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Afghanistan Report: March 29, 2007

Afghanistan: NATO Pleased With Offensive, But Goals Still Unmet

By Ron Synovitz

British Royal Marines fighting Taliban forces near Kajaki dam earlier this year

March 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- NATO commanders say they are pleased with the initial results of their spring offensive in southern Afghanistan.

A month into the operation, NATO commanders say their deployment of several thousand NATO and Afghan troops is eroding the ability of the Taliban to fight.

Major General Ton van Loon, the southern command chief of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said Operation Achilles is "delivering positive results" and has put the Taliban on the defensive.

Bringing Dam's Benefits To Province

It is NATO's first broad assessment of Operation Achilles since early March, when NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop de Scheffer announced that the offensive was aimed at protecting the Kajaki hydroelectric dam in Helmand Province.
"The aim of the operation is to create security -- more security -- in the south, and in particular, to allow [for] the installation of a turbine in the Kajaki dam."

"[Some] 4,500 NATO troops with 1,000 Afghan national security forces are active there and they focus on Helmand Province in the southern part of Afghanistan," de Hoop Scheffer said. "The aim of the operation is to create security -- more security -- in the south, and in particular, to allow [for] the installation of a turbine in the Kajaki dam."

There are more than 14,000 reconstruction projects under way in Afghanistan. But Hoop de Scheffer says the Kajaki dam has the most strategic and psychological significance. That's because of the economic benefits residents of the area are expected to reap once reconstruction is finished.

"When the turbine in that dam is [installed] it will give power to 2 million people and their businesses. It will provide irrigation for hundreds of farmers. And it will create jobs for 2,000 people," de Hoop Scheffer said. "The Taliban, the spoilers, are attacking this project every day to [try to] stop it from going forward."

Taliban Still Fighting

Despite NATO's positive assessment of the offensive so far, Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak warns that Taliban fighters continue to control about one-third of the territory in northern Helmand Province. That includes positions in the districts of Kajaki, Musa Qala, Nawzad, Baghran, and Sangin.

Bringing electricity, jobs to the region (USAID courtesy photo)

Some analysts are skeptical about NATO's claims of success when there are still such large swaths of territory in which the Taliban can operate.

RFE/RL Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi says NATO's assessments about Operation Achilles need to be measured against the objectives that where announced at the start of the offensive.

"The stated objective of NATO was that this operation is to bring peace and security to the Kajaki area, where the dam is, to enable reconstruction. They want to show a major effort of a reconstruction project, which would give electricity to a major part of northern Helmand and Kandahar," Tarzi says.

"There is an underlying objective, which was also to clear out the Taliban from holding the district of Musa Qala, which is just west of Kajaki," he continues. "Have they achieved the stated objective of clearing out enough of the Taliban in Kajaki to start reconstruction? The answer is a clear 'no.'"

Afghan Forces Improving

One measure by which NATO is claiming success is the killing of more than 100 Taliban fighters in the past week by Afghan government troops. The Afghan troops were fighting in three districts of Helmand independently from NATO ground forces.

To be sure, NATO's combat infrastructure was used by the Afghan troops during that fighting -- including the use of NATO's combat radio network and close air support from NATO war planes.

Nevertheless, Tarzi says the role of government troops in the spring offensive -- their most significant independent operation to date -- marks a significant step forward for the development of Afghan security forces.

"To enable Afghanistan to become a viable state and for civil society to come in, the most important key is enabling the Afghan national security forces -- the army and the police -- to be able to conduct operations and to provide day-to-day security. One day they have to do that without any NATO presence," Tarzi says.

"Of course, right now, the main thing is that NATO has [combat-radio] communications. But more important is the threat of NATO air cover. But the fact that they have actually been on the ground without any NATO ground forces [working with them] is a step forward," he notes.

Increased Violence

Major General van Loon says another reason he considers Operation Achilles a success is that NATO forces have encircled Taliban fighters and are preventing them from getting reinforcements from the neighboring provinces of Kandahar and Oruzgan or from across the border in Pakistan.

But the Taliban has responded by carrying out a series of suicide-bomb attacks across the south and east of the country -- about a dozen in the past week.

Last year saw the worst violence in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban from power in late 2001.

More than 4,000 people died in fighting in 2006. Most were suspected Taliban fighters. But about 1,000 were Afghan civilians -- and many of them were killed by suicide bombers.

Experts say that regardless of the outcome of fighting near the Kajaki dam, the civilian death toll from combat and suicide bombings this year ultimately will become the comparison point that measures NATO's success.

