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Afghan Report: March 25, 2004


25 March 2004, Volume 3, Number 12
SPECIAL FEATURES
MINISTER'S DEATH THREATENS TO PLUNGE WESTERN AFGHANISTAN INTO CHAOS
By Amin Tarzi

A challenge from a western Afghan regional leader threatened to turn Afghanistan's third-largest city into a battlefield as 1,500 Afghan National Army troops headed for Herat Province on 22 March -- possibly with support from coalition forces -- in an attempt by the Kabul-based government to restore order to an area whose governor has resisted the cession of power to the Afghan Transitional Administration. An analysis of the situation from Amin Tarzi.

There are fears that the situation could rapidly escalate if the self-styled "amir," or ruler, of Herat, Governor Ismail Khan, did not submit to the pledges he made 10 months ago and assume a less confrontational stance with respect to the central government.

Meanwhile, reports emerged that troops loyal to the central Afghan government's Herat division commander, General Abdul Zaher Nayebzadah, were on the move toward Herat from two neighboring provinces, Badghis and Ghor. Nayebzadah has been accused by some of having attempted to oust Ismail Khan with the help of 17th Division troops, which Nayebzadah commands. Nayebzadah's whereabouts were unknown on 22 March, one day after his Herat home was surrounded by troops loyal to Ismail Khan.

Large-scale fighting broke out between Ismail Khan's forces and 17th Division troops following the death on 21 March of Afghan Transitional Administration Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Mohammad Mirwais Sadeq, who was also the son of Ismail Khan. Ismail Khan had himself survived a purported assassination attempt just hours earlier.

According to the deputy chief of security in Herat, Abdul Wahid Tawakali, one of the men accused of firing at Ismail Khan implicated Nayebzadah for masterminding the plot. Ismail Khan's spokesman, Gholam Mohammad Mas'un, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on 22 March that Sadeq went to Nayebzadah's house to seek a clarification of reports that the general was involved in the assassination plot. Mas'un claimed that Sadeq's vehicle was ambushed by Nayebzadah's troops, killing Sadeq and five other individuals.

Nayebzadah had told Radio Free Afghanistan on 21 March that Ismail Khan's loyalists tried to attack his house and that Sadeq was killed in the ensuing firefight. Nayebzadah, who described himself as serving the interests of the central government, claimed that Ismail Khan is seeking his own "personal government" in Herat.

Battles between Ismail Khan's forces and 17th Division troops loyal to General Nayebzadah raged until nightfall on 21 March. Casualty reports from Herat Province have differed considerably, ranging from 10 to more than 150. Mas'un told Radio Free Afghanistan on 22 March that the number of casualties in the battles could not exceed 10. He added that some troops loyal to Nayebzadah had surrendered but others were still inside the 17th Division military compound. Mas'un described the situation in Herat as calm and described the reports of a large number of casualties as "propaganda" by Nayebzadah.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi told Radio Free Afghanistan on 22 March that a delegation headed by Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim that also includes the Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali left for Herat the same day to try to seek an end to the fighting there. Azimi put the number of Afghan National Army troops involved in the deployment at 1,500. Fahim's mission, according to Azimi, is to establish a cease-fire and investigate the circumstances around the death of Minister Sadeq.

If central-government forces are unable to impose a cease-fire, Kabul will seek the support of coalition forces and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Azimi told Radio Free Afghanistan. A spokesman for the U.S. force in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, called the fighting in Herat an "internal" matter for the Afghans. He added that he has no information of any plans for involvement by U.S. forces. In a statement released on 21 March, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it appeared that the "violence [in Herat] began as a traffic incident and then escalated." The embassy added that the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Herat evacuated the German diplomatic staff, whose mission is situated near the site of hostilities, and the Italian ambassador to Kabul, who was visiting Herat at the time.

