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Afghan Report: March 11, 2005

11 March 2005, Volume 4, Number 9
By Amin Tarzi

Demonstrations rocked two of Afghanistan's five largest cities on 7 March -- Kandahar in the south and Mazar-e Sharif in the north. While the reasons behind these protests varied and the central government's response to them was markedly different, one factor connects the incidents: the presence of former warlords acting as governors of the two provinces.

According to a statement by the Afghan Interior Ministry on 7 March, Kandahar residents took to the streets in protest over "security issues and child kidnapping." The central government made a quick and high-level response to the incident, sending Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali to Kandahar on 8 March. An Interior Ministry spokesman said President Hamid Karzai is very concerned about recent abductions and overall insecurity in Kandahar and dispatched Jalali to personally investigate the situation.

The demonstrations, in which people chanted slogans against the United States and in support of the ousted Taliban regime, must have had a deja vu effect in Kabul's circles of power. After all, it was popular disgust with insecurity in Kandahar that propelled the Taliban onto the political scene in 1994. The Taliban later became instruments of foreign powers and international terrorist organizations, but their initial popularity stemmed from their ability to stop kidnappings, rapes and assaults on civilians by warlords or gangs who exploited the lack of security provided by the central government.

Demonstrators in Mazar-e Sharif, the administrative capital of Balkh Province, were demanding the resignation of Balkh Governor Ata Mohammad Nur and the dismissal of Sayyed Habib, the head of the community section of Balkh's health department. The protesters claimed that Nur has usurped people's land and that the health department has fired doctors without legitimate cause.

It remains unclear whether Kabul has intervened in or commented on the demonstrations in Mazar-e Sharif. Certainly, no high-level investigative team has been dispatched to the north.

Nur, called "the founder of democracy" by state-owned Balkh Television, said in an interview on 7 March that the protesters were "stupid people" who misused democracy and had come to Mazar-e Sharif from neighboring provinces. Nur also dismissed the charges that he has taken people's land and claimed the dismissed doctors were lazy.

"I will not let anyone take their pushcarts to the streets and impose their wishes on me by staging rallies. This cannot happen. If they have documents, I ask them to come to me. I am sure the crimes of those who have organized the demonstration will be revealed one day," Nur added.

Back in Kandahar, the security situation -- particularly the kidnapping of children for ransom or sexual assault -- has been deteriorating. According to a BBC report from Kandahar, an average of one child is kidnapped per week. There are fears, however, that the real number is much higher as some parents do not to report kidnappings for fear of reprisals or out of shame if their child has been a victim of sexual assault.

Kandahar's worsening security may be linked to an array of issues, such as the increasing dominance of drug lords in the province; lack of resources devoted to personal security as the hunt for neo-Taliban militants continues; and the shifting of focus by some groups from militancy to criminality.

However, both Balkh and Kandahar provinces are governed by former warlords who have been absorbed into the government structure, but who have remained in the same geographical area over which they exercised power through their private militias.

Nur formerly commanded Military Corps No. 7, which in 2002 and 2003 battled forces loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum's Junbish-e Melli-ye Islami party in northern Afghanistan. Karzai appointed Nur as Balkh governor in August 2004, apparently in exchange for his agreeing to hand over some of the heavy weapons in his possession (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 5 August 2004). Nur's militia, though officially dismantled, continues to be the main force in Balkh.

Gul Agha Sherzai served as Kandahar governor from late 2001 until August 2003, when in an effort to improve security there and reduce the power of local warlords, Karzai replaced him with Mohammad Yusof Pashtun. Sherzai was called to Kabul to serve as minister of urban development, but reportedly rejected the offer and remains idle. Under Pashtun's administration, the overall security situation in Kandahar took at sharp turn for the better. However, in the latest Afghan cabinet reshuffle in December 2004, Sherzai was reappointed as governor of Kandahar with an added, albeit symbolic, portfolio of minister adviser to Karzai (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 December 2004).

