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May 1, 2011 

Child suicide bomber kills four in Afghanistan
by Waheedullah Massoud
KABUL (AFP) – A 12-year-old suicide bomber killed four people and wounded a dozen in east Afghanistan on Sunday, while rebel clashes with police and NATO-led troops left five civilians and two police dead, officials said.

7 Afghans killed at start of Taliban offensive
The Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan – Militants in Afghanistan killed seven people in bombing and shooting attacks Sunday, the first day of the Taliban's announced spring offensive, government officials said.

US-Afghan Long-term Relations Beneficial to Afghanistan: Abdullah
Tolo news April 30, 2011
US-Afghan long-term relations would be beneficial to Afghanistan and it should be based on our national interests, Dr Abdullah has said.

U.N. urges all to avoid civilian harm as Taliban begin offensive
By Ismail Sameem – Sun May 1, 3:50 am ET
KANDAHAR (Reuters) – Extra police and troops clamped down across Afghanistan on Sunday after the Taliban launched a stepped-up campaign of violence that killed at least 11 people and prompted the United Nations to plead for all sides to avoid civilian casualties.

Costly Afghanistan Road Project Is Marred by Unsavory Alliances
New York Times By ALISSA J. RUBIN and JAMES RISEN May 1, 2011
GARDEZ, Afghanistan - When construction crews faced attacks while working on a major American-financed highway here in southeastern Afghanistan, Western contractors turned to a powerful local figure named simply Arafat, who was suspected to have links to Afghanistan’s insurgents.

Regional Powers Gear Up For Afghan Intrigue -- Even As West Looks Away
Commentary April 30, 2011 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty By Daud Khattak
To hear the Americans and Europeans talk, it’s the beginning of the end game in Afghanistan. The United States and its allies are rushing for the exit. In Western capitals the discussion is all about troop withdrawals, political settlements, and negotiations with the Taliban.

Parliament Approves TAPI Gas Agreement
Tolo news April 30, 2011
Afghan lawmakers Saturday approved Turkmenistan- Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas agreement.

US lawmakers return to debt, Afghanistan fights
By Olivier Knox (AFP)
WASHINGTON — US lawmakers return from a two-week break on Monday to face political battles over raising the cash-strapped government's debt limit and President Barack Obama's strategy in the unpopular Afghan war.

Afghanistan to hold Iranian book fairs
Press TV
Afghanistan is slated to mount an exhibition of Iranian books and publications after the 2011 edition of the Tehran International Book Fair is finished.

Indian construction company to build Afghanistan's Parliament building
ANI via Yahoo! India News
New Delhi, May 1(ANI): India-based C andC Constructions Limited has won a Rs.635-crore order to build Afghanistan's Parliament building as well as an Indian chancery complex in the Afghan capital city of Kabul.

There is a small corner of Afghanistan that is forever England
Behind the concrete walls of Britain's Afghan outposts
Daily Mail By Simon Norfolk 30th April 2011
When you first catch a glimpse of the British Embassy in Kabul, it’s an unprepossessing sight. Lurking behind a concrete barrier is a corrugated metal shed with an air-con unit and a huge satellite dish stuck to the outside. There’s no flag to give away what it is, for fear of advertising itself as a target.

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Child suicide bomber kills four in Afghanistan
by Waheedullah Massoud
KABUL (AFP) – A 12-year-old suicide bomber killed four people and wounded a dozen in east Afghanistan on Sunday, while rebel clashes with police and NATO-led troops left five civilians and two police dead, officials said.

The death toll from the day's fighting included at least three children besides the bomber, and dozens of civilians were wounded in firefights as violence appeared to escalate after the Taliban announced a spring offensive.

The boy -- thought to be one of the country's youngest-ever suicide attackers -- detonated an explosive vest in a marketplace in Paktika province near the Pakistan border, provincial spokesman Mukhlis Afghan said.

"The head of Shkin district council, Shair Nawaz, a woman and two other men were killed and 12 others were wounded," he said in a statement. The Afghan interior ministry had earlier put the death toll at three, with 11 wounded.

It was unclear how authorities established the age of the bomber, with the bodies of suicide attackers often difficult to identify.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the bombing on behalf of the group, which he said was behind all but one of Sunday's attacks. He told AFP they were part of the Islamists' fresh offensive, announced Saturday.

In Logar province militants ambushed a convoy of NATO troops, starting a firefight in Baraki Barak district in which three children were killed by Taliban fire, district governor Mohammad Rahim Amin told AFP.

The dead children were aged between eight and 14 years old, Amin said, while a mother and child were also wounded. Taliban spokesman Mujahid denied that the group was involved in that attack.

In neighbouring Ghazni province, insurgents ambushed a police vehicle and sparked an exchange of fire, said deputy provincial police chief Mohammad Hussain.

"Two policemen and two civilians including a woman were killed," Hussain told AFP.

Another 13 civilians were wounded when a bomb attached to a bicycle parked in front of Ghazni police headquarters exploded Sunday, he added.

Five of the wounded were in critical condition, said the head of Ghazni hospital, Mohammad Ismail Ibrahimzada.

The Taliban have announced their spring offensive would start on Sunday, with spring and summer the traditional fighting season in the country.

Civilians are increasingly getting caught up in the violence that has blighted Afghanistan since a US-led invasion in 2001 ousted the Taliban from power, triggering an insurgency whose intensity has increased in recent years.

The United Nations says that last year was the deadliest for civilians since the conflict began, with 2,777 killed -- a 15 percent increase on 2009.

Three-quarters of the deaths were caused by attacks linked to the insurgents, with improvised bombs the biggest killers. The devices are also the main cause of casualties to Afghan and international troops in the country.

There has been a recent spike in suicide bombings, a key Taliban tactic, and in February the National Directorate of Security said over 80 percent of the 112 would-be suicide bombers detained in the previous nine months were boys aged between 13 and 17.

About 132,000 international troops are stationed in Afghanistan, two-thirds of them from the United States, battling the Taliban and other insurgents.