Nayebzadah and Ismail Khan are onetime allies, and both are members of the Jamiat-e Islami party led by the former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Since the establishment of the post-Taliban administration in Afghanistan in December 2001, Ismail Khan has proven unwilling to submit to the central authority in Kabul. In May 2003, Ismail Khan and other governors and regional commanders signed a resolution with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai in which they pledged, among other things, to "regularly transfer all the revenues to the capital," not to command militias, and to abolish titles such as "amir" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 May 2003). Karzai vowed at the time to resign within three months if his administration proved unable to bring rogue provinces under Kabul's control. While some of the autonomous or semi-autonomous governors and commanders have been brought under the control, Ismail Khan is among those who have retained personal militias. He is still referred to as the "amir of Herat" in local press and by provincial officials.

Nayebzadah, on the other hand, seems to have allied himself with the central government. Karzai recently assigned him to his post as the commander of the 17th Division. Nayebzadah told Radio Free Afghanistan on 21 March that his forces are under the command of the Afghan Defense Ministry, although he clarified that he had not consulted with Kabul regarding the outbreak of violence earlier in the day.

Ismail Khan's spokesman, General Mas'un, meanwhile told Radio Free Afghanistan on 22 March there was no need for Afghan National Army troops to come to Herat.

NEWS
WESTERN AFGHAN WARLORD ESCAPES ASSASSINATION...
A purported assassination attempt against the powerful Herat Province governor Mohammad Ismail Khan failed on 21 March, Afghanistan Television reported. Herat's deputy chief of intelligence, Abdul Wahid Tawalaki, said some of the assailants were detained and that they implicated General Abdul Zaher Nayebzadah, the commander of the Afghan Army's 17th Division, as having allegedly ordered the killing of Ismail Khan, "The New York Times" reported on 22 March. Unnamed sources quoted from Herat by Peshawar-based Islamic Press on 21 March said Nayebzadah had "staged a coup d'etat" against Ismail Khan. (Amin Tarzi)

...BUT LOSES SON, AFGHAN GOVERNMENT MINISTER, IN ENSUING VIOLENCE...
Afghan Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Mirwais Sadeq and five other people were killed near Nayebzadah's house just hours after the reported attempt on Herat Governor Ismail Khan's life on 21 March, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on 21 March. Sadeq was Ismail Khan's son. Sadeq was passing by Nayebzadah's house when his vehicle was ambushed, according to the governor's spokesman, General Mas'un. But Nayebzadah told Radio Free Afghanistan on 21 March that Ismail Khan's loyalists tried to attack his house and that Sadeq was killed in the ensuing firefight. Nayebzadah claimed that Ismail Khan is seeking his own "personal government" in Herat, while Nayebzadah described himself as serving the interests of the central government in Kabul. Nayebzadah and Ismail Khan are onetime allies, and both are members of the Jamiat-e Islami party. More recently, Ismail Khan has proven unwilling to submit to the central authority of the Afghan Transitional Administration, while Nayebzadah has allied himself with the central government. (Amin Tarzi)

...AS BATTLE SPILLS INTO STREETS OF HERAT...
The purported assassination attempt on Ismail Khan and the killing of his son on 21 March led to battles between Ismail Khan's forces and 17th Division troops loyal to General Nayebzadah, Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Casualty reports from Herat Province differ considerably, ranging from 10 to more than 100. General Mas'un told Radio Free Afghanistan on 22 March that the number of casualties in the battles -- which raged in Herat until around 9:30 p.m. local time on 21 March -- could not exceed 10. He said some troops loyal to Nayebzadah have surrendered but a few others are still inside the 17th Division military compound. Mas'un described the situation in Herat as calm. Mas'un attributed the reports of large number of casualties to "propaganda" by Nayebzadah. "More than 100 people have been killed on both sides," Nayebzadah told Reuters on 21 March. (Amin Tarzi)

