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May 3, 2008 

Afghanistan: Gates Says U.S. Could Eye Expanded Role
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty May 3, 2008
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the United States could consider taking over NATO's command in southern Afghanistan, where some NATO allies have been reluctant to provide combat forces.

US mulls sending 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan: report
Sat May 3, 1:29 AM ET
WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States is considering sending an extra 7,000 troops to Afghanistan next year to make up for a shortfall in contributions from NATO allies, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Soldier dies in Afghanistan
Sat May 3, 4:21 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - A British soldier serving with the NATO force in Afghanistan died in an explosion that wounded two other troops, the alliance's International Security Assistance Force said Saturday.

Taliban claim victory from a defeat
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online / May 3, 2008
KARACHI - The Taliban have suffered their first major loss in this year's offensive, but they are putting on a brave face, even spinning the setback as a triumph in their broader battle against foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Six Afghan exchange students flee to Canada
Allan Woods Ottawa Bureau The Toronto Star / May 3, 2008
OTTAWA–They're on Facebook, they clown for the cameras with pals and they sit down to eat each night at the dinner tables of their American host families in small towns across the United States.

Afghanistan proposes entertainment ban seen as throwback to Taliban
By Murray Brewster And A.R. Khan THE CANADIAN PRESS May 3, 2008
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - In a biblical land torn asunder by 30 years of war and struggling to adapt to the 21st century, it's a gross understatement to say that Afghans are starved for few laughs or something to cheer about.

My brush with a suicide bomber
By Mark Urban BBC News, Afghanistan Saturday, 3 May 2008
When we arranged to meet a suicide bomber, we did not expect one wearing his bomb vest, all set to blow himself up outside the building in Kabul where we were filming.

Minister voices Afghan opium fear
Friday, 2 May 2008 BBC News
Legalising production of opium in Afghanistan for medical use would be unworkable and fuel the drugs industry, a UK Foreign Office minister has said.

Building on strength in Afghanistan
Source: Oxfam / May 2, 2008 by Anna Kramer
Far from hopeless, the Afghan people are determined to build a peaceful future—and US foreign aid can help.

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Afghanistan: Gates Says U.S. Could Eye Expanded Role
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty May 3, 2008
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the United States could consider taking over NATO's command in southern Afghanistan, where some NATO allies have been reluctant to provide combat forces.

His comments come as U.S. media reported that the United States is considering sending extra troops to Afghanistan next year.

Gates said the Pentagon would consult closely with NATO allies before making any decision to alter its military role in Afghanistan.

When asked by reporters to comment on discussion at the Pentagon about the possibility of taking over the command in southern Afghanistan, Gates said that this is "a matter that's going to be looked at over probably some period of time primarily because it requires consultation with our allies."

During a visit on May 2 to the Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, Texas, the defense chief also said the United States needs to look at whether it continues to make sense to have two combatant commands involved in one country.

The United States has 34,000 troops in Afghanistan under two commands.

About 16,000 soldiers under U.S. European Command serve mostly in eastern Afghanistan as part of a 47,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

The other 18,000, which are involved in counterterrorism operations and training of Afghan security forces, are under U.S. Central Command.

Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, and Australia all have forces in southern Afghanistan, which has seen the worst of a rising tide of Taliban violence.

"The New York Times" reported today that the Pentagon is considering sending up to 7,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan next year to make up for a shortfall in contributions from NATO allies.

Citing unnamed senior administration officials, the newspaper said if the plan was to be approved, the number of U.S. troops in the country would entail at least a modest reduction in troops from Iraq.

It said U.S. forces would then account for two-thirds of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

The officials said the decision for more troops could be left to the next U.S. president, who will take office in January, and that few additional troops were expected in Afghanistan any time soon.

The United States has recently increased its troop presence in Afghanistan. Some 3,500 Marines have been deployed to reinforce NATO forces in the south for seven months.

The United Sates and other NATO members have pushed their allies to provide combat troops and equipment to fill shortfalls in the south, but the response so far has been tepid.

