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Afghan Report: May 27, 2005

27 May 2005, Volume 4, Number 17
By Amin Tarzi

During a meeting in Washington on 23 May, U.S. President George W. Bush and visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a memorandum of understanding towards establishing a "strategic partnership" between Washington and Kabul. At a joint news conference in the While House the same day, Karzai stated that the arrangement signed with Bush would "enable Afghanistan to stand on its own feet." Bush said that strategic partnership signed with Karzai "establishes regular high-level exchanges on political, security and economic interests" and consultations with Afghanistan "if it perceives its territorial integrity, independence or security is at risk." The text of the "Joint Declaration of the United States-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership" released by the While House on 23 May specifies if Kabul determines such a risk exists, Afghanistan and the United States will take "appropriate measures" to address it.

The details of this agreement call for the U.S. to have access to military facilities in Afghanistan. The declaration states that U.S. military forces operating in Afghanistan will continue to have access to Bagram Air Base north of Kabul and to "facilities at other locations as may be mutually determined." However, the agreement fails to specify whether this strategic partnership will allow a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, something that has been at the center of debate between Washington and Kabul.

The issue of potentially establishing permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan was first raised publicly by Republican U.S. Senator John McCain during a visit to Kabul in February 2005. McCain told reporters that in order to secure the vital interests of the United States and support Afghanistan, his country needs to have a partnership with Kabul which he said should comprise "economic assistance, technical assistance, and military partnership" -- something, McCain added, that should, in his "personal view," include "joint military permanent bases." Shortly after his news conference, McCain's office released a statement on 22 February clarifying that while the senator hoped for a long-term commitment from the United States towards Afghanistan, "he did not mean to imply that [such a commitment] would necessarily require permanent U.S. military bases" in that country.

Karzai, while not discussing the issue of permanent U.S. bases directly, addressed the question of a strategic relationship with Washington during a visit by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Kabul on 13 April. Karzai told reporters that in order to safeguard Afghanistan's independence and ensure that the country did not turn once more "into a battlefield and a war-torn country," he has "demanded permanent, strong and sustained relations" with the United States.

Karzai added his decision to ask for such a strategic partnership was in line with his "manifesto" before the October presidential elections and after consultations with advisers "over the past three years."

Pressed by a reporter to elaborate on whether the strategic relationship he envisaged with the United States included the basing of U.S. military in Afghanistan, Karzai said, "We are not discussing just military bases. We are talking about comprehensive relations to guarantee that Afghanistan will not be destroyed again and to help Afghanistan become powerful and capable of standing on its own feet."

At the time, Rumsfeld said that while comprehensive relations, including in the military sphere, would continue between his country and Afghanistan, the establishment of permanent military bases in Afghanistan is a decision that only the U.S. president has authority over.

Afghan Views And Reactions

Before embarking earlier in May on a visit to Europe that preceded his trip to the United States, Karzai hastily invited close to a thousand Afghan representatives to a meeting to discuss his proposal for a strategic partnership with the United States.

The results of the 5 May meeting, which included many members of the Loya Jirga (grand assembly) that approved Afghanistan's constitution in January 2004, remain ambiguous.

Whereas Karzai spokesman Jawed Ludin said that the representatives were "on the whole�very positive" in their response to Karzai's proposal, some of the participants reacted less favorably.

Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, the leader of the National Understanding Front -- a newly formed opposition block -- and the second-place finisher behind Karzai in the presidential elections, told "Kabul Weekly" on 18 May that he thought the "opinion of the representatives...were against the expectations of President Karzai." Qanuni, echoing sentiments widely held by Afghan media outlets since Karzai's announcement of the strategic partnership proposal in April, said that such a relationship would be "beneficial for both countries." However, Qanuni added that the "issue of U.S. bases in Afghanistan" was "something new." He did not reject the idea of bases, however. Instead, in line with the opinions of many in Afghanistan, he said that such a decision "can only be made by [the Afghan] parliament," which is scheduled to be elected in September.

