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May 13, 2008 

150 rebels killed in Afghan operation: governor
(AFP) 13 May 2008 - International and Afghan troops forged ahead with an offensive against the Taliban near the Pakistan border on Tuesday, with a governor insisting 150 rebels had been killed in the past week.

Afghanistan says thousands flee fearing NATO strikes
KABUL (AFP) 13 May 2008 - Up to 6,000 people have fled their homes in a southern Afghanistan district fearing NATO strikes amid a large-scale operation against Taliban militants, an official said Monday.

Taliban ban TV in Afghan province
Tue May 13, 2008 3:21pm By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban insurgents have ordered residents of a province near the capital Kabul to stop watching television, saying the networks were showing un-Islamic programmes, officials and local media said on Tuesday.

Mullahs versus Bollywood
As two Afghan TV stations hold out against a ban on Indian soap operas, analysts warn freedom of speech is at stake.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Hafizullah Gardesh in Kabul (ARR No. 289, 13-May-08)
With two television states still battling a government ban on Indian serials regarded as too racy for local sensibilities, viewers are trying to make sense of the government’s increasingly muddled media policy.

School Attendance Plummets in Helmand
Compared with just one year ago, the number of children recorded as going to school is tiny.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Aziz Ahmad Tassal in Helmand (ARR No. 289, 13-May-08)
Official figures suggest that Helmand province has suffered a massive drop in the number of children going to school in the last year, as a direct consequence of Taleban attacks targeting the education system.

Finding stability in Afghanistan means talking to farmers
Le Mars Daily Sentinel - Tuesday, May 13, 2008 By Magdalene Biesanz
Kingsley native Jeff Knowles looked down at the protective flak jacket, then turned to the soldier next to him.

Afghan mission now top priority
The Australian 13 May 2008
THE war in Afghanistan will cost taxpayers $620 million this year as the Rudd Government lifts its military and diplomatic commitment to the NATO-led stabilisation mission and scales down Australia's troop commitment to Iraq.

AG report: Afghan war challenging military's supply chain
OTTAWA (national Post) 13 May 2008
Supplying Canada's war effort in Kandahar, Afghanistan, has been hampered by delays in shipping everything from spare parts for battered vehicles to medical devices to help heal wounded soldiers, according to Auditor General Sheila Fraser.

Afghanistan: Refugees grounded due to security concerns
Kabul, 13 May (AKI) - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has temporarily suspended the repatriation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan through Peshawar because of concerns about security.

Pakistan: Afghan refugees allowed to continue returning home
New York, May 13 (AKI) - After security concerns prompted the United Nations to suspend assistance to Afghan refugees who are voluntarily returning to their home country from the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar, the UN refugee agency

Afghans swap poppies for wheat as food costs soar
Guardian 13 May 2008
Afghan farmers hope to capitalise on soaring food costs by growing wheat instead of poppy crops, with the fall in heroin prices further fuelling the switch.

US helicopter 'downed by Taleban'
Tuesday, 13 May 2008 BBC News
A US military helicopter has made an emergency landing in Afghanistan amid reports that militants shot it down.

The United States and Afghanistan Sign Joint Declaration
U.S. State Department Office of the Spokesman Washington, DC May 13, 2008
During a ceremony at the Department of State, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Rangin Dadfar Spanta signed a bilateral declaration reaffirming shared objectives in Afghanistan.

Another D-Day for Pakistan over militants
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online / May 13, 2008
KARACHI - With the Taliban believed to have launched all of their fighters into Afghanistan and with tribal militants led by Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud faced off against the Pakistani armed forces, the issue becomes just how

Pakistan's government in turmoil
Tuesday, 13 May 2008 BBC News
Nine ministers from a leading party in Pakistan's new coalition have handed in their resignations, plunging the country into political uncertainty.

150 rebels killed in Afghan operation: governor
(AFP) 13 May 2008 - International and Afghan troops forged ahead with an offensive against the Taliban near the Pakistan border on Tuesday, with a governor insisting 150 rebels had been killed in the past week.

US Marines and British troops under NATO command launched a significant new operation two weeks ago in Garmser district in southern Helmand province, a key battleground for a Taliban-led insurgency and an opium-producing centre.

Soldiers in a separate US-led coalition have also reported several engagements in the area in the past week. They said Tuesday they had killed a dozen rebels in Garmser on Monday.

The international forces helping Afghanistan fight an insurgency led by the Al-Qaeda-backed Taliban normally do not issue death tolls from their engagements, saying they want to avoid a "body count."

But Helmand governor Gulab Mangal told AFP on Tuesday that 150 Islamic rebels, most of whom he said were Al-Qaeda-linked Arab and Pakistani fighters, had been killed in military action in Garmser in the past week.

"In the past seven, eight days, we have killed about 150 insurgents, most of them foreign fighters," he said, citing "intelligence."

"We have intelligence reports that more than 500 enemy fighters, most of them foreign terrorists, are in the district," he said. "The operation will continue until the district is cleared of these destructive elements."
The Afghan army, operating with some of the international deployments, could not be reached for comment. NATO's International Security Assistance Force could not verify the numbers.

"The Marines continue to gain ground down in Helmand," ISAF Major Martin O'Donnell told AFP, adding that he could not comment on death tolls.

The Marines said: "While we are continuing operations to clear the Taliban from the Garmser district, it is not ISAF nor US Military policy to comment on enemy casualties as we do not consider this a reliable measure of success."

Information is difficult to independently confirm in Garmser, a remote desert province where there are few roads and government authority is limited.

The military says Garmser is a rebel gateway into Afghanistan, bring fresh recruits and weapons from Pakistan where extremist rebels are said to have bases.

Some of Afghanistan's opium, which makes up to 90 percent of world supply, is meanwhile routed out of the country across the southern border.

A local resident contacted by AFP by telephone said "more than 100 Taliban have been killed in the past several days."

"They were killed in several different attacks and air bombardments," said the man, who identified himself as Abdul Baqi.

