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Afghan Report: July 5, 2005


5 July 2005, Volume 4, Number 19
IS HELICOPTER DOWNING A SIGN OF NEW TACTICS, WEAPONS?
By Amin Tarzi


If confirmed as a hostile-fire incident, the 28 June downing of a U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan that left 16 soldiers dead would be the most costly such incident for U.S. forces in that country since October 2001. The recent resurgence of violence seems to have shattered assertions following Afghanistan's October 2004 presidential election that the insurgency there had been quelled.

The 28 June crash of a U.S. Chinook helicopter with 16 service members on board in northeastern Afghanistan's Konar Province might well have been caused by enemy fire, although the U.S. military says the incident is under investigation. Media quoted Lieutenant General James Conway, director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying on 30 June that the military believes the helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The incident, however, has raised questions about whether the insurgents operating against U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan government troops have obtained new weapons or have learned new tactics. If confirmed, the downing would be the single greatest loss of life due to enemy fire by U.S. forces since October 2001.

The details for the Chinook's crash suggest that either a surface-to-air missile such as a U.S.-made Stinger or Russian SAM-7 or a rocket-propelled grenade -- the most common type in use in Afghanistan is the Russian RPG-7, which was originally an antitank weapon -- was used to bring down the aircraft.

The neo-Taliban, who have claimed responsibility for shooting down the Chinook, have made contradictory statements regarding the type of weapon used.

Mullah Mohammad Ismail -- who claims loyalty to former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, but has his own group called Bira'a bin Malik -- told the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press on 29 June that his forces stuck the aircraft with rockets from a distance of 30-50 meters. The "helicopter was almost on the ground and was not brought down from the air," Mohammad Ismail added, confirming speculation by U.S. authorities that a rocket-propelled grenade was the most likely weapon used to hit the aircraft.

The person most frequently speaking for the neo-Taliban, Mullah Latifullah Hakimi, told several news agencies the Chinook was brought down by a "new type of weapon," without providing any details.

Mohammad Ismail's claims are in line with the current capabilities of the insurgents operating in Afghanistan, and RPG-7s have been used before in Afghanistan and in other conflicts to attack helicopters flying at low altitudes or during landings and takeoffs. However, if Hakimi's claim that a new type of weapon -- most likely an antiaircraft device -- was used is true, then the United States and its allies no longer have total air dominance over Afghanistan. It should be noted that in the past Hakimi has exaggerated figures and has even claimed responsibility for acts of violence that later were confirmed to have been committed by other groups.

Beyond the possible use of new weapons systems, the downing of the Chinook could point to a sophistication of tactics by the insurgents in Afghanistan. There are suggestions that the special-operations aircraft was lured to an area where it became an easy target. The helicopter was reportedly on a mission to transport special-operations troops to an area where insurgents had confronted a group of pro-U.S. Afghan personnel. The neo-Taliban or their Al-Qaeda allies could have deliberately left a few of the Afghans alive so that they would call for reinforcements, while the attackers prepared for their target.

The shooting down of the Chinook may have been the result of an opportune shot by the insurgents. However, the recent escalation both in insurgent activities and terrorist attacks in southern and eastern Afghanistan suggest that groups fighting against President Hamid Karzai's government and its foreign backers have not been defeated, as was suggested after the successful holding of the presidential elections in October (see feature below).

Moreover, RFE/RL learned from various Afghan authorities in Kabul last week that there are indications of increased attempts by some of Afghanistan's neighbors to destabilize the situation in the country. The main aim of the alleged interference is to make the presence of the United States in Afghanistan unpopular and costly with the eventual aim of driving the United States out of the country.

The Chinook incident -- if it was a preplanned tactical operation perhaps involving more sophisticated weapons -- will undoubtedly make anti-insurgency operations more difficult for the U.S.-led coalition forces and could forestall plans to make NATO more involved in security management of Afghanistan.

Beyond the immediate military implication of this incident, a political understanding between Kabul and some of its neighbors is necessary to avoid plunging Afghanistan back into a quagmire from which it has not yet fully gotten out of.

KABUL TELLS ISLAMABAD TO DO MORE AS BATTLE WITH TALIBAN RAGES NEAR BORDER
By Ron Synovitz
Afghan officials are again expressing concern that Islamabad is not doing enough to stop militants from sheltering in Pakistan and crossing into Afghanistan to carry out terrorist attacks. Complaints in recent weeks are linked to a rise in Taliban and Al-Qaeda violence ahead of September's parliamentary elections. During the past three months, the violence has been focused mostly in Kabul and the provinces that border Pakistan. On 23 June, the Afghan Interior Ministry announced that more than 100 Taliban fighters have been killed in a battle that has been raging for three days in southern Afghanistan. But Kabul complained that 150 of the militants have escaped the onslaught by crossing into Pakistan.