...AND KABUL SENDS DELEGATION TO HERAT...
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi said a delegation headed by Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim is in Herat to bring about an end to the fighting there, Radio Free Afghanistan reported on 22 March. Around 1,500 troops of the Afghan National Army are also on their way to Herat to establish security, Azimi added. Fahim's mission, according to Azimi, is to establish a cease-fire and also investigate the circumstances around the death of Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Sadeq. If the Afghan forces are unable to establish a cease-fire, Kabul will seek the support of coalition forces and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Azimi told Radio Free Afghanistan. A spokesman for the U.S. force in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, called the fighting in Herat an "internal" matter for the Afghans, adding that he has no information about any plans for involvement by U.S. forces, AP reported on 22 March. In a statement released on 21 March, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Herat evacuated the German diplomatic staff as well as the Italian ambassador to Kabul, who was visiting Herat. (Amin Tarzi)

ANA TROOPS REACH TENSE WESTERN PROVINCE...
Around 500 members of the Afghan National Army arrived from the Afghan capital in the western city of Herat on 23 March, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported the same day. The entry of Afghan National Army troops into Herat marks the first time since the demise of the Taliban in late 2001 that Kabul has had forces in Ismail Khan's province, where he governs as a self-styled "amir," or ruler. (Amin Tarzi)

...AS DEMONSTRATORS TAKE TO HERAT'S STREETS...
Demonstrators took to the streets of Herat on 22 March to voice opposition to commander Nayebzadah, whose whereabouts were unclear for hours following his reported encirclement by Ismail Khan's troops, "The New York Times" reported the following day. Protesters also shouted slogans condemning the Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and the United States, the daily added. Demonstrators burned the home of Herat's chief justice, Mawlawi Khodadad, Hindukosh News Agency reported on 22 March. Minister Sadeq's funeral has been postponed until 23 March because of the demonstrations, "The New York Times" reported. (Amin Tarzi)

...AND MISSING AFGHAN COMMANDER RESURFACES.
General Nayebzadah spoke with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on 23 March, claiming that he and some of his troops are in Karokh District, east of the city of Herat. Nayebzadah said he lost 35 troops while he was still inside his division's headquarters on 21 March, but he said many more might have been "martyred" by Ismail Khan's forces after he left the city. Nayebzadah said he has obeyed and will continue to obey orders from the central government in Kabul, adding that he will return to Herat to assume his position if ordered to do so. An investigation should be conducted by Kabul regarding the incidents of 21 March, Nayebzadah said, adding that Ismail Khan launched hostilities without any provocation. The 17th Division commander urged Kabul to put Ismail Khan -- who continues to wield both political and military power in Herat Province despite a May 2003 pledge to the contrary -- on trial. Nayebzadah said he left Herat before the arrival of a delegation from Kabul and thus has not been in contact with those officials. (Amin Tarzi)

AFGHAN DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS HERAT SITUATION IS UNDER CONTROL...
Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who headed a delegation to Herat following reports of fighting and street protests in that western Afghan city, arrived back in the capital on 23 March, Afghanistan Television reported. Fahim said Sadeq "was martyred in a plot" and "consequently the situation in Herat was disturbed." The delegates from Kabul talked to both sides in the conflict and "instability and insecurity was prevented," Fahim added. He said a "compromise has been reached" that allows Afghan National Army troops to be stationed in the city to "give confidence to the people." Fahim did not elaborate on other points of the compromise or say whether National Army units are to remain in Herat permanently. (Amin Tarzi)

...WITH 1,500 AFGHAN ARMY PERSONNEL IN THE CITY.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi said on 23 March that around 1,500 Afghan National Army soldiers have been deployed to Herat and "the 3rd Battalion is ready to leave for the province," Afghanistan Television reported. "If needed, more army units will be deployed to Herat," Azimi added. The spokesman said the National Army mission in Herat is to "ensure security, prevent regional clashes, and show the presence of the central government in Herat Province." (Amin Tarzi)