According to "The New York Times" a dozen NATO countries have so far pledged a total of about 2,000 additional troops for Afghanistan, including France, while alliance commanders have asked for 10,000.
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US mulls sending 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan: report
Sat May 3, 1:29 AM ET
WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States is considering sending an extra 7,000 troops to Afghanistan next year to make up for a shortfall in contributions from NATO allies, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Citing unnamed senior administration officials, the newspaper said if the plan was to be approved, the number of US troops in the country would rise to about 40,000, and entail at least a modest reduction in troops from Iraq.

President George W. Bush told allies at a NATO summit in Bucharest last month that the United States would significantly increase its force levels in Afghanistan next year.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates also has pushed other European allies to provide combat troops and equipment to fill shortfalls in the volatile south, but the response so far has been tepid.

But The Times said the Pentagon now appears resigned to the fact that NATO is unable or unwilling to contribute more troops despite its public pledges.

The increasing proportion of US troops in Afghanistan, from about half to about two-thirds of all foreign troops in the country, will likely result in what one senior administration official described as "the re-Americanization" of the war, the report said.

"There are simply going to be more American forces than we've ever had there," the paper quoted the official as saying.

So far a dozen NATO countries have pledged a total of about 2,000 additional troops for Afghanistan, while alliance commanders have asked for 10,000, according to the paper.

The United States currently has about 34,000 troops in Afghanistan, 16,000 of them under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in eastern Afghanistan.

The other 18,000 are involved in counter-terrorism operations and training of Afghan security forces.

But a contingent of some 2,500 US Marines was deployed to Afghanistan last month to reinforce NATO forces in the south for seven months.
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Soldier dies in Afghanistan
Sat May 3, 4:21 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - A British soldier serving with the NATO force in Afghanistan died in an explosion that wounded two other troops, the alliance's International Security Assistance Force said Saturday.

The soldier was killed after the vehicle he was travelling in hit a mine during a routine patrol near southern Helmand province's Naw Zad district on Friday, British Lieutenant Colonel Robin Matthews told AFP.

Two other British soldiers were wounded in the explosion, Matthews said without further detail.

Similar incidents have been blamed on the Taliban who often use roadside bombs in their ongoing insurgency against the Western-backed government and foreign troop presence in the country.

The soldiers were serving with the 40-country ISAF force which earlier confirmed the death but not the soldier's nationality.

Helmand, the main source of Afghanistan's opium output, is in the grip of a Taliban-insurgency launched after it was toppled from government in a US-led invasion in late 2001.

Most ISAF soldiers in Helmand are British, and were joined by US Marines last week in a push to remove the Taliban from around southern Garmser district.

The latest fatality takes to 48 the number of international soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year, most while fighting the Taliban.
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Taliban claim victory from a defeat
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Asia Times Online / May 3, 2008
KARACHI - The Taliban have suffered their first major loss in this year's offensive, but they are putting on a brave face, even spinning the setback as a triumph in their broader battle against foreign forces in Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, several thousand US Marines captured the town of Garmsir in the southern Afghan province of Helmand in their first large operation since arriving to reinforce North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops last month.

The Taliban-controlled Garmsir had served as a main supply route for their insurgency in the area.

The Taliban, however, claim the loss of one base is not critical, and anyway, for NATO to hold on to its gain it will have to commit thousands of troops to the outpost, which is located in the inhospitable desert, if it is to effectively guard the lawless and porous border through which the Taliban funnel men, arms and supplies.

The Taliban also claim that one of their underlying goals since the US-led invasion in 2001 has been to tie down as many foreign troops as possible, much as the mujahideen wore down Soviet troops in the 1980s. Various Taliban leaders have told the media they will not resist the forces in Garmsir, one of the biggest concentrations since the 2001 assault on the country.

Meanwhile, the Taliban say they will energize their drive to win over the Pashtun tribal districts on both sides of the border and turn them into "Taliban country", a process that is already well underway.

