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May 7, 2008 

Afghan blasts kills two men, a child
SHARAN, Afghanistan (AFP) - Three people including a child were killed in blasts in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, police said, after Canada announced the loss of another soldier fighting the extremist Taliban.

No US troop increase in Afghanistan without deeper cuts in Iraq: Pentagon
Wed May 7, 1:05 AM ET
WASHINGTON (AFP) - The Pentagon has said that any sizeable increase in much-needed US forces in Afghanistan will depend on deeper troop cuts in Iraq than currently planned.

Ex-prince wants Taliban brought into Afghan govt
By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan should set-up a transitional government that includes members of the Taliban once President Hamid Karzai's term ends late next year if it is to escape unending crisis, a grandson of the late former king said on Wednesday.

AFGHANISTAN: Agriculture Ministry calls for US$2.5 billion aid programme
07 May 2008 12:07:56 GMT
KABUL, 7 May 2008 (IRIN) - Afghanistan could double its domestic agricultural production, ensure nationwide food-security and eliminate poppy cultivation if international donors were to provide US$2.5 billion in aid to the agriculture

NATO "indifferent" to Afghan drugs problem: Iran
By Zahra Hosseinian
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran accused NATO on Wednesday of being indifferent towards Afghanistan's growing drugs problem and called on European states to help Tehran fight smuggling of heroin and other narcotics from its neighbor.
 
Afghanistan: Two Iranian Men Detained On Suspicions Of Spying
(RFE/RL)
Two Iranian men have been detained in Afghanistan in separate incidents on suspicion of spying near NATO and Afghan military installations.

'Optimism' over talks with rebel Hekmatyar
Written by www.quqnoos.com Tuesday, 06 May 2008
President close to opening talks with one of country's most controversial figures
PRESIDENT Hamid Karzai’s office says it is “optimistic” about striking a peace-deal with the leader of one of the country’s most hard-line Islamic groups, Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA), whose leader is on the US’s most wanted list of “terrorists”.

Democrats in US Congress Prepare Iraq-Afghanistan Funding Measure
Voice of America News By Dan Robinson 06 May 2008
Washington -Majority Democrats are preparing for a possible vote on legislation to fund war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill, where opposition Republicans raised procedural objections

Hundreds of prisoners go on hunger strike
www.quqnoos.com Written by Editor Tuesday, 06 May 2008
'Broken promises' spark hunger strike among 400 detainees in south
ABOUT 400 prisoners in Kandahar’s central prison have gone on hunger strike to protests against what they say authorities have failed to release innocent detainees.

Governor promises total eradication of opium crop
www.quqnoos.com Written by Editor Tuesday, 06 May 2008
Badakhshani official pledges to wipe out drug crop from province
GOVERNMENT officials in Badakhshan have said poppy cultivation in the province, once renowned for producing one of the largest the most opium in the country, will be totally wiped out by the start of next year.

FACE-TO-FACE WITH A TALIBAN COMMANDER
MSNBC By Carol Grisanti, NBC News Producer Tuesday, May 06, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -Taliban cleric Faqir Mohammed is tall, thin, very serious and very religious. His eyes are hard and he speaks slowly. He never smiles.

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Afghan blasts kills two men, a child
SHARAN, Afghanistan (AFP) - Three people including a child were killed in blasts in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, police said, after Canada announced the loss of another soldier fighting the extremist Taliban.

Both blasts were in the eastern province of Khost, which adjoins Pakistan's tribal areas where radical rebels, including from Al-Qaeda, are said to have bases.

In the first incident, a bomb planted in a road blew up the vehicle of a provincial police administrator as he was going to work, Khost deputy police chief Colonel Mohammad Youqoub told AFP.

The official and his driver were killed in the blast in the town centre.

Hours later a child was killed and at least three other people, including another child, wounded when explosives allegedly being fixed into a car for a suicide bombing blew up on the outskirts of the town, police said.