Possible Foreign Opposition To U.S. Bases

The bases issue entered the headlines together with this month's student demonstrations in several Afghan cities. Students were ostensibly angered by a report in the U.S.-based "Newsweek" magazine that some interrogators at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba had desecrated the Koran -- a report later retracted by the magazine. But some of the students' slogans also rejected Karzai's military-base plans.

Following these deadly demonstrations, analysts raised the issue of whether some of Afghanistan�s neighbors were manipulating public opinion in Afghanistan in an attempt to prevent the development of a long-term U.S.-Afghan partnership (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 17 May 2005).

In an interview broadcast on 14 May on Afghanistan Television, President Karzai, without naming any particular country, stated that the demonstrations were instigated from abroad in order to -- among other things -- stop his policy of seeking to establish a partnership with the United States.

Kabul's main pro-government daily, "Anis," on 17 May alleged Iranian involvement in the demonstrations. The paper argued that because the United States is engaged in "a psychological battle" against Iran, Tehran is trying to arouse anti-U.S. sentiments among the Afghans and drive the United States out of Afghanistan.

Whether Iran had a direct hand in the recent demonstrations is something that may never be proven. But the uneasiness of Afghanistan's neighbors regarding such a possibility has been discussed by the Afghan media and politicians. Qanuni, for example, while acknowledging the U.S. bases in Afghanistan would "definitely create problems in the region," said that Afghans should be thinking "about their own country's interests."

Issues Remain Before September Elections

The mandate set by the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which has been used as the guideline for Afghanistan's transitional period, is set to end with the parliamentary elections in September. The new strategic partnership between Washington and Kabul means the U.S. forces will maintain a presence in Afghanistan even after the vote -- something which Afghan media say leaves a number of questions to be resolved by Karzai before they are debated by parliament.

As the independent "Kabul Weekly" recently commented, the total duration of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has yet to be discussed. According to the weekly, it would be better to "think in terms of years, not decades or an indefinite period of time." In an earlier commentary, the weekly had written that "the word �permanent� never has positive implications for Afghanistan."

Another issue discussed by the Afghan media, which Karzai needs to ponder before submitting a proposal to the Afghan parliament, are the principals guiding the presence of foreign forces on Afghan soil.

The text of the joint declaration states that "U.S. and Coalition forces are to continue to have the freedom of action required to conduct appropriate military operations based on consultations and pre-agreed procedures."

Legitimacy and responsibility are two other factors that Karzai will be faced with if he invites the United States to base its military in Afghanistan on a more permanent basis. The Mazar-e Sharif-based "Baztab" daily in April commented that if the U.S. were to establish bases in Afghanistan, people would "lose confidence" in the ability of the Karzai government to provide security on its own. Similar sentiments were echoed by Sakhi Monir, the editor in chief of the pro-Karzai "Anis," who said that during his election campaign Karzai promised to bring peace and security to Afghanistan in five years. The "strategic partnership" is an indication of a "new political thesis" for the Afghan president, Monir asserted, adding that Afghans voted for Karzai "with the very idea that he will be in a position to bring about peace and stability."

Publications such as the independent Kabul weekly "Wantandar," which supports the idea of a strategic partnership between Afghanistan and the United States, suggested in a 20 April commentary that such an arrangement would "constitute a one-way relationship, as Afghanistan will be constantly asking for assistance and the USA will have to grant it."

As Karzai left Washington after placing his signature on the joint declaration for a strategic partnership with the United States, many questions remain unanswered. If the Afghan president fails to deal with these questions diligently and transparently, it may fuel the desires of his domestic opponents and any potential foreign backers to undermine his government. Karzai needs the support of the majority of the Afghan people, something he apparently has. But in order to establish a clear mandate, there needs to be more public participation in a decision that is so vital for Afghanistan's future.

On 13 May, Uzbek security forces fired on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijon, following attacks on a police station, military barracks, and prison. The government has said that 169 people were killed, including more than 50 foreign fighters, though opposition groups say as many as 750 people were killed.

