Accessibility links

Afghan Report: June 30, 2006

June 30, 2006, Volume 5, Number 18
Following her meeting on in Kabul with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on June 28, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan about security concerns along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Rice also stressed the strength of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan's future.

RFE/RL: The main topic in the media these days is that the Afghans, in general, and President Hamid Karzai, in particular, complain that the roots of terrorism are outside of Afghanistan, that unless you fight them outside the country, it is not going to give a result just by fighting them inside the country. As he has said yesterday clearly, going house to house in Kandahar will not give any result. So he was saying that we are asking the international community to help us in fighting the roots of terrorism outside the country, but we are not getting that cooperation. Now, keeping in view that Pakistan is a strategic ally of the United States on the one hand and, on the other hand, U.S. forces are in Afghanistan and clearly terrorists are crossing the border and killing the American troops and Afghan troops and affecting your mission here in Afghanistan. How is the United States going to deal with this situation?

Condoleezza Rice: Well, of course, we have to fight terrorists wherever we find them. There are terrorists in Afghanistan. There are terrorists in Pakistan. There are terrorists in the far reaches of the world. But what we have learned about this Al-Qaeda network -- and, indeed, their connections to the Taliban -- is that they have a kind of global reach and that is why we are fighting them in so many different places. Now Pakistan is fighting them. They have been fighting in Waziristan with Pakistani forces. The Pakistanis have moved 10,000 more forces to the border. It is a long border; it's a difficult border.

But, of course, we believe that everybody needs to do more and we need to continue to adapt our tactics as the enemy changes. But I had very good discussions with President Karzai today, and I think we agree that we have a good common strategy. The International Security Assistance Force and the NATO forces that are moving into the south, as well as the American forces, which are going to stay in Afghanistan and remain committed to Afghanistan, are really engaging the enemy and having very great success against them. We always knew that the Taliban would be determined to try to continue to bring death and destruction to Afghanistan, just as it did when it was governing, ruling in Afghanistan.

But they are not going to succeed. Afghan security forces are getting stronger; the police force is getting stronger. The president talked to me about the need to accelerate the building of the Afghan police forces. So we have many tools that we can use. We -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, all the other allies in the war on terrorism -- have a lot in common here, which is we have a common enemy and we have to do everything we can to defeat that enemy.

RFE/RL: There is one thing that Afghans always complain about. They say that they do not trust when the Pakistani government says that they are fighting terrorists. There are madrassas in Quetta, open religious schools, hundreds of students are there, and they are getting training. These students are sent -- not ordinary people. How can you solve this misunderstanding?

Rice: Let's remember, these are difficult borders. In some places they are mountainous borders; in some places they are very long borders. And how to stop people from crossing the border is a long-time problem in this region. Now, we are indeed sharing information. We have a trilateral mechanism between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States that is sharing information and sharing how to solve this problem.

But I am quite sure that Pakistan and Afghanistan have a lot at stake -- both of them -- in the defeat of these terrorists. And we are going to continue to work very, very hard. We are going to continue to engage the terrorists and to use our military forces as well as to have Afghan forces -- which are getting stronger -- engage them. And the Pakistanis will do their part on the other side of the border.

RFE/RL: During your visit to Pakistan yesterday [June 27], media quoted you as calling on Pakistani officials to work better with the Afghan government. Does the word "better" mean that you spoke more strongly with them this time?

Rice: Well, "better" is something I would say to the Afghan government, the Pakistani government, and, indeed, to the U.S. government. We all need to do better because, to the degree that there is still insecurity in the country, to the degree that the Afghan people are not enjoying the benefits of security, we all need to take a look at what we are doing and to do better. That is what I meant. I think that we are all committed.

What the Afghan people need to know is that America is committed to Afghanistan's future and will be committed. We are not leaving. We are not leaving again, as we did in the 1980s. This time, our strategic relationship is strong and it is going to be a long-term relationship.

RFE/RL: Even if the government changes from Republican to Democrat?