"A car bomb which was being built for terrorist activities -- car bombing -- exploded inside a home. One child was killed and a number of people were wounded," said Khost police spokesman Wazir Padshah.

He could not say how many people were wounded, but a doctor at the town's hospital said that three wounded were admitted for treatment.

The Taliban widely use roadside bombs and suicide blasts against the Afghan and international security forces, as well as other targets including the police.

About 70,000 international troops are stationed in war-ravaged Afghanistan to help the government beat back the insurgents, said to be taking orders from extremists based in Pakistan, and to build up Afghan forces.

The Canadian soldier was killed and another was wounded Tuesday in a gun battle with insurgents that erupted during a foot patrol near Kandahar city in southern Afghanistan, the Canadian military said overnight.

Also in the south, US Marines and British troops pushed on with a week-old operation to clear rebel fighters from the key Garmser area on the southern border with Pakistan.

They had captured "enemy strong points and defensive positions" and discovered nine caches of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades and bomb-making materials, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit said.

The insurgents were resisting and trying to hold ground in Garmser and the Marines had "consistently encountered disorganised resistance."

Two soldiers were wounded in an attack on Monday, becoming the operation's first casualties.

The Marines starting arriving in Afghanistan in March to reinforce NATO troops under pressure in the area.

The NATO military alliance includes about 40 countries trying to keep the Taliban from taking back power after their 1996-2001 provided a training ground for Islamic radicals, like Al-Qaeda.
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No US troop increase in Afghanistan without deeper cuts in Iraq: Pentagon
Wed May 7, 1:05 AM ET
WASHINGTON (AFP) - The Pentagon has said that any sizeable increase in much-needed US forces in Afghanistan will depend on deeper troop cuts in Iraq than currently planned.

Military commanders, worried about a persistent and growing Taliban challenge, have said they require up to three more brigades, or about 10,000 troops, to fill gaps in a NATO-led force in Afghanistan.

But Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell made clear that relief in Afghanistan can only come from Iraq, where US forces now find themselves embroiled in a bloody struggle with Shiite militias.

"We really have to get down in Iraq below 15 brigade combat teams for us to consider adding multiple additional brigades to Afghanistan," Morrell told reporters Tuesday.

"So, not until we get to that point can we even consider that prospect," he said.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates had said after a summit of NATO leaders in Bucharest last month that he expects the United States to make a significant addition of its forces in Afghanistan next year.

Gates also has expressed hope that US force levels in Iraq can be drawn down below the 15 brigades, or roughly 130,000 troops, that will be left there when the last of the "surge" forces return home at the end of July.

But General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, has insisted that there be no further troop cuts until he assesses the impact on security of the current drawdown.

After a sharp decline at the peak of the surge, levels of violence appear to be on the rise again in Iraq.

The US military death toll spiked in April to 52, its highest point in seven months, as US forces fought Shiite militias in Sadr City, a bastion of forces loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Petraeus will be responsible for both Iraq and Afghanistan after he is confirmed to head the US Central Command. He is expected to assume that role in mid-September.

Currently, there are 158,000 US troops in Iraq. The United States has 34,000 troops in Afghanistan, 16,000 of which are under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
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Ex-prince wants Taliban brought into Afghan govt
By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan should set-up a transitional government that includes members of the Taliban once President Hamid Karzai's term ends late next year if it is to escape unending crisis, a grandson of the late former king said on Wednesday.

Once a prince, Mostafa Zaher now heads a department overseeing conservation issues in Karzai's government, and while the family royal family lacks a political powerbase it is often looked on as a symbol of national unity.

Like many Afghans, Zaher despairs that there is no end in sight to the Taliban insurgency, and conflict that has gripped the country since the late 1970s.

"We are in the middle of a crisis at this very second, and the situation is getting worse," the balding former prince told journalists, adding that decisiveness and vision were needed.

Zaher, 44, has spent three decades living in exile in the West, and has degrees in political science and economics from Canada.

