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Afghanistan Report: May 25, 2007

U.S. Ambassador To UN Says Global Success Tied To Afghan Progress

Zalmay Khalilzad (file photo)

May 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan spoke recently with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad. He talked about the repatriation of Afghan refugees from Iran, upcoming talks between Iran and the United States, and a number of other issues in that exclusive interview with Radio Free Afghanistan's Zarif Nazar. What follows are excerpts from that May 17 interview.

RFE/RL: Iran and the U.S. are due to hold talks on Iraq. What is your view on that? And to what extent are you hopeful that there will be a positive result?

Zalmay Khalilzad: There have been problems in relations between Iran and the U.S. since several years ago, but several years ago the United Sates started negotiating with Iran over Afghanistan. And when I was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, we used to meet with the Iranian ambassador and talk about Afghan issues and problems with the aim of supporting Afghanistan and encouraging Iran not to take negative steps and be a good neighbor to a [country] that is in transition. When I went to Iraq in 2005, I asked President [George W.] Bush to give me the same permission to speak to Iran over Iraq, and Mr. Bush accepted it. But because of the problems that existed in Iraq, we were not able to have a meeting there, as happened in Afghanistan. Finally a few weeks ago, before I left Iraq, there was a regional meeting; and in the framework of that meeting, there was an opportunity to exchange a few words with the Iranians and talk -- at the table we were sitting -- about issues related to Iraq. Now it has been agreed that before the end of this month, there will be a meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the U.S. would speak to Iran about Iraqi issues.

RFE/RL: Iran has deported a large number of refugees -- even people who had permits to work and live in Iran. They've destroyed their documents and sent them back; they treat Afghans very badly. Some [observers] believe that Iran and the U.S. have problems, and Iran sends back Afghan refugees to create problems for the U.S. What is your view on this issue?

Khalilzad: The U.S. government does not want Iran and Afghanistan to have poor relations or to be enemies -- these two countries are neighbors and they have common interests, and we have said that we are not against a good relation between those two countries, and we don't want to include Afghanistan in problems the U.S. has with Iran. Iran and the Taliban had very bad relations, and Iran supported groups that were fighting against the Taliban. But in the end, it was the coming of American forces that had a big role in the change of regime. At that time, the Iranians cooperated, and elements inside Afghanistan that were supported by Iran also cooperated. I think a reasonable view for advancing the region as a whole is not to see a gain in the problems of one's neighbor but rather consider collective progress in one's interest. Unfortunately in the Middle East and Southeast Asia region, old ideas that have created failure in world history still rule. Europe learned its lesson following World War II, and now they know that by cooperating with each other there will be progress for all. Unfortunately, even though Iran in the past opposed the Taliban, they have recently helped the Taliban create problems. And it is possible that regarding the refugees, the aim has been to increase the problems of Afghanistan. We hope that Iran will not repeat its past mistakes, [will] think more positively in its policies regarding Afghanistan, cooperate with the government of Afghanistan, not interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs, and not help the Taliban who are killing Afghans -- and instead work for the progress of Afghanistan, work for good ties between the two countries, and be a good neighbor.

RFE/RL: Pakistan is also creating problems for Afghanistan regarding refugees, and recently there have been reports of clashes between [Afghan and Pakistani forces ]. What is your view on that ? Why are the border problems between the two sides continuing?

Khalilzad: The success of Afghanistan is in the interest of Pakistan; Afghanistan's success is in the interest of the whole world. Afghanistan could become a bridge between Pakistan and Central Asia. Pakistan has benefited from the progress that has been achieved so far in Afghanistan from a commercial and an economic point of view. Pakistan and Afghanistan should enjoy good relations. I know that the Afghan government wants to have good ties [with Pakistan]. The U.S. has tried to have a positive influence, and in the coming weeks we will see what can be done through the United Nations. The problems of Afghanistan will create problems for other countries in the region. What can a poor country facing problems do aside from exporting problems, including [flows of] refugees? Since the Taliban era, Afghanistan's economic situation has improved and commerce between Pakistan and Afghanistan is over $1 billion now, while at the time of the Taliban it was not even $100 million. There are also Pakistan's internal problems, which are one reason for the problems with Afghanistan. Aside from the problems in Afghanistan's relations with Iran and Pakistan, there is a need for Afghanistan for the Afghan people -- the government to improve their situation. Because the more Afghans are united, and the more the government pays attention to the problems of the people -- confronting corruption, treating justly with people -- the fewer problems from foreigners and countries that want to create problems for Afghanistan. Progress inside Afghanistan by the government and other important elements, and also international support is important, and also better ties and cooperation from the neighbors.

