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Afghan Report: July 25, 2005

25 July 2005, Volume 4, Number 21
By Amin Tarzi

Almost immediately after Uzbek security forces fired on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijon on 13 May, Russian officials, later supported by their Uzbek colleagues, began blaming elements infiltrating from Afghanistan for instigating the events. They also claimed that the combat capability of subversive elements in Afghanistan was not diminishing.

However, the final declaration from a meeting of the heads of member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization held recently in Astana, Kazakhstan, called for the United States and its allies to withdraw their military units from Central Asia. RFE/RL examines the contradiction in the two comments made by Moscow and some of its Central Asian allies.

After the Andijon incident, Russian media immediately began quoting "high-ranking sources" who said that "large number of militants, comprising bandits, Islamists, radicals, and Taliban fighters" infiltrated Uzbekistan from Afghanistan and regrouped "at a juncture between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan." These charges were then echoed on several occasions by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Speaking at the NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on 9 June voiced his concern over the "continuing activity of antigovernment groups" in Afghanistan, adding that the "combat activities" of the neo-Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami, and Al-Qaeda are "not subsiding."

Ivanov claimed that his government had "information that purposeful training of militants who are supposed to go to other countries continues in Afghanistan." Then, repeating the charges already made by Lavrov, Ivanov said a "vivid instance" of such subversive activities originating from Afghanistan "could be seen during recent developments in Uzbekistan." According to Ivanov, Moscow had "reliable" information that the events in Andijon "were instigated from Afghan territory."

Claiming that a number of neo-Taliban fighters have been "preparing an invasion of Uzbekistan for a long time," Ivanov asked his NATO colleagues: "Who, how, and with whose help organized the disturbances" in Uzbekistan?

During a visit by Uzbek President Islam Karimov to Moscow in late June, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin said that while he will not "dwell on other aspects of the tragic events of 12-13 May [in Andijon]," he can "confirm that gunmen did infiltrate from special bases in Afghanistan."

Challenge To Validity Of Russian Charges

There are several factors that cast doubt on the allegations made by the three top Russian officials 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 Russia's leadership.

While it is possible, completing such a mission would require the neo-Taliban fighters to possess the skills of some of the world's best special-operations units, which, judging by their activities in Afghanistan, they don't seem to possess.

The Afghan government has also rejected Moscow's charges.

In a letter to Putin in late June, Karzai called for "mutual trust" between Afghanistan and the Russian Federation. Karzai assured his Russian counterpart that "the government of Afghanistan will never allow the Afghan soil to be used as a base to carry out terrorist activities" elsewhere.

The Afghan president expressed hope that Moscow would "stop the spread of suspicion and untrue beliefs" and that the two countries would deal with each other "on the basis of facts." Despite "bitter experiences that resulted from the invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union [in 1979]," Karzai wrote to Putin, "for the "historical interests of the peoples" of Afghanistan and Russia "we need to look into the future" and implement "reasonable polices."

Rangin Dadfar Spanta, one of Karzai's foreign-policy advisers, told RFE/RL on 29 June that Kabul reacted "with regret" to Putin's remarks. Spanta attributed the unrest in Uzbekistan to "developments in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and also the proximity [of Uzbekistan] to democratic countries." According to Spanta, the activities of the neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda were "mainly against Afghanistan" and had "nothing to do with Central Asia."

Is Afghanistan Free Of Terrorism, Or Not?

While Russia and Uzbekistan are yet to offer substantive proof of their allegation that neo-Taliban elements and other subversive elements trained in Afghanistan were behind the Andijon incident, no official from either country has retracted their claim that essentially Afghanistan is so unstable that on its territory exists terrorist training camps and through its borders, even to the relatively calm north, subversive elements are able to cross with ease into Central Asia.

It was therefore surprising to see that the heads of members states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- which includes Russia, China and former Soviet Central Asian republics with the exception of Turkmenistan -- at their annual meeting declared that the United States and its coalition partners should establish a deadline for the withdrawal of their military facilities from Central Asia based on "positive dynamics of stabilizing internal political situation in Afghanistan."

"Considering the completion of the active military stage of antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan," the declaration stated, SCO members states "consider it necessary" that antiterrorist coalition partners involved in the Afghan campaign "set a final timeline" for the use of the bases that are located in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

While the United States has rejected the demand by SCO and the issue is still being debated in some of the Central Asian capitals, one question that needs clarification, especially from Moscow and Tashkent, is whether terrorism has been indeed defeated in Afghanistan, or not?