A diplomatic row between Kabul and Islamabad is continuing to heat up as Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan experience what Afghan officials say is their bloodiest defeat in two years.

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal said the bodies of 103 Taliban fighters killed since 20 June have been recovered in the mountains close to where the provinces of Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Zabul meet. He said most were killed by air strikes while trying to flee toward Pakistan or Taliban strongholds further north in Oruzgan Province. That raises the Taliban death toll in the area to more than 150 during the past week. Mashal also said that Urdu-speaking Pakistani militants are among the 16 Taliban fighters captured in the area.

The seizure of Pakistani fighters is seen by Kabul as further evidence to support its claims that militants have been flooding across the Pakistani border by the hundreds in recent months.

For years, Pakistan has denied allegations that elements within its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency were secretly behind the rise of the Taliban regime and that it continues to support Taliban fighters as a tool of Islamabad's foreign policy goals.

In the latest wave of allegations, Afghan President Hamid Karzai on 20 June told a youth conference in Kabul that they must understand the historic role Afghanistan's neighbors have played in the destruction of the country.

"Unfortunately, after the defeat of the Soviet forces, the fruit of the struggle was not delivered to the hands of our people," Karzai said. "But our people faced an even more dangerous intervention. The Soviet Union was a clear occupier. They came in tanks with red flags and the hammer and sickle -- obviously. But after the defeat of the Soviet forces, a more dangerous occupation came from another neighbor."

Karzai's chief spokesman, Jawed Ludin, said militants involved in the current battle were trained at camps in Pakistan. Ludin and Mashal both said the Taliban have been concentrating in southern Afghanistan in order to carry out attacks to disrupt September's parliamentary elections.

Ludin has demanded immediate action from Islamabad against key leaders of the ousted Taliban regime that he said are sheltering in Pakistan. He also demanded that Pakistan close off its border to prevent the routed militants from fleeing back to a safe haven in Pakistan once again.

In Islamabad, Pakistan's Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed has expressed outrage at the Afghan statements. He said that Pakistan "as a state" is not involved in any unlawful activity on Afghan soil. He said Kabul must stop making such claims and allegations, and he insisted that there are no Taliban leaders on Pakistani soil.

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, said Kabul is using Pakistan as a scapegoat for its internal problems. He said the accusations from Kabul are not fair because the stability of Afghanistan is in Pakistan's best interest.

However, the complaints are not coming from Kabul alone. In one of his last interviews in Kabul before becoming the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad suggested that Islamabad is turning a blind eye toward Taliban leaders hiding in Pakistan's territory.

"It is very likely that [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar and other senior Taliban are in Pakistan," Khalilzad said. "Mr. Usmani, who is one of the Taliban leaders, [recently] spoke to Pakistani Geo TV at a time when Pakistani officials claimed they did not know where they were."

U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly is concerned about the impact of the diplomatic row between Kabul and Islamabad. Correspondents in Washington report that Bush telephoned Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf on 21 June to discuss the issue.

Karzai's office has confirmed that Musharraf called the Afghan president late on 21 June to express Pakistan's continued support in the fight against terrorism. A statement from Karzai's office says the Afghan president responded by emphasizing that Islamabad must do more.

Afghan Commerce Minister Hedayat Amin Arsala is the top adviser to Karzai within the government. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Arsala stressed that maintaining good relations with Islamabad is still a top priority for Kabul.

"When things happen in Afghanistan and we think that they come from the other side of the border, it alarms us at times," Arsala said. "As to whether this is just an issue of the rogue elements or is it something where people are looking the other way -- my hope is, and our hope in general is, that nobody should look away. We think that proper relations between our two countries is extremely important for both of us and stability in both countries will help each other."

Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak told AP in later June that there is no doubt that other countries in the region have their own designs in Afghanistan. Although Wardak did not single out any country, he strongly hinted that he was referring to Pakistan when he spoke of neighboring countries that are "always trying to exploit the vacuums that have been created" in Afghanistan.

Pakistan said it has done more than any other country in the fight against Al-Qaeda. With some 70,000 troops fanned out along the Afghan-Pakistan border, Islamabad boasts of having turned over 700 Al-Qaeda suspects to the United States.