For NATO, the fight against the Taliban has almost gone full circle. From the initial large offensive involving thousands of troops, NATO resorted to limited special operations with heavy reliance on air attacks. This only increased the population's anger against the coalition as many ordinary citizens died in the onslaught from the sky, and the Taliban were able to capitalize on this discontent.

NATO command has now decided to increase its ground presence, even at the risk of greater casualties. As mentioned above, this suits the Taliban and its al-Qaeda-inspired goal of tying up troops.

As NATO consolidates in the Garmsir deserts, the Taliban will be busy in eastern Afghanistan's border provinces, aiming to bring the tribes there under Taliban control.

One of their weapons is fear, as happens in the Pakistani tribal areas, where through targeted killings of high-profile enemies, such as tribal chiefs, clerics and pro-government personalities, they effectively intimidate their rivals.

Now it is happening in Afghanistan, the latest being the suicide attack, carried out by Anwar ul-Haq Mujahid's Tora Bora group, in the Khogiani district of Nangarhar province against the police chief of Khogiani, who had informed US forces in 2001 about the Tora Bora mountains and al-Qaeda's sanctuary there. The police chief survived, but at least 18 other people were killed.

The mastermind of this strategy is Ustad Yasir, a regional commander of the Pakistan and Afghan border regions, though he was recently rooted out from Khyber Agency in Pakistan after the Taliban were betrayed there. (See Taliban bitten by a snake in the grass Asia Times Online, April 26.)

Having "lost" Khyber Agency, where the Taliban had targeted NATO supply lines, they now want to continue this tactic in adjoining Nangarhar province.

The Taliban don't forget - or forgive - though. On Thursday, they launched a suicide attack in Khyber Agency against Haji Namdar, who betrayed them. Only one of the four explosive plates strapped to the bomber exploded, so Namdar managed to escape unhurt, although 30 others were injured.

At the time of the attack, Namdar was appealing to the masses for donations for the Taliban's struggle in Afghanistan. But now he has been exposed as a traitor and in fact not pro-Taliban. This may allow the Taliban to make inroads into his large constituency, which is traditionally suspicious of the Taliban, who still very much want to regain a footing in Khyber Agency.

Taliban sources have also claimed the capture of an important US military camp in Khost province (close to the Pakistan border), but that could not be independently confirmed. The camp is said to have been taken by Jalaluddin Haqqani and handed over to al-Qaeda militants. If this is true, it would be a step in the Taliban's march to wrest control of Afghan tribes.

Meanwhile, the NATO soldiers guarding the Garmsir deserts, one of the world's hottest spots, with temperatures reaching 50-60 Celsius, face a tough time. The area is central to the country's flourishing opium trade.

On the Afghan side of the border, it is run by elements in the Afghan administration and security forces. (See The Taliban's flower power Asia Times Online, February 1, 2007.) Across the border, it is mainly run by Pakistani-Iranian Baloch smugglers.

The Taliban only allow the transportation of drugs and related activities for payment, which means the drug cartels will facilitate the insurgency, and make it even hotter for NATO.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief.
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Six Afghan exchange students flee to Canada
Allan Woods Ottawa Bureau The Toronto Star / May 3, 2008
OTTAWA–They're on Facebook, they clown for the cameras with pals and they sit down to eat each night at the dinner tables of their American host families in small towns across the United States.

But three weeks ago, the Afghan exchange students on a U.S. State Department program started to go missing. Since the second week of April, six have fled to Canada to make asylum bids just weeks before they were to have been returned to their Afghan villages.

"We've heard from them mostly by email. They've been in contact with their hosts, some by phone and some by email," said Benjamin Gaylord, with the Washington-based American Councils for International Education, which runs the exchange program.

"There's been no talk about concerns about their future. They've said `I'm safe. I'm in Canada. I'm doing okay. I'll tell you more later,'" said Gaylord.

Mesbah Habibi, 17, is the latest student to flee to Canada. He did so after a trip to Washington to meet with his 38 fellow students. He checked in at the airport Monday to return to his guest home in Columbine, Colo., but wasn't on the airplane when it landed.