His grandfather, the late King Mohammed Zahir Shah, returned to his homeland in 2002, months after U.S.-backed forces drove the Taliban from power.

After returning to Afghanistan, Shah renounced his throne, and in return was accorded the honorary title of "father of the nation." He died last year.

Despite the presence of more than 55,000 foreign troops, attacks by the Taliban have dramatically jumped since 2006 in Afghanistan, prompting some Western politicians to warn recently that the country may slide back into anarchy.

Less than two weeks ago, Taliban gunmen tried to assassinate Karzai while he attended a military parade near the presidential palace in Kabul.

Like the royal family, Karzai is a Pashtun. But he has struggled to garner support among fellow Pashtuns.

Most of the Taliban are Pashtuns too, and complaints are often voiced that the Pashtuns are under-represented in Karzai's government.

Zaher says the transitional administration he envisages would include members of the current government, along with members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups fighting U.S., NATO and government forces.

"We had enough of the war and fratricide. The Taliban are also the sons of this country," said Zaher, who fears Afghanistan could disintegrate unless the crisis ends.

"You do not make peace with your friends. You make peace with those who are against you. This is an intra-Afghan plan and we hope to bring on board all of dissatisfied people," he said.

The transitional government would summon a Loya Jirga, Afghanistan's traditional grand council of tribal leaders and elders, to determine how to change the system of government from a strong presidential system to one that revolved round parliament, Zaher said.

He denies harbouring political ambitions, but did not rule out the possibility of taking some role if he had people's backing.

(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Alex Richardson)
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AFGHANISTAN: Agriculture Ministry calls for US$2.5 billion aid programme
07 May 2008 12:07:56 GMT
KABUL, 7 May 2008 (IRIN) - Afghanistan could double its domestic agricultural production, ensure nationwide food-security and eliminate poppy cultivation if international donors were to provide US$2.5 billion in aid to the agriculture sector between now and 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock said.

The government's ambitious agricultural development plan is seeking $100 million in aid in the next few weeks with the aim of boosting 2008 yields of corn and beans (often referred to as the second crop) and vegetables (the third crop).

"We only have about 45 days to support the second and third crops this year. We expect good harvests, which will ease food shortages and support vulnerable farmers," Rahman Habib, an adviser to the ministry, told IRIN in Kabul on 7 May, adding that the deadline for supporting the first crop - wheat - had already passed.

"We need $100 million to immediately procure and distribute 50,000 tonnes of quality seeds, fertilizers and other necessary requirements," said Habib.

"Prompt intervention will increase this year's second and third crops by [a total of] over 300 tonnes," he said.

Afghanistan produced 5.6 million metric tonnes (mt) of cereals (mainly wheat, corn, beans and rice) in 2007. This theoretically represented about 90 percent of its national requirements, but much of it was either smuggled abroad, wasted due to poor quality milling, or hoarded. The government is now planning to increase domestic production by a further 1.2 million mt in two years.

The three-year food-security plan was launched amid concerns about food-insecurity and hunger mostly resulting from soaring food prices.

Up to 70 percent of Afghanistan's estimated 26.6 million people are considered food-insecure by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and millions have recently been pushed into "high risk" food-insecurity because of high food prices, aid agencies reported.

Bringing arid land into cultivation

Years of turmoil have adversely affected the agricultural infrastructure, particularly irrigation systems. About two-thirds of farmland requires irrigation [http://www.afghanistans.com/Information/Economy/Agriculture.htm]. This rendered the landlocked country largely dependent on food imports and pushed millions of Afghans into extreme poverty.

Agriculture is the primary source of income for over 70 percent of Afghans but it has largely been overlooked in rebuilding and development efforts since 2001, aid agencies such as Oxfam International say.

The Agriculture Ministry said it was determined to revive agriculture through short-and-long-term programmes which would require generous and timely donor funding.

"The Ministry of Agriculture is asking for $2.5 billion in aid over the next three years to revive and develop agriculture, eliminate illicit poppy cultivation and ensure national food-security," Obaidullah Ramin, the minister of agriculture, said in a statement on 5 May.