He was speaking from Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital located about 50 kilometres (35 miles) north of Garmser, where he was taking refuge from the fighting.

The government said Monday about 6,000 people have fled their homes in Garmser, fearing the military operations.

The Taliban insurgency, launched after the rebels regrouped following their ouster from government in a US-led invasion in late 2001, is strongest in the areas bordering Pakistan. But it has made inroads into several other provinces.

In Wardak, adjoining Kabul, two Taliban and two policemen were killed in a clash that erupted Monday after the rebels attacked a foreign military convoy, the provincial police chief Muzaffarhuddin Yamin said.
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Afghanistan says thousands flee fearing NATO strikes
KABUL (AFP) 13 May 2008 - Up to 6,000 people have fled their homes in a southern Afghanistan district fearing NATO strikes amid a large-scale operation against Taliban militants, an official said Monday.

The mass exodus from Garmser, a remote district in troubled Helmand province, comes as NATO-led troops hunt Taliban militants and their allies in an operation that kicked off two weeks ago.

"Around 900 families, counting for about 5,000 to 6,000 people, have left the area," refugees ministry spokesman Shamsuddin Sarhadi told AFP.

The displaced families were being put up in a government-run camp in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand which is 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the district centre Garmser, he said.

The military operation launched on April 28 is being led by US Marines and British military. The soldiers are searching compounds and trying to root out militants, destroy weapons caches and take positions held by the rebels.

There have been some clashes and air strikes, and military forces say they have killed "several" rebels although they have not released figures.

The United Nations has said it was ready to assist the affected people but it did not know how many had been displaced.

"We are concerned about this issue and the good thing about such displacements is that they are temporary and the people will be able to return to their homes soon," spokeswoman Nilab Mobarez told reporters.

Scores of families have already left the troubled area because of fighting over the past two years, with the Taliban storming in and holding it for a few days in July 2006 before being partially pushed back by NATO forces.

The military says Garmser is a rebel gateway into Afghanistan from neighbouring Pakistan, where extremist rebels are said to have bases.

The Taliban insurgency, launched after the rebels regrouped following their ouster from government in a US-led invasion in late 2001, is strongest in the areas bordering Pakistan but has made inroads into other areas.

In one of the latest incidents, an Afghan working on a road project was killed in an attack by Taliban fighters in the central province of Ghazni on Sunday, police said.

Police were sent to the area and a Taliban was killed and two policemen wounded in subsequent fighting, deputy provincial police chief Mohammad Zama said.
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Taliban ban TV in Afghan province
Tue May 13, 2008 3:21pm By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban insurgents have ordered residents of a province near the capital Kabul to stop watching television, saying the networks were showing un-Islamic programmes, officials and local media said on Tuesday.

The order is the last in a wave of curbs that the resurgent militants have announced in areas they are active.

A senior Afghan information ministry official, Najib Manelai, said that dozens of masked men with weapons entered mosques in Logar province at the weekend and threatened residents against watching television

"They threatened the people that 'if you do not give up watching televisions, you will face violence'," Manelai told Reuters.

Media reports quoted residents as saying that the Taliban imposed the ban because TV networks were showing programmes that were "un-Islamic and anti-Afghan culture".

Removed from power in 2001, the al Qaeda-backed Taliban who lead a insurgency against the government and foreign forces, could not be reached for comment.

But while in power from 1996 until their ouster, the Taliban Islamists had banned television, music and cinema. More than a dozen private TV networks and scores of radio stations have been launched in Afghanistan since their fall.

The information ministry along with security forces was taking action against the Taliban move, minister Manelai said, without giving details.

The ban on television programmes in Logar follows demands in recent weeks by a group of religious scholars and the information minister that some private television stations must stop

broadcasting several Indian soap operas on religious grounds.

But the demand has been largely ignored.

The Taliban have in recent months also ordered mobile phones operators to shut down the networks, saying foreign troops were using the phones to track them down. They have also warned girls in several parts of the south and east not to attend schools.
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Mullahs versus Bollywood
As two Afghan TV stations hold out against a ban on Indian soap operas, analysts warn freedom of speech is at stake.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Hafizullah Gardesh in Kabul (ARR No. 289, 13-May-08)
With two television states still battling a government ban on Indian serials regarded as too racy for local sensibilities, viewers are trying to make sense of the government’s increasingly muddled media policy.

The dispute has raised questions about who should have the moral authority to censor the airwaves, how politics influences decisions on the media, and – most importantly of all – what kind of society Afghans want.

The Ministry of Information and Culture gave private channels a deadline of April 15, later extended by a week to April 22, to stop showing certain Bollywood series on the grounds that they offended Afghan sensibilities.

The ministry demanded that five serials be taken off the air.

Two television stations, Noorin and Ariana, bowed to the ban, but Tolo, responsible for two of the series, and Afghan TV have continued to air the popular serials.

The ministry has referred Tolo TV to the prosecutor’s office, but no legal action had been launched by the time this report was published.

The Indian-made soaps enjoy huge popularity among viewers. However, at a meeting last month with religious scholars and TV representatives, Information and Culture Minister Abdul Karim Khurram claimed these programmes ran counter to Islamic culture and promoted “idolatry” with their depictions of Hindu imagery.

Critics say the clothing worn by the female actors is too revealing for Afghan tastes. The dialogue and plot lines are also offensive to many, with hints of unlawful sexual conduct and other titillating material.

The driving force behind the government ban was the Council of Clerics, which brings together leading Muslim scholars. The council had called for all Indian serials to be taken off the airwaves, but expressed satisfaction with the selective ban.

"We are against anything that is against the tenets of Islam. We propose that broadcasting be adjusted to fit Islamic culture," said Enayatullah Baligh, a member of the Council of Clerics. He said clerics were pleased with what the ministry had done although they felt it had not gone far enough.

Baligh said the Council of Clerics would assert its right to prevent immorality at any cost.