UN Offers Mixed Report On Poppy Cultivation In Afghanistan

By Nikola Krastev

Antonia Maria Costa briefing the media at UN headquarters on March 21

UNITED NATIONS, March 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said in New York on March 21 that opium-poppy production is decreasing or being eliminated in some provinces but increasing in others.

And Costa said poppy production in southern Afghanistan is "out of control," and this huge increase is likely to offset the success fighting poppy cultivation in the north and central parts of the country.

Mixed Results

Costa says the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan's southern provinces is playing an active role in the increase of the poppy growth and opium trade.

"In the center-northern part of the country we may be able to certify opium-free status for [between eight and 12] provinces of Afghanistan."

But Costa says that recently a new trend began to emerge in opium cultivation in Afghanistan.

"The evidence which we provided to the [UN] Security Council points to a new and potentially promising development in Afghanistan, namely the fact that in the country now we see a divergent trend between the central-northern part of the country, [a decrease] on the one hand, and southern part of the country, [an increase]," he said.

In its 2006 report, the UN determined a total of 166,000 hectares of poppy fields in Afghanistan. Costa said that in 2006 six Afghan provinces were declared "opium free." And he expects by June that several more of Afghanistan's 35 provinces will also be declared "opium free."

'Opium-Free' Provinces

Costa says, however, that there are differences in the estimates by his office -- which is more cautious -- and the estimates of the Afghan government.

"In the center-northern part of the country we may be able to certify opium-free status for [between eight and 12] provinces of Afghanistan," he said. "The [Afghan] government is actually more optimistic than that. They believe there will be a higher number of opium-free provinces."

Police destroying an opium field in Kandahar Province in January (epa)

Despite the upbeat statistics, Costa admitted, the poppy-growing potential of the five southern provinces is so high that it will likely neutralize the gains made against poppy cultivation in the north and central parts of the country.

"Those five provinces are the largest area of concentration of any narcotics in the world at the moment," he said. "There are about 100,000 hectares [of poppy fields in] all of the five collectively. We expect a further increase in these provinces. A further increase in these high-cultivation provinces will probably -- that's the bad news, if you wish -- offset the decrease in the north."

The Afghan government is increasing its poppy-eradication efforts, Costa says. For example, so far this year some 8,000 hectares of poppy fields have been eradicated. This is double the figure for the first quarter of 2006.

Export Routes

Because almost all of Afghanistan's raw opium is being exported to Western Europe and further to North America, Costa says, this is additionally complicating Kabul's relations with its neighbors.

"We also see the importance of strengthening relations with neighboring countries," he said. "All of the Afghan opium, obviously, is exported. Most of it is exported through either Iran or Pakistan. About 20 percent [is exported] through the northern states of Central Asia -- Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and so forth."

Costa says the UN is now undertaking a major border-strengthening initiative along the Pakistani and Iranian borders.

"We have launched a very major initiative to strengthen border control between Afghanistan and Iran, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and obviously between Pakistan and Iran, which is the new 'Golden Triangle' area, if you wish," he said.

The UN Security Council agreed in December to add to the list of known terrorist figures and organizations in Afghanistan the names of major drug traffickers. Under the directive of the council, any such person on the list should be arrested if he/she is detected in any of the UN's 192 member states.

Kabul Mulls Relations Iran

By Amin Tarzi

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Kabul in September

March 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Afghan government and ordinary Afghans are quick to say that most of the destabilizing factors in their country have a foreign origin -- and Pakistan is most likely to be blamed.

But recently, more attention is being paid to the possibility that Afghanistan's neighbor to the west -- Iran -- may also be pursuing its own agenda in Afghanistan to the detriment of Kabul.

Iran and Pakistan became actively involved in the internal affairs of Afghanistan during the mujahedin's resistance against Soviet forces and the subsequent communist regimes from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

Pakistani Involvement

Both countries also became host to millions of Afghan refugees. During the jihad period -- as the anticommunist resistance is referred to by Afghans -- Pakistan hosted and manipulated the mostly Sunni Muslim and Pashtun mujahedin groups, while Iran managed the mostly Shi'ite Muslim groups.

Not causing trouble does not mean that Iran lacks the ability to do so, if such a policy would suit Tehran's dealings with the West.

With the collapse of the communist government of President Najibullah in 1992, the Pakistani-backed groups initially took control of most levers of power.

Gradually, however, Iran, and -- even less obviously, India and the Russian Federation -- cultivated their own relations with new clients to oppose the domination of Pakistan over the future of Afghanistan.