The issue of U.S. bases in the region might well be linked to the overall strategic balance of power in the greater Central Asian region between Washington and Moscow and their respective allies. Likewise, the contradictory statements coming from Russia and Uzbekistan regarding the defeat or resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan might be linked to threats to the survival of the authoritarian regimes of Central Asia, ranging from democratization to local opposition. Nevertheless, the charges made by Moscow and Tashkent regarding the Andijon incident and their signature on the SCO declaration casts doubt into the credibility of both the earlier claim and their current demand.

Afghan authorities have confirmed the killing of 10 police officers by Taliban guerillas on 9 July. Six of them were decapitated. Twelve other soldiers were killed 10 July by a land mine in Paktiya Province. It is not clear if their convoy was deliberately targeted or if the blast was from an old mine planted during the last 27 years of fighting. The recent wave of violence comes as Afghanistan is preparing itself for the September parliamentary and local elections.

Since the arrival of spring in March, the Taliban and their allies have increased their attacks in the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan.

The attacks have resulted in the death of hundreds of people, mostly militants.

The deaths include 16 U.S. soldiers killed when their Chinook helicopter was shot down on 28 June. That was one of the heaviest U.S. casualties since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 5 July 2005).

The deaths also have included 21 people killed in a suicide bomb attack in Kandahar, also in June. It happened at the funeral of a senior cleric assassinated days earlier (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 6 June 2005).

And in recent months, three senior pro-government clerics have been assassinated in southern Afghanistan. The last incident happened on 8 July in Paktika when unknown assailants stabbed to death the head of the Paktika Ulema Council Agha Jan and his wife. Paktika Governor Gulabuddin Mangal has accused the Taliban of having committed the killing.

Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said on 10 July that foreign fighters from Arab and neighboring countries are carrying out the attacks with the Taliban.

Wardak told reporters that the scope of the violence of the recent months comes as a surprise.

"Following the melting of the snow, there has been a significant increase in terrorist attacks, more than we expected," Wardak said.

His comments came as authorities in southern Afghanistan confirmed the death of 10 Afghan police officers. Six of them were beheaded and their bodies and heads were dumped near the border with Pakistan. Beheading has been rare in the conflict in Afghanistan.

Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said on 10 July that the police officers had been abducted on 8 July following an ambush in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

"In Helmand, in the Deshu district, a patrolling group of Afghan border forces came under attack by a large number of terrorists while it was traveling from Barancha region to Rubatak," Jalali said. "As a result of the fighting, unfortunately, they took with them 10 members of the border force, they martyred four of them in one place, the other six men were killed just 200 kilometers away from the Pakistani border. Then the kidnappers escaped to the Gerdi Jangal border."

Jalali condemned the killings as un-Islamic and inhuman.

"Those people who commit such crimes are not Muslims and they are not human beings because this is against Islam and humanity," Jalali said.

Afghan officials have said that the Taliban and their allies are stepping up their attacks in an effort to disrupt upcoming parliamentary and local elections. The elections -- scheduled for 18 September -- are considered another key step in the Afghanistan's path toward peace and stability.

Afghan election officials say three Afghans working in support of the elections have been killed in recent months.

Wahid Mozhdeh, an Afghan writer and former government employee during the Taliban regime, believes that the attacks are aimed at creating fear among government forces in order to force them to quit. He adds that the militants also trying to create difficulties for the U.S. forces based in Afghanistan.

"One reason that can explain the stepping up of [attacks] is the wish of Al-Qaeda for the Americans to be blighted in Afghanistan as they are in Iraq and to suffer more casualties," Mozhdeh said.

Mozhdeh told RFE/RL that Taliban forces and their allies are becoming more organized. He said they are changing their tactics and using more effective explosives.

"Fewer fighters are involved, they come and attack using motorbikes and quickly escape," Mozhdeh said. "The Taliban want to put people and the coalition forces against each other. They conduct operations somewhere and then leave and then coalition forces carry an attack against them there but mostly civilians get hurt. We've been witnessing a series of suicide attacks which in the past had not been common in Afghanistan. Therefore, we see that the experience of violence is spreading from Iraq to Afghanistan."

The Afghan defense minister said earlier this month that he received intelligence that Al-Qaeda is regrouping and intends to bring Iraq-style bloodshed to Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 5 July 2005).

He also warned that his country could face several months of intense violence ahead of the elections. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

A former Afghan warlord convicted of a heinous campaign of torture and hostage taking in his homeland was sentenced in Britain today to 20 years in jail. Faryadi Zardad, 42, was found guilty at a retrial on 18 July of pursuing a reign of fear and brutalizing Afghans at checkpoints between 1991 and 1996. Zardad, who moved to Britain in 1998, denied the charges. The case is unique in Britain as it involves human rights violations committed abroad (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report" 24 July 2003).