AL-ZARQAWI, AL-QAEDA, AND THE NEW ISLAMIST FRONT
By Amin Tarzi and Kathleen Ridolfo
Recent published accounts of the relationship between fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network illuminate the relationship between the two men and their movements' vision of establishing an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East. The sudden rise in terrorist attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan supports the theory that Arab terrorists in that country have regrouped in an effort to provide a reinvigorated Arab front against the United States, while the continuing insurgency in Iraq shows no signs of abatement, despite recent reports that al-Zarqawi may be near death as a result of a recent injury.

Almost immediately after the 1 June suicide bombing of a Kandahar mosque that killed mourners of an anti-Taliban cleric, Afghan officials said that it was carried out by Arab members of Al-Qaeda (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 6 June 2005). "We have found documents on [the bomber's] body that show he was an Arab," Kandahar Governor Gol Agha Sherzai told reporters, adding that intelligence indicated that "Arab Al-Qaeda teams had entered Afghanistan and had been planning terrorist attacks. Mohammad Hasham Alikozay, director of the Public Health Department in Kandahar, said that the "features found" at the explosion site indicated that the suicide bomber seemed "to be an Arab."

In line with the expectations of Afghan authorities and U.S.-led coalition forces, disruptive activities and terrorist acts either committed by or in the name of the neo-Taliban and their allies have increased since the weather improved in southern and eastern Afghanistan. In April, U.S. Major General Eric Olson said that 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." However, Olson predicted that these activities would lack cohesion and fade in traditional neo-Taliban strongholds.

However, what has been different in recent months is the sophisticated coordination of the disruptive activities and the new methods employed by their perpetrators.

The student-led demonstrations that began peacefully on 10 May in the eastern Nangarhar Province and spread to at least 13 other provinces around Afghanistan were the first indication that a new, well-organized plan against the government of President Hamid Karzai, but especially against the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, was under way. While the demonstrations were triggered by a report alleging that some interrogators at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, desecrated the Koran, the rallies quickly and with a coordination not seen in Afghanistan, became violent and spread to several Afghan cities.

Coinciding with the student demonstrations, a night letter reminiscent of the days when Afghans were fighting Soviet troops was circulated in parts of Kabul. Without making any reference to the events in Nangarhar, the letter announced that the "principle duty of the Mujahedin has just started." The unsigned letter condemned the possibility of the establishment of U.S. military bases in Afghanistan and alleged that Karzai and former Taliban members are in an alliance with the purpose of turning Afghanistan into a U.S. satellite.

Karzai's government initially blamed "enemies of peace and stability" for fueling and politicizing student anger, in particular directing it towards U.S.-Afghan ties and Kabul's offer of amnesty to many former Taliban members. The Afghan president said that "students of medical and engineering faculties of Pakistani and Iranian universities attend classes and continue their lessons as usual, but Afghan university and school students are taken out of their classes and provoked to stage demonstrations" to destroy lives and property in Afghanistan. While Karzai did not accuse a specific country by name, Kabul's main progovernment daily "Anis" on 17 May wrote that Iran is spending "large sums of money and [has] hired scores of mercenaries" to undermine stability in Afghanistan. "Anis" alleged that the demonstrations were planned by "reckless" Afghans in consultation with the Iranian Embassy in Kabul.

The possible role of the Neo-Taliban is unclear. No one has pointed a finger at the neo-Taliban for fueling the demonstrations and the militia's spokesman, Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, has denied any involvement.

The neo-Taliban did claim responsibility for the 29 May murder of Mawlawi Abdullah Fayyaz, head of the Council of Ulema of Kandahar and an ardent opponent of the neo-Taliban. However, Hakimi, commenting on the suicide attack in the mosque during services held for Fayyaz, said: "This shouldn't have occurred. We strongly condemn this act."

It is difficult to differentiate between wanton acts of violence in Afghanistan. Some attacks, carried out in the name of the neo-Taliban, are actually committed by drug dealers or other criminals. And the neo-Taliban often claims responsibility for acts of violence that it has not committed. However, what is noteworthy in the student demonstrations and the mosque bombing is the coordination and means of committing these violent acts.

Suicide bombings are very rare in Afghanistan and the neo-Taliban seldom resort to this tactic to achieve their goals. Moreover, there is not a single record of a suicide attack inside a mosque in that country, as has been the case in Iraq. The Kandahar attack may be the beginning of a new front by Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists, possibly backed by regional countries, to recalibrate their anti-U.S. activities in Afghanistan.