Rebuilding and developing irrigation systems, increasing and improving domestic agriculture production, and supporting poor farmers with the growing of legal crops instead of poppy are the main goals of Afghanistan's food-security and opium poppy elimination plan.

Afghan farmers will be provided with quality seeds, fertilizers and irrigation equipment to cultivate about 450,000 hectares of land currently considered arid in different parts of the country, according to the plan.

Only about 6 percent of Afghanistan's land is cultivated, and about 15 percent is suitable for farming.

"Afghan farmers on average produce 1.9 tonnes [of cereals] per hectare, while in Pakistan it's four tonnes and in Egypt it's six tonnes; we want to at least attain our neighbours' levels - that's four tonnes per hectare - in the next three years," Rahman Habib said.

Poppy versus wheat

Afghanistan could produce an additional 700,000 mt of wheat and become self-sufficient in terms of cereals if farmers were to cultivate cereals on about 190,000 hectares of land where they currently cultivate poppy, the ministry said.

"In Helmand Province alone poppy is grown on up to 130,000 hectares of irrigated land. If we were to succeed in cultivating wheat and other legal crops there, we would produce about 520,000 tonnes of wheat and/or other grain," Habib said.

According to the Agriculture Ministry, an average farmer earns $800 from a hectare of poppies and $350 from a hectare of wheat. However, the profit disparity could be dramatically reduced - even to zero - by improving productivity, supporting second and third crops and effectively implementing other development programmes, experts said.

"The fate of Afghanistan hinges on agriculture," said Habib. "It's the key to peace, development, employment, poverty alleviation and many other things in this country."
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NATO "indifferent" to Afghan drugs problem: Iran
By Zahra Hosseinian
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran accused NATO on Wednesday of being indifferent towards Afghanistan's growing drugs problem and called on European states to help Tehran fight smuggling of heroin and other narcotics from its neighbor.
 
Iran is on a heroin smuggling route to the West from the opium fields of Afghanistan, the world's number one producer of the opium poppy, which is processed to make heroin.

"The exploding growth in the cultivation of opium ... in Afghanistan last year has created many problems ... especially for Iran," said Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, secretary of Iran's drug control headquarters.

Iranian officials say the United States, its old foe, has failed to combat drugs in Afghanistan after U.S.-led forces ousted the Islamist Taliban government in 2001.

"We think NATO and foreign forces in Afghanistan are indifferent to the issue of drugs and have put other goals as their priorities," Ahmadi Moghaddam told a conference.

The alliance has about 50,000 troops in Afghanistan.

"Since the time they entered (Afghanistan) we are witnessing an explosive rise in the production of drugs," he told the meeting in Tehran of officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Iran is spending $600 million a year to prevent drugs coming from Afghanistan on the way to Europe, Ahmadi Moghaddam said.

"Iran requests the serious and practical cooperation of the international community, especially European countries, as the main destination for smugglers, in fighting drug trafficking."

Based on UNODC data, opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan reached an all-time high of 193,000 hectares in 2007.

Iran shares a 900 km border with Afghanistan.

Security officials in Afghanistan say resurgent Taliban militants profit from the trade.

UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa praised Iran's anti-drugs efforts: "We know the continuing loss of life in Iran as the country maintains a careful watch of its borders at the heavy, heavy sacrifice of so many of their policemen," he said.

More than 3,500 Iranian security personnel have been killed fighting drug smugglers since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Afghan Counter Narcotics Minister, General Khodaidad, said he hoped more Afghan provinces would become poppy-free in 2008.

"Last year in Afghanistan, there were 13 provinces free of poppy ... This year we hope it would be changed to 19 or 20 provinces," Khodaidad said.

(Editing by Charles Dick)
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Afghanistan: Two Iranian Men Detained On Suspicions Of Spying
(RFE/RL)
Two Iranian men have been detained in Afghanistan in separate incidents on suspicion of spying near NATO and Afghan military installations.