On 14 May, Interfax reported that according to information provided by "high-ranking sources" in the Russian Foreign Ministry, which was also confirmed by sources in "the Russian power-wielding agencies," prior to the uprising in Andijon a "large number of militants, comprising bandits, Islamist radicals, and Taliban fighters" infiltrated from Afghanistan and regrouped "at a junction between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan."

The same day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the events in Andijon were planned in advance with the participation of "different groups" from the Ferghana Valley region and from Afghanistan "from the Taliban camp."

On 15 May, Lavrov elaborated on his earlier statement, saying that "evidently" groups from the Taliban camp took part in the events in Uzbekistan. Turning to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's policy of offering amnesty to most members of the former Taliban regime except some 100 who have committed atrocities against the Afghan people, Lavrov said that if "we continue to condone terrorists and apply 'double standards' to them, including the notion of [the existence of] a moderate wing to the Taliban," then the "entire region" would be placed on the "brink of a crisis."

Lavrov's statement brings to the fore two separate issues. First, the ability of the neo-Taliban -- the resurgent militants in Afghanistan identifying themselves as the Taliban -- to infiltrate into Uzbekistan; and secondly, Moscow's disagreement with Kabul's policy of reconciling with the militants. Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abduallah, however on stated that if is possible that neo-Taliban elements might have been involved in the Andijon affair without providing any evidence for his claim.

The Long Road To Andijon

There are several factors that cast doubt on the allegations made by Lavrov about the presence of the neo-Taliban in Uzbekistan. Geographically, for neo-Taliban fighters to cross over directly from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan, they would have to, first, reach the northern regions of Balkh Province -- where the neo-Taliban have not been active since late 2001; second, they would have to cross the carefully guarded, 135-kilometer border formed by the Amu River that separates Afghanistan from Uzbekistan. From there they would have to go though much of Uzbekistan and/or Tajikistan to reach the area mentioned by Lavrov.

While not impossible, to complete such a mission, the neo-Taliban fighters would need the skills of some of the world's best special-operations units, which, judging by their activities in Afghanistan, they don't seem likely to possess.

Related to this issue is the neo-Taliban's priorities and manpower. Their priority is to disrupt the situation in Afghanistan toward achieving their stated goal: the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops from Afghanistan and the establishment of what they believe to be a genuine Islamic state there. Despite the recent upsurge in violence associated with and claimed by the neo-Taliban in southern and southeastern Afghanistan -- far from the Afghan-Uzbek border -- the militants are not gaining new ground.

Manpower is another issue for the neo-Taliban. They don't have enough hard-core fighters to allow them to open several fronts against the Afghan government forces and their foreign backers. The last conventional battle in which the neo-Taliban and their allies participated with a significant number of fighters was Operation Anaconda in eastern Afghanistan in March 2002. Their current force structure is based on small units, who are easily deployable into localities where they not only know the terrain very well, but also have acquaintances or actually live. They don't seem to have reservists available to be dispatched to Uzbekistan.

Fighting Reconciliation

As for Lavrov's criticism of Karzai's policy of reconciliation with most militants fighting against his government, this is nothing new. During a visit to New Delhi in December 2004, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov also criticized Karzai's reconciliation policy. According to ITAR-TASS, Ivanov said that dividing the neo-Taliban into "good" and "bad" factions is unacceptable to Moscow. Russia and India are "concerned about the attempts to Pashtunize Afghanistan," Ivanov said, referring to the Pashtun ethnic group to which most members of the neo-Taliban belong. The policy of reconciliation with the neo-Taliban is tantamount to "starting a new war," Ivanov warned, echoing Lavrov's more recent warning. "The so-called immoderate members of the Taliban are alive and kicking as well as the moderate ones...[who] walk the streets and make claims to be incorporated in the new Afghan government," Ivanov said.

While many Afghan media outlets and the Council of the Ulema of Afghanistan condemned Ivanov's statement at the time, Karzai's spokesman Jawed Ludin said that Kabul was hoping that Moscow would clarify its official position regarding Ivanov's comments, warning that such statements could hurt relations between Afghanistan and the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 December 2004).

