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Afghanistan Report: February 8, 2008

NATO Defense Ministers Focus On Afghan Reconstruction

NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (left) with Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak (right)

As the 26 NATO defense ministers move into their second day of discussions in Vilnius, they are emphasizing the strength of the alliance in spite of disagreements over burden-sharing in Afghanistan.

Opening the session today, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that "when it comes to Afghanistan, cautious optimism is justified."

"Without a doubt, the situation on the ground is challenging. But despite some gloomy headlines, there is clear progress," de Hoop Scheffer said. "Eighty percent of Afghans now have access to health care -- up 10 times from 2001. Over 6 million children are in school, and 40 percent are girls. Over 4 million refugees have come home -- the largest such return in history. Afghan forces are starting to take the lead in major operations in the south and the east."

The ministers today are turning their attention to the issues of civil governance and reconstruction. The first day of talks, on February 7, was dominated by discussions on the willingness of some members to contribute troops to the fight against the Taliban.

The United States, Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands say they are shouldering too much of the combat burden because their troops are deployed in the south, where the resurgent guerrilla movement is most active.

Canada has insisted that other alliance members must contribute to the fighting in the south if Ottawa is to prolong the mandate of its troops serving there. Canada has warned it will pull its contingent of 2,500 troops out of Afghanistan next year unless allies provide reinforcements in Kandahar Province.

Emergencies Only

France on February 7 signaled a willingness to help Canada, but Paris said it was premature to announce troop figures.

A day earlier, Germany announced it would send a 200-strong rapid-reaction force to northern Afghanistan, but said its troops would not be deployed in the south except in an emergency.

Many European governments are under public pressure not to send troops to the Afghan front lines out of concern over potential casualties.

Today’s focus on issues of governance offers an area where alliance members can more readily reach accord. All the NATO partners in Afghanistan see reconstruction as key to isolating the fundamentalist Taliban.

"Governance must visibly improve, so that the Afghan people have trust in their leaders," de Hoop Scheffer said. "The police need robust support to develop, and they need it now. The narco-economy must be replaced by a legal, sustainable economy. And the Afghan Army must get more support from NATO nations and from partners, to stand on its own feet and defend its own country."

There are other issues in addition to Afghanistan on the agenda today. The ministers are scheduled to discuss new security threats for alliance members such as "cyberwarfare" and energy cutoffs.

They were also due to meet with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, having met with Ukraine's defense minister on February 7. However, reports say Serdyukov has cancelled his visit at the last minute, allegedly due to illness, and is sending a deputy in his place.

Afghan Prosecutor Suggests 'Some People' Cannot Be Tried

By Ron Synovitz

Afghan Attorney-General Abdul Jabar Sabit

Afghanistan's attorney-general says criminal charges are pending against Abdul Rashid Dostum -- a senior military adviser to the president and a powerful ethnic-Uzbek militia commander who allegedly abducted his former election campaign manager last weekend.

But Attorney-General Abdul Jabar Sabit claims that actually bringing Dostum to court will be difficult because it could lead to fresh factional fighting in northern Afghanistan -- where Dostum's militia holds sway. With some of Dostum's supporters threatening to take up arms if he is brought to trial, the case dramatically underscores the absence of the rule of law in those parts of Afghanistan where warlords still reign.

In an exclusive interview, Sabit tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that prosecutors accuse Dostum of charges including kidnapping, breaking and entering, and assault. "These are not political accusations -- it is a criminal case," Sabit says.

He also says that a police investigation determined that on February 2, Dostum and about 50 members of his militia attacked the home of Akbar Bay, Dostum's former campaign manager, who is also variously described in the Afghan media as a tribal leader and the head of an ethnic-Turkic organization. Sabit says they then illegally entered Bay's home, beat him and members of his family, insulted female relatives, and abducted Bay.

But Sabit suggests that Dostum is such a powerful commander in northern Afghanistan that, in the current security environment, he might be above prosecution. "Anyone who commits a criminal act must be brought to justice," Sabit says. "But in reality, I must admit that there will be some difficulties. In this war situation, in many cases, it is difficult for us to implement the law."

Sabit says that "because of the war there is no law, and you cannot implement the law in the south of the country or in many districts -- even in those places where the rule of law does exist, sometimes we cannot enforce the law over some people."