So far, the most successful transformation of a former warlord to a central government administrator has been the case of Mohammad Ismail Khan, who ruled the western Herat Province until his dismissal and later appointment in December as energy minister (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 22 January 2005). Ismail Khan not only no longer rules Herat, but he has proven to be a good administrator in Kabul.

In the absence of any clear-cut method to disenfranchise warlords, commanders and their like, the best way to absorb them into Afghanistan's central administrative system seems to be to remove them from their geographical zones of power. The situation in Balkh and certainly in Kandahar suggests that leaving local strongmen in their strongholds does not lead to better security in those regions.

By Sultan Sarwar and Golnaz Esfandiari

Habibullah Fawzi, a former Taliban diplomat at the Afghan Embassy in Riyadh, told RFE/RL in an exclusive interview on 3 March that talks between former members of the Taliban militia and the Afghan government aimed at national reconciliation have been going on for two years.

Fawzi says there has been a considerable amount of understanding between the two sides -- without going into details.

"For the higher interests of the country, we think there is a need for a political process in order to reach a mutual understanding between different ethnic groups, based on Islamic principles and Afghan values," Fawzi says. "We want to bring peace, unity, and stability to our country, and we believe that strengthening peace and stability in Afghanistan is not only in the benefit of Afghans, but it is also in the interest of the region and the world."

The Afghan government has called on former Taliban members to join the country's social and political life. The only individuals excluded are those involved with terrorist groups or committing atrocities. The call is supported by the United States.

Fawzi, along with Abdul Hakim Mujahed, a former envoy to the United Nations; Arsallah Rahmani, the former deputy minister of higher education; and Rahmatullah Wahidyar, a former deputy minister of refugees and returnees, are the highest-ranking former Taliban to participate in the talks.

All four fled to Pakistan after U.S. and Afghan forces drove the Taliban from power in late 2001.

The former Taliban officials distance themselves from militants who are continuing attacks in the southern and eastern regions of the country. They say they are talking to the government in the name of their party -- not as Taliban members.

"We talked to the government representing the Khuddam al-Furqan [Servants of the Koran] -- not the Taliban," Fawzi says (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 February 2005). He indicated that the group was established in 1967. "Of course there are some groups who are in favor of military actions, but we believe the majority of people think that for establishing peace and stability in the country conflict and clashes should end."

The ousted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and his supporters have condemned the talks as a plot and say they will continue their fight against foreign forces and the Afghan government.

Fawzi tells RFE/RL that the four share the Hamid Karzai government's vision of peace and stability.

"We believe that Afghanistan is an Islamic country and the desire of the people should be reflected in the government, we want the representatives of public to join the government, so that a national Islamic government is formed, the representatives of people should be chosen according to their will, their demands should be fulfilled," Fawzi says. "And there should be an end to the atmosphere of intimidation, lack of confidence, and fear.... Instead of people being harmed under different names, effective steps must be taken to solve their problems. Regarding his views on women's rights, Fawzi said that whatever rights Islam has afforded to women should be implemented, citing women's right to education.

Reports of the talks have met with mixed reactions by the general population, though several Afghans interviewed by RFE/RL expressed hope the move would put an end to the fighting and boost reconstruction efforts. (For more on this issue, see news section below.)

(Sultan Sarwar and Golnaz Esfandiari are RFE/RL correspondents)

By Ron Synovitz

A senior commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan says fugitive Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and his inner circle have lost their direct control over most Taliban fighters.

U.S. Major General Eric Olson says Taliban militants now lack cohesion and are a fading force in the southern and southeastern Afghan provinces that have been their strongholds in recent years. "It seems very clear to us," Olson said, "given the disjointed and uncoordinated effort that the Taliban has been able to launch, that those type of leaders -- [and] Mullah Omar specifically -- are not exercising effective command and control over Taliban operations in Afghanistan."