With the advent of the Taliban phenomenon in 1994, Tehran began not only to actively support the loose grouping of former mujahedin parties and communist strongmen -- the United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (popularly known as the Northern Alliance) -- but also gave refuge to Pakistan's one-time favorite Afghan client, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as a potential card to be played.

Tehran Opposed Taliban

Whereas during the jihad period Pakistan and Iran chose their clients based somewhat on ideological, cultural, and religious considerations, in the post-Taliban arrangements Tehran's adamant opposition to the new arrangements in Afghanistan meant that anyone standing against the Taliban was a potential asset.

Then, as now, Tehran believed that the Taliban phenomenon was a Western -- mainly U.S. -- undertaking being used not only to oppose Iran but also to defame Islam.

After the ouster of the Taliban regime by the U.S.-led coalition in late 2001, Iran played a constructive role by convincing its clients to cooperate with the new arrangements and to take an active part in reconstruction. They focused especially on areas close to its border with Afghanistan -- most notably Herat Province.

From the beginning Kabul tried to balance its ties with Iran despite the presence of U.S. and later NATO forces on its soil, something that Tehran has continuously opposed.

As the pendulum of relations between Kabul and Islamabad began to swing, mostly towards antagonistic levels, the Afghan government began to view India -- but also Iran -- as potential balancing factors in Kabul's threat-perception scenarios.

Worried By Iranian Influence

Despite the official stance of the Afghan government, popular views of Iran's attempts to influence Afghanistan -- both strategically and culturally -- have begun to surface recently.

Among many Afghans, mainly Pashto speakers, there is a feeling that Iranian culture and the Persian dialect spoken in Tehran is seeping into their country and is having an irreversible effect on the Afghan cultural identity.

Beyond the linguistic influences, Afghans quietly though in ever-greater numbers talk of a long-term Iranian program to bring their country into the sphere of Iranian influence, especially once the foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

Afghan officials in western provinces that border Iran have discussed incursions by Iranians, violations by Iranian aircraft of Afghan airspace, and support of terrorists in camps operated by Iranians. But there have been no formal or public protests against Iran, even though the Afghan government has made many public complaints of reported interference by Pakistan.

Training Camp In Iran?

Abdul Samad Stanakzai, a former governor of the western Farah Province, expressed concern in January over alleged Iranian interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs.

In an interview with Herat-based Radio Sahar on January 30, Stanakzai claimed that Iran is training "a large number of political opponents of the [Afghan] government" in a refugee camp in Iran called Shamsabad.

"Iran's interference is aimed at influencing our national identity and destroying it in the long term," Stanakzai added. Broadcasting the story, Radio Sahar commented that whereas "key [Afghan] government officials previously complained about interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs by neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan, they have avoided blaming Iran."

In mid-February, General Daud Ahadi, the commander of Border Brigade No. 5 in Nimroz Province, pointed to at least three separate violations of Afghan airspace by Iranian helicopters.

State-run Radio Afghanistan reported two such violations on February 18, adding in a commentary that "the Iranian side on occasion has caused border problems between Iran and Afghanistan that has resulted in violence."

Border Clashes Reported

Nimroz Governor Gholam Dastagir Azad told the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press on March 9 that "Afghan and Iranian border police clashed" along the border between the two countries and one border policeman from both sides was killed and one Afghan policeman was injured.

According to Azad the clash was caused by a "misunderstanding."

In another development, since February Afghan officials have mentioned that Iran is erecting a wall along the border with the Kang district in Nimroz Province, ostensibly to prevent drug smugglers from entering Iran.

Nur Mohammad Haidar, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs, told Kabul-based Tolo Television on February 14 that if the "Iranian officials want to prevent drug smugglers and illegal immigrants from entering" their country, they can find more effective preventive measures "in coordination and cooperation with Afghan security officials...than erecting a wall."

Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Satar Ahmad Bahin told Tolo that since the "wall is erected inside Iranian territory, it is not Afghanistan's business." He added: "We have nothing to do with it."

Kabul's total rejection of Pakistan's plans to erect barb-wired fences in selected areas of its border with Afghanistan -- and also inside Pakistani territory -- and its reported acceptance of barriers by Iran, could present diplomatic and legal obstacles to Afghanistan's policy of opposing the Pakistani plan.

Siding With Iran

Kabul's choice of putting its lot with Tehran and New Delhi while seeing only evil intent in Islamabad is -- at best -- a short-sighted policy which not only ignores geographical realties on the ground but also discounts the long-term strategic goals of Iran and, to a much-lesser degree, that of India vis-a-vis Afghanistan.

Another factor which makes Iran a liability to Afghanistan's medium-term stability is Tehran's opposition to the presence of NATO and other foreign forces in Afghanistan.