On Tuesday, his host family received an email assuring them he was safe and thanking them for their eight months of hospitality.

"We are relieved to know that he is safe and we wish him only the best for the future," the family, who did not wish to be named, said in a statement to local media.

Gaylord said he doesn't know where the students are, or where they crossed the border, though he assumes it was through a land crossing rather than by airplane.

He also refused to pass judgment on what is fast becoming an embarrassing incident for his organization, and for the U.S. government, other than to say that none of the six had voiced fear of returning to their war-torn country and that their refugee bids seemed "rather convenient" given that the school year ends in just over a month.

Some Americans are voicing suspicions, wondering whether the students present a security risk, possibly a teenage terror cell.

"I'm thinking to myself, `Geez, Louise.' They are 16-year-old Afghan kids," said Gaylord. "They're probably as American as most kids in high school. They're making the same jokes, wearing the same clothes. They're on Facebook just like everybody else."

In fact, Habibi's Facebook page lists 100 friends with an equal mix of Afghans peppered across the U.S. and American students at Columbine High School, the site of the notorious 1999 shooting rampage. He participated in track and field events and wrote for the school's newspaper.

A Facebook friend, Asma Afghan from Orchard Park High School in Buffalo, N.Y., said she was familiar with the controversial matter, which has gripped the tight-knit group of exchange students.

"I know most of them, but I guess they wouldn't like to share their personal problems in the news," she told the Star.

Almas Kazimi, an Afghan exchange student living in Iowa, told the Star that Habibi was worried about the dangers that would await him at home in Herat, in western Afghanistan, where he was schedule to return in June.

"He was scared. It's a dangerous place," he said, adding that he hasn't heard from any of the students since they fled the U.S.

Kazimi said he was angry because he feels these students are putting the exchange program, and the opportunities that go with it, in jeopardy. "Afghanistan is a bad place for everyone, but you have to go back. You have to bring change to the country," he said. "I know the risks."

Reaction from the program's alumni in Afghanistan, as well as among those who have returned to the U.S. to study, has been fairly harsh, Gaylord said.

"A lot of people are very upset. `Betrayed' is a strong word but it's close to betrayal what many of the students have expressed about these other students not joining in rebuilding Afghanistan, which is the point of the program."

The Youth Exchange and Study Program is a tool of Washington's public diplomacy strategy after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The idea is to bring Afghans and Americans face-to-face, while providing selected students an education they might use back in Afghanistan to help in the rebuilding process.

There seems no way to stop other Afghan exchange students from following the students to Canada in the weeks that remain, save for the threat that the program may be shut down if such acts continue.

Immigration authorities in Canada don't comment on asylum bids. The U.S. says the students will be deported to Afghanistan if they try to re-enter the U.S., having violated terms of their student visas.
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Afghanistan proposes entertainment ban seen as throwback to Taliban
By Murray Brewster And A.R. Khan THE CANADIAN PRESS May 3, 2008
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - In a biblical land torn asunder by 30 years of war and struggling to adapt to the 21st century, it's a gross understatement to say that Afghans are starved for few laughs or something to cheer about.

But if a conservative-leaning Afghan parliamentary committee has its way, the choices of fun and entertainment will be severely limited.

Legislation has been drafted in Kabul that could, among other things, ban video games and even billiards, a newly popular pastime in Kandahar.

The bill, which has yet to be introduced in the Afghan parliament, cracks down on private television networks airing Indian soap operas, which some deem offensive to Islam because of their seemingly risque plot lines.

It could also stop women from wearing makeup in public and performing as dancers at concerts or on television.

The legislation would also ban the controversial pastime of dog and bird fighting.

The country's ministry of culture has been leading the charge to impose more strict Islamic morals on the country, which is fighting a deadly fundamentalist-based insurgency.

Officials with the federal department sent the case of two Afghan television networks, which have refused demands to stop airing Indian programs, to prosecutors on Thursday.

There are no cinemas or performing arts theatres in Kandahar and television is an extreme luxury in the mostly dirt-poor southern region. People have been flocking by the thousands to watch outdoor soccer games, despite the risk of suicide bombers, who attacked a dog-fighting exhibition in February, killing more than 100 spectators.