Just last month, Olson had warned U.S. policymakers against reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan. He had argued that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda continue to pose a grave security threat. But at a Kabul news conference on 7 March, Olson said he sees a "dramatic decrease" in the number of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. Still, he says, the U.S.-led coalition forces are preparing operations against what has come to be known in Afghanistan as an annual spring offensive. "There has been an increase in Taliban and enemy activity in the spring [compared to the winter months]. And we anticipate that the enemy has the intention of trying to raise the level of activity this spring."

One reason Olson is confident of a weaker Taliban offensive this spring is an amnesty that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government is offering to rank-and-file Taliban fighters (see feature above and news items below).

Olson says about 30 mid-level Taliban fighters already have surrendered their weapons to coalition forces under the offer. He says that since laying down their arms, all 30 have been allowed to return to their villages without facing prosecution or imprisonment. He says one has even been allowed to serve on his local police force.

Ian Kemp is an independent defense analyst based in London. He says the dwindling number of die-hard Taliban fighters is just one reason why fewer Taliban attacks are expected in the coming months. "Certainly since the fall of Afghanistan to the U.S.-led coalition more than three years ago, there has been a constant attrition of the Taliban forces," Kemp said. "The second factor is the improvement in the security situation as a result of greater coordination -- or greater cooperation -- between the U.S.-led coalition operating in Afghanistan and the Pakistan security forces."

Kemp explains that Pakistan's efforts on its side of the border during the past year have seriously hampered the ability of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to organize attacks in Afghanistan: "This has always been a major concern," Kemp said, "that the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda have been able to slip across the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, use that as a sanctuary, regroup during the winter months, and then move back into Afghanistan for the spring offensive. But what we've seen over the past year or so is much greater efforts on the part of the Pakistan army and other Pakistan security forces in cooperating with the United States in combating terrorism."

Kemp says he thinks U.S. and NATO efforts to build up the Afghan National Army also have created conditions that encourage Taliban fighters to quit the insurgency against Karzai's government. "The U.S. strategy has always been to build up the strength of the Afghan security forces themselves," Kemp said. "This is a slow process which involves the recruitment of Afghan soldiers and then the training across the rank structure from the private soldier to, actually, the generals commanding these forces. This is clearly paying dividends. And it also allows the local people to see that the Afghans are taking a greater responsibility for their own security. General Olson and other senior U.S. commanders would point to this as being one of the big successes."

But not all experts are convinced of General Olson's expectations for the coming spring. Wahid Mojhdah is a former member of the Taliban regime and the author of a book about that regime. He told RFE/RL recently that the Taliban remains dangerous for some of the same reasons that Olson sees as signs of coalition success. "They are operating in a very similar way to Al-Qaeda," Mojhdah said, "meaning they have no central command structure and the different groups in each region work [independently of each other]. Therefore, the Taliban is more dangerous because it is not clear where there will be an attack or where their [next] operation will be. It is because they've grown weaker [in numbers] that they have had to change their guerrilla war tactics. And as time goes by, it is possible that they will become even weaker [in numbers]. But this doesn't mean they will be less dangerous. It is possible that despair will turn them [increasingly] to actions like the suicide attacks we already have witnessed in a few cases."

Nearly 1,100 people have been killed as a result of Taliban-linked violence since late 2003. They include militants, foreign troops, Afghan civilians, aid workers, and government employees.

(Ron Synovitz is an RFE/RL correspondent)

Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, the former foreign minister of the ousted Taliban regime, is playing a key role in the Afghan government's reconciliation efforts with members of the former regime, AFP reported on 1 March. Afghan presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin told a news conference in Kabul on 1 March that members of the Taliban regime who have come for talks with the government "are of course in consultation" with Mutawakkil. "I can say that [Mutawakkil] is in Kabul for a long time now," Ludin said, and he is "under supervision."