RFE/RL: As you know the security situation is deteriorating in Afghanistan and enemies are becoming stronger, has the time come for the U.S and other countries to review their policies in Afghanistan?

Khalilzad: I can say in general terms that the success of Afghanistan is very important to the world, and Afghan failure is global failure. From that perspective, the world is responsible for helping Afghanistan out of its own interest. The success of Afghanistan is important for the region. The most important issue is the internal issue -- progress in the work by the government of Afghanistan and cooperation by people who care for their country. They should not provide the enemies of Afghanistan an opportunity to use the country or Afghans for their own purposes. This is a key issue. Afghans should use the opportunity that exists for them -- the attention and cooperation of the world -- this is a golden opportunity that should be used.

RFE/RL Analyst Explores Tensions With Pakistan

Amin Tarzi (file photo)

May 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Government troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan have clashed along their border repeatedly this month -- with more than a dozen people reportedly killed in artillery barrages and gun fire. Correspondent Ron Synovitz asked RFE/RL's Afghanistan analyst, Amin Tarzi, about the roots and ramifications of the crisis.

RFE/RL: What background is essential for those who want to understand the current crisis between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Amin Tarzi: This conflict is not new. After the Taliban government fell [in late 2001], the first instance in which Afghanistan claimed that Pakistanis crossed into Afghanistan was in 2003. And that triggered the burning and attacking of the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul. It was the beginning of open hostilities between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has gone cold and warm since then.

RFE/RL: If this is an old conflict between what are supposed to be allies in the U.S.-declared war against terrorism, why is the situation only garnering international attention now?

Tarzi: I think the reason that there is a lot of attention right now is because, in the West and especially in the United States, there is an awareness that two of the allies of the United States in the war on terror are actually going at each other [along their] borders. And secondly, because a U.S. soldier was killed on Pakistani soil allegedly by a member of the Pakistani Frontier Corps, or at least, wearing their uniform.

Roots Of Crisis

RFE/RL: Some suggest that the roots of this crisis lie in the 19th-century demarcation of British Colonial India, known as the Durand Line. Afghanistan has never officially recognized the Durand Line as its border with Pakistan. What impact do you think this has in the crisis?

Tarzi: From the Pakistani side, that is the main grievance. When Pakistan was created as a country in August of 1947, Afghanistan was the only country in the world that voted against Pakistan's entry into the United Nations. That vote was later changed. But in my view, the first shot was fired from the Kabul side. Afghanistan has never, including the Taliban regime, recognized that boundary as a legitimate boundary. That gave Pakistan, from day one, a notion that Afghanistan has to be contained -- either by being a very friendly Afghanistan or a very weak Afghanistan -- and that the identity of Afghanistan should be an Islamist identity which Pakistan can control rather than a nationalist identity which would have claim over parts of Pakistan. This has implications in the war on terror. This has implications on Al-Qaeda's presence, the Taliban, the support of Pakistan to the militants in Afghanistan. But the core question is that of the border.

RFE/RL: Does that mean that the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is more concerned about its own foreign policy goals than it is about the U.S.-led war on terrorism?

Tarzi: The reason we are hearing so much about this lately is because the United States, and NATO in particular, are seeing their soldiers being killed by people who are coming from Pakistan. That is obvious. NATO is putting a lot of pressure on Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, to curtail these activities. From Musharraf's perspective, there are two issues. Musharraf cannot control this border. Nobody has ever been able to control this border. And he doesn't want to control it because Pakistan's vital interest is to have an Afghanistan that does not have claims on its territory. Even though, on one hand, Musharraf is fighting alongside the West in this war against international terror organizations, on the other hand, Pakistan's long-term policy is to keep a card against Afghanistan. And that card is the Islamist card, because that's what gives Pakistan leeway. So Pakistan is doing both of them.