"The people of Kandahar are quite bored and there is no other activity which gives entertainment," said Gul Muhammad Shukran, who arranged a recent soccer tournament at the city's infamous Ahmed Shahi stadium, where the Taliban once held public executions.

He was pleased with the turnout for the two-day event, which took place last week involving 14 teams. More games are planned, he said, even though the threat of further bombings and kidnappings remains high.

Engineer Ahsan, director of the Kandahar football federation who like many Afghans goes only by one name, says it is very risky for people to take in matches.

"But the positive thing is that people get good entertainment here and their minds get refreshed."

A billiards club, opened a year ago in a newly developing commercial district, routinely draws hundreds of spectators a night, many of them content to simply observe and cheer on the table top matches.

"It is an indoor game, (where) anybody can come any time and have fun here," said Jamal Shah, a business owner who took in a recent 30-day tournament where Afghan pool sharks competed for prize money.

Abdul Nayef, who won top prize at the tournament, says the international community needs to recognize the importance of developing organized sports to inspire people and draw them together.

Nasim Khan, the billiards club owner who returned to Kandahar in 2007 after 11 years of exile in London, said he hopes Canadians, through the provincial reconstruction base, will sponsor more tournaments and equipment.

Analysts in this country are divided on whether the new legislation, which is being described by moderates as a Taliban-era law, will pass. Many have suggested the legislation casts legitimacy on Taliban ideology and whether the bill is approved or not matters little because the damage is already done.

There are also fears that casting it aside could serve to rally fundamentalists.

Shukran, the soccer organizer whose day job involves directing eradication efforts in this poppy-rich province, said sports are more than just simple entertainment.

Getting young people onto the playing field will help with the country's growing addiction problems, he said.

His message in trying to sell last week's tournament was: "Quit drugs; come to sports."

Many young Afghans are becoming hooked on the opium and marijuana that are fuelling their economy, studies have shown.

It's not as though this ancient land is devoid of sporting tradition.

The Afghans love their games: brutal contests that are horrifying when viewed through western eyes.

Take for example the horseback sport of Buzkashi, which translated literally means "goat killing." Riders gallop around a dirt field hoping to scoop up the headless carcass of a goat - or calf - and pitch it across a goal line.

In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, camels - frothing at the mouth - tear into each other for sport in fights that have drawn big crowds. It is right up there with dog and bird fighting, two of the events the Afghan parliamentary committee wants to ban.
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My brush with a suicide bomber
By Mark Urban BBC News, Afghanistan Saturday, 3 May 2008
When we arranged to meet a suicide bomber, we did not expect one wearing his bomb vest, all set to blow himself up outside the building in Kabul where we were filming.

But that is what happened. He was not the one we had arranged to meet.

He was a different suicide bomber.

To be clear, our planned interview was with a captured man at a secret facility, belonging to Afghanistan's equivalent of MI5, the National Directorate of Security or NDS.

The one wrestled to the ground, moments before our car pulled up, was somebody sent to assassinate the NDS officer who arranged our interview.

Somehow he had penetrated hundreds of yards inside the compound.

Recruiting attackers

One of the NDS men proudly showed us his camcorder footage of a clean shaven man lying on the ground, a black bomb vest under his shirt and a hand grenade he had dropped on the floor nearby.

That he was there in that facility will give you a further sense - what with President Hamid Karzai being shot at - both how nowhere in Kabul is safe and how widespread suicide bombing has become in Afghanistan.

The NDS eventually produced not one but two detainees for us to talk to.

Mohammed Ramadan, 22, was one of the attackers of Kabul's Serena Hotel in January.

Eight people died. The NDS said Mohammed killed some of them before he was overpowered, and sitting in that cell, he freely admitted that he had gone to the hotel to murder foreigners.

Shaki Rullah, on the other hand, was a shy boy of 14, who had been sent to the bazaar in Khost, with the aim of blowing up as many shoppers as possible.

