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February 24, 2012 

Pakistan calls on Afghan Taliban to join peace talks
By Richard Leiby, The Washington Post
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani urged Taliban leaders and other Afghan militant groups on Friday to participate in negotiations to end the war in neighboring Afghanistan, and he pledged that Pakistan would do “whatever it can” to facilitate peace talks.

Beheadings Raise Doubts That Taliban Have Changed
New York Times By GRAHAM BOWLEY and SHARIFULLAH SAHAK February 23, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan - The Taliban took the four men to the main bazaar in a southern Afghanistan district at evening prayer on Sunday, regional government officials said, denounced them as government spies because they were carrying satellite phones, then beheaded them in front of local residents who had been summoned to watch.

New concerns added to Afghan peace process
Kabul, Feb. 24 (Xinhua) -- Protests in Afghanistan over the alleged Quran burning by U.S. troops in Bagram airbase entered its third day on Thursday, leaving 15 people dead and 59 others wounded across the country and prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to apologize.

Gingrich Slams President Obama for Apology Letter to Afghanistan
Foxnews.com By Joy Lin February 23, 2012
Spokane, Wash. - Newt Gingrich sharply criticized President Obama for penning a letter to Afghan President Karzai expressing "deep regret" for a reported incident at Bagram Air Base where copies of the Koran were burned.

In Kabul, Afghan police sympathize with protesters angry over Koran burning
Washington Post By Kevin Sieff February 23, 2012
KABUL - The police officers had been told to be vigilant. They had been warned that protests could occur spontaneously and could again turn deadly, as they had for two days after U.S. military officials burned copies of the Koran.

Fresh Anti-US Protests Erupt in Afghanistan
VOA News February 24, 2012
Deadly anti-American protests erupted in Afghanistan for a fourth day as anger over the burning of Qurans at a NATO facility spread throughout the country.

4 killed as protesters storm U.S. consulate in western Afghanistan
HERAT, Afghanistan, Feb. 24 (Xinhua) -- At least four people were killed and 10 others injured Friday afternoon in the western Afghan province of Herat during a protest against Quran burning by U.S. forces, police said.

NDS Captures Three Insurgent Groups
TOLOnews.com Thursday, 23 February 2012
Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) has captured three Haqqani-linked insurgents groups, it said on Thursday.

Stability takes root in Kandahar province
USA TODAY By Carmen Gentile, Special for USA TODAY 23/02/2012
NALGHAM, Afghanistan - Sgt. Robert LaPointe shakes his head as he recalls the dangers he and his fellow soldiers faced during the first month of their deployment to Kandahar province, a particularly hostile region of southern Afghanistan.

AFGHANISTAN: IDPs at a crossroads
KABUL, 24 February 2012 (IRIN) - Thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan, mainly from the strife-torn southern provinces, have been heading for Kabul in the hope of finding work and a better life, but most end up living in appalling conditions in makeshift camps.

Afghan refugees abandoned by their own government, report finds
About half a million Afghans who fled homes because of violence are living in desperate conditions, says Amnesty
Guardian.co.uk By Emma Graham-Harrison Thursday 23 February 2012
Kabul - About half a million Afghans have fled their homes because of violence and are living in desperate conditions with little help from a government reluctant to deal with the problems, Amnesty International says in a report.

Displaced Afghans Face Horrific Conditions in Slums
TOLOnews.com Thursday, 23 February 2012
Half a million Afghans displaced by fighting are struggling to survive in makeshift shelters, Amnesty International said in a report released today.

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Pakistan calls on Afghan Taliban to join peace talks
By Richard Leiby, The Washington Post
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani urged Taliban leaders and other Afghan militant groups on Friday to participate in negotiations to end the war in neighboring Afghanistan, and he pledged that Pakistan would do “whatever it can” to facilitate peace talks.

Gilani’s remarks represent the first publicly known effort by Pakistan to bring the Taliban into the nascent peace process — an important step given the nation’s history of sheltering militants, including Taliban chief Mohammad Omar, in its tribal regions.

The outreach followed efforts by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to involve Pakistan in starting direct talks with insurgents at war with Afghan, NATO and U.S. troops. Regional leaders have tried to accelerate reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan ahead of a scheduled U.S. combat troop pullout in 2014.

“It is now time to turn a new leaf and open a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan, to build peace and bring prosperity to Afghanistan,” Gilani said in a statement.

“I would like to appeal to the Taliban leadership as well as to all other Afghan groups, including Hezb-i-Islami, to participate in an intra-Afghan process for national reconciliation and peace,” he said.

Hezb-i-Islami, or Islamic Party, is a faction allied with the Taliban. Its leader, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has been designated a terrorist by the United States for supporting attacks against Western and Afghan troops.

A senior Hezb-i-Islami official said Friday that the party welcomed Gilani’s call for the Taliban and his group to come to the negotiating table.