In a recent commentary titled "People of Afghanistan: Hostages of Occupiers and Terrorists," the hard-line Tehran daily "Jomhuri-ye Islami" restated Iran's claim that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are creations of the United States and that Washington's strategy is based on a "long stay in Afghanistan. But in order to justify this usurpatory presence," it needs an "explanation and pretext."

The commentary concluded that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda "have acted as a fifth column" for the United States not only to enter Afghanistan, but also to legitimize its presence there.

Unlike its reported involvement in Iraq, Tehran has not created much noticeable trouble to foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan. Instead it has concentrated most of its efforts on cultivating political allies among diverse Afghan political groupings and injecting Iranian culture into Afghanistan.

However, not causing trouble does not mean that Iran lacks the ability to do so, if such a policy would suit Tehran's dealings with the West. Perhaps the "misunderstandings" in Nimroz are just that -- or they could be a message to NATO states of Iran's ability to interfere in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan: NATO Commander Discusses Challenges

General John Craddock (file photo)

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Less than two weeks ago, NATO and Afghan forces launched a massive offensive to stabilize Helmand Province. The man who is four months into the job of overseeing the NATO mission in Afghanistan, General John Craddock, the supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher and RFE/RL analyst Amin Tarzi.

RFE/RL: Reports from Afghanistan are that as civilian deaths and injuries mount, popular support for the Taliban is increasing, because local populations are turning to the Taliban for protection. The Taliban is now firmly in control of three districts in Helmand Province. How is NATO attempting to counter this?

John Craddock: I think the first thing that ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] is doing is telling the truth, and that may be a rare commodity. The fact is you will see reports of operations that ISAF has conducted that have resulted in the loss of noncombatant life, many of those are patently false, they are not true.

On occasion, indeed, there are bad things that happen because it's a war zone in parts of the country. And obviously ISAF does everything possibly to minimize that. There are rigorous rules of engagement, there are rigorous procedures we follow. But I will tell you ISAF does not participate in suicide bombers, they do not participate in these improvised explosive devices, and if one looks closely, there are more Afghan citizens wounded and killed from those types of attacks than from any inopportune ISAF engagements.

"Well, I think I would say that there are no shortcuts in the development of the country. It will be difficult and it will take some time"

RFE/RL: Some members of the U.S. Congress have suggested that the United States has the right to pursue insurgents and suspected terrorists across the Pakistani border -- what is your opinion of that position? And secondly, what is NATO doing to cooperate with Pakistani law enforcement and troops in the tribal areas where the Taliban seems to be finding refuge and gaining strength?

Craddock: Well, let me address the first question; that's a U.S. issue and I'm a NATO commander. What the United States decides to do with regard to border operations will be either unilaterally or bilaterally with Pakistan. Now, from a NATO perspective, we have a military tripartite committee which consists of the commander of ISAF, high-level Afghan military leadership, and Pakistani [leadership]. They meet routinely, they have subgroups -- one of these is a border subgroup; there is an exchange of liaison officers -- both ISAF to Pakistan, and there are five Pakistani officers working with ISAF. We have very good [military to military and] ISAF to Pakistani relations. We want to continue to grow that, and it has been helpful to date.

RFE/RL: What is NATO doing to support Afghanistan’s fight against poppy cultivation and the trade in opium? You were quoted in "The New York Times" recently as having told your officers to "optimize those right[s] to the limit of the authority we have" and "push it to the edge because it’s important" -- how is NATO helping local authorities in their effort to stop the drug trade?

Craddock: In the [authority] we have provided to ISAF and the operations plan they have in place, they have available to them the authority to assist the Afghan authorities in some counternarcotics, counterdrug activities. We can provide logistics support, we can provide intelligence support, we can provide -- in the conduct of our operations -- support for trafficking, the interdiction of traffickers. So we have some authority there, and I've reinforced those with COM-ISAF [commander of ISAF]. My guidance is that we use those authorities to the maximum extent possible, because we realize that there is a direct linkage between the drug traffickers and the Taliban and the insurgents. It finances much of that insurgent activity and we've got to break that linkage.

RFE/RL: What is the situation on the Iranian border? The Afghan authorities reported that two people were recently killed in a clash between border guards. Are there problems there?

Craddock: I am not aware of any problem there. There may have been some incident that again, I don't know if it was criminally related. I do know that the border [crossings] there, they're full of commerce; there are trucks going back and forth every day, and as I said, out in the western province of Herat, which is an economic engine right now, there is much cross-border activity. I'm not aware of any situation that would lead me to believe that we have at this time a problem out there on the border between the two countries.