Ghulam Dastagir Azad, the governor of Afghanistan's southwestern province of Nimroz, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that one of the detained men was captured with documents and photographs that prove he had links with militants.

Azad said the man was captured trying to enter the city of Zarang, on the border with Iran. "He had a camera that had photographs of weaponry indicating clear ties with [Afghanistan's] enemies," Azad said.

In a second incident, near Afghanistan's southeastern border with Pakistan, authorities say they detained an Iranian man who was preparing information for what they believe was an attack against NATO and Afghan security forces.

No Passport, Documents

Wazir Pacha, the assistant police chief in the southeastern Afghan province of Khost, said the man was not carrying any passport or documents and that he initially had pretended to be mentally ill. But Pacha says the man later confessed that he was on an information-gathering mission.

Police in Khost played an audio recording for journalists in which the man confesses he was preparing maps of NATO and Afghan military installations in Khost, which lies just across the border from Pakistan's volatile tribal region of North Waziristan.

In that recording, the man says he is from the town of Shiraz and entered Afghanistan from the Iranian border city of Mashhad. He says he arrived in Khost after passing through the Afghan cities of Herat and Kabul.

Meanwhile, Afghan security forces say they discovered a large cache of weapons in the western Afghan province of Herat, just 10 kilometers from the Iranian border. Authorities say they suspect the weapons were sent from Iran and were intended for the Taliban.

Ramatullah Safi, chief of border police in western Afghanistan, told Radio Free Afghanistan that some of the weapons contained Iranian markings.

"The cache contained one mortar shell, 785 land mines, and 445 tripod-mounted machine guns," Safi said. "There also was a lot of ammunition -- 2,400 boxes of ammunition for Kalashnikov assault rifles, 85 rocket-propelled grenades, and other ammunition."

'Interfering' In Different Ways

The Afghan government has not commented on the significance of the arrests or the discovery of the weapons cache. But Richard Boucher, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for south and Central Asia, told reporters in Paris on May 6 that Iran is interfering in Afghanistan in "a variety of different ways -- perhaps not as violently as they sometimes do in Iraq."

Boucher concluded that Iran is seeking to keep Afghanistan weak and unstable by delivering weapons to the Taliban while ostensibly supporting the central government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He said Washington sees "Iranian interference politically" in terms of money that Tehran channels into Afghanistan's political process, as well as interference aimed at undermining the Afghan state by playing off local Afghan officials against Karzai's government.

Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Sharafuddin Stanakzai and Reshtin Qadiri in Herat; Amir Bahir in Khost; and Ajmal Seddique in Prague contributed to this report
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'Optimism' over talks with rebel Hekmatyar
Written by www.quqnoos.com Tuesday, 06 May 2008
President close to opening talks with one of country's most controversial figures
PRESIDENT Hamid Karzai’s office says it is “optimistic” about striking a peace-deal with the leader of one of the country’s most hard-line Islamic groups, Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA), whose leader is on the US’s most wanted list of “terrorists”.

The president’s spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, said today (Tuesday) that there was fresh optimism about the possibility of holding talks with HIA’s leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is frequently accused of collusion with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

"We are optimistic to have some developments for you in the near or far future," Hamidzada said.

The spokesman was answering questions about claims that sources close to Hekmatyar said recently that the HIA leader planned to hold talks with Kabul in the near future.

Hekmatyar, who founded HIA in the mid-1970s, has reportedly tried to open negotiations with the Karzai government for the past four years. His group was long-considered one of the most radical Islamist groups before the emergence of the Taliban.

Hamidzada also said the president welcomed talks between Pakistan’s new coalition government and the Pakistani Taliban, although talks between the two sides recently broke down when the government refused to withdraw troops from the country’s tribal areas.

In April 2002, the US Central Intelligence Agency tried and failed to kill Hekmatyar with an unmanned predator drone.