“It’s a positive step and augurs well for peace and stability in our country,” Ghairat Baheer, the party’s head of political affairs and Hekmatyar’s son-in-law, told The Washington Post. But he added that the group opposes U.S. participation or any other “external interference or intervention” in that dialogue.

“We support any process in which all Afghan groups sit together and talk peace. It will be only through the dialogue between all Afghan groups that peace and stability will return to Afghanistan,” he said.

The stress on an “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned” peace process — terms used by top U.S., Pakistani and Afghan officials — comes as negotiations appear to have stalled amid reports of a division within the Taliban between those who are willing to talk with the United States and those bitterly opposed. The split in some cases has led to bloodshed.

Gilani, in his statement Friday, said Pakistan will support “an authentic Afghan process and is prepared to do whatever it can for its success.”

The peace appeal “is in itself an important development, but now it depends on the future course,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on Afghan affairs who sees positive movement on both sides. “Earlier the Taliban called the Karzai government a U.S. puppet and Karzai was calling the Taliban a Pakistan proxy,” he noted.

Other observers caution that no matter what Pakistan’s civilian leadership pledges, the center of power lies with the country’s military and security services, which Washington and Kabul say have yet to break ties with all militant factions.

Within Pakistan, meanwhile, militants have continued to attack civilian and other targets. Early Friday, three Pakistani Taliban fighters wearing suicide vests and carrying assault rifles stormed a police station in Peshawar; three officers died on the scene and one succumbed later.

Taliban-affiliated spokesmen told the Associated Press that the attack was meant to avenge the killing of one of its commanders in a U.S. drone strike this month.

Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain and Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.
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Beheadings Raise Doubts That Taliban Have Changed
New York Times By GRAHAM BOWLEY and SHARIFULLAH SAHAK February 23, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan - The Taliban took the four men to the main bazaar in a southern Afghanistan district at evening prayer on Sunday, regional government officials said, denounced them as government spies because they were carrying satellite phones, then beheaded them in front of local residents who had been summoned to watch.

Three days later, on Wednesday morning, the director of a relatively progressive radio station in eastern Afghanistan was found stabbed to death in his car. His back, stomach and chest had been slashed, and his throat slit, according to the man’s brother, who said his head had been nearly severed from his body.

The local police chief, Daulat Khan Zadran, said the victim, Sadeem Khan Bahader Zoi, had been totally beheaded. “We still don’t know the cause” of the killing, Mr. Zadran said, but the method was consistent with the Taliban.

A Taliban spokesman for eastern Afghanistan, Zabiullah Mujahid, strongly condemned Mr. Zoi’s killing and in a telephone interview denied that the Taliban had been involved. The Taliban spokesman responsible for southern Afghanistan could not be reached for comment on the beheadings there.

This quick spate of grisly killings occurred despite recent attempts by the Taliban leadership to project a softer, more accepting image, to win the support of ordinary Afghans and convince the United States that it is a reasonable negotiating partner.

Its efforts are helping to drive a campaign by the Afghan government and the international coalition to begin peace talks with the Taliban that could lead to a power-sharing arrangement.

Beheadings by the Taliban are not new, but they have not been seen for a while, and five such gruesome deaths in a few days suggest that the Taliban may be operating with increasing impunity in some regions.

To Afghans, they are a frightening reminder of the brutal extremes of Taliban law — an authority that may soon have greater official sway over the country — and they raise questions about the sincerity of the Taliban in the peace negotiations.

Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, where the four beheadings took place Sunday in the Washir district, and Mohammad Dawood Noorzai, Washir’s district governor, denied that any of the four men had ties to any level of government in Afghanistan.

Mr. Ahmadi and Mr. Noorzai said the men came from a rural area with poor telephone service where some people carry satellite phones, including those who make a business out of charging fees for other people to use the phones.

“I don’t have full information about these people, but I can say that they were innocent civilians and did not have any links with the government,” Mr. Noorzai said.

Mr. Ahmadi said that local residents interviewed by provincial officials said the Taliban had called on locals to gather in the bazaar to watch the beheadings. “The Taliban said that these people are spying for the government and carrying these satellite phones with them and they deserve to die, the locals told us,” he said.

Mr. Zoi, the director of Milma Radio in northern Paktika, an eastern province on the border with Pakistan, had received a telephone call from a man while he was visiting a brother on Monday night, said the brother, Noor Mohammad.

After the call, Mr. Zoi went out, and the next morning, Mr. Mohammad and another brother found Mr. Zoi’s body in his car. His hands were tied behind his back and a bloodied copy of the radio station’s magazine lay on his chest.

“I saw Sadeem Khan with his throat slit by a knife all the way down to his spinal cord, and he was also stabbed with knives on his back, belly and chest,” Mr. Mohammad said.