Reports of efforts to include some Taliban members in a future administration have circulated since October 2003, when Mutawakkil was released from U.S. custody (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 4 March, and 25 October 2004). An October 2004 report from Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran suggested that Mutawakkil intends to form a new political party. However, Ludin told reporters that Kabul is not negotiating "with a party, a movement, or a side."

Meanwhile, Major General Solaymankhayl, security commander for the southeastern Paktiya Province, said that talks with former Taliban officials have been "80 percent successful," Kabul daily "Erada" reported on 8 March. Solaymankhayl said that reconciliatory negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban were initiated by former governor of Paktiya, Hakim Taniwal, and have been continued by the province's current governor, Asadullah Wafa.

Solaymankhayl did not elaborate on what 80 percent success means. In January, Wafa said that elders from Paktiya were mediating between the Taliban and Kabul, and in February, four former Taliban officials, all from Paktiya, announced that they will cooperate with the Afghan government (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 January 2005).

In an editorial on 7 March, the Herat biweekly "Payam-e Hambastagi" warned that negotiations with former Taliban officials will undermine peace and security in Afghanistan. The editorial said that some political parties in the country believe that Kabul's decision to negotiate with the Taliban is a "kind of political blackmail by Pakistan."

The editorial also criticized Kabul's lack of transparency in not keeping the public informed about the negotiations, writing that Afghans first learned of them from "U.S. officials" regarding the issue. The commentary adds that Kabul "has formally recognized" the Taliban and "has ignored their crimes against humanity and their non-Islamic acts."

"Payam-e Hambastagi" warns that, if former Taliban members begin to join the Afghan government, "they will undermine peace and the people's confidence in the government."

The issue of reconciliation with most members of the Taliban was raised by President Hamid Karzai in a speech in April 2003 and has been discussed by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad since April 2004 and more recently by Afghan officials (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July 2003 and 28 April, 25 October, 8 November, 8 and 17 December 2004, and 25 February and 8 March 2005). (Amin Tarzi)

Kandahar Province Governor Gul Agha Sherzai told journalists in Kandahar city on 8 March that foreigners were behind the demonstrations that took place in the city on 7 March, the Kabul daily "Cheragh" reported. Sherzai described the protests as an organized attack on government officials in the province and blamed "foreigners," naming the Taliban and Jaysh al-Muslimin for instigating the upheaval. According to Sherzai, the two groups organized the riots in order to create an opportunity for their comrades to escape from prison in Kandahar city.

In an interview with "Cheragh," Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal did not mention any involvement by opposition groups in the demonstrations. Sherzai, however, told journalists that four armed members of Jaysh al-Muslimin have been arrested in connection with the protests. It is not clear what Sherzai meant by describing these groups as foreigners. A group calling itself Jaysh al-Muslimin, which reportedly has broken away from the mainstream Taliban, briefly came under the spotlight when it claimed responsibility for the abduction of three foreign UN employees in October 2004 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 November 2004).

Earlier Sherzai had claimed that he is in contact with former Taliban members, "Cheragh" reported on 1 March. "As the governor of Kandahar Province, I have begun talks with the Taliban and some of them have shown preparedness" to accept the government's reconciliation offer, Sherzai said.

A neo-Taliban spokesman, Latifullah Hakimi, rejected Sherzai's claims as propaganda aimed at creating a rift in the ranks of the militia, "Cheragh" reported, citing the Hindukosh News Agency. Hakimi warned that the neo-Taliban will step up their attacks soon. It is expected that subversive activities by the militants will escalate as the weather becomes warmer. (Amin Tarzi)

Balkh Province Governor Ata Mohammad Nur, in an interview with the state-run Balkh Television on 7 March, said that those who staged a demonstration in the provincial capital of Mazar-e Sharif were "stupid people" who were misusing democracy.

Between 500 and 1,000 protestors staged a demonstration in Mazar-e Sharif on 7 March demanding Nur's resignation for allegedly taking people's land, and also called for the dismissal of a senior health official, Sayyed Habib, who according to the demonstrators illegally fired a number of doctors (see feature above).