Sign Of The Times

Dostum has changed sides and alliances many times during Afghanistan's 30 years of war. He has been a key ally of U.S. forces since late 2001 in the fight against the Taliban. Dostum also became an adviser in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's transitional administration after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

After the presidential election of 2004, Karzai kept Dostum in the central government without appointing him as a minister. Instead, Karzai named Dostum as a special aide and gave him the title of "chief of staff to the commander in chief of the armed forces."

That move was generally regarded as an effort to avoid friction ahead of parliamentary elections in September 2005. But it also has helped reduce clashes between Dostum's militia and rival factions in northern Afghanistan.

The current governor of Balkh Province, Atta Mohammad Nur, is among those rivals whose own militia clashed periodically with Dostum's fighters in the struggle to control territory after the Taliban was driven from the north. Nur tells Radio Free Afghanistan that some political factions might try to use the current dispute over the case against Dostum as a pretext for partitioning the country and transforming the Islamic republic into a federation.

"We will not allow anybody to speak on their own as though they represent all of northern Afghanistan. The north is part of Afghanistan," Nur says. "The division of this country is an unattainable goal for those people who try to take advantage of this situation."

'Civil War'

Meanwhile, Dostum's allies and supporters have threatened violence if he is brought to trial.

Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Nur is among those whose forces have clashed with Dostum's

On February 3, after Afghan Interior Ministry police surrounded Dostum's house in Kabul, Dostum spokesman Mohammad Alem Sayeh rejected the accusations against the militia commander and suggested that "seven or eight" northern provinces could slide into civil war "if anyone touches even one hair on Dostum's head."

An opposition political movement to which Dostum belongs also has threatened "catastrophic consequences" if the ethnic-Uzbek general is put on trial. Sayed Hussain Sancharaki is the spokesman for the United National Front of Afghanistan -- a political group formed in 2007 by factional commanders and politicians who had once fought against the Taliban regime as the former Northern Alliance.

"General Dostum has a high profile among his people and is one of the famous political and military figures of Afghanistan," Sancharaki says. "He is [Karzai's] chief of staff for the armed forces and he is a senior member of the United Front of Afghanistan. It is natural that any kind of action against him will have repercussions. The consequences will be very dangerous -- catastrophic -- for the stability of Afghanistan."

Experts say Dostum is one of several factional militia commanders in northern Afghanistan who have been using the threat of a resurgent Taliban during the past year to get new weapons and more forcefully protect their interests.

"Obviously, what is happening in the north is really the growing Balkanization of the country," Sam Zia-Zarifi, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a field researcher in Afghanistan who has monitored programs by the United Nations and Afghan government to disarm the factional militias, told RFE/RL recently. "It has been an ongoing trend in Afghanistan for warlords who are ostensibly allied with the government to entrench themselves even more fully."

He added that "a lot of [warlords] are now swollen with the narcotics trade -- profits from the sale of poppy and heroin...[and] have a lot of political clout because many of them have allies in the parliament, if they are not directly members of the parliament."

"The next step," he said, "is to openly flex their military muscle."

Zia-Zarifi said illegal ethnic-Tajik and Hazara militias in the north also appear to be hoarding weapons. He concluded that divisions and mistrust between regional commanders and the central government could exacerbate tensions at a time when the security situation already is on a razor's edge.

(Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Hamida Osman contributed to this report from Kabul.)

Afghanistan: Karzai Following Reporter's Capital Case 'Very Closely'

President Karzai's comments could help depoliticize the case

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office says it is concerned about a death sentence given to an Afghan journalist for allegedly insulting Islam.

Presidential spokesman Humayoon Hamidzada told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Karzai will not intervene in the blasphemy case against journalist Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh until an appellate court issues a ruling.

The death sentence, which was issued by a lower court in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, must be approved by the presidency before it can be carried out under Afghan law.

"There is no need for the president to speak about that conviction [in the] Kambakhsh case because there is a judicial process," Hamidzada said. "Of course the president is concerned, and we are watching the situation very closely."

The comments from Karzai's office appear aimed at easing the politically charged atmosphere surrounding the verdict, which has been heavily criticized by media groups and international media.

Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, the head of the upper house of the Afghan National Assembly, came out with an endorsement of the verdict in the form of a statement issued through the parliament's media office on January 30, although he later conceded that he should not have sought to intervene.