Mr. Zoi had worked at the station, which served the local Urgon district, for about a year. His deputy, Yaqub Khan, said that Mr. Zoi did not seem to have any enemies.

Mr. Khan said Milma offered entertainment, religious, political and other programs — including those in which young local villagers, male and female, called in with requests to play their favorite songs.

Farooq Jan Mangal contributed reporting from Khost, Afghanistan.
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New concerns added to Afghan peace process
Kabul, Feb. 24 (Xinhua) -- Protests in Afghanistan over the alleged Quran burning by U.S. troops in Bagram airbase entered its third day on Thursday, leaving 15 people dead and 59 others wounded across the country and prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to apologize.

In the meantime, in an effort to promote Afghan peace process, Afghan president Hamid Karzai on Wednesday officially invited Taliban leaders to talk directly with Afghan government in the Afghan-led peace process.

While Afghan government is officially opening the gate for direct dialogue with Taliban outfits, Afghan analysts believe, the alleged Quran burning may add new concerns to the already intricate Afghan peace process.

U.S. WANTS EARLY WITHDRAW

Recently, several NATO members have indicated that they would withdraw troops ahead of previous schedule from Afghanistan, with an unprecedented eagerness to end the decade-long war.

In early February, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that U.S. troops in Afghanistan will start to finish combat missions in mid-2013, almost one year earlier than previous plans.

Previously, French President Nicolas Sarkozy also announced his decision to end the combat mission of French troops in Afghanistan by the end of next year, a move clearly in response to an incident happened in Kapisa province, Afghanistan on Jan. 20, in which four French soldiers were killed by an Afghan man wearing Afghan National Army uniform.

The early withdraw of U.S. and French troops from Afghanistan indicates the worsening of security situation in the war-torn country, for on one hand, other NATO member states will very likely follow the footsteps of U.S. and France to withdraw early from battlefield, while on the other hand, as was denoted in a NATO file, if NATO pulls out early, Taliban might once again " conquer" Afghanistan.

In response to this, NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated on the meetings of NATO Defense Ministers in Brussels from Feb. 2 to Feb. 3, that the deadline for security transfer from NATO-led International Security Assistant Force to Afghan government is, as always, the end of 2014.

In Afghanistan, the newly-announced decisions of early withdraw triggered new concerns. Many local analysts believed that the early withdraw of NATO-led ISAF forces will add to the momentum of Taliban insurgency, worsening the security situation in the Middle Asian country. They also believe if U.S. wants to finish the security transfer successfully, it's imperative to bring Taliban leaders to the table.

AFGHAN GOVERNMENT-TALIBAN DIRECT TALKS

The Afghan government also realized the urgency for the peace process, as in mid-February, Afghan president Hamid Karzai during his first visit to Pakistan since the assassination of Afghan peace envoy and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani in last September, expressed his hope for Pakistan government to facilitate direct talks with the elusive Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

On Feb. 22, Karzai in his statement officially invited Taliban leaders for direct talks, a move Taliban has yet to make comments. However, Taliban militants had in the past rejected any Afghan government's offer for talks, conditioning any dialogue with the pullout of NATO-led foreign forces from the country.

However, Afghan analysts who believe the invitation has opened the door for the peace talks are also skeptical about the government's initiative to bring the Taliban outfit to dialogue table.

"Inviting Taliban for direct talks is an initiative to encourage the outfit to act independently in peace interaction without Pakistan influence," said Ahmad Zia Rafat, a Kabul University professor.

"There are many hard-line factions in Taliban outfit that are still opposed to any form of peace talks with Afghan government and U.S.," Haroon Mir, director of Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, said to Xinhua, "They will stop the peace talk at all costs."

QURAN BURNING ADDS NEW CONCERNS

While Afghan government officially opens the gate for direct talks with Taliban, the alleged Quran burning by U.S. troops in Bagram airbase triggered a massive protest by Afghan people, adding new concern to the impending peace talks.

On Feb. 21, many Afghan people discovered a large number of Islamic religious materials, including Quran, being burnt outside Bagram Air Base, an incident followed by massive protests in several big cities in Afghanistan, where thousands of protesters threw stones, burnt tires, chanted anti-U.S. slogans, and blocked the road between Kabul, the Afghan capital, and Jalalabad.

Several Afghan parliament members even called upon ordinary people to pick up arms and fight U.S. soldiers to the end, while Taliban outfit on Feb. 23 also ask Afghan people "not to stop" the retaliation to the Quran burning.

The ever-escalating protest prompted U.S. president Barak Obama, NATO commander in Afghanistan John Allen, U.S. Defense secretary Leon Panetta and State Secretary Hillary Clinton to respectively offer their apologies. Afghan president Hamid Karzai also asked his fellow countrymen to keep calm and renounce violence.