Four years later, he was wrongly reported as captured before he allegedly took credit for Al-Qaeda leader Osma bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora during the US-led invasion of 2001.

In 2003, the US government blacklisted HIA a “terrorist” organisation and the UN put its leader’s name on a list of people accused of supporting the Taliban. 
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Democrats in US Congress Prepare Iraq-Afghanistan Funding Measure
Voice of America News By Dan Robinson 06 May 2008
Washington -Majority Democrats are preparing for a possible vote on legislation to fund war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill, where opposition Republicans raised procedural objections, and a group of House Democrats urged their leaders to require Iraq to pay future reconstruction and other costs.

The debate, which could take place on Thursday, involves the bulk of the money President Bush requested last year for Iraq and Afghanistan, including funds to help the Pentagon get through the early months of 2009.

Democrats have delayed consideration of the Iraq-Afghanistan supplemental bill, drawing criticism from the president and defense officials.

The measure lawmakers could consider this week is expected to total more than $180 billion.

Democrats are reported to be planning separate votes on war spending, provisions aimed at changing U.S. policy, and additional domestic items that have upset the White House.

"The Iraq war supplemental should remain for national security needs. We understand that there could be debates on other issues such as unemployment benefits and food stamps, other issues that are important to a lot of people, but those issues can be taken up separate from our national security needs in the Iraq war supplemental," said White House Press Secretary Dana Perino.

House Democratic leaders have also been consulting with their counterparts in the Senate, where on Thursday Senate appropriations committee chairman Robert Byrd will bring up the legislation there.

On Tuesday, Republicans used procedural tactics to delay votes on un-related bills, this to protest Democrat's decision to bypass regular committee order in bringing the legislation to the House floor.

In response to White House criticism, and warnings from President Bush about tacking on too much domestic spending, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the Democratic measure is close to what the president requested.

Meanwhile, 47 Democrats who were elected to Congress in 2006 appealed to Pelosi and two key appropriations chairmen to include provisions requiring that future U.S. funding for reconstruction, military training and fuel be repaid by the Iraqi government from oil revenues.

Several Democrats say Americans are tired for paying for Iraq's needs.

"It's time for Iraq to step up and take control of its reconstruction and its future. Americans are no longer willing to write a blank check for Iraq's reconstruction costs, our military fuel costs, and the cost of training Iraq's military," said Rep. Ron Klein.

"For crying out loud, they want to know why we are continuing to send our American dollars overseas to Iraq to continue to pay for their reconstruction," added Rep. Nancy Boyda.

Congressman Klein says Democratic leaders want to include all or part of the recommendations, and have been working with the Senate, and it is very likely the Iraq funding language will end up in the Iraq-Afghanistan funding bill.
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Hundreds of prisoners go on hunger strike
www.quqnoos.com Written by Editor Tuesday, 06 May 2008
'Broken promises' spark hunger strike among 400 detainees in south
ABOUT 400 prisoners in Kandahar’s central prison have gone on hunger strike to protests against what they say authorities have failed to release innocent detainees.

The prisoners, who have refused to eat food for the past thee days, say a delegation from Kabul visited their jail in the southern city and demanded authorities release some of the prisoners.

The head of the prison department in the Ministry of Justice, Amri Mohammad Jamshid, said he was talking to judges in Kandahar and the attorney-general to end the strike.
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Governor promises total eradication of opium crop
www.quqnoos.com Written by Editor Tuesday, 06 May 2008
Badakhshani official pledges to wipe out drug crop from province
GOVERNMENT officials in Badakhshan have said poppy cultivation in the province, once renowned for producing one of the largest the most opium in the country, will be totally wiped out by the start of next year.

Badakhshan’s governor, Munshi Abdul Majeed, said they decreased poppy cultivation by 70% last year and that farmers in the district of Darayim, once one of the main centres for poppy cultivation and drug trafficking in the province two years ago, had completely eradicated the crop from their fields.