"We will follow the judicial process in consultation with the Ulema Shura (local clerical council) as well," Hamidzada said. "And then, in light of those decisions and the Afghan Constitution -- as well as our international obligations and respect for human rights -- the Afghan government will make a decision."

An Iranian blogger in France has come forward to say he wrote the opinion piece that is at the heart of the case, in which the author questions some interpretations of the Koran dealing with the treatment of women. Kambakhsh was charged with blasphemy after he reportedly printed out the article from the Internet and distributed it to fellow students.

Kambakhsh was convicted and condemned to death in a summary process in Balkh Province on January 22 in which his family says he had no legal representation.

He has said his death sentence was already in writing in front of a judge when he entered the courtroom.

The deputy prosecutor of Balkh Province, Qazi Hafizullah Khaliqyar, has called Kambakhsh's trial fair but said he would assign a "special committee" to the case.

Kabul Siege Underscores Warlord Threat To Rule Of Law

Abdul Rashid Dostum spent years running swaths of northern Afghanistan like a personal fiefdom (file photo)

Afghan police have lifted a brief siege on the Kabul home of a longtime warlord and current presidential adviser, Abdul Rashid Dostum, after he and dozens of armed men allegedly beat up and kidnapped a former campaign aide, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported.

The episode could bring further embarrassment over the government's association with the ethnic-Uzbek strongman, who spent decades as a powerful northern warlord but was co-opted by President Hamid Karzai in 2005 to take a vaguely defined role as "Afghan Army chief command."

Moreover, comments by Dostum allies during and after the siege highlight a smoldering debate over the influence of current and former warlords whose actions undermine the rule of law and public confidence in central authorities.

The acting head of Dostum's political party expressed surprise that police would respond by surrounding Dostum's home, since he "holds a higher position" in the government than the interior minister, Zarar Ahmad Moqbel.

Settling A Score

Reports suggested that Dostum and around 50 armed men attacked and abducted one of his former campaign managers, Akbar Bay, and one of Bay's bodyguards late on February 2.

More than 100 police or security officers, armed with assault rifles and machine guns, later surrounded Dostum's home in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul for several hours, while other officers took up positions on the roofs of nearby houses.

Police later lifted the siege, with Interior Ministry spokesman Zmarai Bashari saying security forces were referring the incident to prosecutors "as soon as possible" for possible legal action.

Both Bay and his bodyguard were reportedly freed and hospitalized.

The fiery Dostum's northern-based supporters have been at the heart of several violent clashes in the past year, although Dostum himself has generally maintained a low public profile.

Dostum has been accused by international groups of involvement in numerous human rights abuses dating back to Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s.

Bashari suggested to Radio Free Afghanistan that Dostum was under the influence of alcohol during his armed raid on Bay's house.

"General Dostum is still an Afghan government official, and you know that," Bashari said. "This was a criminal case and the Afghan Attorney-General's Office will follow the case with details to identify the guilty or the innocent and hand it over to the law."

Threat To Police

Speaking at a press conference in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, Sayyed Nourallah, the acting leader of Dostum's political faction, the National Movement (Junbesh-e Milli), expressed surprise over the standoff at Dostum's house.

Around 150 police officers surrounded Dostum's home in a swank district of Kabul

"Certainly we were not expecting that from security forces -- particularly from the Interior Ministry -- to surround the house of General Dostum in Kabul," Nourallah said. "[Dostum] holds a higher position than the interior minister in the government."

A spokesman for Dostum, Mohammad Alem Sayeh, insisted there was no truth to the accusations against Dostum and warned of unrest if police tried to arrest him.

"If General Dostum is surrounded and anyone touches even one hair on Dostum's head, they must know that seven or eight northern provinces will turn against the government," Radio Free Afghanistan quoted Sayeh as saying.

In May, protests staged by his supporters against a controversial governor of the northern province of Jowzjan turned violent, leaving at least 10 people dead. Around the same time, armed Dostum supporters clashed with authorities in Faryab Province, forcing Kabul to send in troops to quell the violence. Provincial authorities in Jowzjan have accused his National Movement of rearming its supporters in the north.

In the context of Dostum's most recent scrape with authorities, the attack on Bay and his entourage, Afghan National Assembly member Shukaria Barkzay warned Radio Free Afghanistan that impunity represents one of the country's greatest challenges.