RFE/RL: What do you think are the immediate causes of the cross-border clashes between government troops of the two countries in recent weeks?

Tarzi: I believe the latest tensions -- the shootings and the subsequent activities that led to the killing of a U.S. soldier -- were because of [Pakistan's efforts at] fencing. Afghanistan is vehemently against the fencing. Pakistan is now saying, 'Look. We want to fence this border because you say that [militants] are coming [across the border]. We say yes. So we're going to fence it.' But Afghanistan says, 'No, you cannot fence it.' Fencing would mean a de facto demarcation of the border, which Afghanistan doesn't want. So both sides are not working in good faith -- both Kabul and Islamabad.

Who Wins?

RFE/RL: Who is likely to benefit most from the Afghan-Pakistan border crisis?

Tarzi: If you are the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and if you see the two sides that you don't like -- Musharraf and the Afghan government, the two best friends of the United States, as they see it -- actually going at each other, they [Taliban and Al-Qaeda] are happy. Unless you bring the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan to an acceptable and normal state-to-state relationship, the terrorists will win at the end of the day. They do not have to love each other. But they have to respect each other as states with defined boundaries. So it has much greater repercussions, not only in the short term with Al-Qaeda, but upon long-term stability.

RFE/RL: Do you think this crisis could deteriorate in the future?

Tarzi: Most of the hardest terrorists in the world are sitting right in that border area. If that border area is not controlled or accepted, they will use that tension and that lack of certainty to their advantage. And unfortunately, so far, neither the United States at a meeting in the White House [in September 2006] nor the Turkish attempt to bring some kind of understanding between Mr. Musharraf and Mr. Karzai has been able to bear fruit. This is one of the biggest problems in the war against terror. The escalation will go on. Afghanistan could bring Pakistan and NATO into direct conflict. Already, one [U.S.] soldier has been killed on Pakistani soil while they were trying to negotiate. If more Pakistanis retaliate and their artillery hits NATO troops, eventually there might be a [NATO] retaliation, which would be disastrous. This is very, very tense. And right now, I think some cool heads need to be working in both Kabul and Islamabad.

Contributing Factors

RFE/RL: What other factors are contributing to the crisis?

Tarzi: Unfortunately, neither Karzai nor Musharraf is capable or willing to control their own governments. Musharraf, I think, has people in the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence agency] and within the Islamists of the Northwest Frontier Province's government that want this tension to continue. And on the Afghan side, a lot of members of the security forces of Afghanistan are vehemently anti-Pakistani. And they like this tension because it also weakens Karzai. So there is a political game going on inside Afghanistan as well.

RFE/RL: How is this crisis impacting the domestic political situations for Karzai and Musharraf?

Tarzi: I think it is weakening Karzai more than Musharraf. But it is weakening both of them. People in Afghanistan who want to destabilize Karzai are not in cahoots with the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. But it will, because of a weakened Afghanistan, be indirect help to the Islamists. It goes beyond the personalities. And NATO has put all its eggs in the baskets of two individuals -- namely, Karzai and Musharraf. Even if they had the good will -- which they don't have right now, they don't even shake hands -- but even if they had it, I think it's beyond their control right now.

RFE/RL: How are the main peace brokers in this conflict?

Tarzi: The United States and NATO are very aware, and becoming more aware of this problem -- that their two allies who are supposed to work together against international terror are actually fighting against each other. So this is a very, very bad scenario. The U.S. soldier who was killed was killed in a peace mission. They were trying to lessen the tension. So the U.S. is doing that on the ground, military-to-military and person-to-person. Also, the U.S. has supported what is called the "peace jirga" -- which is supposed to bring Afghan and Pakistani tribes together with government people. U.S. President George W. Bush tried to bring Mssrs. Musharraf and Karzai together in the White House last September [2006] -- mainly to lessen the tension. And also just last month, Turkey's President [Ahmet Necdet] Sezer tried to bring them together. So there have been attempts on different platforms and on different levels as high as the U.S. president. So far, unfortunately, they have not yielded the results that everybody wants.