Rice: The American people are committed to Afghanistan. You have to remember that America suffered on 9/11 because we had not stayed committed to Afghanistan. So, I think you can count on the commitment of the American people, whoever is in office.

Efforts by the Afghan government to recruit militia fighters as security along the Afghan-Pakistan border have raised concerns about reforms in the country. President Hamid Karzai's government says it does not want to bring entire militia groups into Afghanistan's security services. But experts remain skeptical, saying any move to arm or pay militia fighters in southern Afghanistan as police is a dangerous step that could set back years of work to disarm warlords and their fighters.

President Karzai has been visiting Pashtun tribal leaders close to the border with Pakistan this week in an attempt to recruit individual fighters to the Afghan National Police.

Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak tells RFE/RL that Kabul is not trying to undermine internationally backed programs aimed at disarming and demobilizing warlord militias. Wardak also says Kabul does not want to empower illegal militia groups.

"In some districts where there are few police -- [border areas near Pakistan] where there is conflict and security is weak -- we want to increase the number of police," Wardak says. "Across Afghanistan, our national police force comprises local police officers. We plan to fill these gaps within the national police force by recruiting more local people. Step by step, we will train them and make them part of the Afghan National Police" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," June 15, 2006).

...Two Steps Back?

Abdul Manan Farahi, the Afghan Interior Ministry's counterterrorism chief, says Kabul will not provide weapons to militias that already have been armed for generations. Instead, Farahi says the government will pay militia fighters who register their weapons and help with security.

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistan-based journalist and author of the book "Taliban," remains skeptical. Despite the declarations from Kabul about its plans, Rashid says it is a bad idea to use militia fighters to provide security in southern Afghanistan.

"It's a complete reversal of everything that the Afghan government and the international community have been trying to do in the last five years," Rashid says. "Hundreds of million of dollars have been spent in disarming militias and disarming the warlords. If Karzai now plans to arm any kind of Pashtun militias in the south, you will get an immediate demand from ethnic groups in the north -- Uzbeks and particularly the Tajiks -- to do the same in the north. And then we are back to having warlord militias."

'A Repudiation'

Rashid says he is particularly concerned about reports that hundreds of militia fighters loyal to a former provincial governor have been allowed to keep their weapons and are being paid $200 per month by the Finance Ministry in Kabul.

"Sher Mohammad Akhonzada, the former governor of Helmand, has already hired 500 fighters. Mr. Akhonzada was thrown out from the governorship of Helmand on the demand of the British government before [British troops] went down into Helmand because of his involvement with the drugs, because of his involvement with the Taliban, and [because of] his very unsavory reputation," Rashid says. "Now if a man like that is going to [remain] armed, it is going to lead to a very negative reaction by NATO, by the European Union, by the United Nations, by everyone trying to carry out a reform agenda. This is a repudiation of the whole reform agenda."

RFE/RL Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi says he also is concerned by the bolstering of border security with Afghan militia fighters. He predicts the plan will empower existing militias and could lead to the creation of new tribal militias.

"[Karzai's] government has said these are controlled militias. You hear statements from some members of his administration that they are armed anyway and have been armed for thousands of years," Tarzi says. "[The Afghan government says,] 'All we are doing is actually bringing them under government control.' In my view, this is a very disturbing situation. To create more militias -- while the Japanese and the UN and the United States are paying money to disarm militias -- is very shortsighted and very ad hoc. Instead of helping the state become more powerful, it is actually undermining the state's authority."

Mark Laity, NATO's spokesman in Kabul, says it is inappropriate for Kabul to use irregular armed forces as a police force. He says NATO is committed to the goal of disarming all illegal armed groups in the country by the end of next year. But he admits that effective implementation of the disarmament program depends on local situations.

Response To U.S. Move?

Journalist Rashid concludes that Kabul has been pushed toward the idea of recruiting militia fighters since Washington announced it would reduce aid for the Afghan National Army.

"What has been so depressing has been [U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld's announcement several months ago that the Americans would not pay salaries for the Afghan National Army, that they would slow down recruitment and training for the army, and that they would reduce the size of the army from 75,000 men to 50,000 men," Rashid says. "I think the Americans need to immediately rescind this. And if they don't, then some other countries -- perhaps NATO, perhaps the European Union -- need to fill the gap and promise the Afghans that they will speed up the building of the Afghan National Army and go back to the original figure of 75,000 men."