He was picked up on a tip-off and seems genuinely horrified by what he got caught up in.

What Mohammed and Shaki have in common is that they are both from Pakistan's tribal areas, both recruited in madrassas - or religious schools - and both thrust into suicide missions.

Shaki said that the men who recruited him whisked him away from the school, before he could even say goodbye to his parents.

US threats

Everybody knows that militants have been exploiting lax border controls for years.

But intelligence officers say that the number of suicide attackers has increased in recent months and many believe Pakistan's recent election will do nothing to improve matters.

Britain and the United States are of course fed up with the way their people in Afghanistan and elsewhere get attacked by suicide bombers coming from Pakistan's tribal areas.

While in Islamabad recently, a senior diplomat told me that the United States had warned President Musharraf of Pakistan last year, that if a major terrorist attack in America was traced back to those notoriously unruly fiefdoms, the US would "flatten the tribal areas".

Following this threat, Pakistan began to facilitate some operations by CIA teams.

Pilotless aircraft have been used in several operations recently to hit suspected al-Qaeda safe houses.

The problem for the intelligence agencies is that even President Musharraf's people are very reluctant to lead the CIA to home-grown Pakistani or Afghan militants hiding in the border areas.

What is more, a couple of the parties, who did well in the Pakistani elections, campaigned on the platform of dialogue with the extremists and saying "No" to the US more often.

Covert collaboration

Back in Kabul, we are ushered into an intelligence operations centre at Nato headquarters.

Inside there are Pakistani, Afghan and Western officers working to improve the security of the border.

This collaborative project would, you would imagine, be regarded as a positive move.

But the officers involved are nervous about being interviewed and filmed.

It takes a good deal of persuasion to get them to agree.

And there, amid the camera-shy rictus of the Pakistani and Afghan officers, is the message.

The border issue is tangled with political sensitivities.

The Afghan government is very reluctant to limit the traditional freedoms of Afghans, moving across a frontier that they barely recognise.

Insecure border

The Pakistanis do not want to be seen co-operating too closely with Nato or the Afghans. That annoys both Islamists and nationalists back home.

So while each of these parties struggles to scale the heights of this diplomatic, military and intelligence landscape, the militants slip through the quiet passes, in between the ungoverned space of the tribal areas.

That is exactly what Shaki Rullah, the 14 year-old, did - heading from his home in south Waziristan towards the crowded market in Khost before he was caught.

Too many get through, killing Afghans and Westerners alike.

And had the man outside the NDS had his way, my own inquiry into why border security still does not work, would have ended on a rainy April morning in Kabul.
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Minister voices Afghan opium fear
Friday, 2 May 2008 BBC News
Legalising production of opium in Afghanistan for medical use would be unworkable and fuel the drugs industry, a UK Foreign Office minister has said.

Lord Malloch Brown said Afghanistan lacked the infrastructure and resources to control crops.

Legalising crops could drive up prices and lead more farmers to grow opium, he told the British Medical Journal.

Doctors have suggested the opium, which contains morphine, could help plug NHS shortfalls of pain relief drugs.

Diamorphine, also known as heroin, is used to relieve pain after operations and for the terminally ill, but in recent years doctors have reported supply problems.

The British Medical Association and some Tories have suggested in the past that Afghan crops could be used to help boost supplies, arguing this would help meet demand and provide much-needed income for Afghans.

But Lord Malloch Brown said opium production in the country "fuels corruption and undermines the rule of law".

And he added: "The Afghan government lacks the necessary resources, institutional capacity and control mechanisms to guarantee that opium is only purchased legally.

"Those cultivating and purchasing opium for medical usage would be in direct competition with illegal traffickers, which could drive up the price of opium and encourage increased cultivation.

"Farmers who do not currently grow poppies would abandon legal crops to meet the market's demand.

"Ultimately, the area of land under poppy cultivation could increase. Quite simply, farmers would grow more to supply an additional purchaser."

Instead, he said the government was focusing its efforts on creating the right conditions to tempt farmers away from opium production by working to establish good local government and economic incentives.