"Al-Zarqawi: The Second Al-Qaeda Generation," a recently published book on Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi -- who pledged his group's loyalty to Osama bin Laden last year -- chronicles al-Zarqawi's presence in Afghanistan and his relationship with the Al-Qaeda network, which funded al-Zarqawi training camps in Herat before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Following the invasion, al-Zarqawi and other Al-Qaeda leaders scattered and regrouped in Iran, pledging to reassemble in Afghanistan in seven years, Sayf al-Adl, the official in charge of security for the Global Al-Qaeda of Islam Army, recounted in the book.

Al-Zarqawi and his associates' quicker return to the Afghan front before the seven-year hiatus mentioned by Sayf al-Adl may be directly linked to two issues. Firstly, it concerns the ineffectiveness of the neo-Taliban and the low-level Al-Qaeda support provided to them in order to inflict heavy damage on the Kabul government or U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. Also related to this point is the relative success of the political process in Afghanistan after the neo-Taliban had vowed to disrupt the electoral process there. However, the second and more urgent factor for al-Zarqawi and his backers to reopen the Afghan front is most likely linked to the official signing of the "strategic partnership" between Kabul and Washington in May. The partnership binds the two countries in a formal agreement and allows for an indefinite U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Sayf al-Adl further documented al-Zarqawi's decision to establish his network of fighters in Iraq in 2001, an undertaking assisted through his relationship with the Ansar al-Islam terrorist network based in Iraqi Kurdistan close to the Iranian border. That relationship was reportedly forged in Afghanistan.

"We began to converge on Iran one after the other. The fraternal brothers in the peninsula of the Arabs, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates who were outside Afghanistan, had already arrived. They possessed abundant funds. We set up a central leadership and working groups," Sayf al-Adl recounted. "We began to form some groups of fighters to return to Afghanistan to carry out well-prepared missions there. Meanwhile, we began to examine the situation of the group and the fraternal brothers to pick new places for them. Abu Mus'ab and his Jordanian and Palestinian comrades opted to go to Iraq...[an] examination of the situation indicated that the Americans would inevitably make a mistake and invade Iraq sooner or later. Such an invasion would aim at overthrowing the regime. Therefore, we should play an important role in the confrontation and resistance. It would be our historic chance to establish the state of Islam that would play a major role in alleviating injustice and establishing justice in this world," Sayf al-Adl said.

Al-Zarqawi has established a vast network of fighters in Iraq and Iraqi authorities have indicated that the network includes Arab nationals as well as Afghan and Pakistani fighters. His Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn allegedly has close ties to the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, an outgrowth of Ansar Al-Islam. U.S. and Iraqi authorities claim that successes have been made through a string of recent military operations targeting the groups. A Mosul operation on 28 May led to the capture of al-Zarqawi aide Mutlaq Muhammad Mutlaq Abdullah (aka Abu Ra'd). Iraqi Major General Khalil al-Ubaydi announced on 4 June the arrest of an Ansar Al-Sunnah member identified as Mullah Mahdi; al-Ubaydi contended that Mahdi carried out attacks at the direction of al-Zarqawi. Iraqi authorities this week announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to the capture of Ansar Al-Sunnah leader Abu Abdullah al-Shafi'i.

UN REPORT AUTHOR WARNS OF TIES BETWEEN DRUGS AND TERRORISM IN RUSSIA, CENTRAL ASIA
By Eugen Tomiuc
Thomas Pietschmann is research officer at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). He is also one of the main authors of the World Drug Report 2005, which was issued 29 June. Pietschmann talked to RFE/RL about the report and the role of Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Russia in the global drug market. Pietschmann said drug production has links to crime, terrorism, and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

RFE/RL: How did the situation change since last year’s UN drug report? Has there been any improvement?

PIETSCHMANN: For the main problem-drugs -- opiates and cocaine -- we see only marginal increases in terms of production, which is good news. Now, of course, if you look at the regional distribution, things look quite different. With regard to the opiates, we see massive increases of production -- we speak about 2004 -- in Afghanistan, which fortunately was offset by a very strong decline in the Golden Triangle, by Myanmar and Laos. So, the net increase was very small but, still, Afghanistan is a major problem. However, what we also point out in the report is that the situation in Afghanistan seems to be getting better for the year 2005 with regard to the area under cultivation. We don't have any of the production figures [yet], but the area under cultivation seems to decline this year. So this is some of the good news we're bringing.

RFE/RL: And what’s the bad news regarding Afghanistan?