A limited withdrawal of foreign troops from seven relatively peaceful areas of the country is due to start in July, with Afghan forces set to take increasing responsibility for security as foreign troops pull back.
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7 Afghans killed at start of Taliban offensive
The Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan – Militants in Afghanistan killed seven people in bombing and shooting attacks Sunday, the first day of the Taliban's announced spring offensive, government officials said.

In a statement released Saturday, the insurgent movement announced it would step up operations against military bases, convoys and Afghan officials, including members of the peace council working to reconcile with top insurgent leaders.

In the deadliest of Sunday's attacks, a man wearing a vest packed with explosives blew himself up in a bazaar in the Barmal district of the eastern Paktika province on the border with Pakistan, killing four civilians and wounding 12, said Mokhlis Afghan, a spokesman for the provincial governor's office.

Sher Nawaz, the head of a new district council in the Shakeen area of Paktika province, was among the dead and was likely the target of the attack, Afghan said.

In the southwest province of Ghazni, a gunman opened fire on a checkpoint, killing two policemen and wounding a bystander during an hour-long battle, provincial police chief Zerawar Zahid said.

In a separate attack in Ghazni, militants detonated a bicycle rigged with explosives outside the provincial police headquarters complex, wounding 13 civilians, according to provincial officials.

The wounded included an 11-year-old girl and two young boys. They had light shrapnel wounds, said Dr. Mohammad Ismail Ibrahimzai, head of the Ghazni Provincial Hospital.

In the country's south, a suspected militant shot and killed an Afghan soldier at a checkpoint in Kandahar city, said deputy police chief Shershah Yousafzai.

In other violence in Kandahar, policemen receiving NATO-donated supplies including caps and protective eyewear drew guns and fought over the items, leaving one policeman dead and four wounded, said Arghandab district governor Shah Mohammad.
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US-Afghan Long-term Relations Beneficial to Afghanistan: Abdullah
Tolo news April 30, 2011
US-Afghan long-term relations would be beneficial to Afghanistan and it should be based on our national interests, Dr Abdullah has said.

In his latest comments Leader of Change and Hope Coalition Dr Abdullah Abdullah has said a fading role of people in government decisions could bolster anti-government groups.

He said Afghan House of Representatives should decide on establishment of US permanent military bases considering national interests.

"It's the people and their representatives that should decide on long-term relations with the US," Dr Abdullah said.

While accusing Pakistan over meddling in Afghan domestic affairs he said Pakistan is acting both ways in the combat against insurgency.

"When international community was not in Afghanistan Pakistan did everything to ruin Afghanistan. Considering the extent of intervention even with the presence of international community we could imagine what would happen to us if international community leaves," he said.

He highlighted the need for complete modern equipment to Afghan security forces that should be provided by international community and in particular by the United States.

Afghan military officials have often expressed concern that it would be difficult for Afghan forces to maintain security if international community does not provide them the necessary equipment.
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U.N. urges all to avoid civilian harm as Taliban begin offensive
By Ismail Sameem – Sun May 1, 3:50 am ET
KANDAHAR (Reuters) – Extra police and troops clamped down across Afghanistan on Sunday after the Taliban launched a stepped-up campaign of violence that killed at least 11 people and prompted the United Nations to plead for all sides to avoid civilian casualties.

The hardline Islamists have warned civilians to stay away from public gatherings, military bases and convoys, as well as government offices, as these would be the focus of a wave of attacks beginning on Sunday.

"Our mission is to make sure that civilians and Afghan people are not affected by now 11 years of conflict," Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. chief in Afghanistan, told Reuters television in his heavily guarded compound in the capital, Kabul.

"What we are worried about, and I think every Afghan is worried about, is whether the Afghan people and the Afghan civilians will be again the victims of a long conflict," de Mistura said.

In Paktika, a dangerous province in the southeast near the border with Pakistan, a suicide bomber wearing an explosives-packed vest blew up himself, killing four civilians and wounding 12, a government spokesman said. A statement from the Paktika governor's office said the bomber was 12 years old.

In central Ghazni city, two police and two civilians were killed in a gunfight after insurgents opened fire on a passing police vehicle, Ghazni police chief Zelawar Zahid said.

Also in Ghazni, a bomb planted on a bicycle went off near the police headquarters, wounding 13 civilians, Ghazni hospital official said.

In the volatile south, the governor of Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban, ordered thousands of security forces onto high alert, with police and Afghan soldiers manning checkpoints on every roundabout in Kandahar city.

Gunmen on a motorbike killed an Afghan soldier in Kandahar. In Logar, south of Kabul, two members of a community police unit were killed by a roadside bomb, police officials said.

FIGHTING SEASON

Senior military commanders have been expecting a spike in violence with the arrival of the spring and summer "fighting season," although the usual winter lull was not seen as U.S-led forces pressed their attacks against insurgents, particularly in the Taliban's southern heartland.

Quelling violence has taken on even greater importance this year, with a gradual withdrawal of foreign combat troops set to begin in July as part of a handover to Afghan security forces. That withdrawal is set to be completed by the end of 2014.

Senior military officials say recent intelligence reports indicate the fresh campaign of increased violence will last about a week and be mounted by the Taliban, supported by the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network and other insurgents.

Security has been increased at military bases and government offices across the country, while in Kabul extra police have been stationed at security checkpoints known as "the ring of steel) around the city to search vehicles.

The Taliban said in a statement on Saturday the targets of the attacks would be foreign forces, high-ranking officials of President Hamid Karzai's government, members of the cabinet and lawmakers, as well as the heads of companies working for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

While Washington and ISAF commanders believe they have made inroads against a growing insurgency since 30,000 extra U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan last year, the violence has shown little sign of abating.

Attacks across Afghanistan hit record levels in 2010, with civilian and military casualties the worst since U.S-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001.

The United Nations said it had relocated some of its staff in Afghanistan after receiving what it said were credible threats of increased attacks in several locations around the country.

The United Nations has been the target of several insurgent attacks over the past two years. Seven international staff were killed last month when protesters overran a U.N. compound in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

De Mistura said indiscriminate use of bombs by the Taliban in cities and elsewhere had caused huge numbers of civilian casualties, while air strikes by the NATO-led force had also caused many deaths.