RFE/RL: Is there any way now to repair the damage that the border crisis has had upon relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Tarzi: Even if Mssrs. Karzai and Musharraf come to an agreement personally, I do not think that Karzai controls his own security forces who like to have tension with Pakistan, or that Musharraf fully controls his own intelligence and the Islamists. Because they see their goal as the long-term stability of Pakistan and making sure that Afghanistan does not become too nationalistic and too powerful.

Border Clashes Reveal Rifts Between Pakistan, Afghanistan

Afghan National Army and police stand guard at the border with Pakistan (file photo)

May 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan and Pakistani troops today clashed for a second consecutive day along their border, with heavy artillery barrages reported. Afghan officials say 41 Afghans have been killed or wounded in the clashes since May 13. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke about the conflict today with Rahul Bedi, the South Asia correspondent for the London-based journal "Jane's Defense Weekly."

RFE/RL: There have been several clashes this month between Afghan government troops and Pakistani border guards along the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is this a dangerous escalation -- beyond the hostile diplomatic language -- that is manifesting itself in fighting between government forces?

The border region "is very much like the Wild West. The rule is the gun."

Rahul Bedi: What is actually happening along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is not very well known to a lot of people. I think the information that is coming in is scarce. There are very few firsthand accounts. Journalists are not allowed into the area. So a lot of the information that is filtering through is not very credible. But as far as the clashes between the Afghans and the Pakistani border guards are concerned, these have been a regular part and parcel of border policing. The border is not very well-defined. The Afghans do not acknowledge the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And there is a regular movement of people to and from the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies [of Pakistan], where even the writ of the Pakistani government does not run. So it is a complete no man's land. It is very much like the Wild West. The rule is the gun.

RFE/RL: These clashes appear to be concentrated near the southeastern part of Afghanistan, where Pakistani forces have been trying to erect a security fence. Afghanistan says that Pakistan is trying to seize Afghan territory by building this fence.

Bedi: This border is called the Durand Line. It was set up by the British at the end of the 19th century and it has never been acknowledged by the Afghans. The Pashtuns, which is the majority of the Afghan population, are the ones who straddle both sides of the divide. They are in Pakistan and they are in Afghanistan. And whilst the border is about 1,200 to 1,400 kilometers [long], Pakistan is trying to fence a symbolic 20 or 30 kilometers. And they are having problems doing it. Even though the fencing is continuing from the Pakistani side, it is just symbolism because the border is "unpoliceable." It is "unfenceable" because of the terrain. The porousness of the border is something that just cannot be stemmed. It's one of the priorities of General [and President Pervez] Musharraf, who really wants to resolve this border dispute with Afghanistan. But the Afghans are not at all keen because of the ethnic divide of the Pashtuns who are on both sides of the frontier.

RFE/RL: Afghanistan and Pakistan are supposed to be allies working together with the United States in the war on terror. And yet, rather than security forces working together against cross-border militants, we are seeing multiple clashes in which Afghan border guards are fighting Pakistani government troops. What does this say about relations between the two countries?

Bedi: The alliance between the Afghans and the Pakistanis and the Americans is individual. That is, the Afghans are aligned with the Americans, and the Americans are aligned with the Pakistanis. But the Pakistanis are not aligned with the Afghans because Pakistan is seeking a greater say in Afghan affairs. In fact, it has for the last 15 or 20 years been wanting a greater say in Afghan affairs. And, in fact, the Taliban was nurtured, raised, and installed by the Pakistani establishment. So as far as the alliance between Pakistan and Afghanistan is concerned, it does not exist. In fact, there is bitter rivalry between the two sides and bitter enmity between the two sides. Individually, they are linked to the Americans. But the Americans have not been able to broker any kind of an alliance between the two sides, despite both [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai and President Musharraf meeting in Washington a few months ago and agreeing to work together. That agreement has just not worked on the ground because there is far too much baggage of history and conflict that seems to be irresolvable. And this is one of the problems that the Americans and the NATO forces are going to face.