RFE/RL: You have said that the NATO mission in Afghanistan is short at least two combat battalions, and also needs more aircraft, helicopters, and intelligence-gathering equipment. How optimistic are you that you’re going to get the help you need?

Craddock: Well, the trends are positive. We have gotten increased commitment -- both small units and some larger units. The United Kingdom and the United States obviously has put a, left a brigade in place of 3,200 [troops]. We continue to work this every day. Am I optimistic? I'm not pessimistic. I think once we can describe what's at risk here, and we describe the advantages and the flexibility gained, we may well have some contributing nations. Now, that could be member nations, or that could be partner nations who are not members of NATO, but who are partners in this effort.

RFE/RL: A caller to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan said if NATO can provide us with jobs, schools, security, etc. -- in other words, the basics of everyday life -- we wouldn’t join or support the Taliban or insurgencies. Is NATO attempting to do these things and, if so, are you finding success with your efforts?

Craddock: Well I guess that'll be when people write in and say thank you to those efforts. If you look right now at Operation Achilles, in the regional command south, I think the first thing you will see [is] that there is an enormous number of projects, both agricultural, providing infrastructure, providing social services, the building of clinics, building of schools, roads, bridges, digging [wells for] many of the people in the very small villages and towns there. That's the first thing that's being looked at.

NATO troops installing a playground in Afghanistan (undated courtesy photo)

The second thing is, is their security adequate to be able to do that? That's where the forces go in and establish a presence and then immediately these projects start to occur. So that is indeed the intent. The line of action is that we must reconstruct and ensure that -- and do we need the security in place to do it? Or if [that’s] not adequate, do we need to bring forces in to establish the security to create a presence of either ISAF or the Afghan national army or police, to be able to sustain that development?

RFE/RL: Some NATO critics say you’re losing the psychological battle in Afghanistan -- in which the Afghan people don’t support your efforts and are not convinced that your presence in the country is benefiting them. If you could speak to the people of Afghanistan, what would you tell them?

Craddock: Well, I think I would say that there are no shortcuts in the development of the country. It will be difficult and it will take some time. But we recognize the fact that there has to be an investment in today and that's these short-term, quick-impact projects, to be able to provide the door to opportunity to the long term, for the future.

Now, the last time I was there I was told there's a new phenomenon, and that is that around the country where we have PRTs [Provincial Reconstruction Teams], there's some uneven investment. Some PRTs have many more people and resources and in other locations where there are these Provincial Reconstruction Teams the Afghan people are concerned and worried because their team doesn't have that same level, that same amount, of resources. And they feel like they're disadvantaged.

Well, the good news is that there's communication, and it's [that view] coming around the country. And they feel like, 'Wait a minute, there's some good things happening over there and over there, and we want to be part of that, too.' So our task now is to level that out, and where there have not been the [right] amount of resources provided, try to infuse, inject, and increase the amount of resources going into these other parts of the country so they feel also that they're part of this movement to the future.

RFE/RL: So you would say to people who are feeling ignored in Afghanistan to hang on, help is coming and things will get better?

Craddock: Obviously that's the intent. What we have to do is we have to figure out how to do it sooner and we have to enable, enable the Afghan government, both at the national, the provincial, at the village level, to be able to provide those services. Give them the opportunities to do that, because in the long term, that's what governments and the people will expect from the government, which is an opportunity for tomorrow.

RFE/RL: On the issues of drugs, there are important members of NATO who are participating in the Afghan mission who openly say that fighting poppy cultivation and the opium trade is not in their mandate, and they look the other way. Is there an effort within NATO to overcome that attitude among its members so there is a more unified policy throughout the country on dealing with the drug problem?

Craddock: I think that the authorities that ISAF has are adequate to assist the Afghan government in the counternarcotic, counterdrug effort. Now, again, my guidance to the commander is, make sure that all of your forces understand those authorities and that they enforce them to the full limit. And when that happens, I think you will see an even application across the country. I don’t know that we need greater authorities. We do not have any authority to eradicate [poppy fields]. Fair enough. We don't have it. But we have authorities in other areas that can assist the Afghan authorities, whether they're police, or whether they're military, counterdrug, whatever. We can assist them, we need to use those to the maximum extent possible. Then, I think, we will see a positive difference.

Italian Premier Wins Afghanistan Vote, But Questions Remain

By Jeffrey Donovan

Prime Minister Prodi in the Italian Senate chamber last month

March 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has narrowly won a Senate vote to continue Rome's military mission in Afghanistan.

But questions remain over the mission's future, as NATO allies criticize Italy's handling of a recent hostage crisis.