After hearing of beatings, summary executions, and hostage taking during a seven-week trial, a British jury on 19 July found Faryadi Zardad guilty for his actions during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s.

Witnesses had testified via video link from the British Embassy in Kabul in a case that was based on the UN Convention on Torture.

Lydia Aroyo, a press officer with Amnesty International, says the case demonstrates that universal jurisdiction works.

"It shows that torture is an international crime and there is no hiding place for torturers. This is important for the people of Afghanistan as well. This is the first trial of this kind under the UN torture convention of a foreign national who committed crimes in a foreign country and he was tried here in Britain," Aroyo says.

Kevin Laue is a human rights lawyer with Redress, a British-based organization that seeks reparation for torture survivors. He says the conviction of Zardad sets a precedent.

"By having tried him and found him guilty, this country shows that it's not a safe haven, it's not a place to which tortures from any parts of the world can come and live without being held accountable for their crimes. So it is a very important precedent in that regard," Laue says.

Zardad and his associates were reportedly in charge of the road from Kabul to Jalalabad in the Sarobi area from the start of 1992 until October 1996.

Beating and killing travelers, they created an atmosphere of fear and terror on the road.

Nader Nadery is a spokesman for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). He tells RFE/RL that Zardad is fairly well known for crimes he and his men committed during the civil war in Afghanistan.

"There is some talk about him among people, especially those who traveled from Kabul toward Jalalabad during the civil war, because of his actions and behavior," Nadery says.

In a video link, one witness told the court that he was held for months and beaten so frequently that his family didn't recognize him. Another witness said one of Zardad's henchmen -- nicknamed "human dog" or "Zardad's dog" -- had bitten a man at a checkpoint because he wasn't handing out fruit fast enough.

Zardad arrived in Britain in 1998 and was running a pizzeria when he was arrested in 2002. He was found guilty of conspiracy to torture and conspiracy to take hostages. It is unclear yet whether he intends to appeal the verdict.

Zardad had belonged to the conservative Islamic party Hizb-i-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister. Hekmatyar is now a fugitive involved in the insurgency in southern Afghanistan.

The Zardad case is significant for Afghanistan. The country is marked by widespread human rights abuses committed by former commanders and warlords during more than two decades of conflict.

The AIHRC's Nadery says the conviction and sentencing of Zardad will have a positive impact inside Afghanistan.

"The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission welcomes such moves as positive steps toward increasing people's trust in the peace process in Afghanistan and ending impunity. The commission believes it is an important step toward ending impunity from judicial prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world," Nadery says.

A recent survey by the AIHRC indicated that most Afghans are directly or indirectly victims of war crimes and past human rights abuses. It also showed that most Afghan citizens believe that bringing human rights violators to justice will bolster peace and security.

Human Rights Watch recently called on the Afghan government to bring war criminals to justice. The organization has implicated several Afghan officials in past war crimes and human rights violations. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

Experts from the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, are back on the ground in western Afghanistan. They're working with local authorities on a $1 million project to preserve the crumbling, centuries-old minarets in Herat and Jam, which are in danger of collapse. Political instability had forced the teams to interrupt their work. This summer, however, their biggest challenge is not lack of security, but logistics. Massive rigging is needed to stabilize the tall towers, but the equipment is too heavy to transport by normal means. As RFE/RL reports, UNESCO is once again hoping to enlist the help of the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan's leafy western city of Herat, a two-lane road slices between the city's five remaining 15th-century minarets. Every truck, car, bus, motorcycle, and horse-drawn carriage that passes by sends vibrations coursing through the delicate structures.

In particular, the Fifth Minaret -- all 55 meters of it -- seems ready to collapse into a dusty heap of bricks and colored tiles at any moment. A large crack near its base makes drivers speed up just a little as they pass by.

Professor Giorgio Macchi of Italy's Pavia University helped to stabilize the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. He has been enlisted to prevent the collapse of the Fifth Minaret. Christian Manhart, a cultural specialist at UNESCO in Paris, recalls Macchi's conclusions after visiting Herat.

"He did his measurements of the crack, and there he saw that we had already several hundreds of oscillations per minute -- small movements -- of the open crack, which is just above the base. And he said this is the proof that the minaret starts to move and that the process of collapse had started. And he said it can collapse within the next three days, three weeks, or three months. We have to do something immediately," Manhart says.

That was almost two years ago. Emergency measures were quickly put in place. Stainless steel cables now connect the Fifth Minaret to concrete blocks sunk into the soil. While that sounds simple, Manhart says the project was anything but. The cables were so heavy that the U.S.-led military coalition had to be called in to airlift them from Kabul.

Manhart says a UNESCO team has just returned from Herat. Experts made soil measurements to determine how best to proceed with the next phase of the project.