"The nonimplementation of the law is one of [Afghanistan's] key problems, and this culture of immunity for any politically powerful people -- whether they have legal authority or not -- leads to their impunity," Barkzay said. She stressed that the problem extends to more than "one specific group" and cited public complaints regarding "several groups."

"Government officials are taking all these decisions about public trust, while the Afghan people want justice," Barkzay said.

Political Chameleon

Dostum is a former union boss in the gas and oil sector who rose to command ethnic-Uzbek fighters backing communist forces after the Soviet occupation in 1979. But his three kaleidoscopic decades as a militia leader have been marked by many short-lived -- and frequently contradictory -- alliances.

In 1997, after unsuccessfully challenging Taliban forces in the capital, Dostum was forced to flee his stronghold around Mazar-e Sharif to live abroad. He reemerged to back the U.S.-led attacks to oust the Taliban regime in 2001, returning to the area to reclaim control of large swaths of northern Afghanistan.

Dostum placed fourth among the 18 names on the presidential ballot in October 2004 with 10 percent of the vote.

The next year, Dostum was named by the Karzai administration as its "Afghan Army chief command" in a move generally regarded as an effort to avoid friction ahead of key parliamentary and provincial elections in September 2005.

A security adviser to Karzai under the former Transitional Administration, Dostum has long wielded major influence in some northern provinces and consistently chafed at central authority out of Kabul.

Ex-Taliban Commander Lectures Mullah Omar About Koran

By Ron Synovitz

Mullah Abdul Salaam

From his hilltop headquarters in the southern Afghan town of Musa Qala, former Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Salaam has a sweeping view over dusty flatlands in northern Helmand Province. But Musa Qala is like a ghost town now compared to the bustling center it had been under Taliban control last year.

Just before NATO led an offensive in December to wrest Musa Qala from the Taliban, Salaam defected to the side of the central government. Afghan President Hamid Karzai later appointed him as the district chief in Musa Qala.

As a former Taliban commander, he still has a penchant for quoting the Koran -- whether he is speaking to journalists, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, or NATO military officers. But now, he is also lecturing the Taliban leadership on the meaning of the Koran and Islam. "We must ask what is the goal of those who are fighting our government and the people of this country? What do they want?" Salaam says.

In exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Salaam says he decided to support the Kabul government after he became convinced that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and his followers were violating the "orders of God" as revealed in the Koran.

"My brothers," Salaam says, "these were the first five verses of the Koran that were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad at Mount Hira: 'Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created all, has created man from a blood clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous, who has taught by the pen, has taught man that which he knew not.'”

Salaam says those verses led him to question who the Taliban really are after seeing them "taking pens from our children and taking away schools and education."

'Take Up The Pen'

"If we take action based on the Koran and based on God's orders, God says to take up the pen," Salaam says. "But if the Taliban does not allow us to take up the pen, then I must demand to know what they are inspired by."

Salaam says he knows from his days as a Taliban commander that Mullah Omar still sends orders to militants in the form of audio recordings from a cave where he hides.

But he thinks legitimate Islamic scholars would reject Omar's claims of authority. He says that's because Mullah Omar relinquished his authority before he fled Kandahar in late 2001 -- passing his powers on to a commander named Naqibakhond who has since been killed by coalition forces in Afghanistan.

"So Mullah Omar has resigned his authority as emir," Salaam concludes. "Islamic scholars know that an emir who has given his authority away can no longer claim to be an emir. And now, [Omar] is so weak that he is hiding in a cave. He gives his orders on an audio recording. And he orders the killing of teachers and students and the destruction of schools. This is not the Islamic way. And it is not the Islamic way for an emir to resign and then claim that he still has authority as an emir."

Musa Qala after it was retaken from the Taliban (RFE/RL)

The Taliban is not happy about Mullah Salaam's defection and already has tried to kill him. Salaam survived one attempted assassination in January when a suicide bomber managed only to injure several of Salaam's bodyguards.

The town of Musa Qala is still struggling in the aftermath of the December offensive. Thousands of residents were forced from their homes by the fighting.

Many of the displaced tell RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that they prefer living on the dusty, rural plain outside of the town for now. Fearing fresh fighting between NATO and the Taliban in the spring, they say it is too early to start rebuilding what is left of their community.