Killing Of Taliban Commander Seen As Setback For Insurgency

By Ron Synovitz
May 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- NATO said the killing of the Taliban's top operational commander in Afghanistan, Mullah Dadullah, is a major setback for militants there, but security analysts interviewed by RFE/RL countered that there are many local Taliban commanders who are willing to succeed him.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said Dadullah's bullet-ridden corpse was discovered on May 12 after a battle in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province.

His body was surrounded by the bodies of 11 other Taliban fighters also killed in the clash with U.S., NATO, and Afghan government troops.

Afghan officials had claimed several times in the past that they thought they had killed Dadullah. But on all previous occasions, Dadullah later surfaced in Taliban videos released over the Internet.

On May 13, Kandahar Province Governor Asadullah Khalid put Dadullah's body on display for journalists skeptical of the latest reports on his death, and images of the corpse have appeared in the media.

"We are sure he is Mullah Dadullah," Khalid said. "I told you [that] this operation was based on very good information and he is the killer," Dadullah said. "He killed a lot of Afghans, and he cut the heads off [of] a lot of Afghans and our police soldiers and many other innocent, Muslim, Afghan people."

Close To Mullah Omar, Al-Qaeda

Dadullah was one of the Taliban leaders most sought after by NATO and the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

He was close to the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and he also maintained close links with Al-Qaeda.

In one video earlier this year, Dadullah claimed he still had personal contacts with Osama bin Laden. He also said bin Laden had personally ordered a suicide bomb attack at the front gates of Bagram Air Field during a visit by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.

Military and intelligence officials say Dadullah was responsible for organizing and supplying Taliban fighters across much of southern Afghanistan.

He has been blamed for orchestrating many Taliban attacks -- including kidnappings, beheadings, and a wave of suicide bombings.

Psychologicial Blow

Waheed Mozhda is a Kabul-based analyst who had worked in the Taliban's Foreign Affairs Ministry before the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Mozhda told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Dadullah's death is a major psychological setback for the Taliban.

"It was Mullah Dadullah who gathered together all the remnants of the Taliban after the collapse of the Taliban regime [in late 2001]," Mozhda said. "It was a struggle to gather them together after they had been defeated and they didn't have the ability to carry on their fight. He (Dadullah) brought them together into a force that was able to occupy many districts in Afghanistan. So the elimination of such a person will no doubt effect the Taliban."

Mozhda said he thinks there already is infighting among local Taliban commanders to replace Dadullah. He said such competition could manifest itself in the form of increased Taliban violence.

"We should see how the morale of the Taliban is affected," Mozhda said. "The Taliban have strong feelings of revenge. Local Taliban commanders had been in the shadow of Mullah Dadullah and were unable to prove themselves. Now they have the opportunity to fill his position. They will try very hard to prove themselves in the battlefield so that they will become known as Mullah Dadullah's successor."

Potential Successors?

Rahul Bedi, a journalist who covers South Asia for the London-based "Jane's Defence Weekly," said he thinks local Taliban commanders will quickly fill the void left by Dadullah's death.

But Bedi said local insurgents are too unified by their hatred of foreign forces in Afghanistan to fight among themselves.

"The death of Mullah Dadullah, whilst it is a tactical victory for the allied forces and the American forces and the NATO forces operating in Afghanistan, it doesn't really make much of difference on the ground because the leadership of the Taliban over the last four or five years has been dissipated," Bedi said. "The leadership is now in the hands of local commanders -- not the big ones known in the West. The fight continues, and the challenge that the NATO forces and the American forces face in Afghanistan is not going to diminish with his being killed."

That view contradicts proclamations by Kandahar's Governor Khalid as he displayed Dadalluh's body to journalists.

Khalid claimed that Dadullah's death is a huge loss for the Taliban that will weaken their activities.