The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan in 2010 rose 15 percent from the previous year to 2,777, according to the United Nations, with insurgents responsible for about three-quarters of those deaths.

"Afghan civilians have paid the price of war for too long -- it is more urgent than ever that all parties act to prevent this suffering and that in the forthcoming spring we also see a surge in protection of civilians," de Mistura said.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Rob Taylor and Abdul Saboor in Kabul; Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Paul Tait)
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Costly Afghanistan Road Project Is Marred by Unsavory Alliances
New York Times By ALISSA J. RUBIN and JAMES RISEN May 1, 2011
GARDEZ, Afghanistan - When construction crews faced attacks while working on a major American-financed highway here in southeastern Afghanistan, Western contractors turned to a powerful local figure named simply Arafat, who was suspected to have links to Afghanistan’s insurgents.

Subcontractors, flush with American money, paid Mr. Arafat at least $1 million a year to keep them safe, according to people involved in the project and Mr. Arafat himself.

The money paid to Mr. Arafat bought neither security nor the highway that American officials have long envisioned as a vital route to tie remote border areas to the Afghan government. Instead, it added to the staggering cost of the road, known as the Gardez-Khost Highway, one of the most expensive and troubled transportation projects in Afghanistan. The 64-mile highway, which has yet to be completed, has cost about $121 million so far, with the final price tag expected to reach $176 million — or about $2.8 million a mile — according to American officials. Security alone has cost $43.5 million so far, U.S.A.I.D. officials said.

The vast expenses and unsavory alliances surrounding the highway have become a parable of the corruption and mismanagement that turns so many well-intended development efforts in Afghanistan into sinkholes for the money of American taxpayers, even nine years into the war. The road is one of the most expensive construction projects per mile undertaken by U.S.A.I.D., which has built or rehabilitated hundreds of miles of Afghan highways and has faced delays and cost overruns on similar projects, according to the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction.

After years of warnings that Mr. Arafat was making a small fortune playing both sides in the war — and after recent queries by The New York Times about payments to him — American officials said they had finally moved to cut him off in April.

Despite the expense, a stretch of the highway completed just six months ago is already falling apart and remains treacherous. The unfinished portion runs through Taliban territory, raising questions about how it can be completed. Cost overruns are already more than 100 percent, all for a road where it was never certain that local Afghans wanted it as badly as the American officials who planned it.

At their worst, the failures have financed the very insurgents that NATO and Afghan forces are struggling to defeat. Some American officials and contractors involved in the project suspect that at least some of the money funneled through Mr. Arafat made its way to the Haqqani group, a particularly brutal offshoot of the Taliban.

Critics say that payoffs to insurgent groups, either directly or indirectly, by contractors working on highways and other large projects in Afghanistan are routine. Some officials say they are widely accepted in the field as a cost of doing business, especially in areas not fully under the control of the United States military or the Afghan government. As a result, contracting companies and the American officials who supervise them often look the other way.

“Does it keep the peace?” asked one United States military officer with experience in volatile eastern Afghanistan. “Definitely. If the bad guys have a stake in the project, attacks go way down.” The officer, like many of the people interviewed, did not want to be named for fear of retribution for criticizing a project that is considered a priority by the American and Afghan governments.

Some also suspected that Mr. Arafat had been staging attacks himself to extort more money for protection, a vicious cycle of blackmail that contractors and American officials acknowledged was a common risk.

In an interview, Mr. Arafat confirmed that he had been fired, but he called accusations that he had funneled money to the Haqqani group a “lie and propaganda,” and he denied staging attacks.

Lofty Goals, Lofty Price Tag

The possibility that American taxpayers’ money has been going to someone with ties to an insurgency that has killed American soldiers and Afghan civilians is just one of the many problems of the Gardez-Khost Highway.

From the beginning in 2007, no one thought that building the road would be easy. Traversing high, rugged terrain, the road rises to more than 9,000 feet. In winter, it is buried in deep snow. In summer, it is covered by a thick layer of chalky earth that engineers refer to as moon dust, which turns to mud in the rain.

But American officials judged the original price tag of $69 million to be worth the cost. The highway was seen as an important way to connect two mountainous provinces in southeast Afghanistan — Paktia and Khost — and wrest from the insurgents a route that they had long used to move money, men and guns into Afghanistan from Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Development officials hoped that the road would better link Afghanistan’s strategic border region to the central government in the capital, Kabul, and encourage commerce. The military hoped it would provide faster access for supplies and fresh troops.

However, interviews with more than 20 current and former American government officials, as well as military officers, private contractors, Afghan officials and local Afghan tribal leaders, show that despite the lofty goals the highway project was troubled virtually from the start, and problems quickly mounted.

The United States Agency for International Development, which has financed the project, turned it over to a joint venture of the Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey consulting and construction services firm, and Black & Veatch, a construction company in Kansas. In November, the Louis Berger Group paid one of the highest fines ever in a wartime contracting case to the federal government for overbilling.

Louis Berger hired an Indian subcontractor, which was a joint venture of two companies, BSC and C&C Construction, to handle the construction, and a South African private security contractor, ISS-Safenet, to provide security. Both sides in turn subcontracted to Afghans like Mr. Arafat, who did not even have a registered company, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry.

Each subcontract raised the costs as everyone took a share, and it was not long before the money allocated for the project had been drained.

“There would be a string of subcontracts, where the subcontractors would take a cut and subcontract it out again,” said a civilian who worked with the military on the project. “And we had a problem that with the final subcontractors, they didn’t have enough money to get the work done.”

Monitoring the money was a problem. The Agency for International Development has faced significant cuts in recent years and “cannot conduct serious oversight,” said one military officer who was stationed near the road. “U.S.A.I.D. is a shell of its former self,” the officer said. “Now, it’s just a big contracting mechanism.”

The hiring of an Indian subcontractor stoked resentments among Afghans, who believed the business should have been given to them, according to Afghan and American officials.

Most important, both sides of the border are dominated by the Haqqani group, whose leaders are from Khost, and Paktia’s powerful Zadran tribe. The Haqqani group is the Taliban offshoot that has long acted as a proxy in Afghanistan for Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani military and intelligence service. Hiring a subcontractor from India — Pakistan’s mortal enemy — in a region dominated by people with close ties to Pakistan was like waving a red flag at Pakistan’s insurgent proxies.