However, analysts believe that Afghan people's anger is difficult to stop in a short notice. After ten-year occupation, many Afghan people have developed dissent toward U.S. troops for killing innocent civilians and disrespecting local religious traditions. The Quran burning is the third scandal in a roll that happened in NATO-led ISAF, triggering once again the anti-U.S. sentiment among Afghan people.

Afghan observers believe that, while U.S. is seeking peace talks with Taliban outfit, the growing resentment for U.S. among Afghan people may add to the challenges facing the implementation of U.S. strategies in Afghanistan.
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Gingrich Slams President Obama for Apology Letter to Afghanistan
Foxnews.com By Joy Lin February 23, 2012
Spokane, Wash. - Newt Gingrich sharply criticized President Obama for penning a letter to Afghan President Karzai expressing "deep regret" for a reported incident at Bagram Air Base where copies of the Koran were burned.

"The president apologized for the burning, but I haven't seen the president demand that the government of Afghanistan apologize for the killing of two young Americans," Gingrich said, referring to two soldiers serving in the U.S.-led coalition force who were killed by an Afghan wearing an army uniform during a third day of riots over the burning of Islamic scripture.

U.S. officials have said the books were burned by mistake and the case is under investigation, but the apologies and Karzai's call for calm have yet to quell the protests that have boiled over in Afghanistan. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended the president's letter, noting that Dana Perino apologized on behalf of President Bush in 2008 after a U.S. serviceman shot a Koran.

Gingrich said, "My hunch is, since the person who killed them is an Afghan soldier, that that soldier was being paid with American money, armed with American money, trained with American money, and there is something profoundly wrong when the commander in chief refuses to defend the integrity and the lives of the people who serve under him.

The Republican presidential candidate, who has accused the administration of "routinely and consistently" lying to the American people about the threat of Islamic radicalism, continued, "There seems to be nothing that radical Islamists can do to get Barack Obama's attention in a negative way and he is consistently apologizing to people who do not deserve the apology of the President of the United States, period."

"And candidly," Gingrich continued, "If Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, doesn't feel like apologizing then I think we should say goodbye and good luck, we don't need to be here risking our lives and wasting our money on somebody who doesn't care." The audience cheered

Gingrich said President Obama "surrendered twice today," first in the letter and secondly in an energy speech he delivered Thursday in Miami.

"The president went to Miami to explain rising gas prices. I was just reading the text -- I kid you not, this is one of those things that is truly worthy of Jay Leno and Letterman. The president of the United States explains first of all there's no single silver bullet. Now that's just wrong. Defeating Obama is a single thing that would change everything," the candidate said.

Gingrich vowed to bring America back to a "pre-Obama" world of energy policy, mocking President Obama for pointing to algae as an alternative source of fuel.

"For the president to stand there and explain to us that sometime in our children's lives, algae would rescue us -- I mean I rest my case," Gingrich said, couching his remarks first by saying he is "pro-science," supports research and has a friend who is working on long-term projects to convert algae into usable energy.

In a speech on gas prices at the University of Miami Thursday, President Obama defended his efforts to invest in energy alternatives and mocked Republicans for their "three-point plan for $2 gas."

"I'll save you the suspense. Step one is to drill, and step two is to drill, and step three is to keep drilling," Obama said, and in a veiled reference to Gingrich, remarked, "Anyone who tells you we can drill our way out of this problem doesn't know what they're talking about -- or just isn't telling you the truth."

Approximately 550 people turned out to see Gingrich at the Bing Crosby Theater, a mix of high school seniors from area schools -- many of them self-described Democrats -- and older audience members who said they planned to participate in the caucuses next week.

"I think it's too early to rule him out. The media tried to rule him out in June," said Leroy Simpson of Omak, who drove three hours with his wife to see the candidate. "I've known Newt since the 90s. I think he's the best candidate."

"We have been following all the debates. He would absolutely smash Obama," said his wife Lorna.
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In Kabul, Afghan police sympathize with protesters angry over Koran burning
Washington Post By Kevin Sieff February 23, 2012
KABUL - The police officers had been told to be vigilant. They had been warned that protests could occur spontaneously and could again turn deadly, as they had for two days after U.S. military officials burned copies of the Koran.

But some of those same Afghan police officers showed few qualms Thursday in telling a foreign reporter that their mission left them deeply uneasy. What their government was asking, they said, was for police officers to quell protesters whose cause they fully shared.
“Afghans and the world’s Muslims should rise against the foreigners. We have no patience left,” said one police officer in central Kabul, who has worked at the same checkpoint since he joined the force seven months ago. He looked at his colleague, who stood next to him, nodding. “We both will attack the foreign military people.”

Police officers interviewed at four posts in the Afghan capital voiced the anti-American sentiments on the same day that two U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan were fatally shot by a man wearing an Afghan army uniform. The killings were the latest apparent incident of fratricide aimed at Americans within a nominally united U.S.-Afghan force, and they have added to misgivings among many U.S. troops about the loyalty of their Afghan counterparts.