THOUSANDS PAY LAST RESPECTS TO SLAIN AVIATION MINISTER.
Thousands of citizens lined the streets of Herat on 23 March to pay their last respects to slain Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Sadeq, Herat Television reported. The crowd shouted, "Death to Nayebzadah, death to traitors." Defense Minister Fahim delivered the condolences of Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai to Sadeq's father, Governor Ismail Khan. The governor asked Karzai not to keep the people of Herat waiting and instead take swift action against "the plotters." Herat youths addressed Khan by saying, "We are your soldiers and we listen to your orders," according to Herat Television. Khan's reluctance to relinquish either military or political control to comply with his pledge last year has led to increased tension between Kabul and Heart. (Amin Tarzi)

KABUL REPORTEDLY SEEKING TO DISMISS HERAT GOVERNOR.
Citing an unidentified Afghan source, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran radio reported on 23 March that the Afghan Transitional Administration is seeking to remove Ismail Khan from his post as the governor of Herat. According to the report, both Kabul and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad have urged Ismail Khan to accept a cabinet post in Karzai's administration or the governorship of another province. The Iranian state radio report claimed that Ismail Khan refused those offers, prompting Kabul to order Nayebzadah to plot against the governor. Bringing Herat under Kabul's authority would provide a major boost to the central Afghan government's efforts to extend authority throughout the country. (Amin Tarzi)

SEVEN SUSPECTED NEO-TALIBAN KILLED IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN.
Seven armed men were killed in a large-scale operation conducted by U.S.-led coalition forces in the Ata Ghar District of Zabul Province, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 18 March. According to unnamed sources in Qalat, the provincial capital of Zabul, the armed men were loyalists of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime. Fifteen armed men have been reported apprehended in the operations. Afghan officials in Zabul and neighboring Kandahar Province believe that neo-Taliban forces have been using Ata Ghar as a base for launching sporadic attacks in the two provinces. The coalition forces are said to be heading for the nearby Mizan District. Zabul Deputy Governor Mohammad Omar estimated in February that around 400 militants had gathered near the Mizan and Ata Ghar districts (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 26 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

TWO U.S. SOLDIERS KILLED IN CENTRAL AFGHANISTAN...
Two U.S. soldiers were killed and two others wounded in Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital of Oruzgan Province, on 18 March, AP reported. The U.S. soldiers and units of the Afghan National Army were attacked by "anticoalition" militia, U.S. military sources said according to the report. (Amin Tarzi)

...LEADING TO U.S. BOMBING IN WHICH FOUR AFGHANS ARE KILLED.
A spokesman for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, said on 22 March that three armed men and one woman were killed in a 19 March air raid in the Chahar Chino District of Oruzgan Province, the official Afghan Bakhtar News Agency reported. Hilferty said the bombing was a response to the deaths of two U.S. soldiers in Oruzgan. The "armed people" were virtually surrounded but neither surrendered nor allowed civilians to leave the area, Hilferty said, according to Bakhtar. An injured woman was hospitalized after the raid and publications apparently belonging to the resurgent Taliban movement were discovered in the area, Bakhtar reported. (Amin Tarzi)

TROUBLED PROVINCE GETS NEW DEPUTY GOVERNOR.
Hakimullah has been appointed deputy governor of the troubled southern Afghan Zabul Province, Peshawar-based AIP reported on 18 March. Hakimullah replaces the outspoken Mawlawi Mohammad Omar, who reportedly is "known for giving interviews to the press and telling the truth about the situation in Zabul." Mohammad Omar claimed in July that neo-Taliban forces had named their own governor and other administrative officers in the province; and in November, he said that in the Ata Ghar, Naw Bahar, Shinkay, and Shamalzai districts, "either the Afghan government does not have control...or [the provinces] are abandoned or they are controlled by people connected with the Taliban" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July and 13 November 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

