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Afghan Report: July 14, 2006

July 14, 2006, Volume 5, Number 19
On his first visit to the United States since becoming Afghan foreign minister in April, Rangin Dadfar Spanta elaborated on a new counterterrorism strategy that has been proposed by his government (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 28, 2006). It is a three-pronged approach that involves sustained efforts to stifle ideological and military threats at home and abroad, as well as consolidating success through reconstruction. But arguably the inherent message is that the government in Kabul wants foreign help to rein in its neighbor to the east.

Minister Spanta said recently that the approach is based on three elements that Kabul views as crucial in the battle against terrorism.

First, he said, counterterrorism efforts should concentrate on centers of ideological and military training of terrorists and their financial resources -- all of which he described as being outside Afghanistan.

Second, terrorists should be confronted inside Afghanistan in a sustained manner similar to the current Operation Mountain Thrust in southern Afghanistan. Spanta said a rapid-deployment capability should be maintained alongside military operations to allow security forces to hold on to areas that they clear of terrorist activities.

He said the third component involves reconstruction once areas are free of the terrorist threat.

The second and third points in that strategy offer nothing new. They are simply in line with the current counterterrorism strategy of the U.S.-led coalition, which is spearheading the operation to which Spanta alluded in four southern provinces.

Troubles With The Neighbor

What is notable in the new Afghan strategy is the primacy of the focus on external factors.

Speaking at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on July 6, Spanta avoided blaming any single country for the ideological and military training of terrorists or their financing. But in the ensuing discussion, he left little doubt that Kabul views Pakistan as the main center for terrorists operating in Afghanistan.

Officials in Kabul have been pointing their fingers at Pakistan for some time, accusing Islamabad or intelligence services of turning a blind eye to cross-border terrorism targeting the Afghan central government. Many observers remain convinced that much of the former Taliban regime's leadership -- along with leaders of Al-Qaeda -- are operating in the lawless Afghan-Pakistani border region.

An unprecedented upsurge in violence in Afghanistan has recently spread far beyond regions near the border with Pakistan. Attacks have reached the normally more secure northern areas of Afghanistan. Criticism of President Hamid Karzai's administration has spread, too.

Not Unprecedented

Kabul's response appears to suggest that all of Afghanistan's ills have originated in Pakistan. The new counterterrorism strategy implies that many problems will continue unless Pakistan stops its support of terrorists and other "enemies of peace and security" in Afghanistan. But it also concedes that Kabul is powerless to force such cooperation on Islamabad.

So the Karzai administration is appealing to its foreign backers, in effect pleading that they stop Pakistan from meddling in Afghan affairs.

While powerless to force Pakistan to abide by its wishes, Afghanistan has done little recently to foster mutual understanding between two neighbors who have had an uneasy coexistence since Pakistan was established as a state nearly 60 years ago.

One of Afghanistan's first political gestures toward its new neighbor was a demand for self-determination for Pashtun and Baluchi tribes on the Indian subcontinent. The dispute over what came to be known as the "Pashtunistan" problem led to Afghanistan casting the lone vote against Pakistani admission to the United Nations in 1947 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," May 7, 2006).

Pakistani policy has long sought to prevent the rise of nationalism among Pashtuns -- on either side of the Afghan-Pakistani border. To achieve that goal, Islamabad has tried to infuse Islamism as a counterbalance to nationalism within its own Pashtun population, as well as among Pashtuns across the border in Afghanistan with the help of proxies like the Taliban.

Responding to a question from RFE/RL following his July 6 speech on whether a softer stance by Kabul on a long-standing border dispute might not have a favorable effect on Islamabad's treatment of the neo-Taliban, Spanta rejected any link between the "problem of terrorist attacks" in Afghanistan disagreement over the so-called Durand Line.

Echoing the policies of Afghan governments from the 1950s to the 1980s, Spanta called the Durand Line an Afghan "national issue" that lies beyond his authority as foreign minister. But in the next breath, Spanta signaled a potential link between cross-border counterterrorism efforts by Islamabad and Kabul's own calls for self-determination for Pashtuns in Pakistan. Spanta said that once terrorist activities cease, Kabul is ready to discuss "everything" with Islamabad (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," August 7, 2003).