In the wake of the Koran burning that came to light Tuesday at the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, some uniformed Afghan officers have worked tirelessly to keep the peace through three days of demonstrations and riots. At least three protesters were killed Thursday, bringing the week’s death toll to 10, as some police officers were ordered to fire on demonstrators.

But it has been Afghan civilians, not Taliban insurgents, who have taken the lead in the violence, and in five interviews Thursday, members of the Afghan police force made clear that they and others in positions of authority share in the anger and resentment.

“Those behind the act should be asked about their deed and must be punished,” said an officer near a U.S. military base in Kabul. “If I find the opportunity, I would shoot them in the head.”

The police officers would discuss their sentiments only on the condition of anonymity, saying they would risk their livelihoods if they were to sympathize publicly with those fomenting violence. But their comments left little doubt that the fallout over the U.S. military’s mishandling of the Korans includes fresh hostility among a crucial population of workaday Afghans, including some who man security checkpoints near Western installations.

U.S. apologies dismissed

In a bid to ease tensions, President Obama took the unusual step of extending a personal apology for the incident.

White House spokesman Jay Carney, speaking to reporters Thursday aboard Air Force One en route to Miami, said the apology was part of a three-page letter to President Hamid Karzai covering a variety of issues. Carney said the apology was “wholly appropriate, given the sensitivities to this issue,” as well as Obama’s “primary concern” for the safety of American military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan.

With tensions still high, however, the U.S. Embassy remained on lockdown for a second day and extended its travel restrictions to a typically peaceful part of northern Afghanistan.

In a meeting with Karzai ahead of Friday prayers, some members of the Afghan parliament demanded harsh retribution, while religious officials spoke of jihad and the urgent need to respond with violence. At the same time, the Taliban issued a harshly worded statement encouraging Afghan security officials to take up arms against Western forces.

On the streets of Kabul, police officers said they didn’t care about the flurry of U.S. apologies, including the one from Obama, or the demands of Afghan politicians. The offense felt was personal, most said, not diminished by contrition or inflamed by hostile rhetoric.
“It is difficult sometimes to convince people not to resort to protest,” said Qaseem Jangalbagh, the police chief of Panjshir province. Asked whether that included his own officers, he said, “It is a problem.”

Junior officers spoke more bluntly, saying they would shirk their duties rather than quash demonstrations and referring often to their own violent impulses.

“We should burn those foreigners,” said a police officer in his early 30s who has been in the force for almost 2 1 / 2 years. Like most of the country’s security officers, he was trained by NATO troops.

Anger within Bagram base

Police officers weren’t the only Afghans assumed to be U.S. allies who spoke of mounting friction. The first early morning protests Tuesday were led by Afghan employees of Bagram air base, where the religious materials were burned. NATO military officials have said in public statements that the incineration was accidental.

Some Bagram employees — who often face threats for aiding the United States — waved the charred books in the air, demanding a response.

Those employees, among the 5,000 Afghans who support the base’s operations, chanted “Death to America” and lobbed rocks at gates that some had entered for years. Some cursed their bosses and promised never to return to work at Bagram.

“How could we ever work for someone who could do this?” asked a 21-year-old man who said he had worked for two years in a warehouse on the base. “This couldn’t have happened by accident. This was meant to offend us.”

Taliban officials, who are in the middle of tenuous peace talks with the United States, had initially condemned the burning but stopped short of advocating violence — an uncharacteristically muted response. But in the written statement released Thursday, the insurgent group took a tougher stance.

The statement described the burning as a “deliberate” act, despite repeated statements by top U.S. officials that the books were sent to the incinerator by mistake. The Taliban statement said Afghans and Muslims should not be placated by the U.S. apologies and declared that protests and “mere slogans” were not enough of a response.

“For the defense of our holy book, we . . . must target the invaders’ military centers, their military convoys and their invading forces . . . so that they can never dare to desecrate the holy Koran again,” the statement said.

It was difficult to determine whether the attack Thursday on the U.S. troops was orchestrated by the Taliban or was a response to the group’s call for revenge. The attack occurred in eastern Afghanistan, the U.S. military said. Few details were released.

Special correspondent Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.
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Fresh Anti-US Protests Erupt in Afghanistan
VOA News February 24, 2012
Deadly anti-American protests erupted in Afghanistan for a fourth day as anger over the burning of Qurans at a NATO facility spread throughout the country.

Afghan officials say at least two people were killed during Friday's demonstrations, bringing the death toll in days of unrest to at least 15. Two American soldiers were among those killed on Thursday.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in the capital Kabul and the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Ghazni, following Friday prayers. Many shouted “death to America.”

The demonstrations continued despite calls for restraint from NATO and Afghan officials.