For Afghanistan, any interference from Russia resurrects very bad memories. The Council of the Ulema said in December 2004 in response to Ivanov's statement that his "irresponsible" remarks "indicate his desire for the return of the past chaotic situation in Afghanistan," which was mainly due to "intervention and aggression" by the former Soviet Union in the country in 1979.

In response to the recent student-led demonstration in Afghanistan, President Karzai also accused foreign elements of instigating violence and trying to derail his government's attempts to establish a "strategic alliance" with the United States and to hamper his policy of bringing a peaceful conclusion to the neo-Taliban insurgency. Lavrov's statements surely add substance to Karzai's claims, though he did not single out any particular country for involvement in the Afghan violence. (Amin Tarzi)

The strategic partnership agreed to at the White House on 23 May by U.S. President George W. Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai seeks to ensure long-term cooperation between the two governments.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai says the strategic partnership with the United States he has agreed to is in the best interest of both countries. Karzai says it is necessary because the creation of an Afghan parliament through elections in September will not mean his country is suddenly stable and capable of standing on its own.

"I'm glad that [President Bush] signed with me a memorandum of understanding on the long-term partnership between Afghanistan and the United States of America -- which will make sure that Afghanistan continues to receive reconstruction assistance; which will make sure that Afghanistan continues to receive training from the U.S. for its military and the police; and which will enable Afghanistan to stand on its own feet eventually; and to be a good, active member of the region -- contributing to peace and stability in the region; and to be a bridge between various parts of that part of the world for trade and values," Karzai said.

Bush said the partnership is based on a "strategic vision" against international terrorism, violent religious extremism, and drug trafficking. He said the strategy calls for continued support in the areas of security, democratic reform, and economic reconstruction.

"It's a partnership that establishes regular high-level exchanges on political, security, and economic issues of mutual interests," Bush said. "We will consult with Afghanistan if it perceives its territorial integrity, independence or security is at risk. We will help the Afghan people build strong, lasting government and civic institutions. We will continue to support reconstruction, economic development, and investments that will help educate and build up the skills of the Afghan people."

Analysts who have been studying the details of the joint declaration by Bush and Karzai said they were especially struck by one paragraph. That paragraph says "it is understood" that U.S. military forces will continue to have access to the Bagram Air Field north of Kabul and other strategic military facilities "as may be mutually determined."

It also says U.S. and NATO forces will continue to have "freedom of action" to conduct military operations that are based on "consultations and pre-approved procedures."

Ian Kemp, a London-based independent defense analyst, said such language suggests U.S. military forces will remain at bases in Afghanistan for a long time.

"Any strategic partnership should be to the benefit of both countries," Kemp said. "What the United States would be expecting to supply to the Afghan forces is continuing assistance -- both in terms of training and in terms of equipment. A continuation of what we've seen over the past four years of building up the Afghan security forces themselves. But in return for that, the United States is going to be looking for the basing of U.S. troops and U.S. aircraft in Afghanistan. And also, [the United States will be looking for] host-nation support. And possibly, intelligence."

Anatol Lieven, an expert on Afghanistan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed that the issue of long-term U.S. military bases is central to the partnership.

"I've always been completely sure that the Americans intended to keep Bagram -- and other places as well -- as permanent bases," Lieven said. "This, I think, will just take things a further step toward formalizing that. It is potentially very, very controversial within Afghanistan. [But] frankly, from Afghanistan's point of view, it probably will be necessary to keep the Americans and NATO around for a very long time to prevent Afghanistan's own inner demons from taking over again."

Lieven said it is significant that Bush spoke of signing "a strategic partnership" while Karzai stressed that their agreement is a "memorandum of understanding." The Afghan Constitution requires parliament to approve formal treaties. But Karzai could have difficulties getting a future parliament to agree to give long-term basing rights to the U.S. military.