And the minister said countries such as Turkey and Australia, which were already established sources of legalised opium production, were best placed to meet demand.
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Building on strength in Afghanistan
Source: Oxfam / May 2, 2008 by Anna Kramer
Far from hopeless, the Afghan people are determined to build a peaceful future—and US foreign aid can help.

'Make no mistake: life is very difficult for most Afghans,' says Matt Waldman, Oxfam International policy advisor in Afghanistan. 'This was one of the poorest countries in the world even before the wars and upheavals that began in 1978. These wars, which lasted for over two decades, brought Afghanistan to its knees.'

Waldman's assessment will reinforce what many Americans believe: that long years of struggle have put the Afghan people in a position of hopelessness. But when Waldman talks about the people he has met in the course of his work, what he emphasizes most is their strength and resilience.

'The Afghan people have a great strength; a dignity in their lives, and a pride in their culture....In many ways, I'm impressed by their determination to make the best of the situations they live in.'

Hope for the future, despite the obstacles

Waldman himself is British, a former foreign affairs advisor for the UK Parliament. He is in the midst of a whirlwind US trip to promote Falling Short, a report he wrote exposing the $15 billion international aid shortfall in Afghanistan.

He looks a little weary, but speaks calmly and assuredly about leading a team of Oxfam policy and advocacy specialists who work both in the capital city of Kabul and in rural areas of Afghanistan. Their job: to listen to people's concerns, conduct research, and advocate for change at the national and international level.

In the mountain provinces of Badakhshan and Daikundi, Waldman and his team visited families who survive long, harsh winters on a diet of mainly dried bread and tea; communities where the life expectancy hovers around 44 years old; places where children and pregnant women often die due to malnutrition and a lack of medical care.

In other regions, thousands of civilians have fallen victim to acts of violence by militants and criminal groups. Oxfam and local NGOs are implementing peace-building programs to end violence at the local level.

Despite the obstacles, many Afghan people are determined to build a secure future for their country and their families. 'I know of individuals working for human rights, who have been subject to considerable pressures, who nonetheless continue their fight,' notes Waldman. 'And ordinary Afghans who work long and hard to ensure their families are well kept and their children can attend school.'

The US also plays a role in securing Afghanistan's future. 'The US is by far the largest aid donor to Afghanistan,' Waldman says. 'Without US support, it is difficult to envisage Afghanistan achieving stability in the near future.'

Improving US aid in Afghanistan

Right now, though, US support for Afghanistan is not living up to its promises. US military spending there far exceeds spending on aid—and the US has only delivered half of the $10.4 billion in aid it committed between 2002 and 2008. To achieve real change in Afghanistan, Waldman says, the US must increase funding for aid projects that lift people out of poverty.

And effective aid is about more than just dollar amounts. 'The way aid is spent is crucial,' says Waldman. 'Right now, there are a number of ways aid is failing to maximize its potential.'

To live up to this potential, the US needs to approach aid differently in Afghanistan:

- Be efficient. Make sure aid money goes directly to helping Afghans, not to purchasing US-based goods and services.

- Distribute aid evenly throughout the country. Don't just focus on the cities.

- Use aid not to achieve military and political objectives, but to reduce poverty.

- Work with the government, instead of bypassing it, to build capacity and produce better results.

- Coordinate more closely with other donor countries and groups.

- Set up a separate, independent body to monitor aid delivery and identify where we can do things better.

It's essential, Waldman says, that local people are the owners and leaders of the aid projects that affect their lives. 'Let's face it: nobody wants to feel that anything is imposed on them. Communities in the developing world are no different. In order to have a project that is really relevant to the lives of ordinary people living in difficult circumstances, you have to ensure that they are fully involved.'

If we take these steps, Waldman says, we can build on the strength of the Afghan people and help bring peace after decades of conflict.

'I am cautiously optimistic,' he says, 'primarily because of the sheer resilience and determination of the Afghans to achieve peace and development. But there are no shortcuts, no quick deals that will lead to a lasting peace.'
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