Pulling a threatening Taliban letter from his pocket -- which was posted anonymously at night on the walls and doors of buildings in Musa Qala -- Salaam says he doesn't think last month's attack will be the last against him.

"I have a short night letter in my pocket and you will see that even in this letter, they humiliate the Koran of God," Salaam says. "They posted this on people's homes and signed it at the end. The author doesn't know the Koran. At the beginning, he writes, 'The Great God says in the Koran....' But although they talk about what the Koran says, they don't follow the Koran. I say they should stop deceiving themselves. They should not pervert the Koran like this. They should not sell Islam."

Building Trust?

When locals talk about Salaam's defection from the Taliban, they are careful to avoid expressing personal opinions -- fearing possible retaliation from both the Taliban and government forces if they support one side or the other.

With Taliban fighters still positioned within 2 kilometers of Musa Qala, most residents say they hope their town eventually will be firmly behind only one side -- rather than being split by loyalties to both the Taliban and the Afghan government. Meanwhile, they also anxiously await the arrival of reconstruction aid promised by NATO forces in Afghanistan.

With so many residents and shop owners still away from Musa Qala, the town's central bazaar stands almost empty. It is a dramatic contrast to the bazaar's appearance under Taliban control last year when it was bustling with activity. And since December, the prices of basic foods already have doubled. Still, under the Taliban, most traders at the bazaar had sold weapons or large bags of heroin and opium.

The government in Kabul has responded to Salaam's earliest request -- to deploy hundreds of Afghan police and troops to Musa Qala. Those forces now comprise most of the security guards posted around Salaam's hilltop headquarters. Of some 300 fighters from Salaam's own militia force, only the most trusted are allowed to carry weapons through the checkpoints and into the headquarters.

His 19-year-old son, who still wears the black turban of the Taliban, is Salaam's most trusted companion. He accompanies Salaam to all of his official meetings and even carries his father's mobile telephone.

For his part, the 45-year-old Salaam continues to wear the long, black beard and the turban that he donned during his days as the Taliban regime's governor of nearby Oruzgun Province.

That could help him maintain his credentials as an Islamist and tribal leader. And with the government hoping more moderate Taliban will join him and support Kabul, it also gives Mullah Salaam the appearance of being what some Afghans now call "good Taliban" as opposed to "armed Taliban."

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Saleh Mohammad Saleh contributed to this report from Musa Qala in Afghanistan.)

Afghanistan: New U.S. Report Warns Of Deteriorating International Support

An independent study to be released in Washington later today warns that Afghanistan is at risk of becoming a failed state because of deteriorating international support and growing militant violence there.

The study was a voluntary effort coordinated by the Center for the Study of the Presidency, a nonpartisan organization in Washington. It is a follow-on effort to the work of the Iraq Study Group -- a congressionally mandated panel and the first major bipartisan U.S. assessment of the Iraq war since the 2003 invasion.

The Afghanistan assessment was co-chaired by retired U.S. Marine Corps General James Jones and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering.

Its warnings come a time when military and political officials from the United States and NATO are debating the distribution of war-fighting resources in Afghanistan and Iraq.

An advance copy of the Jones-Pickering assessment, obtained by AP, says progress achieved in Afghanistan during the last six years is under "serious threat" from resurgent militant violence, mounting regional challenges, and a weakening international resolve.

It says there is a growing lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan people about the future direction of their country.

The Jones-Pickering assessment also warns that the international community has not deployed enough military force or disbursed sufficient economic aid to Afghanistan.

Among some three dozen recommendations, the study calls for NATO to increase troop levels and military equipment to Afghanistan.

It recommends the appointment of a special envoy to coordinate all U.S. policy on Afghanistan. It calls for the U.S. management of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be separated. And it urges the creation of a unified international strategy to stabilize security within five years.

Finally, the Jones-Pickering assessment recommends that Washington rethink its overall military and economic strategy in Afghanistan because of deteriorating support among voters in other NATO countries.

Calls For Increasing NATO Participation

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he agrees that more troops are now needed in Afghanistan. But he says they should not be U.S. soldiers.

Indeed, U.S. officials worked for months last year trying to get NATO allies to commit more troops to Afghanistan. But major alliance members such as Germany and France have restricted the way their forces can be deployed. They also have refused to significantly bolster the 10,000 NATO troops already deployed as part of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force.