"The fact that this document is a 'memorandum of understanding' -- and not a treaty -- is very important," Lieven said. "I don't think that Karzai would dare to submit a treaty agreeing to long-term American basing rights to an Afghan parliament, when and or if the Afghan parliament is ever convoked. I think it would provoke massive resistance. And it could cause a very major political crisis in Afghanistan. The point is, rather, to give all kinds of guarantees to the Americans. But at a less formal level which will allow for de facto basing rights to continue indefinitely and, in return, procure for Karzai and Afghanistan more commitments of American support."

Lieven said the most important aspect of the strategic partnership for Afghanistan is the psychological security it provides. He said it shows that the United States is not considering withdrawal. And that, he said, is essential for keeping European countries and other members of NATO involved in Afghanistan. (Ron Synovitz)

Joint Declaration of the United States-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership
Since the fall of the Taliban regime in December 2001, the United States and Afghanistan have made great progress in the pursuit of common strategic objectives. Together we have disrupted international terrorist networks and worked to ensure that Afghanistan will never again be a safe haven for terrorists. The United States has supported the Afghan people as they have established a moderate, representative government. During this time, the U.S. Government and the American people have demonstrated a commitment to an Afghanistan that is democratic, free, and able to provide for its own security.

Afghanistan expresses the profound gratitude of the Afghan people to the people of the United States of America. Thanks to the generosity of the American people and U.S. leadership, this extraordinary effort has enabled the Afghan people to regain hope and confidence and to renew their vision for achieving prosperity and peace.

Afghanistan confronts important challenges to its security and its efforts to build a government based on democratic principles, respect for human rights, and a market economy. To address these challenges, Afghanistan proposed that the United States join in a strategic partnership and establish close cooperation, including regular, high-level exchanges on the political, security, and economic issues contained herein and other issues of mutual interest. The United States and Afghanistan plan to work together to develop appropriate arrangements and agreements to implement their strategic partnership.

This shared effort will be based on a number of key principles, including a dedication to the rule of law, protection of the human rights and civil liberties of all individuals regardless of ethnic affiliations or gender, support for democratic governance, and reliance on the free market as the best means to further Afghanistan's economic progress. The strategic partnership's primary goal will be to strengthen U.S.-Afghan ties to help ensure Afghanistan's long-term security, democracy, and prosperity. It should contribute to peaceful and productive relations between Afghanistan and its neighbors. It is not directed against any third country.

This partnership will serve as the basis for our common efforts to cooperate in the war against international terror and the struggle against violent extremism, to promote stability and prosperity in the region, and to remain steadfast in supporting Afghanistan's campaign to eradicate poppy cultivation, provide alternate livelihoods assistance, and fight the production and trafficking of drugs. The partnership will be anchored in the constitutions of our two countries, and will be guided by the United States and Afghanistan's respective obligations under the United Nations Charter and other international agreements and conventions.

Decades of civil war, political violence, and interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs make Afghanistan's security, sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity particularly crucial areas for U.S.-Afghan cooperation. To enhance Afghanistan's long-term democracy, prosperity, and security, we intend to work closely together:


- Support democratic good governance and the development of civil society based on the rule of law and human rights and encourage broad-based political participation in Afghanistan.

- Help build strong, lasting Afghan Government and civic institutions and support political traditions that are efficient and responsive to the needs of the Afghan people.

- Encourage the advancement of freedom and democracy in the wider region.

- Support Afghanistan's initiative to restore the country's historic role as a land bridge connecting Central and South Asia and to shift the pattern of regional relations from rivalry to economic and political cooperation.

- Foster cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbors and deter meddling in its internal affairs.

- Support people-to-people exchanges and partnerships to strengthen ties between American and Afghan society, thereby fostering common outlooks and collaboration on the challenges and opportunities before us.


- Facilitate and support Afghanistan's integration into regional and world economies and appropriate international organizations.

- Help develop a legal and institutional framework for a thriving private sector and an environment favorable to international investment in Afghanistan.

- Encourage and facilitate involvement of U.S. businesses in ventures that accelerate the development of Afghan firms and the private sector.

- Continue the reconstruction of Afghanistan and investments in the people of Afghanistan and encourage other nations to do so.