"We prevent all kinds of vice. We aren’t afraid to do so even if it means we are described as Taleban, al-Qaeda or something else,” he said. “We defend anyone who defends Islam. Afghanistan is an Islamic country and it should live under the umbrella of Islamic law."

The cleric added that the council was well able to act on such matters independently, but in this instance had chosen to defer to government – as long as it acted in the correct manner.

The Senate or upper chamber of parliament has backed the ministry’s decision. Members of the lower house also spoke out against the “anti-Islamic” content of TV programming last month. In addition to the drama serials, they were annoyed by a show in which men and women were seen dancing together.

At national level, a bitter debate continues between those who want to impose a conservative morality and advocates of freedom of speech.

Some, like Abdul Hamid Mubariz, head of the National Union of Journalists, insist that the ban is a deliberate ploy by political and religious conservatives.

"There is a body of people in government who want to do without freedom of speech and democracy,” he said. “They are people who see freedom of speech as being against their own personal interest.

"If we are to follow Taleban-style policies, then why didn’t Mullah Omar become president of Afghanistan instead of Hamed Karzai?" he asked.

Mubariz challenged President Karzai to issue a formal ruling on the matter.

"Karzai should issue a decree and snatch away our freedom. Then we will take away from him the mantle of freedom and democracy,” he said.

Karzai has issued contradictory statements, straddling a line between upholding freedom of speech, as guaranteed by the constitution, and backing moves to defend Afghan culture.

But the Ministry of Information and Culture has no such qualms.

“Every freedom has its limits,” said ministry spokesman Hamid Naseri. “Every human being is free insofar as he does not violate and harm the person, sensibilities and faith of others.”

Naseri said that the ministry had issued its ruling based on “hundreds” of complaints sent in by members of the public.

“This is the people's will, and we respect the wishes of our people," he said.

Naseri also attacked external critics who depicted the TV serial ban as a restriction of media freedom. Responding to a statement issued by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, he said it had “misjudged” the situation.

“Without contacting the people and our ministry or being award of the reality, they contact traitors and accept what they say and react to that,” he alleged.

Turning to the private TV stations, Naseri accused them of being too lazy to make their own programmes, despite what he said was encouragement by the ministry to use Afghans in productions that reflected local values and traditions.

“Officials at Tolo TV are trying to ‘hide the sun behind two fingers’ [conceal the obvious]. What scenes in these serials and movies are based on Islamic and Afghan culture? This is a cultural assault pursued by Tolo TV.”

Sediq Ahmadzada, executive manager of Tolo TV, maintains that there is no justification for halting the Indian serials.

“Our programmes and broadcasts are not against the law. The statement the information ministry sent us does not contain any convincing legal reasons,” he said. “We resist any pressure that is not legal and we will continue our broadcasts.”

Political analyst Mohammad Qasim Akhgar believes that the background to this dispute has more to do with politics than with morality.

“There are some fundamentalists in government, who have put pressure on private TV stations, and Tolo in particular, in the past, too. This is a continuation of that previous pressure,” said Akhgar. “This group of people is trying to eliminate free speech as a way of maintaining their strength and giving legitimacy to their demands. Freedom of speech unmasks their plans and programmes.”

Control of the media is becoming increasingly important as Afghanistan prepares for presidential elections in 2009. Many political groups have opened their own media outlets, and Akhgar is not alone in thinking that there may be political motives behind the current tussle over the airwaves.

Akhgar disputed the ministry spokesman’s claim that the ban reflected popular demand.

“It’s completely the other way round…. People really want these serials to be broadcast. Those who complain about [them] can switch off or watch something else,” he said. “Representing this as if it came from the people is not good.”

Another analyst, Ahmad Sayedi, said it was hard to know what was really really going on in government, given the mixed messages coming out about freedom of speech.

"In a situation like this, one gets confused. On the one hand, President Hamed Karzai talks about freedom of speech and sees himself as a defender of freedom, but on the other hand, the information and culture ministry does not believe in freedom of speech. We don’t really know what is behind the curtain," he said.

Kabul residents are divided in their outlook on the ban, and on the controversy surrounding it.

Some, like Dr Gul Rasul, argue that the Indian soaps undermine Afghan traditions, and even faith.

He recalled the day he visited relatives to pay his respects after a death in the family. Afterwards, his five-year-old daughter asked him, “Father, why were the family of the deceased not wearing white?”

Rasul explained that this was because Afghans wear black as mourning, whereas the Indian actors on TV wear white.

Schoolteacher Saleha complained that her pupils were slacking because they spent so much time gripped by the latest serials.

"The children have stopped attending to their lessons,” she said. They watch these serials until late into the night. I teach the first grade, and believe me, the girls aged six and seven pay no attention to their lessons. They’re always telling each other romantic stories about the actors from these serials."

On the other hand Zuhra, who is 18, loves the Indian soap operas so much that she dresses like the actresses.

She says it is wrong to blame Indian programmes for Afghanistan’s many problems, "There are thefts, robberies, murders and thousands of other anti-Islamic actions taking place in this country but the Council of Clerics, parliament and government never pay attention to these things because they are implicated in these crimes themselves,” she said. “Yet they try to ban a few Indian serials that spread love, friendship and honesty among the people."

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul.
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School Attendance Plummets in Helmand
Compared with just one year ago, the number of children recorded as going to school is tiny.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting By Aziz Ahmad Tassal in Helmand (ARR No. 289, 13-May-08)
Official figures suggest that Helmand province has suffered a massive drop in the number of children going to school in the last year, as a direct consequence of Taleban attacks targeting the education system.

People living in this southern province say the lack of educational opportunities is itself creating potential recruits for the insurgency.

Of all Afghan provinces, Helmand has been worst hit in recent years by the enforced closure of schools, either through Taleban intimidation or by the simple tactic of setting them on fire.

Rahimullah Khan, who heads Helmand’s education department, told IWPR that a few months ago, only 35,000 pupils were attending school, but that things had improved somewhat since then. .