Badakhshan’s governor said: “This year we don’t have plans for wiping out poppy cultivation, but we have plans for not cultivating poppy. We have informed everyone not to cultivate poppy. We have decreased poppy cultivation to almost zero per cent.”

Some residents said poppy cultivation was the main reason for insecurity and the slow pace of development in Darayim.

But one residents said: “Our poppy fields were destroyed by the authorities. Now we have no money and my ten family members are starving to death.”

Another resident said: “We must not cultivate poppies because it causes serious problems and our religion and conscience does not allow us to do so.”

Others in the district said government and NGO support was not enough and that, if no one paid serious attention to the area’s reconstruction, farmers may start cultivating the crop again.

Opium production in Afghanistan increased by more than one third last year, the US government estimates.

The report by the US state department was released one month after the UN said 2008 may produce another record opium harvest in the country.

The US state department said the Taliban use drug money to buy weapons and to fund their operations by levying a tax on what opium farmers make from the poppy crop.

About 93% of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan, the state department said, with most of the drug produced in the south of the country in provinces like Helmand, where the British army are based.
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FACE-TO-FACE WITH A TALIBAN COMMANDER
MSNBC By Carol Grisanti, NBC News Producer Tuesday, May 06, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -Taliban cleric Faqir Mohammed is tall, thin, very serious and very religious. His eyes are hard and he speaks slowly. He never smiles.

And when you hear what he has to say, you won’t be smiling either.

"If we get hold of nuclear weapons – which we hope to get very soon – then we will safeguard them until Allah Almighty guides us when and against whom to use them," he told NBC News in an interview at his mountain hideout.

These days, the 38-year-old cleric prefers to be called "Commander Faqir." He thinks it befits his new role as deputy leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the umbrella organization that was formed last December to try and unite Pakistani militants.

Faqir is considered by many to be equal in importance, if not even more important, than Baitullah Mehsud, the top Taliban commander in Pakistan, who has been linked to the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto last December.

Remote mountain top meeting Maulvi Omar is Faqir's spokesman and a seasoned Taliban fighter who goes by several names. He is now in charge of the Taliban's media machine. Omar arranged for NBC News’ Mushtaq Yusufzai to meet Faqir to discuss the ongoing attempts between the Pakistani government and the local Taliban militants to negotiate a peace deal. The newly elected democratic government in Islamabad is trying to kick start those negotiations by offering separate peace deals to different tribes and factions in hopes of bringing an end to hostilities in the tribal areas.

Yusufzai met Omar, in Khar, the capital of Bajaur, one of Pakistan’s seven semi-autonomous tribal regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. From there, he was escorted by armed men in two white Toyota pick-up trucks to Faqir’s mountain stronghold, less than two miles from the Afghanistan border.

They travelled for half an hour through wheat fields, high mountains and deep ravines, passing several check posts controlled by Faqir’s fighters armed with AK-47 rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. They seldom travel the same way more than once. In fact, some of Faqir’s men operate as scouts who regularly explore new routes so as to avoid capture and detection by the U.S. and NATO forces.

"When I entered his house-like hideout, I saw Commander Faqir, his AK-47 in his hand, sitting with dozens of armed bodyguards," said Yusufzai. "He greeted me warmly and thanked me for risking my life to come and talk with him."

American helicopter gunships hover Yusufzai described the surreal setting of the rendezvous, "As we sat down to eat traditional chicken kerai, dried fruits and green tea, U.S. and Afghan forces engaged with a couple hundred of Faqir’s fighters right on the border. American gunship helicopters crossed over into Pakistan and hovered right above the mountain where we were sitting."

"I was scared," said Yusufzai. "I was sure that the U.S. forces knew Faqir was in the area and were looking for him. They had missed him twice before."

Faqir must have thought so too – they quickly left the house and walked further up the mountains to a cave-like fortress where he said he seeks shelter from U.S. spy planes.

Faqir explained how he and his men avoid detection. He said never carries a cell phone and never uses the Internet or any other form of modern communication. And he demands his men do the same. "Most of the top al-Qaida fighters have remained safe because they do not use any electronic devices," he said.