Not Without Blame

Kabul is arguably justified in making a priority of a counterterrorism strategy that targets assistance for terrorists. And the Karzai administration's finger pointing at Pakistan over its approach to neo-Taliban fighters on its territory is perhaps understandable.

But Afghan officials should be aware that their current policies toward Pakistan -- in particular concerning the apparent resuscitation of the "Pashtunistan" issue -- are unlikely to deter Islamabad from maintaining options that allow Islamabad to pressure Kabul to stop meddling in Pakistani affairs.

Afghanistan needs international support to pursue its counterterrorism strategy, but Kabul also must be proactive in doing its part. (Amin Tarzi)

The frustration over the continuing upsurge of violence in Afghanistan has led the Afghan government, Pakistan, U.S.-led coalition forces, and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to engage in mutual finger pointing and blame games.

Recently Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister and current professor at the National Defense University in Washington, and Amin Tarzi, regional analyst for the Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, participated in a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington to discuss new security and development challenges facing Afghanistan.

Jalali, who served as Karzai's top security official from January 2003 to September 2005, suggested that attempts by various actors in Afghanistan to avoid guilt helps postconflict militias thrive. He described such militias as similar to those that operated during the years of conflict in that country. He said that although peace has ensued, part of Afghanistan is still in conflict, which requires an "integrative and comprehensive" approach to the problem. Many actors in Afghanistan have different levels of commitment and are facing a "lack of coordination," Jalali said.

Jalali said a twofold disenchantment lies at the heart of Afghanistan's "postconflict reconstruction" problem. He said that on the one hand, the Afghan public is disillusioned because it thinks the government is not delivering. On the other hand, the Afghan government is disappointed at the international community's failure to provide sufficient funds. "The glass is half full." Jalali said. "But the people are looking at the glass as half empty."

Jalali said security is the primary demand of the Afghan people. "They didn't care about new restaurants and cafes," Jalali said. "The people just wanted to be free from war.... Not promises and polices, but opportunity."

He said people also wanted to see justice being done. Jalali explained that many individuals who in the past terrorized the people are still free, sometimes holding powerful positions.

"It is not the Taliban," he said, suggesting that many seek to blame the former hard-line regime. He emphasized that ordinary people don't see positive changes in their lives. "This is going to undermine the peace process," he said.

Jalali said people are forced either to cooperate with the Taliban or to stay aloof for security reasons. "We realize the Taliban doesn't have a future," he said.

Tarzi identified the failure of the current government to provide security as the main reason behind the reemergence of the Taliban. Tarzi said that some of residents in the south tend to see the problem as, "Under the Taliban, we at least had security." However, he pointed out that the Taliban movement that is present today is different from the past movement.

Tarzi said the core of the Taliban problem lies in the unjustified identification of all Pashtuns with the Taliban, and thus the "enemy as Pashtun." This, he argued, has forced the Karzai administration to shy away from naming the enemy it is facing.

Tarzi predicted that the Taliban issue will not go away until Afghanistan and Pakistan create an understanding. "Both sides are blaming the other side, [claiming] that it is not doing enough," Tarzi said.

Tarzi said he fears the formation of "tribal militias," which the Afghan government refers to as "community policing." He said Afghanistan needs "strategic, long term" military solutions rather than "tactical, short-term" operations. Tarzi said the use of tribal militias could offer a short-term, tactical solution to challenge the neo-Taliban ascendancy in parts of the Pashtun heartlands on either side of the Afghan-Pakistani border. But he said the strategic goal of both countries is the establishment of effective state control in these areas. "You don't need 'shock and awe,' but strategic, little steps," he said.

"The security situation has gotten bad," Tarzi said. He counted 27 cases of suicide bombings in Afghanistan since April. "For a country that had zero, it's huge," he said. However, he emphasized that while the south and east of the country are identified as the most problematic, the situation in the north is worsening.

The speakers agreed that NATO's problem is not getting a higher number of troops, but winning the trust of the people and changing tactics. Tarzi claimed the insurgents identify NATO as a crusader force that could be an easier target than the current U.S.-led forces. "They see NATO as an easier, bigger target," he said (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," June 15, 2006).