"The number of pupils in Helmand province has recently reached 54,000. More than 10 schools, previously closed down by the Taleban, have been re-opened in the Nawa district [alone] recently," he said.

Even this improvement amounts to a massive fall in attendance from February last year, when the then provincial education chief said there were 111,000 pupils registered in Helmand, of whom 12,000 were girls. At that point in February 2007, there were 113 schools operating across the province, the rest of the 224 schools had already closed. (See Schools Face Murderous Challenge, ARR No. 241, 9-Feb-07.)

This is at a time when education provision is growing in more secure parts of Afghanistan.

Students and teachers in Helmand say the official figures are far too optimistic. Whatever the correct number, though, it is clear that huge numbers of children are missing out on education in the province. Without schooling, young men will be ill equipped to cope in a situation of high unemployment, and that could make them ripe recruits for the Taleban. Grishk district in the north of Helmand is one of many areas where the Taleban are active.

According to local schoolteacher Haji Abdul Hamid, "In past years, there were 23 schools operating in Grishk, but since 2006, it’s fallen to just six. The number of pupils attending school reached 13,088 in past years, 3,500 of them girls. Almost all the boys and girls are now unable to go to school and are at home. Only a tiny number in the town of Grishk itself are currently going to school."

Taj Mohammed, deputy head of education in Helmand, detailed how many closures there have been, "There were 241 schools across Helmand province, of which 34 have been closed in the past four years. More than 64 schools have been torched by unidentified men, and 17 teachers and students have been murdered by anti-government militants."

The Taleban send mixed messages about whether they deliberately target schools, since they insist they are in favour of education in general.

The movement claimed responsibility for burning and closing down some schools in 2006, but have not said anything about the issue since then.

Last year, Taleban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi told reporters, "We have burnt some schools where anti-Islamic lessons were being taught. I can recall a school in the Shajoi district of Zabul province where the students were being taught wrongly.”

He said the Taleban disapproved of changes to the way literacy was being taught, although he did not make it clear whether this counted as sufficient grounds to attack a school.

“Many changes have been made to the textbooks in other schools. For instance, the letter A used to be for Allah but in these textbooks A is used for ‘anar’ [pomegranate]. J used to be for Jihad, but these books have J for ‘jowar’ [maize]. We do not permit such changes," he said.

The Afghan authorities say Muslim religious scholars are free to check the curriculum to ensure there is nothing that runs counter to Islam – and say unless they find anything wrong, then the Taleban claim is merely a pretext for stopping children from getting an education.

On the ground, people in rural areas describe a policy of clear intimidation.

"We have gone to the Taleban many times and told them not to take action against the schools and they agreed to this,” said Alisha Mazlumyar, a tribal elder in the Marja district. “But few days after the schools start up, Taleban militants make death threats to teachers and pupils. The anti-government militants do not want education to improve in our society. There isn’t a single school operating in Marja district. Our children have been prevented from attending school, and are at home."

Marja district, some 40 kilometres southwest of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, has seen recurring violence, most recently with a firefight between Afghan government troops and the Taleban that lasted several hours on April 08.

"There is nothing here but insecurity and fighting," grumbled Mazlumyar.

Bashir Ahmad, 20, is currently in the final school year in Lashkar Gah, where he went after his school in Marja closed down. After staying at home and working on the family farm for six months, he made his a decision on his own – “I should think about my future”.

"The Taleban are currently dominant in Marja district. I can’t go home. They’d kill me because I’m studying in Lashkar Gah. My father has been threatened by the Taleban several times, who said he must stop me going to school. They said I was being taught anti-Islamic lessons in Lashkar Gah, although my father has never spoken to me about it."

Neighbouring Sangin district is suffering similar problems. It may be just 50 kilometres from Lashkar Gah, but the main town there is the only place fully controlled by Afghan government and NATO troops – the surrounding territory is de facto Taleban territory.

One teacher from Sangin, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR, "I can’t live in Sangin any more because I used to show the good path [teaching] to the children in this country.

"I fled to Lashkar Gah two years ago. I have done nothing wrong – all I was doing was teach in an Islamic school; teaching boys in a school. I cannot return to my home district.” As a result of the security problems, large numbers of school pupils are now in Lashkar Gah to attend schools in the relatively safe environment there. There is no dormitory provision, but the authorities are paying them each 12,000 afghanis, 240 US dollars, to cover a three-month period.

Analysts warn that if the lack of schooling in Helmand continues, the security situation is bound to get worst.

Helmand’s new governor, Mohammad Gulab Mangal, says he has a three-point action plan to get the schools open again.

"I have three plans in hand to re-open the closed schools and am committed to implementing them,” he told IWPR. “First, we want to get the weakened education system back on its feet with the help of tribal elders. Second, we want to destroy the enemy’s capacity through military operations. And third, we will improve the capacity of the provincial education department so that the standard of teaching improves in all districts.

“We are currently in phase one of the plan. We hope to implement all of them soon.”

Ghulam Sarwar Ghafari, an analyst in Helmand, said the role of the traditional tribal structure was crucial, "Villagers and elders in the districts should gather together and make plans for building private schools and hiring teachers. No one but the tribal elders can do this."

The argument is that private schools would be seen as distinct from the Afghan state and the Taleban would leave them alone. Although the education ministry would not be able to set the curriculum, it has agreed to make provision for school-leavers from private institutions to be admitted to university without problems.

The problem may be that tribal leaders are not always in a position to rule on such matters these days.

As Haji Nadir Khan, an elder in Nawa district, said, "We see tribal elders getting killed every day. Several were killed brutally last month. So how do you think we can say something to benefit our villages and people? They [Taleban] view the tribal elders as major criminals, even though they [elders] find solutions for the problems facing villagers. They represent the people, not the government."

Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR-trained journalist in Helmand.
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Finding stability in Afghanistan means talking to farmers
Le Mars Daily Sentinel - Tuesday, May 13, 2008 By Magdalene Biesanz
Kingsley native Jeff Knowles looked down at the protective flak jacket, then turned to the soldier next to him.

"Am I supposed to put this on now?" The soldier grinned, "If you don't I will."

Body armor is not in Knowles' typical wardrobe as an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

But then again, working with farmers in Afghanistan to help rebuild their agricultural system isn't his typical work either.

Knowles, who now lives in Hawaii, spent six months in the war-scarred nation talking with farmers about what they grow and what their needs are.

USDA secretary Ed Schafer honored him last week for his service in Afghanistan in 2005-06.

Knowles' travels were part of a partnership between the USDA and the U.S. Department of Defense in their campaign to "win hearts and minds" of the Afghan people.

"I think it's one of the best things we're doing in the country," Knowles said via a phone interview from his USDA office in Hawaii. "If we can help improve quality of life for farmers -- and 95 percent of the Afghan people are farmers -- we're doing something real."

Living conditions are rough. And most farmers are subsistence farmers, growing crops like wheat, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, apricots, apples and almonds.

But getting enough water for crops is a major issue.

"The country has literally been through hell for the last 20 years," Knowles said. "In 1985, the Russians bombed 50 percent of the arable land and one-third of the irrigation system. Then when the Russians left, civil war started among the ethnic groups. Then the Taliban took over."

While Knowles was in the country, he traveled with a group of soldiers and interpreters. He aided in work to construct dams, repair irrigation systems and establish nurseries of high-value trees like almonds or apricots. He also helped start storage systems.

"We found out that if the farmers there were able to store their harvest for three to six months, the price of the commodity would increase two or three times," he said.

He suggested projects like an apple juice factory and an apricot-drying factory where people could expand the sales of their crops.

Afghanistan's struggle to have a stable centralized government is just the backdrop for people working to feed their families.

"It never felt like a war zone," Knowles said. "These were just ordinary people that needed help."

The Afghan paradox: War and hospitality - The conservationist admitted to being "quite nervous" when he first headed into Afghanistan in July 2005. It probably didn't ease his mind when one of the soldiers he traveled with asked him if he'd ever fired an M4 rifle before. Or when they told him to keep the vehicle's window down in case someone would shoot at them.

"If you get fired on Mr. Knowles, we don't want to pick glass out of your face," they told him.

Despite the warnings and the occasional rocket fire at the bases where Knowles stayed, he said violence there is overstated by the media.

During his first trip to visit with Afghan farmers, Knowles saw another side of the people.

"In the first village we drove through, there were people sitting outside their shops, so close to the vehicle you could reach out and touch them," he remembered. "I caught the eye of this man wearing a turban, scowling at me. But then I smiled. His face literally transformed with a huge grin, and he put his hand over his heart."

Knowles kept smiling throughout his travels, and he saw that transformation happen again and again.

"If you study their culture, you'll see that traditionally Afghans are known as very honorable, generous and caring people," he said.

The first Afghans he really got to know were the interpreters at his camp. They immediately invited him to eat with them. They gathered in a circle, seated around a around large plate of rice and another large platter of potatoes and meat.

"Everybody ate out of the one bowl, scooping up the rice and potatoes with the flat naan bread," he said. "We became really good friends."

And meeting Afghan kids, he added, was by far the most amazing part of his trip.

"They're just dying for pens, because they need pens to go to school," Knowles said. "They're so charming, so hungry to learn. They didn't want candy; they wanted pens."

The group he was with also handed out crayons, chalkboards, solar radios and other supplies.

People told Knowles that after six months in Afghanistan he would never be the same.

"And quite honestly, I never will," he said. "It was the most fulfilling, rewarding experience of my life."

The US Secretary of Agriculture honored Knowles in Washington D.C. last week, and they also honored the memory of another USDA employee who was killed by an improvised bomb while in Afghanistan, in the same region Knowles had worked.

"It was really the saddest thing to me," Knowles said. "He was working on some of the same projects I was. He was killed on a road I had traveled many times."

Knowles grew up in Kingsley with three sisters and a brother, then joined the U.S. Navy after high school. Following his service, he enrolled in Northwestern College in Orange City and then Iowa State University, earning a degree in agronomy.

For eight years, Knowles worked in Iowa as a soil conservation officer, then from 1988 to 2002, he worked with soil conservation in Wisconsin. His next stop: Hawaii.

"I'd always wanted to get a job in the tropics," he said. "When I was in the Navy I was on a ship in southeast Asia and I fell in love with it."

It was in Hawaii that Knowles decided to volunteer for a six-month stint in Afghanistan.

"It was really intriguing to me -- they were facing problems with erosion, heavy and widespread, and a lot of their irrigation system was destroyed," he said. "It seemed that my entire career was pointing to this. The things I'd been working with for close to 30 years were the things they needed in Afghanistan."

The USDA is still sending people to Afghanistan as well as Iraq to help people stabilize their farming economies.

"I'd still like to go back, maybe to an area where we haven't been yet -- like the unstable part along the Pakistan border," Knowles said. "I feel like I have unfinished business."
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Afghan mission now top priority
The Australian 13 May 2008
THE war in Afghanistan will cost taxpayers $620 million this year as the Rudd Government lifts its military and diplomatic commitment to the NATO-led stabilisation mission and scales down Australia's troop commitment to Iraq.

Afghanistan is destined to become the main focus of Australia's military operations abroad and the budget will see an extra $26million earmarked for the new embassy in Kabul.

Spending on Iraq will fall from $490 million this year to an estimated $216 million in 2008-09 as the army brings home its 550-strong battle group based at Tallil in southern Iraq. In Afghanistan, our military will top 1100 personnel by mid-year compared with about 200 remaining in Iraq.

Total expenditure on the ADF's overseas operations is budgeted at $1.05 billion, a drop of $265million largely due to Iraq. East Timor will cost $174 million while the commitment to the regional assistance mission to the Solomon Islands will cost $27million.