On Friday, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen, said the joint coalition and Afghan investigation into the “mishandling of religious materials” at Bagram Air Base continues, with witnesses to Sunday's incident being interviewed.

General Allen issued a statement saying “working together with the Afghan leadership is the only way for us to correct this major error and ensure that it never happens again.”

U.S. President Barack Obama has sent a written apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the desecration of Qurans at Bagram.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has urged Americans to avoid any unnecessary movement within the South Asian nation.

On Thursday, the Taliban issued a statement calling on Afghans to launch attacks on foreign targets in retaliation for the burning of the Muslim holy book.

Germany on Friday withdrew its troops from a base in northern Afghanistan because of the continuing demonstrations.

Around 50 German soldiers were set to leave the outpost in the Taloqan area of Takhar province by the end of March after security control was transferred to local forces.

But a German military spokesman said the troops left the base Friday and were transferred to Kunduz province after demonstrations in Taloqan.

On Wednesday, President Karzai appealed for calm, saying citizens have the right to protest, but should not resort to violence.

The Afghan delegations assigned to probe the incident have also appealed to the Afghan people to avoid resorting to protests.
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4 killed as protesters storm U.S. consulate in western Afghanistan
HERAT, Afghanistan, Feb. 24 (Xinhua) -- At least four people were killed and 10 others injured Friday afternoon in the western Afghan province of Herat during a protest against Quran burning by U.S. forces, police said.

"Thousands of people staged a demonstration after Friday prayers in Herat city but the protest turned violent when a group of demonstrators stormed the U.S. consulate," a police source told Xinhua.

The angry protesters were trying to enter the U.S. consulate building in Herat city but police opened fire to disperse the mob, as a result three demonstrators and a policeman were killed and 10 others including seven protesters and three policemen were injured, the source said.

Protests over the alleged Quran burning by U.S. troops entered the fourth day on Friday as thousands of people staged demonstrations in the Afghan capital of Kabul and other provinces across the country.
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NDS Captures Three Insurgent Groups
TOLOnews.com Thursday, 23 February 2012
Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) has captured three Haqqani-linked insurgents groups, it said on Thursday.

A spokesman for the NDS, Lutfullah Mashal, said the groups were linked to the Haqqani network and planned to attack the Presidential Palace, the US Embassy and Aryania Hotel in Kabul.

The detained groups had been trained by two Haqqani network commanders in Pakistan's tribal area, the NDS added.

They wanted to hire a house in Shahr-e-Now or Bebe Mahro area in Kabul to organise their attacks on several political targets, it said.

"The men are linked with the Haqqani network. Their main targets were the US Embassy, the Presidential Palace and Aryana Hotel [where US intelligence personnel are based]," Mr Mashal said.

"I went to Pakistan last year, met with the Taliban commanders Qari Nik Mohammad and Mahfuz," one of the detained men said.

Meanwhile, the NDS has detained a three-member group led by a Pakistani who smuggled more than six thousand kilos of explosives under the pretext of importing construction material to eastern Nangarhar province.

Another five-member terrorist group has been captured in Khost and some weapons and ammunition have been seized from them, according to the NDS.
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Stability takes root in Kandahar province
USA TODAY By Carmen Gentile, Special for USA TODAY 23/02/2012
NALGHAM, Afghanistan - Sgt. Robert LaPointe shakes his head as he recalls the dangers he and his fellow soldiers faced during the first month of their deployment to Kandahar province, a particularly hostile region of southern Afghanistan.

Day and night they patrolled rows of grape vines and poppy fields on foot and slept in the open where Taliban gunmen lurked. Firefights and buried bombs killed seven of LaPointe's fellow soldiers and injured dozens more.

"I don't think we accomplished anything the first month here," he says.

Pvt. 1st Class Kerry Pinkstaff agrees.

"When you went out there, you would get shot at and blown up," Pinkstaff says. "You couldn't find them. They'd pop up, then be gone, like ghosts."

U.S. military leaders in the Zharai district responded with a new strategy. They ended the foot patrols on the roads and narrow paths where vast farmlands are flanked by steep, jagged mountains. They established small "strong points," heavily fortified guard posts made of earth and sandbags. They called in airstrikes and helicopter gun runs on Taliban positions.

"It was a rough summer," Lt. David Tuttle says. "We took the gloves off and that allowed us to build the community back."

Today, the villagers in the region are able to go about their lives without fear of the Taliban, the harsh Islamic regime ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Though the Taliban is weakened as a military force and must subsist in remote areas, tribal leaders and U.S. troops agree it hasn't gone and the members who remain want their onetime realm back.

"The level of commitment by the insurgency is surprising," says battalion commander Lt. Col. Kenneth Mintz.

Self-sufficiency goals

The mission of the International Security Assistance Force, the coalition of U.S. and foreign forces that have been fighting in Afghanistan for more than 10 years, is to neutralize the Taliban and turn over the security of the country to the Afghans themselves. Just when the Afghans can handle their own security has been the question.