Prodi's center-left cabinet needed support from an opposition party and faced criticism from its own communist allies, but in the end the former European Commission president hailed the vote as a major step forward.

"This vote is a turning point -- remember that," Prodi said. "This vote is a turning point. The opposition is divided. The majority is united. That seems to be quite a difference to what was being said previously."

Last month, Prodi was forced to resign after a defeat on foreign policy in parliament. He stayed on at the president's request, and the March 27 vote has given his government -- and Italy's Afghan mission -- a new lease of life.

"Yes, [the Italian mission] is secure until the end of the year," said Giovanni Gasparini, a defense analyst at Rome's Institute of Foreign Affairs. "We have both the money and the political will [to keep it going]."

Under Fire For Hostage Deal

The Senate vote was complicated by controversy over a prisoner swap that Rome engineered last week to secure the release of Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a well-known Italian journalist whom the Taliban had held hostage for 15 days.

The United States, Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands denounced the deal, under which five jailed Taliban -- three of them high-level -- were freed in exchange for Mastrogiacomo. They said it put NATO troops in danger and rewarded kidnappers.

The deal also failed to secure the release of Mastrogiacomo's Afghan interpreter, while his driver was beheaded by the Taliban.

The incident last week sparked antigovernment protests in Helmand Province, where the kidnapping occurred.

"In exchange for Afghans, they have released the foreigner," one demonstrator told RFE/RL's Afghan Service. "What kind of government is this? This is not a government. It is merely a symbolic one."

Ronald Spogli, the U.S. ambassador to Rome, said on March 27 before the Italian Senate vote that the U.S. State Department had urged Italy to maintain its Afghan presence and to lift restrictions on its troops to allow them to engage more freely in combat.

Undermining Karzai?

But Amin Tarzi, an Afghan affairs analyst for RFE/RL, says there is an emerging debate over Italy's usefulness to NATO's Afghan mission. He says the debate is over whether Rome's handling of the hostage crisis has done damage to the NATO coalition in the country and the pro-U.S. government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai:

Journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo (left) on March 19, shortly after his release (epa)

"The Italians demonstrated two things," Tarzi said. "One, that they are willing to negotiate with terrorists. And, two, that they are not discussing this matter with NATO; they did it on their own. And also there's a third point, which I think is crucial outside of NATO but in the long run for NATO, and that is that this act is undermining Karzai's legitimacy in establishing his prestige, in my view, in an irreparable way."

Gasparini, however, takes issue with that view.

He points out that Italy's 1,900 troops are engaged in a key stabilization and reconstruction mission in Kabul and in the area around Herat, near Afghanistan's western border with Iran. Moreover, he says Karzai himself signed off on the hostage exchange.

"The Karzai government decided to go through this way, and he [Karazi] could have rejected our positions," Gasparini said. "Yes, [Karzai's] position has been damaging [to him], but it has not been as damaging as the fact that the government does not have control of the [Helmand Province] area as such."

NATO allies raised concern on March 27 that Italy's handling of the hostage crisis could spark similar abductions of NATO troops.

Some officials called for an alliance-wide pact to ban deals with kidnappers.

"There was a clear sense in the room that none of us should agree to negotiate the release of hostages in return for terrorists," U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said after a NATO meeting in Brussels.

Pakistan: Crackdown Could Pose Threat To Central Asia

By Bruce Pannier

Pakistan's army has little influence in Waziristan (file photo)

March 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- While reports say that more than 150 people have been killed this month in Waziristan in fighting between Uzbek militants and local tribesmen, it is difficult to obtain precise information on events in an area where the Pakistani government has almost no presence and exerts little influence.

The Pakistani government is calling the fierce fighting in its South Waziristan tribal area between local tribesmen and foreign militants a successful example of Islamabad's controversial policies there.

But not everyone is convinced the Pakistani government's version of events in Waziristan is the whole story. And in Afghanistan and the neighboring Central Asian countries, the fighting in Waziristan is of great concern as it could soon affect the security situations in those countries.

Government Agreement Backfires

"The government has very little control [in Waziristan] now," Pakistani journalist Haroun Rashid explains. "For two or three years, the Pakistani military has been staging operations in that area against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, but they did not succeed so they then resorted to [an] agreement -- and they have reached two agreements in [South Waziristan] with the main two tribes. After that the Pakistani government just withdrew...and [wherever] the vacuum was the militants came in and they took control."

Those agreements made tribal leaders responsible for expelling foreign fighters, who include supporters of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). It is the IMU that is causing problems now. Latif Afridi, a Pashtun tribal leader and former member of parliament from Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, tells RFE/RL that an unlikely mediator, the Taliban, is trying to end the hostilities.