In December, NATO announced that it would send an additional 6,000 troops to southern Afghanistan to counter an expected Taliban spring offensive. At the same time, Washington said it wanted to withdraw about 4,000 U.S. troops from the same region.

But last week -- with other NATO countries still refusing to muster the additional troop numbers desired by the United States -- Washington confirmed that it would instead send an additional 3,200 U.S. Marines to Afghanistan's volatile border region near Pakistan.

Still, most NATO countries aren't abandoning their security commitments in Afghanistan outright. On January 29, the German legislature voted to extend the stay of German troops currently in Afghanistan.

"The only sustainable way to secure this country in an enduring way is to enable the Afghans themselves to be able to defend this country against all external and internal threats," Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said in welcoming the decision. "Having that in view, what we are expecting from all our friends and allies, especially the countries [with] which we enjoy the closest relations, like Germany, we are hoping that they shall assist us."

For his part, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in an interview published on January 30 by the German newspaper "Die Welt" that he is not sure whether additional foreign troop deployments are the right answer for Afghanistan's security problems.

Karzai, in an apparent reference to militancy in neighboring Pakistan, said it is more important for international forces to concentrate on training camps and refuges outside of Afghanistan where terrorists have fled.

Karzai also said Afghanistan needs help to further expand its own security and legal institutions -- including the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, the civil service, and the judiciary -- before the level of international troops in Afghanistan is reduced.

Afghanistan: Tempers Flare In Dispute Over Display Of Ancient Artifacts

By Ron Synovitz

Some of Sultani's pieces on display in Kabul

Decades of war have decimated much of Afghanistan's ancient heritage. Many historic architectural gems have been damaged or destroyed, and national treasures have been looted from museums or vandalized by the Taliban.

Amid the destruction, one Afghan expatriate has amassed a private collection containing thousands of artifacts -- some dating back thousands of years.

Ahmad Shah Sultani considers himself to be a savior of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. Though he has never learned to read or write, Sultani says he amassed a fortune and became an expert on Afghan artifacts as an antiquities dealer in Pakistan and London.

The former goldsmith's apprentice also says that he has spent millions of dollars during the past three decades for the 15,000 artifacts in his collection -- buying from other antiques dealers in Europe, Iran, Pakistan, and Dubai.

"I can't estimate any value for these pieces. Just the number of pieces," Sultani tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "They are priceless because these are ancient and no amount of money can replace them."

But Sultani's attempts to return the artifacts to Afghanistan and display them at an historic citadel in Herat have been blocked by the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture.

In 2005, when Sultani displayed about 3,000 artifacts from his collection at the National Gallery in Kabul, officials from the ministry praised his efforts to preserve Afghan culture.

The ministry also welcomed Sultani's plans to return more antiques to Afghanistan and establish as many as 20 museums around the country so that future generations of Afghans could learn about the culture of their forefathers.

Sultani also returned a few items he says he bought over the years that had been looted from the National Museum and National Gallery in Kabul.

Trading Accusations

But relations between Sultani and Kabul have soured since the appointment in 2006 of Abdul Karim Khoram as minister of information and culture.

That situation deteriorated further in recent weeks, with Khoram overruling a decision by Herat's provincial governor, Sayyad Hosayn Anwari, that would have allowed Sultani's collection to be housed at an ancient citadel in Herat known as Ekhtyaruddin Qala.

Work has been under way for years to transfer to the citadel what remains of government collections from the National Museum in Herat.

The former culture minister, Sayyed Makhdum Rahin, examines a Sultani artifact (RFE/RL)

But Khoram announced last week that displaying a private collection at the ancient fortress would threaten the government's attempts to get UNESCO to declare the citadel a protected World Heritage site.

Khoram also said displaying Sultani's collection at the citadel could threaten new archaeological work under way there.

Tempers came to a head two weeks ago when Khoram questioned Sultani's story about how he obtained the artifacts in the first place -- suggesting that Sultani may have contributed to the destruction of Afghan culture by supporting those who have plundered national treasures.

"I will repeat it once more that we are not sure what this gentleman is doing and what his activities are," Khoram tells RFE/RL. "And we don't know anything about the [source] of the artifacts that he already has displayed in Kabul."