The Pentagon says much of the south is largely under coalition control and forces will have to be shifted to the border with Pakistan, where Taliban forces and the Haqqani netwok of jihadists are a major threat.

NATO agreed in 2010 that the transition from foreign forces to Afghan forces should take place by the end of 2014, provided conditions on the ground warranted the move. Last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested the transition may arrive earlier, in late 2013.

"If the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan while the Haqqanis still have such safe havens, the mission President Obama set himself of disrupting and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and creating conditions that will prevent it from returning will have failed," says Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who advised the Bush administration on the successful troop surge in Iraq.

Capt. Widmar Roman and the soldiers of the 10th Mountain, 3rd Brigade, 32nd Infantry Regiment are among those who have forced the Taliban out of Kandahar population centers. With its fortified positions and razor wire lining the road, the area little resembles its previous incarnation, and it's more secure.

The area was home to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who may be in Pakistan.

"The amount of security down here is unparalleled compared to what people have seen in the past," Roman says.

Roman says the change in strategy allowed troops enough breathing room to interact with local leaders in ways previously impossible.

Among the interactions is the shoring up of the Afghan Local Police, an initiative pushed by former ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus to train and arm Afghan men willing to keep the Taliban out of their villages.

Mintz acknowledges that the Taliban is still bringing insurgents to the area to replace those killed or captured over the last year. But he says the seeds of stability and security have taken root among the locals.

Several village elders helped U.S. forces root out the Taliban and recruit men into the ranks of the police who work with the Afghan National Army here to maintain security.

"It used to be that we couldn't travel from one village to the other because of the Taliban," says Shah Wali Khan, who lost his left leg to an insurgent mine a few months ago.

"Now we can travel all the way to Kandahar (city). God willing, we will be able to maintain security when the Americans leave," says Khan, stroking his thick beard as his followers nod in agreement and children play near a store once used as Taliban headquarters.
Negotiations

In a meeting called by Roman, two dozen Afghan men and members of the ALP raised concerns about the compensation they were promised by American forces for cutting a road through several fields, the destruction of homes during firefights and raids and buildings taken over for strong points.

"Condolence payments" amount to about $2,500, Roman says. He told the men they'd get their money after they appointed someone from their ranks to represent Nalgham at the district government level.

Fears remain that any appointed leader would be murdered by Taliban fighters based a few miles to the west who regularly engage U.S. and Afghan forces on patrols.

"We don't want to put anyone else in danger," yelled Gul Mohammed, one of the men at the meeting, which ended with neither Afghans receiving compensation for their losses nor Roman getting a representative for Nalgham.

The captain says the discussion was a normal part of the negotiating process, and he is optimistic that both sides will reach a compromise.

Afghan Brig. Gen. Guhlam Murtaza Sarwary says his soldiers and U.S. troops have convinced Nalgham they will remain in the area for the long haul, even after U.S. forces leave.

"Nalgham was one of those damaged and dangerous places last year," Murtaza says. "Now, the people no longer fear the enemy like they once had."

This time of year is ideal for talk, Roman says. The cold winter months are when many Taliban fighters return to Pakistan and attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces decrease. In a few weeks, it will be time for action when the warm weather approaches, signaling the start to the fighting season.

Then the Americans may be able to tell how close the Afghans are to being able to defend themselves. "We'll really be able to see the difference once it starts warming up again next summer," Roman says.
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AFGHANISTAN: IDPs at a crossroads
KABUL, 24 February 2012 (IRIN) - Thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan, mainly from the strife-torn southern provinces, have been heading for Kabul in the hope of finding work and a better life, but most end up living in appalling conditions in makeshift camps.

Besmillah (he goes by just the one name), 38, fled the southern province of Helmand with his five children and wife two years ago after a rocket landed in his compound.

“Because I was a poor farmer we didn’t have a lot of valuable stuff, but we couldn’t even bring our clothes with us,” Besmillah told IRIN.

He and his family now live in a mud-hut in a makeshift settlement in eastern Kabul. He has not been able to find work and the government has not provided him with shelter.

“This winter killed my three-year-old child as I couldn’t fix the holes in my hut and I wasn’t able to buy fuel or wood for a Bukhari [heater],” he said.

According to the Afghan Health Ministry, more than 20 children have frozen to death in these settlements over the past few weeks.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in its latest report said 2011 marked the fifth year in a row that civilian casualties had increased, with more than 3,000 civilian deaths in the ongoing conflict between Taliban and other insurgents and government forces backed by US-led foreign forces.

Many IDPs are attracted to Kabul by its relative safety and food availability, better access to health and education services, and perceived job opportunities.

However, Amnesty International (AI) says the government not only does not care about IDPs in the city but was also preventing aid from reaching them.