Development Before Security

Not least among the problems was that construction began before the region was cleared of insurgents. “You are talking about pushing development before there’s security,” said a former American government official who was involved in the project.

“And you have military or politically driven timelines and locations which make no sense, or which force us into alliances with the very malign actors that are powerfully part of the broader battles we are fighting,” the official said. “No one steps back and looks at the whole picture.”

Within weeks of starting work, a construction camp was hit with rocket-propelled grenades, said Steve Yahn, the former chief engineer for the Gardez-Khost Highway project. Afterward, the provincial governor and the police chief told the Americans that if they had hired the right people for security, the attack would never have happened. “We got the message,” Mr. Yahn said.

That is when Mr. Arafat and 200 of his men were brought in to protect work crews. He was recommended by tribal elders from the Zadran tribe, said Paktia’s governor, Juma Khan Hamdard.

Mr. Arafat is feared in the area and has deep roots there. A local businessman, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said Mr. Arafat spent part of his childhood in the same area as the sons of the insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, who heads the group named for him, and had maintained close ties with them.

“Despite all the building by the P.R.T.’s, by the U.S., this area is strongly under Haqqani influence — it has been for years,” said Gul Bacha Majidi, a member of Parliament from Paktia, referring to the Americans’ Provincial Reconstruction Teams, responsible for many development projects. “And if you are working there or living there, you must have links with Haqqani.”

A former U.S.A.I.D. worker described the area as a place where the American military and development officers had no idea whom they were dealing with. “The Haqqanis were out there, HIG, Al Haq, ISI,” the worker said, rattling off a host of insurgent groups and the Pakistani intelligence agency, which maintains ties to many of them. “Everyone was there, and the local population is as likely to sabotage a project as to protect it.”

Indeed, some suspected Mr. Arafat of arranging attacks himself. However, they were reported up the American military chain of command like almost all other attacks, without any hint that they might have been staged for the purpose of squeezing money from the United States government.

In one instance in 2009, Afghan soldiers searched a small car in Gardez and found it filled with explosives, and the two men riding in it quickly explained that they worked for Mr. Arafat. The explosives disappeared and the men were freed before they could be handed over to the United States military, according to an American official familiar with the case.

Another American contractor said that an Afghan worker had told him that he had been ordered by security subcontractors to write “night letters” — anonymous death threats — to the Americans working on the highway to frighten them into paying more for security.

Shootings and other violence often broke out on paydays, said one American official who worked on the road, adding that those were the only occasions when many of the local security guards would show up, even though on paper there were supposed to be nearly 1,000 guards.

“On paper, the G.K. road was paying an enormous security detail of local-hire Afghans,” said one United States official. The highway contractors “would make a big deal out of their camps’ getting hit from time to time, and some of their guys would get shot in night attacks, but every instance I ever heard about coincided with payment negotiations with the Afghan security detail, of whom Arafat was the chief point of contact,” the official said.

It is impossible to determine how many of the attacks on the highway may have been staged by Mr. Arafat or his men. Despite all the money spent on security, however, there have been 364 attacks on the Gardez-Khost Highway, including 108 roadside bombs, resulting in the deaths of 19 people, almost all of them local Afghan workers.

Reluctance to Act

Mr. Arafat’s insurgent connections appear to have been known to virtually everyone, yet there was a conspiracy of silence among both the Americans and the Afghans to keep the project running, contractors and others said.

The U.S.A.I.D. inspector general first investigated Mr. Arafat’s ties to the insurgency in 2009, but top agency officials concluded there was insufficient evidence to take action against him, an official at the agency said.

Similarly, United States military officers in the region declined to take action against Mr. Arafat, even after they were warned about his ties to the Haqqanis, said Matt Mancuso, an American contractor who was the liaison between the security contractor, ISS-Safenet, and the United States military in 2009.

No action was taken even though Mr. Arafat was on the United States military’s joint prioritized effects list — the record of those suspected of ties to terrorism and singled out for capture or killing — in early 2009 because of his suspected ties to the Haqqanis.

Mr. Mancuso said he proposed a plan to lure Mr. Arafat onto an American base to be captured so that he could collect the reward. He was told days later by American military commanders that Mr. Arafat had been taken off the list. He said he believed they removed Mr. Arafat’s name because they did not want to risk instability along the highway.

Meanwhile, Mr. Yahn said he believed that Mr. Arafat was dropped from the target list after appeals from contractors working on the highway. “We told them, ‘He’s keeping relative peace, and if he’s killed we are worried that there will be infighting and there will be more problems,’ ” Mr. Yahn said.

How much money might the Haqqanis have received through their ties to Mr. Arafat?

Mr. Mancuso said that during his time working on the project, ISS-Safenet paid Mr. Arafat $160,000 a month to provide security for the road in Paktia Province. The amount, he said, was grossly inflated above the legitimate costs of security.

As The New York Times pressed U.S.A.I.D. and the military for information on the project, American officials finally decided to disqualify Mr. Arafat as a subcontractor, saying in response to queries that he was “no longer eligible to receive U.S.A.I.D. funds.”

Similarly, in April, the military’s Task Force 2010, which handles anticorruption issues, disqualified one of the Afghan construction subcontractors working on the road because of “derogatory information,” according to Lt. Bashon Mann, a spokesman for the task force. The term “derogatory information” referred to evidence that the local construction company had ties to the Haqqani group and was paying it off.

While Mr. Arafat’s dismissal may reduce the payments that may have been funneled to the Haqqanis, some officials fear he may try to endanger the project by sabotaging his successors, which could drive costs up further.

“Since I have left the security of the road, it’s chaos there,” Mr. Arafat said. In fact, security officials have not seen any significant incidents since Mr. Arafat’s departure, they said.

A military officer who asked not to be identified said that contractors working in remote stretches of Afghanistan constantly faced such dilemmas. Do you keep paying off insurgents, or others, to keep the peace, even though they could use the money to buy weapons and sustain the insurgency?