A billion-dollar slowdown in spending on new capital equipment has generated only a modest 0.8 per cent real increase in this year's defence budget in a sharp break to the hectic spending of the Howard years and well below the annual 3 per cent real growth target pledged by Kevin Rudd.

Defence spending will total $21.7 billion in 2008-09 compared with last year's outcome of $20.3billion with the total budget expenditure equivalent to 1.8 per cent of GDP.

But the budget papers show that this year's modest increase is a one-off with defence spending set to surge again next year and average 4 per cent real growth per annum over the next four years.

Wayne Swan said last night that on current projections defence spending would be about $6billion more in 2011-12 than last year.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said Defence would spend $4.8 billion in 2008-09 on new equipment. A total of $650 million would be spent expanding the army with the eventual goal a 30,000-strong land force consisting of 11 core battle groups.

Mr Fitzgibbon sought to bolster the Government's commitment to long-term support for the ADF saying the Government would extend its 3 per cent per annum real increase in the defence budget from 2016 out to 2018. This would help underpin the new defence white paper due to be published at the end of this year.

"The increase will provide an additional $2.8 billion to defence over the two years and will ensure that our soldiers have the necessary equipment, training and support they require to undertake their difficult work," he said.

Defence analysts agree that the budget must grow by at least 3 per cent in real terms for the foreseeable future to accommodate sharp increases in new capital equipment as well as personnel and operating costs.

Reprogramming of $1.66 billion in major capital equipment spending this year, including further delays in Project Wedgetail, the RAAF's troubled $4 billion airborne early warning aircraft, is the main item in this year's overall budget slowdown. Defence sources say Wedgetail is running about three years behind schedule.

The budget papers also contain $24 million over four years for high-priority intelligence requirements for the Defence Department led by the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD).

The Defence Department has recently embarked on a $10 billion 10-year savings drive and this year's budget has found savings worth $190 million, mainly gleaned from revising repair and maintenance budgets and postponing capital works.

Overseas operations this year will be funded to the tune of $1billion by internal savings worth $210 million and an $826million windfall received by Defence from an abnormally high inflation index due to Australia's record terms of trade.
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AG report: Afghan war challenging military's supply chain
OTTAWA (national Post) 13 May 2008
Supplying Canada's war effort in Kandahar, Afghanistan, has been hampered by delays in shipping everything from spare parts for battered vehicles to medical devices to help heal wounded soldiers, according to Auditor General Sheila Fraser.

Along the way, the Canadian Forces have also lost track of $7 million worth of inventory that somehow managed to reach Kandahar Airfield, but has since disappeared in the maze of metal shipping containers that are stacked like children's building blocks across the base.

The weaknesses in the supply chain were highlighted in an audit conducted at Kandahar Airfield in July 2007. While commanders complained about the shortages and delays, they also made clear that the military was successfully scrambling to keep up with its war-zone demands.

"So far the military has been able to adapt and adjust so that operations have not been significantly affected," Ms. Fraser reported Tuesday. "But unless the problems we found can be resolved, National Defence could have increasing difficulty supporting the mission."

The military has compensated by tripling support staff between May 2006 and July 2007 to more than 900 personnel. That also included a renewed reliance on civilian contractors, which also tripled between November 2006 and July 2007 to 266 from 95.

The Defence Department has responded to the audit by pledging to do more to track its vast supply shipments and better manage the replenishment of essential stocks.

The Forces rely on a fleet of commercially chartered cargo planes to deliver 85 tonnes of supplies per week. Some weeks, that has meant using up to nine chartered flights, mainly Russian-built heavy lifters, to bring in supplies and to bring home battered armoured vehicles for repair in Canada.

The chartered planes were needed because Canada's fleet of A310 Airbuses and ageing short-haul C-130 Hercules aircraft could not fully meet the demand. The audit was done before Canada took delivery of its first new C-17 Boeing Globemaster long-haul cargo planes.

"At the time of our visit to Kandahar Airfield, the supply system showed that 3,467 requisitions were outstanding, of which 61 per cent were already past the required delivery date," the audit stated.
The average delivery of supplies is supposed to take 10 to 20 days, but half of them failed to reach Kandahar in that time.

There have been significant delays in finding spare parts to repair armoured vehicles that have been pressed into service to counter the rising threat of roadside bombs, the leading killer of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Between December 2006 and October 2007, of the major combat equipment sidelined for repairs, two-thirds were stuck in the shop waiting on parts from outside Afghanistan. Three new Nyala armoured vehicles had to be shipped back to Canada because repair parts could not be found. A landmine detection vehicle system was also shelved in 2006 for more than year because it not repairable.

In some cases, mechanics improvised in a time-honoured military tradition -- they cannibalized parts from other vehicles to make repairs.

Meanwhile, the multinational field hospital, led by Canada, had to cope with a rising caseload in 2006, the year the current Taliban insurgency returned to Afghanistan with renewed force.

At time, the hospital ran "critically low" on some supplies, the audit found.

Meanwhile, Canada was forced to make up for a shortfall in medical personnel by recruiting civilian doctors. Between May 2006 and July 2007, health support personnel more than doubled to 175 from 70.
The audit also highlighted a new medical phenomenon of 21st-century war: because of advances in body armour, helmets and goggles, the hospital is contending with rising injuries to arms and legs.

That has driven up demand for surgical pins to fix bone fractures - a demand the Forces have been scrambling to meet.

In April 2006, the military recognized the growing need for pins and started to look for a supplier. In October 2006, they signed a deal to purchase up to $40,000 in pins without going through formal approvals every time.

But in the intervening six months, the Forces found they needed more than $400,000 worth of surgical items, and the first items did not arrive in Kandahar until November 2006 - seven months after the need was first identified.
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Afghanistan: Refugees grounded due to security concerns
Kabul, 13 May (AKI) - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has temporarily suspended the repatriation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan through Peshawar because of concerns about security.