He says the people of Afghanistan have been rescued from the cruelty of a "wild butcher" who had ordered numerous assassinations of Afghan clerics, government officials, and health and education workers.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)

Suspended Lawmaker Insists Hers Is Voice Of The People

Malalai Joya (file photo)

May 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In Afghanistan, legislator Malalai Joya was suspended on May 21 by her colleagues in the parliament after she compared them unfavorably with barnyard animals. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged her reinstatement, calling her a "staunch defender of human rights and a powerful voice for Afghan women, and Joya says she is waiting for the country's Supreme Court to rule on the validity of the suspension.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan broadcaster Freshta Jalalzai spoke with Joya, who has waged a long campaign for justice against "criminal" warlords and perpetrators of wartime atrocities.

RFE/RL: Some have said that you suffer from a mental illness. Is that true?

Malalai Joya: No I'm [fine]. I want to tell you that this is the result of the political bankruptcy of the enemies of our country -- particularly enemies of women and democracy, who make such accusations and spread such poisonous propaganda. I'm happy that with each passing day, I realize the truthfulness of my comments. And I've been supported all along by my people, and it encourages me every day. Yes, I'm fine and healthy.

RFE/RL: Will you attend a parliamentary session?

Joya: They have fired me from the parliament. I don't grant it any importance, because to me what's important is that our people voted for me, and I'm an elected official. The legal experts, lawyers who have contacted me, have said that this is not within the competence of the parliament and that I should attend [parliamentary sessions].

RFE/RL: So you will go?

Joya: No, they've referred me to the court. If a trial is supposed to take place; then the criminals should be tried first. [Editor's note: Joya's reference to "criminals" is presumably a reference to former warlords and perpetrators of wartime atrocities.]

RFE/RL: If you think [the suspension] is against the law, then why don't you attend the parliamentary session?

Joya: I don't recognize these [procedures outlined in the unpublished Code of Conduct that was cited by legislators] that they have on their agenda. The fact that I don't go there means that I grant no importance to the [procedures] they create or to their behavior. But I will wait until things become more clear; I want to see people's reactions.

RFE/RL: Why did you receive so little support among women in the parliament?

Joya: Unfortunately, in many cases, women who have been in power have had only a symbolic role. In the parliament, there are also women who got votes from warlords and criminals; and they campaigned for them, so they act based on what those [warlords] want. Women have been beaten up because of me, they have stood by me. But those women who have threatened me -- even with knives and scissors; they've said, 'We will treat you in a way that even men will not,' -- women who have insulted me and those who have made an arrangement with criminals. I don't take [their lack of support] personally.

RFE/RL: Do you agree that you insulted the other side?

Joya: No. This is also because of their political [failure]. My power lies in my voice; and I've acted according to my conscience. Fortunately, all of my speeches and interviews have been documented -- they've been taped. And some journalists -- specifically Tolo Television -- [published my comments in a sensationalistic manner] intentionally to alter opinion and [stir up] people's views about me. Inside the parliament, those legislators who go on foreign trips and pose as politicians, they want to change the views of people around the world. This is vain and futile. When I call the parliament "a stable" -- or, as people claim, I call it "a zoo" -- I'm of the same view as our people. As each day passes, I realize the undemocratic nature of the parliament. Compare this with comments by legislators who break the law and pose as lawmakers. What is the difference? Which is more indecent?

New Novel By 'Kite Runner' Author Focuses On Women

By Ron Synovitz

A burqa-clad woman and child watch national army soldiers in Kabul in May 2006

May 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Millions of readers around the world were passionately moved by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini's first novel, "The Kite Runner."

Hosseini's follow-up -- a novel called "A Thousand Splendid Suns" whose two protagonists are women -- is being released today.

Hosseini gained international acclaim after "The Kite Runner" was published in 2003.

But the 42-year-old Afghan emigre says that story about the troubled friendship of two boys left a large part of the Afghan story untold: the women's perspective.

Hosseini says he was "on a mission" to portray the plight of Afghan women when he wrote his second novel. In it, Hosseini asks what the world really knows about Afghan women who live behind the veil of the burqa -- what their inner lives are like, their thoughts, their hopes, and their dreams.