“It’s a tradeoff,” said the officer. “It’s Afghanistan; there is never a good answer.”

Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul.
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Regional Powers Gear Up For Afghan Intrigue -- Even As West Looks Away
Commentary April 30, 2011 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty By Daud Khattak
To hear the Americans and Europeans talk, it’s the beginning of the end game in Afghanistan. The United States and its allies are rushing for the exit. In Western capitals the discussion is all about troop withdrawals, political settlements, and negotiations with the Taliban.

But that’s only how the West sees it. The picture looks rather different from the vantage point of leaders in South Asia and the Middle East. Regional powers are gearing up for a period of renewed intrigue. The rest of the world should prepare itself for an intensification of long-established rivalries and a rise in instability inside Afghanistan itself.

First and foremost, the security establishment in Pakistan is in no mood to loosen its grip on Afghanistan. While U.S. policymakers fret about Islamabad’s reliability as an ally in the war on terror, the Pakistani General Staff and the heads of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are making their own preparations for the departure of U.S. and other international forces.

While visiting Pentagon dignitaries scold the generals in Rawalpindi for failing to crack down on militants who are infiltrating into Afghanistan from the tribal areas, the Pakistani military remains conspicuously selective in its operations. The Pakistani Army attacks only the jihadis who carry out attacks against the Pakistani state, but spares groups who are fighting against the Afghan government and the U.S.-led international forces on the other side of the Durand Line.

Controversial Drone Strikes

After years of looking away from U.S. drone attacks on militants inside the tribal areas, Pakistani generals and politicians are suddenly assailing the American air strikes for violating Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani rails against the drone strikes in the national assembly. The regional parliament in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa passes resolutions demanding action. Ex-cricketer Imran Khan, normally a political lightweight, appears at the head of indignant demonstrations denouncing the Americans.

This is not about protecting the rights of ordinary Pakistanis. In fact many members of the Pakistani elite quietly approve of the strikes. (The drones have been attacking their targets for the past seven years, but we’ve had to wait until now for the politicians and the generals to start denouncing them.)

What’s actually going on here is that Pakistani leaders are sending a blunt message to the United States and its allies: Don’t sideline Pakistan from any future settlement in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has good reason to be worried. Inside Afghanistan, many politicians, officials, and ordinary people prefer arch rival India when it comes to cultural, trade, and diplomatic relations. Many Afghans have had enough of high-flying talk about jihad -- especially when it comes cloaked in Pakistani garb.

This awareness fans Pakistani paranoia. The prospect of rising Indian influence means that the ISI and the Pakistani military establishment will work even harder to keep control over their proxies inside Afghanistan and to thwart any deals that fail to take Islamabad’s interests into account. Rightly or wrongly, Pakistani leaders have long viewed the radical jihadi groups as strategic assets for safeguarding Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and deterring giant India’s hostile designs.

India, meanwhile, will continue to do everything it can to box Pakistan in by cultivating alliances with sympathetic warlords and politicians. Islamabad’s suspicions in this respect are not irrational. It used to be that India and Pakistan confined their dirty tricks to the border regions between them. Now Afghanistan is the preferred turf for their maneuverings.

Nor can Iran be expected to remain idle. Though keeping their cool for the moment, the country’s leaders are closely watching developments on the Afghan scene. They will jump in the moment they see the need to defend their interests in their neighbor to the east.

Predominantly Shia Iran will not be happy with a dominant role for the Sunni Taliban next door. Iran will also want guarantees for the minority Hazaras and other Shia communities in Afghanistan in case the Taliban are offered a bigger slice of the Afghan pie.

Like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia also has its long-standing investments in Afghan warlords -- though its intelligence service mostly stayed behind the scenes by funneling cash to groups supporting Wahhabi Islam.

Analysts and observers believe the dreaded Haqqani network, which gets much of its support from Pakistan, also enjoys the backing of the Saudi intelligence. The Haqqanis, veterans of the Afghan jihad, are smart enough to take help from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Al-Qaeda at the same time.

The Saudis would also like to see the Taliban in power again in Afghanistan, particularly given the kingdom’s concerns about Iranian interference in Bahrain. For the Saudis, a revival of Taliban influence in Kabul would act as a counterweight to Iran’s presumed support for the Shias in Bahrain and its meddling in the broader Middle East.

Turkey, meanwhile, is trying to boost its role in the Islamic world -- hence its efforts to broker an Afghan peace deal. Pakistan and Turkey are enjoying closer diplomatic at the moment, but the situation could easily reverse itself if Islamabad begins to feel that the Turks are encroaching on its prerogatives in Afghanistan.

President Asif Ali Zardari recently visited Turkey, where he not only pushed for the usual strengthening of trade and diplomatic ties but also made a point of approving Turkey’s recent initiative to open a diplomatic office for the Taliban. Analysts said that he was underlining Pakistan’s insistence on a leading role in any future settlement in Afghanistan.

These regional rivalries are, by themselves, enough to undermine the prospects for stability inside Afghanistan in the years to come. But there are other problems, too. The power vacuum left behind when the United States and its allies withdraw could easily spawn new turmoil.

Warlords And Private Militias

The warlords have grown in strength over the years. They occupy ministries, hold offices and seats in parliament, and take advantage of the billions of dollars poured into the country for the development and welfare of Afghan people.

None of them has disarmed. All have gained immeasurably in power and wealth. Karzai has failed to restrain their power or root out the corruption from his administration that has cost him the trust of the common Afghans.

The past nine years have actually exacerbated the ethnic divisions within Afghan society. President Karzai’s wardrobe may have borrowed liberally from various ethnic groups but there has been little real rapprochement in areas that count. The long years of war and the experience of Taliban (mis-)rule have deepened the divide between Pashtuns, the country’s biggest ethnic group, and others like the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

Recent reports suggest that private militias operating in the country’s north are collecting taxes from people in the name of security. Members of the security forces, and especially the police, show more loyalty to the warlords, provincial governors, district chiefs or their own ethnic groups than to the state and the Afghan people as a whole. The police, meanwhile, are poorly trained. Their failure to cope with recent protests over the burning of the Koran that led to the deaths of several people offers manifest proof.