PIETSCHMANN: The problem is the yield. The yield in Afghanistan this year will be much better than last year. Last year was a bad year for the yield. So we are not in the position at the moment to say what the net output will be from Afghanistan. It could well be of similar magnitude as last year simply because the yield is likely to increase and unfortunately there are indications that the yield is increasing.

RFE/RL: One of the favorite routes for traffickers of Afghan drugs is transiting Central Asia. What is the situation in the countries in that region?

PIETSCHMANN: When it comes to a route out of Afghanistan, still, the main route is via Pakistan and via Iran. Still, Central Asia is definitely the fastest-growing region with regard to the output of Afghan opiates. Consumption, unfortunately, is clearly increasing in Central Asia. We have not really seen local production of opiates, [but] there is local production of cannabis in the area. It's good and bad news: the good news is, there is not or there is hardly any production there, but of course, this is partly bad news, because there's abundant supply from Afghanistan, so it's simply just not necessary to produce locally.

RFE/RL: Many international observers are pointing to an increasingly visible connection between drug trafficking and terrorism, chiefly in Afghanistan. What can you tell us about this?

PIETSCHMANN: Production is, of course, increasing in those areas where the central government in Kabul does not have influence. And it's very clear that in these areas where local [Afghan] warlords are in charge, they are the main beneficiaries of the drug production and part of this money definitely goes to remnants of various terrorist groups in the country. We get more and more information about this link but, of course, to really give a concrete number about how many millions of dollars are being diverted to terrorists, this is very difficult.

RFE/RL: There has been a clear connection between the use of injecting drugs -- like heroin -- and HIV/AIDS. Russia and Ukraine were singled out in recent years as facing the greatest threat of drug-related AIDS epidemics. Has there been any improvement?

PIETSCHMANN: Where there's a major problem, it is on the abuse side -- particularly high in Russia when it comes to opiates -- and with this link to the abuse of opiates is the injecting of opiates and thus the spread of HIV/AIDS. So it has, compared to Western Europe, dramatically high rates of new infections of HIV/AIDS. So there's almost a time bomb in this part [of the world], because it'll only take a few years' time until these HIV infections will actually translate into an outbreak of AIDS. A little bit of good news is that the infection rates there have declined over the last few years -- or seem to have declined; we don't know exactly if it's just a reported issue or if it's a real issue -- but at least there are some positive developments over here.

RFE/RL: Does the 2005 world drug report outline any direction for policymakers to follow in order to fight the drugs trade and drug-related issues?

PIETSCHMANN: We are not here, in this report, to give the famous key to the solution of all problems. But it's very clear that there's a clear link between drugs and HIV/AIDS, so the moment you succeed in reducing drugs consumption, drug abuse, there's also a likelihood that you actually are going to reduce HIV/AIDS. We also analyze the drug markets, the size of the drug markets, which is, I think, highly relevant for policy. Even so, we are not giving any concrete recommendations. But of course, if you ask me personally, it's very clear where we have to go. There has to be assistance to farmers in the poppy- or coca-growing areas, more than what's been done so far. This has to go hand-in-hand with very strict law enforcement. This combination, I think, is a must. Otherwise, I think it does just not work. But, also, law enforcement alone by itself does not work. So it's really the combination of the two. And what's also very clear is that as long as you have a demand, you will have production.

VOTERS INTENT ON REGISTERING DESPITE FEARS OF VIOLENCE
By Ron Synovitz
Officials in Kabul say tens of thousands of Afghans have been registering to vote in September's parliamentary elections, despite a major upsurge in attacks by Taliban guerrillas in some parts of the country. Those attacks have targeted election workers, UN offices, and voter-registration stations.

Emerging from a voter-registration point near his home in Afghanistan's southeastern Khost Province, 18-year-old Akbar Jan expressed a view held by many ordinary Afghans about September's parliamentary elections.

"I have registered and I've got my voting card," he said. "I want to vote for a representative [in the parliament] who will serve the people of Afghanistan."

In the nearby provincial capital of Khost, a young resident named Rakeb told RFE/RL that he registered even though he is concerned that Taliban guerrillas could attack the polling stations on election day. "For now, the situation is calm and there is security in this town," he said. "But it looks like people are worried and fearful that the situation could deteriorate into violence and disorder. But it is true that up to now, things are secure here."

That is not the case in other parts of southern Afghanistan -- or even across Khost Province.

Afghan authorities say they discovered 400 kilograms of explosives, rockets, and remote-control devices this week in what they describe as a secret bomb factory at a madrassah in Khost Province.