UN agencies and aid organizations are barred by the government from delivering effective aid to displaced communities or helping them in ways which imply the creation of permanent settlements: Instead of digging permanent wells, aid workers are forced to deliver water to displaced communities in tankers, said the AI report.

Government reaction

Islamuddin Jurat, a spokesman for the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR), said the government had not stopped anyone from helping IDPs and would never do that, but building permanent health clinics or a school, or a water supply system, was not something the government wanted.

“If we build a permanent infrastructure for them, they will stay in that place for ever. But they can’t as every plot they have settled on right now belongs to a government ministry of an individual.” He said he did not want to encourage migrants to head to Kabul or become aid dependent, adding that it was “not possible to bring the whole population to Kabul”.

Conflict-induced displacement, limited reintegration opportunities for returning refugees, the rapid growth of cities and the proliferation of informal settlements constituted an enormously complex challenge for the government, humanitarian and development actors in Afghanistan. Finding durable solutions would not be easy, Nader Farhad, a spokesperson for UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), told IRIN.

However, Jurat said the government had plans to help IDPs settle outside Kabul: “We have drafted a plan to give IDPs shelter either in their own provinces or in any of the MoRR settlement areas in the other provinces around Kabul and we have sent the draft to the president for his approval.”

If the plan was signed off, he said, all IDPs in Kabul would be given shelter within a year.

UNCHR asks all stakeholders, including the government, to look for sustainable solutions for IDPs and develop a comprehensive and integrated developmental approach to tackle the problem of displacement in Afghanistan.
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Afghan refugees abandoned by their own government, report finds
About half a million Afghans who fled homes because of violence are living in desperate conditions, says Amnesty
Guardian.co.uk By Emma Graham-Harrison Thursday 23 February 2012
Kabul - About half a million Afghans have fled their homes because of violence and are living in desperate conditions with little help from a government reluctant to deal with the problems, Amnesty International says in a report.

About 400 people a day are being driven to the cities by security worries, according to the report Fleeing War, Finding Misery, on refugees who stay within Afghanistan's borders but struggle to survive in slum-like camps, with little access to water, food, decent shelter, healthcare or education.

In this year's bitter winter at least 28 children died from cold in camps in Kabul alone; nationwide more than 40 are estimated to have frozen to death, the report says.

Conflict is spreading even to once relatively peaceful parts of Afghanistan and last year more than 3,000 civilians died across the country, according to UN figures.

"We left because of war, and the bombardment from American planes," said Wakhil Khoja Muhammad, who three years ago abandoned his home in southern Sangin, one of the most fought-over districts in the country, for the Chahrai Qambar camp in Kabul.

The settlement houses about a thousand families, who Muhammad said share four hand-pumps for water.

The government often stops aid groups from making long-term improvements to conditions in most camps on the grounds that it encourages migrants to settle permanently away from their homes, the report says.

In a country already suffering from chronic unemployment, the largely uneducated and unskilled refugees struggle to find work to feed and warm their families.

"Thousands of people are finding themselves living in freezing, cramped conditions and on the brink of starvation, while the Afghan government is not only looking the other way but even preventing help from reaching them," said Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty's Afghanistan researcher. "Local officials restrict aid efforts because they want to pretend that these people are going to go away. This is a largely hidden but horrific humanitarian and human rights crisis."

The future of children living in the camps is also being compromised the report warned, with many blocked from attending local schools. Often, the reason given for the ban is that they don't have national identity cards, which they can only get in the home districts they fled in fear.

"It's hard to explain the hostility except as a combination of bias and a sense that state resources are going to people who aren't from the local communities," said Michael Bochenek, Amnesty's legal and policy director.

He said the government had been given a copy of the report, but had not yet responded to its findings.

The report was based on three years of research and interviews with more than 100 internally displaced people and returning refugees in 12 slum communities in and around Kabul, Herat in western Afghanistan and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north.

Amnesty also met government officials and international agencies.
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Displaced Afghans Face Horrific Conditions in Slums
TOLOnews.com Thursday, 23 February 2012
Half a million Afghans displaced by fighting are struggling to survive in makeshift shelters, Amnesty International said in a report released today.

Amnesty said that the Afghan government and international organisations are ignoring the plight of these people.

About 400 people join the ranks of those living in slums each day, the report, Fleeing war, finding misery, said. In Kabul alone, as many as 35,000 displaced people live in 30 slums around the city.

At least 40 people have frozen to death in refugees camps around the country in what his been the harshest winter for 15 years. At least 28 of those were children.

"Thousands of people are finding themselves living in freezing, cramped conditions and on the brink of starvation, while the Afghan government is not only looking the other way but even preventing help from reaching them," said Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International's Afghanistan researcher.

Ms Mosadiq added: "Local officials restrict aid efforts because they want to pretend that these people are going to go away. This is a largely hidden but horrific humanitarian and human rights crisis."
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