On the topic of objections to President Hamid Karzai's governance, Jalali argued that the president has no real team behind him and lacks confidence in its support. "Karzai needs to be helped in order to avoid tactical defense as a consequence of compromise," Jalali said. (Tijana Milosevic)

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held talks in Kabul on July 11 with President Hamid Karzai and other senior officials. Topics included the fight against Taliban insurgents and terrorism and the reconstruction process of war-ravaged Afghanistan. Rumsfeld's visit comes against a backdrop of intense fighting between the U.S.-led coalition and Taliban militants, and less than two weeks after a June 28 visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," June 30, 2006).

Washington has sought to reassure Afghan President Hamid Karzai of its lasting support and commitment as security continues to deteriorate in the south of the country.

On July 11 in Kabul, Rumsfeld said the planned reduction in U.S. troop numbers does not mean that Washington has lost interest in Afghanistan.

"The United States will continue with its counterterrorism efforts working with the Afghan security forces," Rumsfeld said. "It will continue working with the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior on the strengthening of the Afghan security forces."

Karzai Welcoming Of U.S. Support

President Karzai reiterated that his country needs U.S. support as it fights a growing insurgency.

"If the question is whether we still need the U.S. assistance? [The answer is] very, very much," Karzai said. "Whether we still need the U.S. assurance? Very, very much. Whether we still need the U.S. participation? Very strongly, yes."

The coalition announced today that its forces killed 30 suspected Taliban fighters in early morning combat in the southern Helmand Province.

More than 700 people have been killed in recent months in Afghanistan in escalating violence blamed on armed insurgents or terrorists.

The U.S. defense secretary said in Kabul that "cross-border" activity is behind some of the violence and called for more cooperation from Afghanistan's neighbors to stop the violence.

"There is no question that there is some cross-border activity -- Taliban and Al-Qaeda -- and that the cooperation that we have with some of the neighbors has been helpful," Rumsfeld said. "But it has not yet completely reduced the cross-border violence, and it is something that needs to continue to be worked on both sides of the border."

Appeals To Brussels, Moscow

Rumsfeld called on Europe to provide a "master plan" for Afghanistan to help stem the narcotics trade that he said was helping fund militants in Afghanistan.

He made a similar call on July 10 in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, urging European and Russian support for the Afghan government.

"Western Europe ought to have an enormous interest in the success in Afghanistan, and it's going to take a lot more effort on their part for [President] Karzai's government to be successful," Rumsfeld said.

President Karzai said today that his government is working with the international community to defeat what his government calls "the enemies of Afghanistan" and improve the security situation.

Border Region

Senior Afghan officials have repeatedly accused authorities in neighboring Pakistan of failing to adequately counter cross-border terrorism targeting the government in Kabul.

Karzai today included a reference to the area of their mutual border among the factors contributing to increased terrorist activity.

"The internal reasons are the weakness of our police force in [some] districts of the country, especially in the areas of the country bordering with Pakistan -- we have no strong police force [there]," Karzai said.

In what was seemingly a veiled reference to Pakistan, Karzai said the continuation of "supply, ideological motivation, [and] training grounds" for terrorists are among the things outside the country fueling the violence.

But he also told terrorists that they will lose their fight in Afghanistan.

"The defeat [of terrorism] is certain," Karzai said. "What we are trying to achieve is to make that [victory] sooner for us, and for the rest of the world. So the war against terrorism is not [being lost]. It has [already been won]. The remnants [of terrorist elements] are there, but we must clean [them] out."

Rumsfeld also said in July 11 that Taliban militants will be defeated in Afghanistan.

On July 10, the United Nations' top envoy to Afghanistan, Tom Koenigs, expressed concern at the deteriorating security situation in southern Afghanistan. But he added that -- in his words -- "backing away is not an option."

Koenigs told reporters today that the international community needs to provide greater financial, military, and political support to fight the insurgency in Afghanistan. He added that the problem of "havens" for terrorists and insurgents outside Afghanistan must be addressed. (RFE/RL)

An Afghan member of parliament is contesting claims by the U.S.-led coalition about battle casualties in his home province of Oruzgan. Lawmaker Hajji Abdul Khaleq Mujahed says the killing of innocent civilians by coalition air strikes in southern Afghanistan is going unreported. U.S. military officials say they have killed dozens of suspected Taliban fighters in Oruzgan in the past week but have no information about civilian casualties there. An Afghan human rights official says at least 600 of the 1,100 violent deaths in southern Afghanistan this year have been civilians killed by terrorists or coalition attacks.