"Our aim in the long term is -- long term means 2006 and eventually 2007 even -- to strengthen the foundations of the minaret using steel bars and to link these steel bars with small steel bars which will be placed inside the staircase of the minaret in order to create a new 'backbone' of this minaret, which is now dramatically leaning still and only held by the cables which we have placed in 2003," Manhart says.

Some 300 kilometers from Herat, the 12th-century Minaret of Jam is tucked into a remote gorge in neighboring Ghor Province. The second-tallest brick minaret in the world at more than 65 meters, it has survived earthquakes, wars, and the havoc wreaked by Ghengis Khan.

Unknown to the West until the 1950s, the Minaret of Jam was the first site in Afghanistan to be placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It's also on the List of World Heritage in Danger, as it, too, is threatened with collapse. Two rivers -- the Hari Rud and the Jam Rud -- flow close by and are eroding its foundation.

Jam is a treacherous two-day drive from Herat. Italian architect Andrea Bruno -- who also worked to stabilize the tower in Pisa -- led the UNESCO team that just returned from the area.

"During the last mission, other specialists also have been invited -- two geologists carried out three different types of inquiry, which were quite difficult due to the topographical situation of the location of the minaret and the difficulty to transport the necessary tools by Jeep from Herat to the Jam Valley," Bruno says.

Stabilizing the Minaret of Jam involves wrapping special stainless steel cables around its base. As in Herat, the task of getting the equipment to such a remote location presents formidable challenges, as UNESCO's Christian Manhart explains.

"Professor Macchi has made a concept of strengthening [the base] and holding it together by rolling steel cables around. This also sounds very easy, but these steel cables must be of a certain material and quality, and also they must be brought around with a predefined pressure. And this is possible only if you construct a machine which will roll on rails around. So this machine is presently under construction in Italy, and the rails also. We then have to bring all this equipment to this very remote area of Jam," Manhart says.

Manhart says UNESCO is again hoping military helicopters can be called in to help transport the cables and rails to Jam.

The preservation efforts in both Herat and Jam would be even more difficult were it not for the enthusiasm the Afghans themselves have shown in the projects. In addition to lending muscle to repair work, Manhart says Afghans are now actively involved in protecting their unique cultural heritage.

"Yes, we have very good cooperation with the Afghans. They are very keen to do this work, and they are also keen to learn, because our projects are not only aimed at the consolidation of the monuments but also on the capacity building of the services in Afghanistan in charge of the conservation of cultural heritage. And we did already a lot of onsite training. We sent some of them already to conferences and training courses. And the capacity has already considerably improved. There is extremely good cooperation with them," Manhart says.

Sayyed Makhdum Rahin is Afghanistan's minister of information and culture. He tells RFE/RL that the next phase of the preservation project is due to get under way next month.

"About two years ago, based on a proposal by Afghanistan's Information and Culture Ministry, the Jam minaret was included on the World Heritage List. Since then, UNESCO has been looking for ways to protect this minaret. We had some discussions in this regard recently, and starting in August, a [UNESCO] delegation is due to start its work in order to protect the minaret," Rahin says.

Preservation efforts aren't limited to the minarets themselves, however. Funded by Italy and Germany, a tile-making workshop has also been set up in Herat. The minarets in Herat and the nearby mausoleum of Queen Gawhar Shad were at one time covered with glazed tiles in shades of turquoise, yellow, deep blue, cream, and black. Only scattered patches remain. Hundreds of broken tiles lay like colored candies at the base of the minarets.

Manhart says tile masters were brought back to Herat from Iran and elsewhere, given salaries, and put to work teaching some two dozen students the ancient tradition of tile making. He notes that the tiles, while beautiful to look at, more importantly protect the minarets and mausoleum from the damaging effects of rain and wind.

Professor Bruno says it is vital that these monuments be saved, to preserve the structures themselves, as well as Afghanistan's unique place in the world's cultural history.

"Especially the Minaret of Jam is unique in the world, and you know now it is described on the list of World Heritage Sites. Herat in the past was the first city for the very highest expression of architecture. And not only from an architectural point of view but also from all the other expressions of Islamic art, like calligraphy, mosaics, and poetry. It's been described as the Florence of Afghanistan," Bruno says. (Grant Podelco, with additional reporting by Golnaz Esfandiari)

15 July 1960 -- Soviet prospecting team announces discovery of petroleum and natural gas deposits in northern Afghanistan.

14 July 1999 -- Abdul Ahad Karzai, chief of Popalzai tribe, is assassinated in Quetta with two other persons.

12 July 2001 -- The Taliban regime prohibit the use of the Internet.

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