A spokesperson for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Nilab Mobarez, said that the UNHCR-assisted operation had been suspended because of security considerations in the country's eastern province of Nangarhar.

Mobarez said these concerns had compelled UNHCR to close down its centre in Jalalabad that assists Afghans returning from Pakistan. He added that UNHCR hoped to reopen the voluntary repatriation centre soon.

There are some two million registered Afghans in Pakistan and approximately one million in Iran.

The UNHCR says it expects between 150,000 and 200,000 Afghans to return from Pakistan this year – similar to the number of people who returned in 2005 and 2006.

Meanwhile, pro-Taliban fighters in Pakistan have brought back the bodies of at least nine fighters killed in Afghanistan, according to media reports.

Officials in the South Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan's border region said the fighters were loyal to a group of Taliban fighters led by Mullah Nazir and were killed in a recent attack.
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Pakistan: Afghan refugees allowed to continue returning home
New York, May 13 (AKI) - After security concerns prompted the United Nations to suspend assistance to Afghan refugees who are voluntarily returning to their home country from the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday it would reopen its centre in the city.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suspended the UN assisted repatriation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan via Peshawar because of concerns about security across the border in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar.

UNHCR said that its centre in Peshawar will start work again on Wednesday and that its centre in Mohmandra District, outside Jalalabad in Afghanistan, was also reopening the same day.

UNHCR said its other centre in the western Balochistan region of Pakistan continues to function as normal. The UN agency advised refugees to plan their journeys well in advance to avoid travelling during the night.

There are some two million registered Afghans in Pakistan and approximately one million in Iran.

UNHCR says it expects between 150,000 and 200,000 Afghans to return from Pakistan this year, a similar number to 2005 and 2006.
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Afghans swap poppies for wheat as food costs soar
Guardian 13 May 2008
Afghan farmers hope to capitalise on soaring food costs by growing wheat instead of poppy crops, with the fall in heroin prices further fuelling the switch.

The price of a tonne of wheat in Afghanistan has almost trebled this year, causing acute food shortages. A changeover of crops has begun in key agricultural regions, said Tekeste Tekie, country representative for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.

He said a significant increase in wheat crops is expected from next year's harvest. "The high price of commodities has encouraged farmers to switch from poppy cultivation to wheat. In fact, we are already seeing evidence of this happening, for instance in the Bamian region, where some farmers have planted half wheat and half poppy crops," Tekie said.

The growing season runs from November to June in Afghanistan. If wheat prices stay near their current level, supported by regional subsidies, an Afghan farmer can make up to a third more on wheat than poppy by next year's harvest, according to figures from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Haji Dawood, a farmer who used to cultivate poppy but now farms wheat in the Daman district, near Kandahar in the south, said his family had benefited from the wheat boom. "It's the first time since I planted wheat that I can afford to feed my family ... it's going well because the price of opium has come down, and the price for my wheat has gone up. Each new season we get more money from the crop than from the previous one," he said.

Mir Dad Panjsheri, the chief adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture, said some regions from the south may be off limits because of instability. "We expect a more than 30% increase in wheat crops next year in places like Kunduz, Baghlam and Faryab. But the Taliban stronghold areas remain [key locations] for poppy farming ... most farmers there are afraid to start planting wheat yet," he said.

Panjsheri said farmers may be put off by difficulties in getting their crops to market. "Some roads are dangerous, not just because of the Taliban, but there are other problems like bandits, who may try to rob your money on your way back from the market. The Taliban can offer protection if you are selling poppies," he said.

Critics say international initiatives on poppy eradication have been too focused on trying to stop the Taliban's key source of funding. Yet these efforts have not helped the Afghan farmers become more self-sufficient.

"Not enough money has been devoted into developing a decent agriculture sector. We need millions, if not billions, more in this country," said one non-governmental organisation executive, who preferred to remain anonymous.

"It's a cruel twist of irony that when the British forces were deployed in Helmand ... poppy eradication was one of the key priorities, but it is the global economic situation that is doing the job for them."
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US helicopter 'downed by Taleban'
Tuesday, 13 May 2008 BBC News
A US military helicopter has made an emergency landing in Afghanistan amid reports that militants shot it down.

No one was seriously injured in the "hard landing" in the north-eastern province of Nuristan on Monday night, coalition forces said.

The Taleban say they shot the helicopter down.

Separately, the coalition says troops killed 12 Taleban fighters in southern Helmand province, an opium production centre and insurgent stronghold.

'Ground fire'

The US military says the helicopter has been taken to a coalition base.

"The cause of the helicopter incident is still under investigation. However, initial reports indicated it may have been caused by some form of ground fire," a statement said, the AFP news agency reports.

"No one aboard the aircraft sustained significant injuries."

In southern Helmand, fresh clashes and air strikes killed a dozen Taleban fighters, the coalition said.

Troops had come under fire during a search operation in Garmser district.
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The United States and Afghanistan Sign Joint Declaration
U.S. State Department Office of the Spokesman Washington, DC May 13, 2008
During a ceremony at the Department of State, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Rangin Dadfar Spanta signed a bilateral declaration reaffirming shared objectives in Afghanistan.

The declaration reaffirms the importance of enhancing long-term security, democracy, and prosperity in Afghanistan. It lays out expectations for strengthening Afghan security forces and for building economic stability, with a view to helping Afghanistan realize its full economic potential as a land bridge between Central and South Asia. The declaration restates both countries’ pledges to advance democratic good governance and the development of civil society based on the rule of law and human rights. It highlights the challenge posed by illegal drugs in both societies and reaffirms both countries’ commitments to a multifaceted drug control strategy.

Today’s declaration with Afghanistan demonstrates the continued commitment of both countries to the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership, and to a shared vision of a country that is developing democratically, that is at peace, and that is working to improve the lives of all Afghans.
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Another D-Day for Pakistan over militants
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online / May 13, 2008
KARACHI - With the Taliban believed to have launched all of their fighters into Afghanistan and with tribal militants led by Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud faced off against the Pakistani armed forces, the issue becomes just how far Washington and its allies will be prepared to expand the war theater.