"All messages are conveyed through trusted couriers and the letters are immediately burned with a lighter that every fighter keeps in his pocket," said Faqir.

Close ties to top al-Qaida leadership Faqir claims to have close links to al-Qaida’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

It was Faqir who organized a January 2006 dinner party for al-Zawahiri at Damadola in the Bajaur district. Al-Zawahiri never showed up, but U.S. predator drones did – firing missiles which killed at least 17 people, six of those alleged to have been al-Zawahiri’s lieutenants.

Ten months later, in October, the Pakistani government was ready to sign a peace deal with Faqir and his militants. Yusufzai was in Bajaur to cover the negotiations for NBC News when U.S. predator missiles destroyed the madrassa (religious school) run by Faqir. But again the drones missed their man. Eyewitnesses claim that at least 80 people were killed – mostly students returning to school after a Muslim holiday. The proposed peace agreement was dead too.

Women, too, want to lay down their lives Faqir said that the attack by the U.S. was unwarranted and only served to help his recruitment efforts. "Americans attack us in our homes on suspicion, not on solid information," said Faqir. "I ask you – was Osama, al-Zawahiri or Mullah Omar ever present in any house where they attacked? It is the innocent people who are being killed," he said.

Faqir believes all Muslims should unite to free Afghanistan from U.S. and NATO forces. And on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border there are thousands of young men who agree with him.
"Our people have resorted to suicide attacks because of the atrocities the U.S. and allied forces have committed against us Pashtuns," Faqir insisted. "We have many requests from our men to offer this ultimate sacrifice and now even our women want to die for this sacred cause," he said. "One woman, who lost her entire family to American bombs, threatened to hold me accountable on judgment day if I didn’t give her the chance to sacrifice herself."

Not tossing out friends – al-Qaida The Bajaur tribal area is across the mountains from Kunar Province in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are engaged in fighting al-Qaida and the Taliban. Faqir holds sway here. He hands down a harsh Taliban form of justice through tribal and religious courts and has forced the local population to comply. His men have successfully pushed the Frontier Corps, Pakistan's paramilitary force in the tribal areas, to abandon their check posts throughout Bajaur and retreat back to the barracks in the main city of Khar. Faqir has made Bajaur a state within the Pakistani state.

"The Pakistani security forces imposed this war on us," Faqir told Yusufzai in the interview. "We never wished to fight the Pakistani army and still want to have peace with them. We are ready to negotiate with the new government in Islamabad," he said.

But those negotiations will be conditional on laying down arms and expelling foreign fighters from the tribal territories – and that means getting rid of al-Qaida. For Faqir that is a deal-breaker. The talks are stalled.

"The Pashtuns cannot allow anyone to dishonor or humiliate their guests," Faqir insisted. "These are very difficult times for us and we consider anyone who takes up arms against U.S. forces to be our guest and we will protect them."

A tribal code of honor All the Pashtun tribes of Pakistan and Afghanistan abide by their own 5,000-year-old tribal code of honor called "Pashtunwali." Pashtunwali also means hospitality – to turn away a guest, regardless of his past, would bring dishonor and shame.

"If I could host Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mullah Omar, it would be the happiest day of my life," Faqir said.

At the same time, the Pakistani government is counting on Pashtunwali to separate militants like Faqir from their tribes. They hope tribal discipline, the ultimate allegiance to one’s tribe and tribal elders – even over a radical religious ideology – may eventually isolate the extremists and allow peace negotiations to succeed.

And as for those nukes – Pakistan's generals aren't too concerned over Faqir's bluster. They say the nukes are locked up and in control of the army. The warheads are kept separate from their detonation components making it impossible to seize a complete nuclear weapon. And they say there are only a few trusted generals who know the key to the elaborate system of command and control. Even the Bush administration is on record saying it believes that Pakistan's nukes are in safe hands-for now.
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