A tribal militia already is working as a security force in the eastern province of Kunar -- a mountainous border region near Pakistan where U.S.-led coalition forces have been battling Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.

Zahidullah Zahid, a spokesman for Kunar's governor, says the tribal people know the territory far better than police and army troops who are sent in from other parts of the country. Zahid says the Kunar militia fighters own their own guns -- mostly AK-47 assault rifles. He says they are being paid about $80 a month by the Afghan Interior Ministry. (By Ron Synovitz. RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Freshta Jalalazai contributed to this report.)

More than two decades of war and conflict in Afghanistan had a catastrophic effect on the country's rich and unique cultural and historical heritage. But some ancient works of art survived unscathed. They include the famed Bactrian gold collection. The cache lay dormant under the Hill of Gold, or Tilla-tapa, for 2,000 years until Soviet archeologists exposed it shortly before the 1979 invasion. Decades later, it was rediscovered and unveiled in 2003 to ease fears that it had been plundered during wartime. RFE/RL examines the storied Bactrian gold -- and why Afghans and the rest of the world must wait to see it.

Afghanistan's parliament -- eager to protect what remains of the country's heritage -- in May rejected a proposal to send the Bactrian gold on a world tour.

The priceless collection has been displayed only rarely, and very few people have ever seen it.

But the director of Kabul's national museum, Omara Khan Masudi, is among the lucky few.

"They are very delicate pieces," Masudi says. "Gold pieces constitute most of the treasure, and they doubtlessly have great value in shedding light on the history of Afghanistan and its elegant arts. We are proud that we still have the collection with us."

Found at a 2,000-year-old burial site of rich Kushan nomads, Masudi says the collection contains thousands of pieces of gold jewelry, figurines, funeral ornaments, and personal belongings.

The hoard was discovered in 1978 and 1979 by a group of Afghan and Soviet archeologists led by a Greek-Russian archaeologist named Victor Sariyannidis.

"The Bactrian treasure was found in Jowzjan Province in six graves that belong to the first century [before Christ] and the first decade of the Christian calendar," Masudi says. "It totaled 21,618 pieces. It was delivered to the [Afghan] National Museum the same year, in 1979."

Out Of Sight, Not Mind

About a year later, some of the pieces were displayed briefly in an exhibition at the museum in Kabul. But with the arrival of Soviet troops and other threats, the treasure was hidden away in the museum.

In 1988, the gold pieces were transferred to a highly secure vault within the central bank at the compound of the Afghan presidential palace. The treasure was viewed only once in the next few years -- when President Mohammad Najibullah wanted foreign diplomats to see that the Soviets had not absconded with it.

"During the rule of Dr. Najibullah, we had a one-day exhibition of these works in the Arg Palace," Masudi says.

Years of civil war followed, during which a significant portion of Afghanistan's historical heritage was looted or destroyed.

Loyal bankers thwarted efforts by various sides in the ensuing years to even see the Bactrian gold. But such secrecy also spawned speculation that the treasure had been lost, stolen, or perhaps worse: melted down.

Cache Found

Finally, after the central bank's vaults were opened in 2003, the country was assured that the treasure was safe.

An internationally aided inventory followed, and the 22,000 pieces were photographed and catalogued in Dari and English.

In 2004, several items were displayed to selected guests -- including President Hamid Karzai, cabinet ministers, foreign diplomats, and some media.

National Museum Director Masudi says security concerns, inadequate facilities to house the treasure, and a lack of expertise conspire against the Afghan public, which will have to wait to see the Bactrian gold: "It is very difficult for me to predict [when the Bactrian gold might be displayed publicly]," Masudi says. "As you know, Kabul's National Museum was severely damaged during the civil war -- [about 70 percent of] its items were looted. Following the fall of the Taliban, with the Culture Ministry and the help of international organizations -- especially UNESCO -- we have done our best to restore the museum. But we are still facing many problems."