In his interview, Nur dismissed the land-grab charges and said that the doctors who have been dismissed were lazy. Nur contended that the demonstrators came from neighboring provinces and have "links with thieves" from Mazar-e Sharif. "This demonstration will never ever affect us," Nur added. (Amin Tarzi)

In a commentary on 5 March entitled "Spread of Distrust," Herat News Center said that inclusion of warlords in the Afghan government would weaken the progress of human rights in the country. Afghans will lose their confidence in their government if warlords are employed as part of the administration; however, "this is happening," the editorial added. The commentary questioned how with the appointment of warlords to official posts, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission can carry out its investigation into charges of war crimes committed by some of these individuals during the Afghan civil war.

The commentary did not name any specific warlord, but from the timing of the editorial, it is possible that General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was appointed to a high military position 1 March and who has been criticized for his human rights record, might be the intended focus (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 March 2005). (Amin Tarzi)

A man identified as Steven Blair MacQueen was shot dead in downtown Kabul on 7 March, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on 8 March. Sher Agha, a police source in Kabul, said that the Briton worked as an adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Rehabilitation and Rural Development and was killed in his car near the Dutch Embassy. According to Sher Agha, two vehicles blocked MacQueen's car and he was killed with a single shot. The two cars escaped the scene of the crime.

Abdul Rahim Zarin, speaking for the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Rural Development, told RFE/RL that the killing will have a negative impact on the work of the ministry.

Latifullah Hakimi, speaking on behalf of the neo-Taliban, claimed responsibility on 8 March for the assassination of MacQueen, IRNA reported.

"Our mujahedin carried out the attack last night, which shows that Taliban attacks have not been reduced," Hakimi said. U.S. Lieutenant General Eric Olson said on 7 March that attacks by the neo-Taliban have dropped sharply since spring 2004 (see feature above).

Referring to Olson's comments, Hakimi said that "we have given them a response in practical terms."

An unidentified official from a Kabul security command under the Interior Ministry has said, however, that while the killer of MacQueen has not been identified, the attack was probably carried out by a Westerner, Hindukosh News Agency reported on 8 March. The official speculated that MacQueen was killed because of an argument.

In another speculation, the assassination of MacQueen, may have been the work of Afghan drug lords, London's "The Independent" reported on 8 March. MacQueen was involved in developing microcredit plans for opium farmers who wanted to grow alternative crops.

A theory forwarded by "The Independent" suggests that MacQueen may have been targeted for his involvement in the microcredit scheme and for being a British citizen, since the United Kingdom is the lead country assisting Afghanistan's counternarcotics efforts.

The claim by the neo-Taliban that the militia killed MacQueen has been met with skepticism by security sources in Kabul, who believe that the organization does not have the capability to carry out such attacks in Kabul.

In the past, the neo-Taliban has claimed responsibility for actions that later were proven not to have been its work. (Amin Tarzi)

President Hamid Karzai has approved the appointment of Habiba Sorabi as the governor of Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan Television reported on 2 March. In addition, Karzai appointed Abdul Jabar Naimi as the governor of Wardak Province, west of Kabul. Sorabi, who becomes the first female governor of an Afghan province, served as the minister of women's affairs in the Afghan Transitional Administration.

Sorabi, said on 3 March in Kabul that she is fully ready to face the challenges of the post, Xinhua news agency reported. "It's the best chance for me as a lady who can try her talent, her power to serve the people. This is a good chance for an Afghan lady to implement the law," Sorabi told Xinhua. Regarding women's rights in Afghanistan, Sorabi said that while her appointment does not mean that there are not still problems, she is optimistic Afghan women can solve their problems. According to Sorabi, her immediate priorities in Bamiyan will be "to promote the rule of law" and fight the transit of narcotics and the theft for export of Bamiyan's historical artifacts. She also discussed a master plan for the city of Bamiyan involving road reconstruction and bringing electricity to the city. Sorabi described the condition of women in Bamiyan as "terrible" and something that will be included in her list of top priorities. (Amin Tarzi)

An unidentified source close to the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) said on 5 March that the electoral body has proposed holding both parliamentary and provincial elections on 17 September, Reuters reported. The already delayed elections had been slated for a date before 21 May, but the head of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, Besmellah Besmel indicated that the elections would be delayed by three months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2005).