Finally, President Karzai is demonstrating with his actions that he, too, has a plan for dealing with the Americans’ departure. He uses every possible opportunity to address the Taliban as “brothers” even as he courts the Pakistani leadership, makes overtures to Iran, and dispatches his emissaries to Saudi Arabia. It is all much more satisfying than listening to lectures from the Americans about his own incompetence and corruption.

The latest of Karzai’s gimmicks was his meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani in the presence of the heads of the Pakistani army and intelligence. The intended message was clear enough: There won’t be any outside solutions to Afghanistan that don’t include Pakistan and Hamid Karzai.

It all looks like a mess. But there is a potential solution. The international community needs to persuade neighboring countries to stop interfering, in whatever shape and on whatever level, in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. At the same time a real effort must be made to address the genuine concerns of neighbors like Pakistan, Iran, and India.

In particular, the United Nations or a group of impartial member countries should arrange a comprehensive dialogue between the leaderships of India and Pakistan to formulate their concerns about the future of Afghanistan. These confidence-building measures could, for example, persuade India to stop interfering in Baluchistan and Pakistan to halt its maneuverings in Indian Kashmir. Once agreed on a code of conduct, the two countries can also progress on resolution of other mutual disputes.

At the same time every effort should be made to create a forum where all of the various groups inside Afghanistan can discuss their differences and interests and work to create a framework for future stability. An international settlement would help to pave the way for a domestic power-sharing arrangement.

If handled properly, the Afghan imbroglio can pave the way for lasting peace in the whole of South Asia. After all, only a peaceful and stable Afghanistan can serve the interests of its neighbors and help bring prosperity to a region so long cursed by war.

Daud Khattak is acting director of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
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Parliament Approves TAPI Gas Agreement
Tolo news April 30, 2011
Afghan lawmakers Saturday approved Turkmenistan- Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas agreement.

International Liaison Commission of the Afghan parliament viewed the agreement as an economy booster in the country and said Turkmenistan's gas flow through Afghanistan would help to strengthen business relations between the members of the projects.

A member of international liaison commission of the Afghan House of Representatives Mohammad Anwar Akbari while expressing happiness about the move of the house said about 7,000 people will be assigned to ensure security to the project in the country.

After the completion of the project Afghanistan would receive 1,200,000,000 cubic meters of gas and it would peak at more than 5 billion cubic meters of gas within five years, Mr Akbari said.

"We will have support of a US company and estimations put the cost of the project at around $7.8 billion. And construction work will begin by 2012 and it's expected to be completed by 2014," Mr Akbari said.

Naheed Ahmadi Farid, an Afghan lawmaker who represents Herat province, said "cooperation in improvement of gas and fuel industry is on top of our agenda.

Meanwhile, parliamentarians also ratified the agreement of Convention on Cluster Munitions, which is an international treaty that bans the use of cluster bombs, signed by the Afghan government.

Lawmakers said Afghanistan is the 24th member of Convention on Cluster Munitions.
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US lawmakers return to debt, Afghanistan fights
By Olivier Knox (AFP)
WASHINGTON — US lawmakers return from a two-week break on Monday to face political battles over raising the cash-strapped government's debt limit and President Barack Obama's strategy in the unpopular Afghan war.

The Senate and House of Representatives were also sure to tangle over extending key spy powers of the Patriot Act and make war over soaring gasoline prices angering the public and threatening the fragile US recovery.

In an apparent effort to drain some of the partisan venom from polarized Washington, Obama plans to host Democratic and Republican leaders from both chambers at a White House dinner on Monday.

But with the president's 2012 reelection campaign revving up, and top contenders for the Republican nomination to challenge him already vying for money and attention, the stage has been set for more nasty political skirmishes.

Analysts expected the marquee battle to be fought over legislation to raise the country's debt ceiling -- its ability to borrow more money at a time when the deficit is forecast to swell to $1.6 trillion (1 trillion euros) this year.

The Obama administration has cautioned that failure to approve the bill could trigger a US default, with cataclysmic repercussions for the country's economy even as it recovers haltingly from the worst downturn since the 1930s.

Spurred on by the archconservative "Tea Party" movement, Republicans have brushed off such warnings, saying they will reject the legislation unless paired with significant measures to rein in galloping US deficits and a swelling debt.

The Treasury Department estimates the government will max out its debt limit by May 16, but could juggle payments, giving it until around July 8 before it runs out of cash. The timing of a vote was unclear.

Democrats, notably a group of moderates facing a difficult 2012 reelection fight, have also said they want to see Washington tie belt-tightening measures to the bill.

A new poll from the Gallup organization found Republicans enjoy a 48 percent to 36 percent edge over Democrats in public opinion about which party is better able to manage federal spending.

Respondents in the survey favored Republicans 46-41 on the economy and by a narrow 45-43 margin on jobs, and 43-37 over Democrats on Afghanistan.

That unpopular war was sure to be in the spotlight in the coming weeks, as senators grill Obama's nominees to be defense secretary, CIA chief, top commander in Afghanistan and US ambassador in Kabul.

The confirmations of Leon Panetta, General David Petraeus, Lieutenant General John Allen and Ryan Crocker were not in doubt, Senate aides said, but Republicans were expected to call Obama's strategy into question.

The White House's foes have expressed deep unease about the president's plan to begin to draw down the roughly 100,000 US troops in July, though officials have yet to say how many will leave and how quickly.

Petraeus, who currently commands international forces in Afghanistan, expressed "guarded optimism" about the trajectory of the war on Thursday, as he prepared to retire to head the CIA.

Lawmakers were also on track to fight over Washington's response to soaring gasoline prices, with Obama and his Democratic allies squeezing reluctant Republicans to end government subsidies for profit-rich oil companies.

Republicans, who control the House, planned to pass legislation aimed at boosting offshore oil drilling, including in the Gulf of Mexico, but the fate of that legislation in the Democratic-led Senate was unclear.

Lawmakers were due to tangle over extending controversial counter-terrorism search and surveillance powers at the heart of the Patriot Act law adopted after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The provisions allow authorities to use roving wiretaps to track an individual on several telephones, track a non-US national suspected of being a "lone-wolf" terrorist not tied to an extremist group and to seize personal or business records or "any tangible thing" seen as critical to an investigation.