When asked about Khoram's remarks, Herat Governor Anwari responded angrily and accused the minister of complicity in the destruction of Afghanistan because of his membership in the Islamist fundamentalist faction Hizb-e Islami.

"Mr. Khoram, as a member of Hizb-e Islami, is responsible for destroying Afghanistan along with his gang of bandits," Anwari says. "How can he accuse us -- saying that we have done this everywhere. Afghanistan was destroyed because of the political party that [Khoram] is a member of. And now he accuses us of this? The Afghan government should take this case seriously and investigate it. But if we are blamed for ignoring orders of the central government or the Ministry of Information and Culture, then we demand an investigation."

Historic Ethnic, Political Rivalries

Jean MacKenzie, the Afghanistan country director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says the dispute is more than just an argument between government officials and would-be donors. She says the arguments reflect a broader trend in Afghanistan -- the resurgence of political and ethnic divisions that have plagued the country for decades.

"We've got the governor of Herat, who is [Hazara] -- a different ethnic group than the [ethnic Pashtun] minister of information and culture," MacKenzie says.

"And rather than debate the issue on its merits, he is throwing around character-assassination-type terms [against Khoram] like 'former commander' and bringing Hizb-e Islami into the picture, which raises the specter of fundamentalism," she continues. "And it is, of course, directed against the Pashtuns. So I think what we are seeing is more and more of this lack of debate where ethnic and political divides are coming more and more to the fore."

For his part, Sultani says he is so angry at Khoram that he will no longer try to establish museums across the country.

Sultani says that he has decided he won't allow his collection to be displayed in Afghanistan even if President Karzai overrules Khoram's decision against housing artifacts at Herat's ancient citadel.

Afghanistan: Uncle Of Student Condemned To Death Says Court Biased

By Breffni O'Rourke

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh has been jailed since his trial in October

The uncle of an Afghan journalism student sentenced to death for blasphemy claims that the appellate judge is biased against his nephew.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Sayed Yasin Peroz described the original trial of his nephew, Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, on January 22 as "unfair, unjust, and one-sided," and called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the international community to intervene.

And he expressed shock at what he said was the attitude of the judge who will hear the appeal against the death penalty.

"I went to the appellate court together with the elders and ulema [religious scholars] to talk to the judge of that court," Peroz says. "It is very difficult for me to describe the situation of that court, because the judge was waiting for the case like a butcher impatient to slaughter an animal. He said that ever since he heard that story, he is enraged and his whole body is burning to [punish Kambakhsh]."

Kambakhsh's story is making worldwide news. He was arrested in October for reportedly distributing an article among students titled "The Koranic Verses That Discriminate Against Women."

Local authorities apparently believed he was the author of the pamphlet, which some Islamic scholars denounced as anti-Islamic and evil. He was sentenced to death by a court in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

However, a European-based Iranian student who goes under the name of Arash Bikhoda now says he was the author, and Kambakhsh's family says the journalism student merely copied it from Bikhoda's website and distributed it.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), a nongovernmental group that helps train journalists in troubled places, has accused the authorities of prosecuting Kambakhsh in order to punish his brother, a contributor to IWPR publications who was written articles critical of commanders in the northern province.

The IWPR reported that Kambakhsh was brought before the first court without a lawyer or any chance to defend himself. Kambakhsh said that he was taken to a room with three judges and that his death sentence "had already been written. I wanted to say something, but they would not let me speak."

The deputy prosecutor of Balkh Province, Qazi Hafizullah Khaliqyar, has called the legal proceedings against Kambakhsh so far fair and within the law, and says that the student will continue to receive due process at forthcoming appeal hearings. He also said that he would assign a "special committee" to the case.

The Afghan Constitution states that both universal human rights codes and Islamic law are to be upheld. There's an evident contradiction between the two concepts in this case, but Khaliqyar sees no problems.

"Of course we didn't intend to violate any rights of journalists," the prosecutor says. "The media law clearly prohibits insulting religious values and beliefs. They [journalists] can't violate the values of Islam and they have to keep that in mind. He [Kambakhsh] has been referred to an Islamic court and would be dealt according to Shari'a law. He has been asked if he wanted any lawyer, but he rejected the opportunity and preferred to defend himself."

Kambakhsh's uncle, Peroz, on the other hand, suggests the legal proceedings contravene freedom of speech, justice, and human rights.