- Help organize, train, equip, and sustain Afghan security forces as Afghanistan develops the capacity to undertake this responsibility.

- Consult with respect to taking appropriate measures in the event that Afghanistan perceives that its territorial integrity, independence, or security is threatened or at risk.

- Assist the Afghan Government in security sector reform.

- Continue to conduct counter-terrorism operations in cooperation with Afghan forces.

- Support Coalition assistance to the Afghan Government's counter-narcotics programs.

- Continue intelligence sharing.

- Strengthen Afghanistan's ties with NATO.

- Support border security initiatives.

It is understood that in order to achieve the objectives contained herein, U.S. military forces operating in Afghanistan will continue to have access to Bagram Air Base and its facilities, and facilities at other locations as may be mutually determined and that the U.S. and Coalition forces are to continue to have the freedom of action required to conduct appropriate military operations based on consultations and pre-agreed procedures.

As Afghan Government capabilities increase, Afghanistan will continue to cooperate against terrorism, to promote regional security, and to combat the drug trade; the Afghan Government, over time, will move to assume Afghan security force sustainment costs; and the Afghan Government intends to maintain capabilities for the detention, as appropriate, of persons apprehended in the War on Terror.

As Afghanistan develops its political system, the United States looks to Afghanistan to respect human rights and develop a just and inclusive society. Regular, free, and fair democratic elections, a free press, and the active implementation of Afghanistan's constitution are hallmarks of the necessary commitment to these principles. The United States relies on the Government of Afghanistan to maintain its firm commitment against the production, processing, and trafficking of narcotics and to assume responsibility for countering narcotics as police, prosecutorial, and prison capacity is developed and enhanced. Finally, the United States relies on Afghanistan's commitment to create a legal framework and an environment favorable to private sector and domestic and international investment that offers economic opportunities to all Afghan people.

The Afghan people have made tremendous sacrifices and shown great courage in the pursuit of freedom. The United States shares their vision of a country that is democratic, at peace, and working to improve the lives of all Afghans and that plays an important and positive role in the affairs of the region and the world. We are confident that the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership will play a central role in helping Afghanistan achieve these goals.

George W. Bush, President Of The United States

Hamid Karzai, President Of The Islamic Republic Of Afghanistan

Eleven Afghans have been killed in two ambushes that took place in 48 hours in southern Afghanistan. Among those killed are four employees of Chemonics, a U.S.-based company that carries out antinarcotics projects in Afghanistan. The U.S. State Department announced that Chemonics has said it now plans to withdraw its employees from southern Afghanistan.

Gunmen ambushed a vehicle and killed six Afghans on 19 May in Zabul Province, including two who worked for Chemonics and two relatives of a person killed in a similar attack the previous day.

The six Afghans killed yesterday were attacked as they were transporting to Kabul the body of one of five people killed in an assault in Helmand Province on 18 May. Two Chemonics engineers, a government engineer, a driver, and a security guard were reportedly killed it that attack.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on 19 May that the United States would help Afghan authorities investigate the two attacks. He said there are no indications of who the perpetrators might be. He said Chemonics has advised the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that it is withdrawing personnel from southern Afghanistan, and is taking a careful look at the security situation.

Chemonics is managing a project sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide alternative livelihoods to farmers growing opium poppies in Afghanistan.

It is not clear if the attacks on the Chemonics workers are linked to Afghanistan's efforts to eradicate poppy cultivation and opium production. The United States and several other countries are providing funding to support the Afghan government's efforts to fight drugs.

Nick Downie, the project coordinator of the Afghan NGO Security Office (ANSO), an organization that provides security advice to national and international NGOs in the country, believes the attackers were not aware of the exact affiliation of their victims.

"I think they were targeted because they are valid obvious targets. It doesn't matter in Afghanistan whether you are an aid worker or whether you are working for a government program or whether you are working for coalition forces. The point is they all happen to be driving the same vehicles and you know these people who carry out these attacks aren't going to stop the vehicles and try to find out whose inside before they start shooting," Downie said.