While the White House backs extending those powers through 2013, the law has drawn fire from an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and Republicans tied to the "Tea Party" who say it goes too far.

A current extension lapses May 27.
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Afghanistan to hold Iranian book fairs
Press TV
Afghanistan is slated to mount an exhibition of Iranian books and publications after the 2011 edition of the Tehran International Book Fair is finished.

The Balkh University will host a ten-day Iranian book fair starting on May 17, 2011 and the Afghan city of Herat will hold the same exhibition in June 2011.

“Afghanistan will hold two Iranian book exhibitions after the Tehran International Book Fair, which will run from May 4 to 14,” managing director of Iran's Erfan Publications Mohammad-Ebrahim Shariati told Mehr News Agency.

The Afghan exhibitions will be cosponsored by the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, and the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization.

“Afghanistan also held an Iranian book fair in Kabul in March 2011 which was warmly welcomed by the Afghan audience,” Shariati said, adding that all the books presented by Iran's SAMT, Amir Kabir and Negah-e Moaser publications were sold out during the event.

Amir Kabir, Soureh-Mehr, Boustan-e Ketab, Farhang-e Moaser and a number of other publishers will attend the upcoming book fairs in Afghanistan.

Erfan Publications will offer more than 200 books at the fair, Shariati announced.
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Indian construction company to build Afghanistan's Parliament building
ANI via Yahoo! India News
New Delhi, May 1(ANI): India-based C andC Constructions Limited has won a Rs.635-crore order to build Afghanistan's Parliament building as well as an Indian chancery complex in the Afghan capital city of Kabul.

C and C Constructions forayed into infrastructure development in the war-torn Afghanistan in 2003 and has since built roads up to 700 kilometres in seven different projects.

Currently, besides the Afghan Parliament and Indian Chancery, the company also has an 88-million dollar contract to build a road between the Afghan towns of Gardez and Khost.

However, the bronze-domed Afghan parliament building will be the firm's grandest project funded by the Indian government and a symbolic move to underline close ties between the two countries.

According to the company's chairman, G.S. Johar, the project would be completed by the end of 2011 and will be the most prominent symbol of Indian efforts to help Afghanistan.

"We have done about seven projects totally covering about 700 kilometers. We currently just finished the racecourse, which is another 100 kilometers project funded by the USA, and we are now constructing the Afghan parliament and Indian Chancery. This is about 129 million dollars, which is being funded by the Indian government. The Chancery building will more or less be completed in next 1-2 months, the parliament will take a little more time," said Johar.

Devastated by nearly three decades of conflict, Afghanistan's economy is largely dependent on foreign aid. International donors contribute seventy percent of the government's operating budget, which itself has been dwarfed by billions in aid spent directly by the donor states.

Revealing details on the finances for the project, Johar said that besides monetary assistance from the Indian Government, American banks would also be a major source of funding for the multi-million dollar infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.

"Indian government has taken up projects on its own to fund a part of the infrastructure creation in Afghanistan but the major thrust has come from USAID, ADB and World Bank. In 2003, when we first went and bid for projects in Afghanistan, they were funded by USAID and ADB," Johar said.

"In 2003, we got two projects, one for about 26 million dollars and other for about 44 million dollars to create roads there. All roads there were bombed out and the road from Kabul to Kandahar, which is about 500 kilometres, would take 15 hours, you can do that now in five," he added.

Since the past few years, India has been one of the nations who have taken up the responsibility of rebuilding the war-damaged Afghanistan to usher in economic growth and development.

India's 1.2 billion dollars of aid to Afghanistan makes it the sixth-largest donor, four times higher than an estimated 300 million dollars by Pakistan.

Indian agencies are involved in construction of highways, buildings and urban infrastructure, seeking to win political and public goodwill through a series of simple but targeted forms of help.

Calling Afghanistan a virtual goldmine for mining, Johar also highlighted the importance of creating infrastructure in the war-ravaged region to support development initiatives.

"Afghanistan is a goldmine for mining. Not only gold, but a lot of other things. In terms of infrastructure creation, we can only do mining because it is a landlocked country. So, I need to create enough infrastructure for the movement of these. There is a lot of industry possible in Afghanistan, but it has not happened because there is no infrastructure. So you first create the infrastructure and then a lot of wealth will follow," Johar said. (ANI)
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There is a small corner of Afghanistan that is forever England
Behind the concrete walls of Britain's Afghan outposts
Daily Mail By Simon Norfolk 30th April 2011
When you first catch a glimpse of the British Embassy in Kabul, it’s an unprepossessing sight. Lurking behind a concrete barrier is a corrugated metal shed with an air-con unit and a huge satellite dish stuck to the outside. There’s no flag to give away what it is, for fear of advertising itself as a target.

Look closely though and there’s a small battered sign attached to the wall saying ‘British Embassy Kabul, Reception’. On the door itself the famous Lord Kitchener recruiting poster is adapted to remind personnel to ‘wear and display’ their pass at all times.

If you get as far as the door, Nepalese guards will point guns at you. They’re ‘Furkhas’ – fake Gurkhas – from the Nepalese army, working for security company G4S. The British Embassy employs 500 of them. A slot opens and if you haven’t got an appointment or a contact’s name, that’s as far as you go. If you have, the metal door opens and someone checks your passport and credentials before you go through a second metal door and into the embassy compound. It’s like an airlock. There’s a similar much larger one for vehicles.

The main building hidden behind this makeshift guardhouse, which they call the Chancery, is the old Bulgarian Embassy. It looks like a Sixties council block: yellow bricks, a bit of lawn with some fence around it, a couple of Portakabins with shops in them and one big one, which is the office for the Department for International Development.

The real decisions in Kabul are made here, and in similar cabins at the US Embassy, the UN and non-governmental organisations. They decide who will be building a road or a school, or where a bridge is going to go.