(RFE/RL correspondent Sharifa Esmatullah contributed to this report.)

Kabul Spurns UN Envoy Candidate

Paddy Ashdown

Opposition within the Afghan government appears to have derailed the prospect of senior British diplomat and former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown's appointment as a new UN "super envoy" in Kabul, forcing the UN Secretary-General's Office to seek another candidate for the post.

Ashdown reportedly had the public backing of both the United States and Britain, as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai's initial approval, but Karzai began to raise objections publicly to Ashdown last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

On January 27, Ashdown put an end to the speculation by announcing that he had withdrawn his candidacy, saying he lacked support from the Afghan government.

"I didn't ask to do this job. It was only with reluctance and after having been persuaded by the American government, and with the agreement of President Karzai at the time, and at the request of UN Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] that I agreed to do it," Ashdown told the BBC. "So I am delighted to be able to return to where I was when this job was first [suggested] in October last year -- my garden and my grandchildren."

Ashdown said that "something has happened" that prompted Karzai to change his mind since they spoke about the job in Kuwait in late December, suggesting that Karzai's reversal "has far more to do with internal Afghan politics than...with the international community."

Ashdown said that "we can all speculate about why President Karzai has changed his mind," and stressed that he "wouldn't have dreamed of undertaking this job unless [Karzai] agreed that I should do so."

"I think there was a sense of mistrust in Afghanistan that Mr. Ashdown might come with some powers that could have been considered as interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs."

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta appeared to confirm the view that domestic concerns were behind Kabul's volte-face. Spanta told reporters on January 27 that Kabul's objections were neither about Ashdown personally nor about his nationality. Rather, Spanta said, Kabul was concerned about what he called "a negative atmosphere" created around the idea of a UN official having the role of a super envoy.

Ali Ahmad Jalali, Karzai's former interior minister and a noted expert on Afghan diplomatic affairs, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that there were fears in Kabul about how much power the next UN envoy would have over decisions made by the central government.

In particular, Jalali said, there were concerns that Ashdown would have powers over Kabul's decisions similar to the veto powers he excercised as the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"I think there was a sense of mistrust in Afghanistan that Mr. Ashdown might come with some powers that could have been considered as interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs," Jalali said. "It was considered that he might have the same level of power that he previously had in Bosnia."

Jalali noted that as the international community's top man in Bosnia-Herzegovina, "Ashdown had this competence to decide or give an idea over the appointment of government officials, but the situation in Afghanistan is different than Bosnia."

He contrasts Bosnia's UN-imposed tripartite presidency with the system that Afghanistan has put in place since the U.S.-led toppling of the Taliban in late 2001. "Afghanistan has an elected president and an elected parliament," he said. "And the country is united."

Indeed, as the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ashdown had dismissed Dragan Covic -- the Bosnian Croat politician who was elected in October 2002 to serve in the three-member presidency. Ashdown ordered the dismissal after Covic was indicted on charges of financial corruption.

But for his part, Ashdown rejected media reports that he had sought powers over the Afghan government that would have changed the role of the UN envoy in Afghanistan to that of a "super envoy." "I negotiated these mandates first off. And we've agreed them with Ban Ki-moon," he said.

Ashdown stressed to the BBC that the mandates had been agreed with Secretary-General Ban and that "the question of having the same powers as I had in Bosnia was never in question." He added, "If they had been offered, I would have rejected them."

"The government of Afghanistan is a sovereign government. It is a proud nation. And President Karzai is its president," Ashdown said. "Our job was to assist the government in Afghanistan to do its job -- at President Karzai's request, initially."

He described the envoy's role as being "all about coordinating the international community to support President Karzai."

Ashdown said the powers he insisted upon would have given him greater ability to coordinate the work of different UN relief agencies within Afghanistan -- including the World Food Program, the World Health Organization, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Reports claimed the next UN envoy would not have powers over NATO forces that are now in Afghanistan on a UN mandate to assist Karzai's government.

Amid the search for a new candidate, reports from Kabul said senior Afghan officials had expressed interest in another Briton -- General John McColl -- serving as the UN special envoy to Afghanistan. McColl led the first International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan and was Britain's special envoy for the counternarcotics effort there. McColl is currently NATO's deputy supreme commander in Europe.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mustafa Sarwar contributed to this report from Prague.)