In a significant move, the Pakistani security forces last week blocked the main artery into the South Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan. This followed fighters loyal to Mehsud, an al-Qaeda ally who leads Taliban militants in Pakistan, setting up checkposts along the road to exert control over the region.

The Taliban need unhindered movement in this area so they can keep supply lines to Afghanistan open, as well as move men across the border. It is expected that longer-serving Taliban will be replaced by fresh blood in the first week of July and from August onwards there will only be sporadic inflows of new men ahead of the winter lull in fighting.

The militants' aim has been to keep Pakistan and its Western allies fully engaged, and in doing so they have forced them to abandon their original plan. This centered on efforts to make inroads through local political parties into the Taliban's rank and file, in the process isolating hardline elements such as foreigners belonging to al-Qaeda, Uzbeks and local militants like Mehsud.

These isolated elements were then to be "chopped off" through special operations by US-trained Pakistani units and regional jirgas (councils) would then be convened for moderate elements to attempt to find a political solution to the Afghan conflict.

The jirgas were first scheduled for last November, but due to the military operations in Swat Valley in North-West Frontier Province and their cascading effects in the tribal areas, they were postponed to January, then February, before being shelved indefinitely.

Much of the unrest was fueled by al-Qaeda's "chaos strategy", which went into full swing after the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation last July when security forces stormed the hardline pro-Taliban mosque in Islamabad. By some reports, since then, Pakistan has had more suicide attacks than any other country in the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

This year, the al-Qaeda attacks reached the eastern city of Lahore, which until now has been largely left alone since conflict began in the region after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The poor security situation and uncertainty leading up to the parliamentary elections in February have caused a capital flight from Pakistan, and its rupee currency has fallen 13% against the US dollar since January.

"The capital flight ... continues from Pakistan as investors have parked $500 to $600 million in the UAE [United Arab Emirates] and other Middle East countries through exchange companies during last few months," Pakistan's The News International reported.

The trend is expected to continue, and last week the governor of the central bank warned exchange companies of stern action if they are caught transferring large amounts of money out of the country.

This situation is exacerbated by an impending political crisis. The two main parties in the ruling coalition, the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) have failed to reach an agreement on the reinstatement of judges sacked last year by President Pervez Musharraf. The PML-N was due to decide on Monday whether or not to order its nine cabinet members to resign.

Against this backdrop, Islamabad has to consider how far it can go against people such as Mehsud in the context of the "war on terror".

Operations against militants have faced many snags since the start of the year. The first two months were spent in preparation for the general elections, for which a peaceful atmosphere was required. The formation of the new government took another few months, and then the militants played a smart card by offering ceasefire agreements with the new administration.

The government jumped at the opportunity, seeing it as a chance to promote moderates and isolate hardliners. However, the move simply boiled down to a chance for both sides to gain time. As soon as the militants had completed the launch of troops into Afghanistan, they broke the deals. And Mehsud's latest move to put his men in forward positions is a bid to deepen Pakistan's overall political and economic dilemma and break its will for any military operations in the tribal areas.

Sitting in Kabul, the international coalition believes that without the backup of the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan's tribal areas, the Taliban insurgency would be nothing more than a tribal rebellion which could easily be quelled through "give-and-take" deals.

It is crucial therefore that the Taliban's and al-Qaeda's grip in the Pakistani tribal areas is broken. All efforts to date have failed. The US and its allies might now have to expand the war to make this happen.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief.
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Pakistan's government in turmoil
Tuesday, 13 May 2008 BBC News
Nine ministers from a leading party in Pakistan's new coalition have handed in their resignations, plunging the country into political uncertainty.

Ex-PM Nawaz Sharif decided to pull his PML-N out of government because it had failed to meet a promise to reinstate judges sacked by President Musharraf.

The resignations, which the prime minister has yet to accept, follow landmark general elections in February.

Coalition leaders deny the six-week-old government is in danger of collapse.

But analysts have called the pull-out a huge set-back that could lead to growing instability.

The BBC's Barbara Plett in Islamabad says the move has raised fears of another round of political turbulence in Pakistan.

She says further cracks in the alliance may give a lease of life to pro-Musharraf parties which were defeated in recent elections.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is waiting until Mr Zardari returns from abroad before accepting the resignations, an aide said.

Issue-by-issue

Mr Sharif and his main coalition partner, Pakistan People's Party leader Asif Zardari, say they will continue working together while trying to resolve differences over how to reinstate deposed judges.

Our correspondent says Mr Sharif lost patience after a second deadline was missed on Monday.

He has said his party will continue to support the government on an issue-by-issue basis.

"We will not become part of any conspiracy to destabilise the democratic process," he said on Monday.

But Mr Sharif also said his party would join lawyers in protest, demanding that the government reinstate the judges.

Our correspondent says the restoration of the judges is opposed by President Musharraf who sees them as hostile to his rule.

Analysts say he would welcome a split in the coalition, which has sidelined him since winning elections in February.

A split would also reinforce a perception that Mr Zardari is working with the unpopular president.

Differences

Reinstating the judges was one of Mr Sharif's key election promises and his condition for joining the coalition.

He wants the judges to be given their jobs back without conditions.

Mr Zardari says their reinstatement should be part of a larger package of constitutional amendments which would include reducing their powers.

President Musharraf sacked about 60 judges - some sitting in the Supreme Court - in November 2007, after declaring a state of emergency.

The Supreme Court had been due to rule on whether his re-election was legal.

It had also been due to rule on a controversial amnesty covering Mr Zardari and his wife Benazir Bhutto, who was later assassinated.

Analysts say the coalition parties are deeply politically divided - the Pakistan People's Party wanted to avoid a confrontation with the president, while Nawaz Sharif was prepared for one.
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