Hosseini says he wants his readers to lose themselves in the novel's story and characters. But he also hopes they can gain some understanding of the struggles of Afghan women, who live in a male-dominated society where they are routinely denied freedom or dignity.

"There's been so much said and written about Afghanistan, [but] precious little about the inner lives of the people there living in that environment in those conditions," Hosseini says in a video to promote the book. "And maybe after reading this novel, people will have a little bit more empathy for what happened to Afghans. Particularly the Afghan women, who really, really, I think, suffered the most out of everybody in Afghanistan -- especially in the last 15 years."

As the son of an Afghan diplomat, Hosseini did not experience most of the history that pervades his latest novel.

Hosseini's family left Afghanistan to live in Paris in 1976 when he was 11. In 1980, after the Soviet invasion, the family moved to California, where he attended high school and later studied medicine.

He says the main characters of his new book are not based on any women he knows. But he says they are partly inspired by the stories he heard in Kabul in 2003, when he returned to Afghanistan for the first time.

Horrible Cruelty

The title, "A Thousand Splendid Suns," comes from a 17th-century Persian poem. But Hosseini says the image that haunted and inspired him was video footage of women being executed by the Taliban at a Kabul sports stadium in 1999.

It is an event that was recreated in his first novel, as well.

Hosseini says his concern over the plight of women has been affected more recently by a visit to Africa early this year, as a U.S. envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. There, Hosseini says in a video clip on his promotional website, he met refugee women from Sudan's western region of Darfur.

"The visit certainly changed me in a very profound way," Hosseini says. "It strengthened my resolve that to see these things and to not do anything is not an option. It's just not acceptable."

Hosseini says what bothers him most about the Darfur crisis is that the kind of tragic stories told by refugee women from Darfur three years ago are still happening today.

"How do you meet 16-year-old girls who have been raped because they went out to gather firewood for their family, or women who have had their children taken from their arms and shot -- and then go on being who you were before? It's just not possible."

Powerful Debut

Hosseini's first book -- "The Kite Runner" -- is a difficult act to follow. It chronicles the painful fallout from an incident between a Pashtun and a Hazara boy growing up in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion that led to two decades of political upheaval and civil war.

The hardcover version spent 114 weeks on "The New York Times" bestseller list, and the paperback edition remains a bestseller.

Its publisher, Riverhead Books, says it has been translated and published in more than 30 countries.

A film adaptation of "The Kite Runner," shot in western China, is set for release in November.

If the advanced reviews are anything to judge by, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" could seal Hosseini's standing as one of the most successful Afghan-born novelists of modern times.

That is quite a feat for a medical doctor who only took leave from that work two years ago to concentrate on writing -- after the success of his first novel.

Praise For Sophomore Effort

Critics from literary publications who received advance copies of the new novel have strong praise for Hosseini.

"Kirkus Reviews" calls him a "fearless writer" who has created another "artistic triumph and surefire bestseller." That publication describes "A Thousand Splendid Suns" as a "fine risk-taking novel about two victimized but courageous Afghan women."

"Publishers Weekly" calls the book "another searing epic of Afghanistan in turmoil." It says Hosseini has written a "forceful but nuanced portrait of a patriarchal depotism where women are agonizingly dependent on fathers, husbands, and especially sons -- the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status."

It says the story is a "powerful, harrowing depiction of Afghanistan, but also a lyrical evocation of the lives and enduring hopes of its resilient characters."

The "Library Journal" calls the book an "affecting new novel" by an author who "proves that one can write a successful follow-up after debuting with a phenomenal best seller."

"Hosseini deftly sketches the history of his native land in the late 20th century while also delivering a sensitive and utterly persuasive dual portrait," the "Library Journal" notes. "His writing is simple and unadorned, but his story is heartbreaking."

Another publishing industry journal, "Booklist," describes "A Thousand Splendid Suns" as "unimaginably tragic.... A sad and beautiful testament to both Afghani suffering and strength."

"Booklist" says the millions of readers who lost themselves in "The Kite Runner" will not want to miss Hosseini's "unforgettable follow-up."

(with additional agency reporting)