Mujahed is angry over U.S.-led coalition operations against the Taliban in his province of Oruzgan.

Mujahed says U.S. and Australian troops last week opened fire on his family as they traveled by car from Oruzgan to the main hospital in Kandahar for a medical checkup. His brother-in-law was killed and five others were injured, including his wife and two of his children.

Differing Accounts

The coalition denies any involvement. Coalition spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Paul Fitzpatrick has suggested that the legislator's complaints could be "extremist propaganda."

That infuriates Mujahed. The lawmaker contends that official battle casualties in Afghanistan are the propaganda of the U.S. military, with innocent civilians who are killed often counted as "suspected Taliban." "The Taliban started to flee from the village when the bombing started. [I was lying on the ground] and one of the Taliban actually stepped on my hand as he ran away. And after they left, we still came under fire."

In Oruzgan's latest violence, U.S. officials say coalition air strikes on July 10 killed 40 suspected Taliban fighters at villages near the provincial capital of Tarin Kot.

But Mujahed tells RFE/RL the death toll was higher -- and that many innocent civilians were among the dead and injured.

"About 60 people -- including men, women, children, young people, and the elderly -- have been martyred," Mujahed says. "Up to 40 others were wounded."

A U.S. military spokesman in Kabul told RFE/RL that the coalition has no information about civilian casualties as a result of those operations near Tarin Kot.

Injured Speak Out

But RFE/RL's correspondent in Kandahar spoke with women hospitalized with shrapnel wounds from the air strikes. One injured woman, who asked not to be identified, told RFE/RL from her hospital bed that Taliban fighters had been hiding in her village of Karak when coalition planes started to drop bombs.

"The planes were flying very low and the pilots did not seem to be paying attention to [what they were attacking]," she said. "The Taliban started to flee from the village when the bombing started. [I was lying on the ground] and one of the Taliban actually stepped on my hand as he ran away. And after they left, we still came under fire."

The woman says five people from her village were killed -- including members of her family and neighbors -- and that others were injured. Residents of two nearby villages also complain of civilian casualties.

The incidents reflect a pattern seen in other parts of southern Afghanistan since coalition forces launched Operation Mountain Thrust in mid-May. It is their largest offensive against militants in Afghanistan since the ousting of the Taliban regime from Kabul in late 2001.

Nowhere To Turn

Afghans injured by coalition air strikes in Kandahar, Helmand, and Oruzgan provinces all confirm that Taliban fighters were in their villages when the attacks came. The villagers complain that their lives are threatened by Taliban if they refuse to help the militants, but they are bombed by coalition aircraft if they offer to help militants.

According to statistics released by the U.S. military, more than 1,100 people have been killed in southern Afghanistan by fighting between coalition forces and the Taliban since January. About 800 of those deaths have come in the two months since Operation Mountain Thrust began.

Although U.S. officials do not keep statistics on civilian deaths, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission does. Commission spokesman Nader Nadery tells RFE/RL that at least half of people killed in fighting so far this year are thought to have been civilians.

"There are no exact figures," Nadery says. "But the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, especially our offices in the provinces, have recorded some figures that show more than 600 civilians have lost their lives in recent months as the result of terrorist acts or counterterrorism operations."

Taliban violence this year began to rise in March with a series of suicide bombings, rocket and mortar attacks, and bold frontal assaults against coalition outposts. Nadery stresses that those attacks also account for the 600 documented civilian deaths:

"The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has expressed concern about the deaths of civilians many times -- especially during the past year that terrorist operations have increased," Nadery says. "At the same time, counterterrorism operations have also been expanded. But unfortunately civilians have been the main victims of the growing insecurity and the increase in terrorist operations in Afghanistan."

Afghan Defense Minister Major General Rahim Wardak tells RFE/RL that no innocent civilians were killed by the July 10 air strikes. Nevertheless, he says government delegates were sent to Oruzgan and Helmand today to investigate complaints of civilian deaths in both provinces.

(By Ron Synovitz with contributions from Radio Free Afghanistan's Jawed Ahmad Wafa in Kandahar and Mustafa Sarwar and Freshta Jalalzai in Prague, and RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari in Prague.)