Protected For Posterity

The world will also have to wait to see the Afghan treasure. The Afghan parliament in May rejected a proposal to exhibit the collection in a tour of European and U.S. museums.

Parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai tells RFE/RL that too many risks are involved to allow this iconic Afghan treasure to travel.

"Lack of strong insurance from a reliable company was one issue. There were also concerns that these objects could be destroyed or damaged," Barakzai says. "Their packing was also of concern -- and [there were fears] that they could be replaced with replicas. All of these led to the decision [not to tour it]. We don't want to lose what is left of our historical heritage. We have lost enough of our archeological heritage. We have to do our best to preserve what is left."

Barakzai adds that lawmakers are not opposed to displaying the collection. On the contrary -- with the right measures in place, they want the world to see more of Afghanistan's proud history.

"Every nation likes to display its rich history and its past," Barakzai says. "We might also try to have an international museum inside Afghanistan to attract more tourists to come to Afghanistan and see the historical heritage of this land -- some of which may be unique in the world."

Barakzai says that exhibiting the Bactrian gold could buoy the spirits of beleaguered Afghans and help strengthen national identity by documenting a proud history. Two thousand years after it was deposited in the Bactrian soil, it might also continue to inspire future generations. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

As the United Nations marks its International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on June 25, there is some good news: according to the UN's latest World Drug Report, global opium production fell last year. Though it is a welcome development, the head of the UN's counternarcotics office says Afghan opium production could increase this year. That will have a strong impact on Iran, which has the world's highest drug-seizure rate but also suffers from drug crime and abuse problems. While the UN believes a reduction in demand for drugs is the most important aspect of counternarcotics, the Iranian government continues to emphasize supply interdiction.

Global opium production is estimated to have reached 4,620 tons in 2005 -- 5 percent less than the previous year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) World Drug Report 2006, which was released on June 26.

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa gave an overview of which countries are growing the opium.

A Good Year, But Much More To Do

"By and large, 90 percent is from Afghanistan," he said. "There is still a certain amount of cultivation -- I think over 30,000 hectares but going down rapidly -- in Myanmar. On the 14th of February this year we certified Laos as opium free; there is practically nothing from... Thailand; about 5,000-6,000 hectares were detected over time in Colombia -- to some extent eradicated but some is still there -- and the Colombia crop goes to the United States while the Afghanistan crop goes basically to Europe, China, and Russia."

Overall cultivation figures from Afghanistan have fallen, but cultivation in some areas of the country has increased. There are indications, furthermore, that opium poppy planting increased this year, particularly in the south.

Some 24 percent of all the opiates produced annually are eventually seized by security forces. Afghanistan produced some 4,100 tons of opium in 2005, so it is natural that its neighbors -- Iran, Pakistan, and China -- accounted for the highest seizure rates.

Reducing Demand Also Important

But Costa says it is not enough to interdict drugs or even to eliminate opium crops. Costa recommended aggressive measures be made to reduce demand for narcotics.

"We can consider drugs as an addiction problem and therefore a behavioral problem," he said. "We can consider drugs as a cultivation [and] an economic problem; but by and large it's a market, with a demand and a supply. An illicit market -- an 'evil' market, if you wish -- but still it has a demand and a supply. Like for any other product, if you cut the supply the demand persists. Something is going to happen. First of all the price will skyrocket."

Costa added that more people will enter the drug business as it becomes more lucrative, and therefore more land will be devoted to drug production. It is also possible that heroin addicts will turn to other drugs that could be more dangerous.

"Therefore, my plea is indeed to forcefully act on curbing the cultivation, and also, and perhaps even more forcefully, acting on reducing demand, namely abuse, namely consumption."

According to the UN report, narcotics trafficking to Central Asia and Pakistan has decreased, whereas trafficking towards Iran has increased. Almost 60 percent of Afghan opiates go to or through Iran and, according to the UNODC, this figure will rise.

But UNODC chief Costa also pointed out that Africa is playing an increasingly important role in drug trafficking as interdiction efforts make it more difficult for traffickers to use traditional routes.

