips through the photographs she took of women in Afghanistan, shopping in the market, carrying babies on their shoulder, all while cloaked under a burqa. But few of her photos depict the violence and carnage of suicide bombers that the Western world associates with the war-torn nation. The young Afghan photojournalist wants to convey another story through her pictures, one of the struggle for equality by the women in her country.

Born in Kabul, the 23-year-old is one of the few female photojournalists in Afghanistan. And even six years after she picked up her first camera, Ms. Wahidy says she still hears the grunts of disapproval or feels the sticks that are thrown at her, the sentiment that comes with being a female photojournalist in a male-dominated profession, and in a country where women are not seen as equals.

"Every picture that came out of Afghanistan, they were mostly taken by men and foreign photojournalists." And most were pictures of bloodshed, she says. "So I thought that could be something for me to do, show a picture of what Afghanistan is. I like pictures that show the difficulty of the lives of women, their daily lives."

In 2002, Ms. Wahidy enrolled in a course at the Aina Photojournalism Institute, the first group in Afghanistan that allowed men and women to study the profession. Just 17 at the time, she lied and said she was 20 on the application so that she would be accepted. Two years later, she was freelancing for magazines and international media outlets leading up to a job with The Associated Press in 2007.

In an Afghanistan recently freed from Taliban rule, Ms. Wahidy said photography gave her a sense of freedom for the first time. "When I take pictures, sometimes I forget about everything around me and I love that."

Now, her passion has brought her to Canada where she is studying a two-year photojournalism program at Loyalist College in Belleville.

Ms. Wahidy was set to give a speech on Friday at Carleton University, organized by the women's studies department to honour International Women's day today. Ms. Wahidy's train was delayed and the speech was cancelled, but the department plans to reschedule the talk before the end of April.

Some of the photos Ms. Wahidy planned to show to her audience were shocking and disturbing. A small girl being kicked and beaten on the street by an older man, a woman's hands burned and scarred, all a result of the violence that is common towards Afghan women.

Ms. Wahidy and several other female Afghan journalists have been featured in a photography exhibit called Voices on the Rise: Afghan Women Making the News. The exhibit debuted in Ottawa in 2006 and is now making its way across Canada.

While she tries to capture scenes of the life of the women in her country, Ms. Wahidy says her job takes her to gruesome scenes of suicide bombings, which remind her of the rocket attacks and the lives that were taken during the civil war. 

Ms. Wahidy knows her job puts her in danger. Last year, two female journalists were killed in their homes and she says there are times when she is followed home at night.

But photojournalism is especially important in Afghanistan, says Ms. Wahidy. The majority of Afghans are illiterate, she says, which means that people get the story from the photos, not the words.

She says when she tells people she is a photojournalist, she gets many different responses. "From the women, mostly they tell me, 'I wish I was like you,' and 'you're so lucky.' The men, some will say they don't like it and that it's not a women's job."

Ms. Wahidy said that she wants her work to serve as an outlet to teach women in her country about their rights so they can begin to stand up for them.

"It's really hard for women to do this kind of job. But women, we have to start it. You can't wait for someone to go get you your freedom."
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Turk ‘carried out suicide attack in Afghanistan’
Dawn (Pakistan)
DUBAI, March 7: A suicide attack that killed two Nato soldiers in eastern Afghanistan earlier this week was carried out by a Turk who had come from Germany, a group that monitors Islamist websites reported on Thursday.

The Islamic Jihad Union posted a statement online that said one of its members was responsible for the attack on Monday, the Site Intelligence Group said.

The author of the attack was identified as Cuneht Ciftci, alias Saad Abu Fourkan.

The statement said he had carried out “successfully a martyr operation against a military base of occupying infidels and apostate units in the Sabari Ulus Valley.”—AFP
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