"I have heard that [Taliban] are all trying to make peace between these two rival groups," he says. "But in my opinion, as long as these Uzbeks do not stop attacking the honor of these people -- their rules and their traditions -- there will be no peace."

Reports from Waziristan say violence started because the Uzbeks killed some local leaders suspected of spying for the Pakistani or U.S. governments, and also some of the Uzbeks have become involved with local women. Local leaders then reportedly called on the Uzbeks to surrender their weapons. That offer was rejected.

Central Asian Militants

The IMU first appeared in 1999 when some 1,000 militants appeared in southern Kyrgyzstan. The group's stated goal was to overthrow Uzbekistan's government.

Kyrgyz forces kept the IMU in the mountains along the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, but the next summer they returned to southern Kyrgyzstan and eastern Uzbekistan. Their attacks were repelled and, by the summer of 2001, the IMU was fighting in Afghanistan alongside Taliban forces. They fought mainly in northern provinces not far from their homes in Central Asia.

U.S. bombings in November 2001 damaged the IMU. But apparently the survivors found a place to hide and regroup in Pakistan, in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. That is the same place where many believe Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri have found refuge.

Fighting With Taliban

The Pakistani government says its policy of relying on local leaders in Waziristan to rid the region of foreign fighters is paying off. Ahmed Rashid, author of the book "The Taliban," says that is not entirely accurate.

"I think the situation is more complicated than the way the Pakistan government is presenting it," he says. "The fact is that the local militants who are attacking the Uzbeks are also Taliban and are also linked to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership and this is an internal fight I think between the extremists."

Rashid had also heard the Taliban are involved in negotiating a settlement. "There are already reports that Jalaladdin Haqani, the former Taliban minister, is negotiating a cease-fire between them, and perhaps Mullah Dadullah will be coming up from [Afghanistan's] Helmand [Province] to also help negotiate a cease-fire between them and it's possible that the Uzbeks may be removed from south Waziristan and taken south into Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban as a way of lessening the tensions in south Waziristan," he says.

An article in the Pakistani daily "Dawn" on March 25 said some 10,000 armed Uzbeks will move to Helmand Province to help fight NATO-led troops and Afghan government forces.

Rashid said the number is lower but noted that the Uzbeks' situation is now desperate, as there is no longer an option to disarm and live among the people of Waziristan.

"There is no way that [the Uzbeks] will be disarmed," Rashid says. "The fact is that they are a very powerful group. There are perhaps as many as 1,500 to 2,000 Uzbeks there. They know that if they are disarmed they will be wiped out by the locals, by the Pakistani Army, or by the Americans."

Frying Pan Or Fire?

Some say there are less than 1,000 armed Uzbeks in Waziristan. However many there are, the Uzbeks' choices now seem to be to stay in Waziristan and be killed, or to leave. But will they really go to Afghanistan to help the Taliban fight NATO-led forces?

Tom Collins, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said NATO is aware of the Taliban claims but rejected their accuracy.

"I would say that it's probably part of the Taliban's propaganda effort," Collins says. "We see very few foreign fighters in this country and I'm not going to speculate on what their latest claim of sending 10,000 foreign fighters into Afghanistan might mean."

Pashtun leader Afridi says that going to Afghanistan would be difficult for the Uzbeks and maybe worse than staying in Waziristan.

"If they leave Pakistan and enter Afghanistan, they will not have any friends there. First of all, they will face NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And they will be decimated. They cannot survive. And if they go to Afghanistan, they will not receive help like they got in Pakistan. Nobody will protect them there as they were protected in Pakistan," Afridi says.

"It means they will face great dangers in Afghanistan," he adds. "And that is the reason why they say they don't want to go to Afghanistan -- the reason they insist that they will make 'jihad' only in Uzbekistan."

Ready To Go Home?

Uzbekistan, or at least Central Asia, may be the only place for these Uzbeks to run and, as RFE/RL Afghan analyst Amin Tarzi says, there is a known path back to that region.

"If the Uzbeks want to travel from South Waziristan north to Tajikistan they have a fairly straight way along the FATA, the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, where the Pakistani government does not have much control constitutionally and it's a very mountainous region. That's where basically Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and other people are still there, so [the Uzbeks] have ways to go through those places," Tarzi says.

"Then they hit one area that is in Swat and Chitral, which have some of the highest mountains in Pakistan. That connects them to the Pamir area, which is the panhandle of Afghanistan. Crossing that you are right in the Pamir region of Tajikistan, which is the most inaccessible region of Tajikistan where [the Uzbeks] can regroup," he concludes.