"Africa is under threat. Nobody suspects transhipment of narcotics from Africa into Europe," Costa said. "Therefore, traffickers are using Africa to tranship cocaine coming from Colombia and the [Andes mountain region] and heroin coming from South Asia and Afghanistan, in particular."

Drugs Causing Problems In Iran

The amount of narcotics entering Iran is having a profound impact on public health. Dr. Mohammad Mehdi Gooya, the chief of the Iranian Health Ministry's disease-management center, said in April that approximately 3.7 million Iranians abuse drugs, "Mardom Salari" reported on April 18. He said there are 2.5 million addicts, and that some 137,000 inject drugs occasionally.

Gooya said that research conducted five years earlier in six cities in Tehran Province found that many addicts are female sex workers.

He added that, "Some 94.8 percent of AIDS patients are men, and 64.3 percent of them caught the disease through the use of infected and shared syringes, while only 7.3 percent caught AIDS through sexual intercourse."

The impact of narcotics on the Iranian penal system is noticeable as well. More than 60 percent of the country's convicts, Iranian officials say, have been imprisoned for drug-related crimes. And more than 10,000 narcotics traffickers and drug users have been executed over the past few decades, while hundreds more face the death penalty.

Ali Akbar Yesaqi, the head of Iran's Prisons, Security, and Corrections Organization, said some 50,000 people go to prison every month, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on June 14. Yesaqi said that the prison population increased by 1.7 percent in the last year. He added that some 70 percent of the prisoners seek drugs, and he admitted that it is difficult to prevent drugs from getting into prisons.

Another prison organization official, Mohammad Ali Zanjirei, said drug-related crimes are the most common in 19 of Iran's 30 provinces, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on June 20.

The narcotics trade is not just having an impact on the public-health sector and the penal system. The Iranian government says more than 3,000 security officers have lost their lives fighting drug trafficking, and Tehran asserts that it has spent billions of dollars creating static defenses along its 1,800 kilometer border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. As most of the drugs smuggled into Iran are destined for Europe, Iranian officials say Western states should be greater financial support to their efforts.

Iranian Officials Speak Out

Fada Hussein Maleki, the secretary-general of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, addressed these issues in a speech before the June 23 Friday Prayers sermon at Tehran University. He criticized American and British efforts in Afghanistan because of the failure to stop drug trafficking, and he accused them of wanting to legalize opium cultivation, IRNA reported. Maleki added that the prevalence of crystal methamphetamine, Ecstasy, and other synthetic drugs is complicating the situation in Iran.

Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani dedicated a great deal of his June 23 sermon in Tehran to counternarcotics as well. In countries like Iran, he said, synthetic drugs are more dangerous than opium, state television reported.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani failed to discuss Iranians' demand for drugs, and he focused instead on the supply side, for which he blamed other countries. He referred to "traces of colonialism" and added: "We realize that the leaders of all these major trafficking bands that we arrest are supported by colonial countries." The West could wipe out opium in Afghanistan by using chemical sprays, Hashemi-Rafsanjani continued, and if it can track down terrorists hiding in caves, why can't it deal with narcotics dealers in the streets and heroin-manufacturers?

Iran's Expediency Council is revising current laws, Hashemi-Rafsanjani told the congregation, but the police, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and legislature must work together as well to help combat drug use and trafficking. Public awareness is important, too, he said. "After all, if we can change the destiny of a young addict, be it a boy or a girl, and give proper guidance to a household where an addicted person was brought up, we can help prevent others from falling into this dangerous trap." Hashemi-Rafsanjani called on all citizens to work against drugs: "We should all join hands and act together to tackle the problem."

It is notable that for UNODC chief Costa reducing the demand for drugs is the most important issue, whereas Iran's leaders seem to continue to focus on reducing the supplies of drugs. More than a year ago the Iranian government said that greater attention needs to be given to reducing demand, but with the election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad the old yet unsuccessful prioritization of law and order and interdiction have been reinstated. (Bill Samii)