NATO sources had earlier stated that if the elections could not be held by the first week of July, when the next rotation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) takes place, then it would be better if they are held in September or later (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 February 2005).

The source said "mid-September is the soonest" the polls can take place. Contentious district elections, meanwhile, are to be postponed to a later date, pending a parliamentary debate on district boundaries. Afghan presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin told Reuters that he is not aware of the 17 September date, but added that government "would live with" any date picked by JEMB. (Amin Tarzi)

Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin in an interview with the official Bakhtar News Agency on 2 March urged those who control audiovisual media in the country to ensure that their programs respect the principles of Islam as well as national and cultural values of the Afghan people, Afghanistan Television reported. "We are a nation with very old historic and cultural roots...and should not let imported phenomena harm" these roots, Rahin said. According to Rahin, while Afghans should take "advantage of the privileges of contemporary civilization," the youth in the country should also be "brought up and educated on the basis of our Islamic and national values." Rahin reminded audiovisual media outlets in Afghanistan of their responsibility in educating the next generation of Afghans and their need to be aware of the psychological conditions of this generation's childhood, which was during years of war and violence. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan Health Minister Sayyed Mohammad Amin Fatemi has sacked the head of the country's blood bank, Mohammad Noman Hekmat, for dereliction of duties, Tolu television reported on 5 March. Nader Hasas has been named as Hekmat's replacement. Fatemi has sacked other officials in his ministry to prevent administration corruption, the report added, without naming the officials. Hekmat has denied the reasons for his dismissal and has alleged that he was removed by Fatemi so that the minister can appoint his preferred people, charges which Fatemi denied. (Amin Tarzi)

During a radio question and answer session on 4 March, President Hamid Karzai said that the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Natural-Gas Pipeline Project (TAP) would benefit the entire region, not only Afghanistan, Radio Afghanistan reported. Karzai said that natural gas requirements for India and Pakistan are increasing and the TAP project would fulfill the needs of both countries. "Naturally, there is regional competition," Karzai said, but he added that is normal. Afghanistan has been urging New Delhi to look favorably at the TAP project; however, beyond India's choices questions remain on the size of Turkmen natural gas fields and Moscow's reported opposition to the project (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 February 2005). (Amin Tarzi)

Abdul Moqtader Frozanfar, the Afghan consul general in Karachi, Pakistan, said on 2 March that none of Al-Qaeda's leaders are in his country, Lahore-based daily "Daily Times," reported on 3 March. "We are sure that none of them [Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar] is present on our soil," Frozanfar said, but he conceded that "nobody knows their whereabouts." Frozanfar said the Afghan government is "in touch with the moderate Taliban" to try to convince them to play a role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan security forces have discovered a sizable number of arms and ammunition in Ghorband District of Parwan Province, Kabul daily "Erada" reported on 7 March. An unidentified Defense Ministry official said that "some 20 truckloads" of weapons and ammunitions will be transferred to Kabul and the rest of the weapons will be destroyed on site. According to a Parwan security official, the weapons belong to renegade former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (Amin Tarzi)

6 March 1956 -- SEATO powers declare region up to Durand Line is Pakistani territory and within treaty area.

6 March 1960 -- Pakistan calls Soviet support for Afghanistan on Pashtun interference in Pakistan's internal affairs.

9 March 1981 -- U.S. President Ronald Reagan says that if Afghan "freedom fighters" who are fighting Soviet forces ask for weapons, it will be something "to be considered."

Sources: "Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan," Third Edition, by Ludwig W. Adamec, (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003).