It’s all rocket-proof; sandbags sit on top of everything. In the compound there are a lot of people walking around in uniform: a few officer types, in intelligence and signals, carrying briefcases; a lot of slightly spooky-looking liaison types in combats. Spies? Maybe. Much of the work being done is human intelligence, and the British are still quite powerful in that field.

Also within the compound there’s a tennis court and café. For entertainment there are DJ nights, darts and five-a-side football tournaments, and alcohol is available. Staff don’t live in houses but in what look like huge shipping containers with air conditioning and anti-rocket sandbags on the roof. They call them pods. And the normal work rota is two weeks off for every six weeks worked.

The surprising thing about the embassy is not how much it resembles Slough, but how little it resembles normal life. You can’t imagine the middle-class neighbourhood of Wazir Akbar Khan outside (the Canadian, German and Japanese embassies, and the Kabul bureau of the New York Times, are on the same street) ever re-emerging.

The £245 billion pumped into Afghanistan has destroyed the possibility of a normal recovery. There’s a huge amount of corruption. There’s money being spent at the very top, on building this colossal security state: police stations, jails, helicopter pads and so on. But then there’s a huge cavity in the middle of the economy with nothing going on, no industry or commerce.

And there’s a thriving black economy, where money is being embezzled off contracts, which is being spent on conspicuous consumption – on Hummers and huge mansions. It’s cruel and ruthless, the way political power is being used by the warlords. We know they’re crooks, we know they’re gangsters, and they only represent a tiny proportion of the population, but we’re going to end up handing all this security infrastructure over to them.

The inspiration for my trip to Afghanistan was the work of Victorian photographer John Burke. The Queen owns two albums of his photographs in the Royal Collection in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle. Burke was based in Peshawar among the Queen’s Own Guides, who were a bit like special forces: border troops, very hardened but slightly renegade.

In 1878, when they were called up to fight in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, he went with them as an unofficial photographer. He brought back beautiful photographs of forts, cities, archaeological sites and landscapes.

I had been in Afghanistan in 2001-2 during the American invasion, which was very raw and dangerous. Before then I had been a poor, jobbing photographer, but the work I did there helped make me. I felt like I owed the place and wanted to go back, but I didn’t want to photograph combat.

It was when I saw Burke’s photographs that it suddenly became clear to me: I’d shoot the places, not the war. I took with me a big, wooden crate camera of the sort Burke used – a five-inch field camera, as it’s called – with a blanket that goes over your head and clockwork lenses. But mine had a very hi-tech, £23,000 digital back on it.

Very little of the Kabul Burke saw in 1878 remains: one or two buildings, the mausoleum, the line of the river. After all, it was mostly mud architecture in an earthquake zone. But what’s left is still a human, organic, bustling place.

From the airport there’s a long straight highway into the city centre, lined with shops for Westerners. It’s a city of five million people now – about the same population as Berlin. The refugees from the Taliban have returned to Afghanistan, and Kabul is one of the few places where they’re relatively safe. The streets are choked with traffic.

The peripheries of the city are the most interesting part, because that’s where you see all the crazy growth funded by embezzlement: a 12-storey shopping mall, a 13-storey hospital with no staff, huge vulgar palaces in an Arab or Pakistani style – wherever these people have been as refugees. There’s a huge chain of Kabul Fried Chicken. There’s a Bush Market, named after George Bush, which is all stolen equipment from the military bases: food, shoes, shirts.

Driving into town is dangerous, until you get to what my translator called the Line – a cordon of police posts. Wazir Akbar Khan is the nicest part of the city; it was mostly built in the Sixties when the city was prosperous. It feels like a smart part of Sofia or Bucharest. It was once quite a middle-class district, but the middle classes have moved out because you can get £15,000 a month renting your home out to NGOs.

All the major embassies, including the British, are guarded and fortified to such a degree that the streets around them are more like those big concrete storm drains they have in Los Angeles – concrete blast walls on either side of you, constantly reflecting the heat.

My time in Afghanistan turned into a tale of two cities: as well as Kabul I spent time in Camp Bastion and Camp Leatherneck, 340 miles away in Helmand, where 25,000 people live and work, and where there was just desert a few years ago.

Bastion is enormous. It just goes on forever. It’s laid out in a grid, with the streets named alphabetically – Golf Street, Hotel Street and so on – with the airstrip to one side and the chow hall in the centre. There are districts for different purposes. I arrived in Transient, for people who are passing through. There’s a district for foreign staff – people from the Philippines, Nepal and Bangladesh, who clean the toilets, and Afghan translators.

Inside, the camp is not considered to be Afghanistan. I met one chap who pointed into the distance and said, ‘You see that over there? That’s Afghanistan.’

Inside, the power is on all the time, the air con is on, you can get food at four in the morning, you can watch television. Outside the base are miles of nothing, patrolled by drones. You can hear them at night.

Bastion is so remote that it has never been rocketed. It feels safer but less British than the embassy compound at Kabul. You can hear Scouse accents at the chow hall, but with its wide dusty boulevards it feels more like a down-at-heel university campus in Nevada.

There are coffee shops, free Wi-Fi, a little fire station. It’s quite pleasant but boring. Unlike staff at the embassy, the people here don’t get days off. They just work, seven days a week and have masses of physical exercise. Everybody is jogging, lifting weights, playing volleyball or practising unarmed combat.

The daily work here is mainly logistics. If you’ve got an army in the mountains, they’re going to need spoons. As well as military supplies, they’re going to need planks, they’re going to need polystyrene cups and someone’s got to sort that out. So it’s a mid-sized town with a small airport, but busier because there are no children or pensioners.

The overriding smell is of petrol. Everything runs on it. You’re never more than ten feet away from a generator, some of them the size of a truck, some the size of a suitcase. There’s a permanent purring and clattering that never switches off. And you never escape the noise of the airstrip. Giant Chinooks are landing and taking off every few minutes.

The other noise you hear is of building work.

Someone I spoke to there told me, ‘We’re in the process of doubling the sewage system.’

I got the distinct impression from that that we’re not going to be coming home from Afghanistan in July.

They’re also laying Tarmacked roads at Bastion, as well as building a better fence, and constructing more guard posts. You don’t do all that if you’re planning to leave any time soon.
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