In neighboring Paktika Province, gunmen attacked a UN-run election center on 25 June just hours before registration across Afghanistan officially began. Although nobody was hurt in the skirmish, the attack delayed the opening of the registration center and confirmed the fears of many Afghans that militants are prepared to target election centers.

In another neighboring province, Paktia, 17 freshly laid land mines have been defused along the main road to the east of Gardez since registration began.

Militants on 27 June ambushed a police convoy in eastern Laghman Province, killing three officers and injuring the provincial police chief.

A remote-controlled bomb also exploded under a police vehicle in central Oruzgan Province on 28 June, killing two officers and injuring three others.

During the past month, two candidates and a man traveling with UN electoral workers also have been killed in militant attacks.

Adrian Edwards is the chief spokesman for Jean Arnault, the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan. Edwards says Arnault has remained concerned about security since issuing a warning on 24 June to the UN Security Council in New York.

"The country's south has been most affected by recent problems. But there are difficulties in other areas, too. Mr. Arnault said the international effort to thwart these destabilization efforts could not be limited to combat operations, but should include attacking the financing, safe havens and networks that support committing these crimes," Edwards said.

Arnault also referred to complaints from Kabul that Pakistan is turning a blind eye to cross-border infiltrations by militants trying to derail the September vote.

"Close cooperation between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the international forces succeeded in creating a safe environment for last year's presidential election. Mr. Arnault called on all sides to renew and heighten this cooperation to ensure a safe environment for the upcoming parliamentary and provincial council elections," Edwards said.

In the southern province of Kandahar, where U.S.-led coalition forces last week killed at least 77 Taliban militants in a fierce battle, residents also express concerns that the war against Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters is escalating rather than coming to an end.

Among them is Bibi Gul, a 55-year-old woman who shops at a bazaar near the mosque where a suicide bomber recently killed 20 people. "We love Americans. They are rebuilding our roads and our houses," she said. "They are helping us. We don't want them to leave our country because, if they do, we will lose the little security we have."

Rahmatullah is the owner of a small textile shop in the same bazaar who recently returned from Saudi Arabia. He says the escalation of violence in Afghanistan during the past three months is a threat to more than the parliamentary elections.

"If the security situation remains the same, no foreigners or any Afghans will come forward to invest their money in our country and we won't have any economy in the future. This will be a major setback in the reconstruction of our country," Rahmatullah said.

Bronwyn Curran, spokeswoman for the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body, says most of the 10.8 million voters who registered for last October's presidential election will be able to use the same registration card. Those who need to visit the registration centers ahead of September's ballot are Afghans who were too young to take part in the presidential vote or who have since moved to a different province.

"Already, tens of thousands of Afghans have poured into our registration centers to either add their names to the list of voters from last year or to correct the province listed on their voter registration card. This is key because the province on your voter registration card determines where you vote and which ballot paper you receive," Curran said.

Some people in northern Afghanistan appear more confident about security ahead of the parliamentary vote than those in the south. Among them is Nilofar, a woman from the city of Baghlan. "Last year, we voted and there were no problems for us," she said. "People were afraid and they said that bad things would happen. But nothing bad happened. This time we are going to vote again and nothing bad will happen."

Shafika, a young ethnic Hazara woman from a village to the east of Baghlan, agrees. "No, no. I am not afraid," she said. "If we are afraid to vote, then who will chose our representatives and who will govern our country?"

In Kabul, voters who took part in last October's presidential election say they hope electoral officials have learned a lesson from a scandal over faulty ink used to mark voters' thumbs to ensure they do not cast more than one ballot.

Several Kabul residents told RFE/RL that if the ink can be easily rubbed off the thumbs of voters again in September, there will be serious doubts about the credibility of the ballot. (RFE/RL Kabul bureau director Amin Mudaqiq and Afghan correspondents Amir Bahir in Khost and Gulghoty Safi in Mazar-e Sharif contributed to this report; translations from Dari and Pashto by Sultan Sarwar in Prague)

THIS WEEK IN AFGHANISTAN'S HISTORY
13 June 1947 -- Afghanistan sends note to British and Indian governments saying that inhabitants of region between Afghan-Indian border and Indus River are Afghans and must decide themselves whether to join Afghanistan, Pakistan, or India or become independent.

30 June 1949 -- Afghan National Assembly opens 7th Session, known as "Liberal Assembly."

26 June 1996 -- In a deal with Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar becomes prime minister.

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

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