REPORT SUGGESTS PAKISTAN HAS AL-QAEDA NO. 2 SURROUNDED NEAR AFGHAN BORDER...
The Karachi-based daily "Dawn" reported on 19 March that the Al-Qaeda terrorist network's suspected second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, might be "holed up" in an area of the South Waziristan tribal agency bordering Afghanistan as some 7,000 Pakistani regular military forces and members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps continue an operation launched on 18 March. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf confirmed that a "high-value" Al-Qaeda target is surrounded, but he declined to be more specific. A senior unidentified Pakistani official said Islamabad has been "receiving intelligence and information from...[its] agents who are working in the tribal areas that al-Zawahiri could be among the people hiding," in South Waziristan, according to AP on 19 March. The Pakistani Frontier Corps launched an assault on Wana, South Waziristan's administrative capital, on 16 March and reportedly killed a number of suspected foreign militants and local sympathizers (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 March 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

...WHILE NEO-TALIBAN SOURCES CLAIM AL-ZAWAHIRI IS IN AFGHANISTAN.
Abdul Samad, purporting to speak for the neo-Taliban, said on 19 March that al-Zawahiri is safe in Afghanistan, AFP reported. Abdul Samad, who reportedly was speaking from southern Afghanistan, said he is "100 percent" certain that al-Zawahiri is safe and described reports that he his surrounded by Pakistani forces as "propaganda by the U.S. coalition and by the Pakistani Army to weaken Taliban morale." Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, defense minister of the ousted Taliban regime, said on 19 March that he has information that al-Zawahiri is not in South Waziristan, Reuters reported. Obaidullah Akhund, speaking from an undisclosed location, added, "It would be speculation to say where senior Al-Qaeda leaders have taken shelter, because they keep changing their hideouts." The former Taliban minister suggested that if al-Zawahiri is indeed in the area, locals will help him to escape. Obaidullah Akhund added that if al-Zawahiri could not manage to flee, then he would "prefer to become a martyr." In February, the neo-Taliban named Hamed Agha as the movement's only authorized spokesman; but Abdul Samad has also been purporting to speak on behalf of the group (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 4 March 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

AFGHAN LEADER HINTS THAT ELECTIONS MIGHT BE DELAYED.
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai conceded on 17 March that Afghan elections scheduled for June might be delayed, international news agencies reported. Speaking at a news conference alongside visiting U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Karzai said 8 million voters should be registered by the end of May. But with just 1.5 million voters registered so far, only a massive effort by the UN would allow registration of the remaining 6.5 million to meet that target. "If this is done on time by the United Nations," Karzai said, "the Afghan government is keen to have elections in June, July, or in August -- depending on the preparations for elections," "The Washington Post" reported on 18 March. "I think if they can get up to 8 or 9 million people to register, you have got proper representation of total population," Powell said, adding, "Whether it's June or July or August remains to be seen.... I don't think it's a significant difference, as long as it's done well and seems honest, fair, and effective." Security threats and a slow registration process have prompted many UN, European, and some Afghan officials to call for the postponement of the elections until September or even 2005 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 and 26 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

AFGHAN REPUBLICAN PARTY'S LEADER BACKS ELECTIONS...
Sebghatullah Sanjar, the head of the recently established Republican Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-e Jamhuri Khwahan-e Afghanistan), said his party supports the upcoming elections despite choosing not to put forth a candidate for the presidency, "Kabul Weekly" reported on 17 March. Sanjar said the lack of a Republican candidate "should not be misconstrued as meaning we do not want to participate in the elections." Citing remarks by presidential candidate and former Afghan Planning Minister Mohammad Mohaqeq suggesting that he has been discouraged from running (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 March 2004), "Kabul Weekly" asked Sanjar whether he has been threatened; he replied that neither he or other members of his "party have been threatened so far." Sanjar said that unless all eligible Afghan voters are registered, "the elections will risk being perceived as flawed." Five political parties have so far been registered with the Afghan Justice Ministry. (Amin Tarzi)