The IMU is still active in Central Asia -- a fact shown by the number of its members still being arrested in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- and the number of IMU members there may increase if the Uzbek militants in Waziristan decide to stop fighting in Pakistan and return home.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this article.)

Afghanistan: Museum Director Applauds Return Of Historical Objects

One of the artifacts returned from Switzerland

March 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly 1,500 ancient artifacts that were taken out of Afghanistan to save them from destruction and looting have been returned. The items were taken to Kabul's national museum last week from Switzerland, where they have been stored since 1999 in the Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile in Bubendorf.

RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to Omara Khan Massoudi, the director of Afghanistan's national museum, about the importance of the artifacts' return.

RFE/RL: You were involved in the return of the ancient Afghan artifacts. Their return has been described as one of the biggest repatriations of a country's historical heritage in several decades. How were they returned?

Omara Khan Massoudi: The items that were kept in Afghanistan's Museum-in-Exile in Switzerland were returned to Afghanistan on March 16. A delegation from Afghanistan's national museum, headed by me and one of my colleagues, had traveled to Switzerland about a week ago. The items were packed in front of us and placed in a container and, with the cooperation of Germany's Defense Ministry, they were transferred via a direct flight to Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Please tell us about the collection, which includes different objects such as textiles and artwork.

Massoudi: It includes 1,423 items and the majority are ethnographic items objects that different Afghan tribes use in their daily lives based on their culture and traditions. Fortunately they had been stored in Switzerland by some Afghans and also Europeans who are affiliated with Afghan culture; in the past years they had cooperated with the museum and donated [historical objects] to it. A limited number of archeological objects that were kept in the museum are some of the items that had been lost from Afghanistan's national museum. They include two ivory items from the first and second century, they're from the Bagram historical site. There are also several objects made of stone and glass from the city of Ai-Khanum. Some of these items were excavated illegally.

RFE/RL: Among them is reportedly a foundation stone from the city of Ai-Khanum in northern Afghanistan laid by Alexander the Great.

Massoudi: Yes this item is there, unfortunately this piece had not been found during excavations by French and Afghan archeologists. But it was [discovered] recently during illegal and unauthorized excavations by looters who have damaged the Ai-Khanum historical site very badly. Fortunately the historical artifact was given to Afghanistan's Museum-in-Exile in Switzerland and it was transferred to Afghanistan along with the other items. Unfortunately I don't have more information about it and exact scientific research about this item is needed so that those who are interested in Afghan culture can find out more about it. It has been said that this [object] is from Ai-Khanum and, based on some opinions, this item was touched by Alexander the Great.

Another of the artifacts (file photo)

RFE/RL: Is the national museum in Kabul really safe enough for these historical objects?

Massoudi: I hope so. Kabul's situation is good and since the fall of the Taliban there hasn't been any [violent] incident at the national museum. The security situation in the capital is improving and there hasn't been any worrying incident, [therefore] we hope we'll be able to protect [these objects].

RFE/RL: How is the national museum being protected and secured?

Massoudi: The national police are protecting the museum from the outside to a degree that is needed and inside the museum is also protected by the museum's staff during the day and also at night. It's the duty of some of the museum's personnel to stay inside the building 24-hour a day.

RFE/RL: The return of these objects gathered by private collectors and people who worked in Afghanistan obviously means a lot to the Afghan people. Does it mean the country is recovering from its past?

Massoudi: As you know, Afghanistan's national museum suffered the worst damage during the wars. Most of its items and objects were ransacked. Afghanistan's Culture Ministry and the office of the museums see as its duty to work for the return of the objects that belong to the national museum and items that are part of the country's cultural heritage and have been looted, illegally excavated, and transferred outside Afghanistan. The return of this big collection to the national museum is extremely valuable and is a good beginning. I hope other countries that are Afghanistan's friends and have some of Afghanistan's historical objects that have been transferred outside the country illegally will follow the example of Afghanistan's friend, Switzerland. This gives hope to the people of Afghanistan but also for the scientists and all of those who are very much attached to Afghan culture. We hope that it will encourage them so that we can slowly regain some of our lost belongings.

RFE/RL: When will the public in Afghanistan be able to see the historical collection that has returned home?

Massoudi: We are planning to have an exhibition of some of the items in two or three months. We had some problems in the museum but they have been removed: we didn't have shelves for displaying the items, but about a month ago we received some glass cabinets from our friend, Japan. We will use these cabinets [to have] a temporary exhibition of these items for the broader public.