Gulab Shah Alikhail, spokesman for the governor of southern Afghanistan's Zabul Province, told RFE/RL's Afghan Service that Taliban militants and terrorists are suspected of carrying out the attacks. "These are terrorist attacks but it does not mean that the terrorists [are in charge]," he said. "The [authority] is with the people, with the government."

Attacks by Taliban militia have increased in the past month, especially in the southern regions of Afghanistan. Afghan officials say insurgent and terrorist activities have accelerated because of the improvement of the weather and the arrival of a warm spring following a very harsh winter.

Downie from ANSO says attacks on aid workers have also increased in the country. "We went from 13 aid workers assassinated in 2003 to 24 killed in 2004," he said. "Plus, in 2004 you had at least 13 people from the elections-process killed -- nationals and internationals -- and also many other contractors in Afghanistan. So the general rate in these two years has almost doubled and at the moment we can say in within the first six months the rate of killing has increased."

The United Nations expressed concern earlier this month about aid workers in Afghanistan and the conditions for women there after three women were found dead alongside a roadside -- their bodies accompanied with a note warning international relief agencies.

On 8 May, a UN worker from Myanmar was among several civilians killed when a suicide attacker blew himself up in an Internet cafe in Kabul.

Maurizio Balbi works for Aina, an NGO that supports free media in Afghanistan. He told RFE/RL that the killing of aid workers and the kidnapping of Italian aid worker Clementina Cantoni have raised concerns among the NGO community in Kabul and elsewhere in the country.

"More or less the situation here is that the NGOs keep their staff inside their compounds. I am worried but not so worried, we knew that they were going to do something for some time. We don't know if they are criminals or what they call terrorists. I can say that most of the NGOs are quite worried about the situation," Balbi said.

Afghan officials say enemies of peace and stability in Afghanistan consider humanitarian workers legitimate targets in their fight against the central government.

Security expert Downie says there are several reasons for the increase in attacks against relief workers in Afghanistan. "Of course there is an insurgency in Afghanistan, that hasn't been suppressed," he said. "There are many other issues. One of them is counternarcotics and people trying to protect what is most valuable to them. There are factional issues and there are increasing criminal issues."

Meanwhile, the fate of Clementina Cantoni, who was abducted from her car in Kabul on 16 May, remains unclear. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Lotfullah Mashal has told the dpa news agency that a group of elders and clerics will attempt to meet the kidnapers today and negotiate the 32-year-old Italian aid worker's release. Cantoni was working for CARE International on a project to help widows and their children when she was abducted. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, the former Taliban regime foreign minister, has informed the Afghan Election Commission that he intends to run for a seat in the lower house of the Afghan Parliament in the southern Kandahar Province, the BBC reported on 18 May.

"The Taliban are also Afghans," Mutawakkil said, adding that the "public must decide who they want as their leader, whether it's the Taliban or someone else."

Mutawakkil is the highest-ranking former Taliban member captured by U.S.-led forces. He was released in October 2003 from U.S. custody. He was reportedly at the center of the Afghan government's reconciliation program aimed at offering amnesty to most members of the former regime and the current neo-Taliban (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July 2003, 28 April, 25 October, 8 and 17 December 2004, and 11 March 2005).

Following Mutawakkil, Abdul Samad Khaksar, who formerly headed the Taliban regime's intelligence department, registered himself as an independent candidate in Kandahar for the parliamentary elections, Kandahar TV reported on 21 May.

Khaksar said he registered his name in response to public demand. Asked about the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, something which the neo-Taliban oppose, Khaksar said that his country "needs reconstruction," adding "we are not against any country that helps us," the Mazar-e Sharif-based daily "Baztab" reported on 22 May.

Close to 5,000 candidates have registered thus far as candidates for the 249 seats which will be decided in September elections. (Amin Tarzi)

24 May 1919 � Kabul bombed by Britain's Royal Air Force during the Third Anglo-Afghan War.

24 May 1980 � Demonstrators protest the Soviet presence in Afghanistan by staging a march in Kabul.

25 May 1997 � Pakistan becomes the first country to recognize the Taliban government.

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