...AND AFGHAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE COMPLAINS OF FLAWS IN REGISTRATION PROCESS.
Sayyed Ishaq Gailani, leader of the Afghanistan National Solidarity Movement (Da Afghanistan da Melli Paiwatun Nahzat) accused the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) of unfair interference in the registration process, "Kabul Weekly" reported on 17 March. Gailani said registration centers have been instructing people to vote for Karzai. He also suggested that UNAMA has effectively been stumping for the Afghan leader by announcing that voter-registration figures have risen sharply since Karzai's own registration in January. "I think such publicity is not the duty of a UNAMA spokesman," Gailani claimed. "Besides, the people who have taken voting cards have been told that their cards will be bought for $100, which is tantamount to betraying Afghanistan and its people." Gailani answered in the negative when asked whether he has been threatened. He said that while the government has not been an obstacle in his path, "all candidates should have equal access to the public.... Government offices should not be used to obtain votes from the people." If the elections are delayed until all Afghans have registered, "it will be to the country's benefit," Gailani added. In June 2003, Gailani became the first person to officially announce his candidacy for the presidential elections (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

NEW ANA BASES PLANNED IN FOUR PROVINCES.
U.S military officials and members of the Afghan central government met today with leaders of an Afghan militia force in Kandahar to discuss where to permanently garrison troops from the fledgling Afghan National Army.

Plans call for new Afghan National Army bases to be built in four locations across the country in an attempt to extend the authority of the central government beyond Kabul.

In addition to Kandahar Province, U.S. and Afghan military officials also are searching for base sites near the western city of Herat, the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif and the southeastern city of Gardez.

Today's talks in Kandahar included representatives from the U.S. Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan and from the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

The U.S. delegates included a civilian engineer, military engineers, and U.S. Army officers who are helping to train the Afghan National Army. The delegation from Kabul was led by Afghan National Army Colonel Abdul Habib Mirwais.

U.S. officials say temporary structures such as tents will be set up first and that the bases will evolve gradually into permanent garrisons. Dining and toilet facilities will be the first permanent structures built, followed by barracks.

Three possible locations were investigated today by the U.S.-Afghan team. One is just outside of the Kandahar airfield, where recently trained soldiers in the Afghan National Army are now encamped. Another potential site is near the Blue Mosque in Kandahar. The third location is to the north of Kandahar's city limits.

Initial plans called for a groundbreaking ceremony for a base in Kandahar Province by the end of next week. But those plans have been pushed back amidst a U.S.-led offensive against Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters that was launched 11 days ago across southern, southeastern, and eastern Afghanistan.

The Afghan Defense Ministry has final approval authority on all of the base locations. U.S. officials say they hope a definitive decision will be made soon on a Kandahar site so that construction can start on temporary facilities in about a month. They hope recent graduates of their training program will be able to move in during the summer.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces are pushing forward with their plans to expand bases for Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in southern Afghanistan. Those bases serve as regional headquarters for reconstruction projects by coalition forces. The PRTs in the south also have U.S. infantry detachments that conduct security patrols.

U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Duffy, who is in charge of PRT expansion across five southern Afghan provinces, told RFE/RL that the next bases will be set up in Oruzgun Province north of Kandahar and in the southwestern province of Helmand.

"We're intending to build a PRT in Tarin Kowt, which is the provincial capital [of Oruzgun Province]. That is supposed to be operational no later than June of this year. Tarin Kowt and Lashkar Ghar [in Helmand Province] are the two PRTs that are going to be starting up very close to here. The security, the overnight party, they'll go in [and] do reconnaissance [to] determine sites. They'll have to do a bidder's conference, find a contractor, actually do construction. There's a lot of infrastructure that is necessary for a PRT -- the barracks, the dining facilities, the water. All that has to be in place. That will be started very soon," Duffy said.

Duffy says the PRT program is another way to strengthen the authority of the Afghan central government outside of Kabul by showing villagers in remote regions that coalition forces are bringing security to their areas and helping to rebuild the war-torn country. (Ron Synovitz)

U.S. PUSHES NATO FOR GREATER INVOLVEMENT IN AFGHANISTAN.
U.S. representatives at NATO say they remain optimistic that the alliance will deliver on its promise to set up five new Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan before summer.

However, a certain sense of urgency is becoming evident in U.S. statements, suggesting that finding soldiers and resources for the PRTs is not yet a foregone conclusion.

He also repeatedly stressed that the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan will soon eclipse the importance the United States attaches to existing missions in the Balkans.

PRTs serve as regional headquarters for reconstruction projects by NATO and coalition forces.

Yesterday, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, told a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels that it is of "critical importance" to the United States that NATO meets these commitments and "steps out to do the job that was promised." NATO is leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Burns said he is "very optimistic" that the PRT goal is within reach.

"I can tell you and report to you based on the last week or so of conversations here at NATO that I'm very optimistic that NATO is going to meet its commitment to establish these five Provincial Reconstruction Teams, certainly by the Istanbul summit [in June]. We have commitments from five countries to lead the five separate PRTs," Burns said.

Burns, like other NATO officials, did not specify how many men and what equipment the new PRTs need.

Instead, he said a meeting in Brussels last week had been successful in identifying much of the equipment, resources, and personnel needed to staff the PRTs. He said things are "headed in the right direction."

Burns said the United States expects the suppliers of all major resources to be identified by 2 April, when NATO foreign ministers meet in Brussels to celebrate the alliance's expansion.

He also repeatedly stressed that the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan will soon eclipse the importance the United States attaches to existing missions in the Balkans.

NATO officials said yesterday that a high-level joint European Union-NATO delegation will travel to Bosnia in the coming days to prepare for the handover of the NATO mission there to the EUFOR -- the EU's new force.

Burns also indicated the United States wants NATO to become involved in securing upcoming national elections in Afghanistan. Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai has sent a letter to NATO asking for assistance.

Burns said yesterday that NATO should start preparations as soon as Karzai announces a date for the elections. Karzai yesterday said the vote may be delayed until August.

"As soon as [Karzai] makes that announcement, NATO will obviously have to plan a renewed and expanded mission to support those elections. I think the mood -- certainly in my own government -- is that we should keep all options on the table to do that, that we should be ready to support President Karzai and the Afghan people in this process," Burns said.

In parallel, the head of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Barno -- who was also in Brussels yesterday -- said the coalition is looking to increase the number of PRTs it operates to at least 15 by mid-summer, instead of the present 12.

While NATO concentrates on the north and the west of the country, coalition PRTs are mostly active in the south and east of Afghanistan. Those PRTs have U.S. infantry detachments that conduct security patrols. Barno said the security threat from Al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives is highest in what he called the "Pashtun belt" in the southeast.

"In terms of security throughout the country, right now we have a variety of different security challenges in different parts of the country. In the south and east of the country, along the border with Pakistan, the primary security threat there is terrorist organizations. As we know, the Pakistanis are in the midst of an operation on their side of the border today. It's looking very promising in terms of uprooting Al-Qaeda elements over there. In other parts of the country, I would judge that the security issues are more related to banditry, to some degree some growing drug concerns, and some of the regional problems with factional leaders," Barno said.

Barno said he could not confirm a recent assessment by General James Jones, head of NATO forces in Europe, that fewer than 1,000 active Al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants are left in Afghanistan. Barno said such figures are "difficult to calibrate."

Barno said U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan are increasingly trying to share the security burden with units of Afghan forces in order to build trust within the local population.

THIS WEEK IN AFGHANISTAN'S HISTORY
26 March 1956 -- Afghanistan formally protests the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) decision to uphold the "Durand Line" as the Afghan-Pakistani border.

21 March 1991 -- Afghan government accuses Pakistan of military intervention.

22 March 1994 -- The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization lists Afghanistan as one of the world's three countries most severely threatened by famine.

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

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