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Afghanistan Report: March 28, 2008

Iran Pushes Cross-Border Regional TV Project

By Farangis Najibullah

Hard-liner in HD?

As part of its vigorous cultural diplomacy in neighboring countries that share its language, Iran is driving plans for a Persian-language satellite network to broadcast in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. But it's unclear whether the region's viewers will tune in to shows tailored to the tastes of the Iranian leadership's arguably radical brand of Islam.

For years, Tehran has pursued vigorous "cultural diplomacy" in neighboring countries that share its linguistic roots -- namely, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Such efforts were in the spotlight this week after a March 24-25 meeting in Dushanbe of the three countries' foreign ministers. Among other issues, the ministers reportedly prepared a deal on launching a common Persian-language satellite-television network to be run jointly by all three governments.

"The common television network will start broadcasting programs in Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Tajik, and the other languages of the three countries," Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohkhon Zarifi told a news conference in Dushanbe on March 25. He added that the three countries' presidents would sign the deal on the joint television project when they meet next, possibly as early as August.

Although the headquarters of the television channel would be based in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, some observers have been quick to characterize the new network as merely the latest instrument aimed at spreading Iranian influence in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and other Persian-speaking areas of Central and South Asia.

Courting Tajiks

Tehran has invested in cultural ties in Tajikistan since the impoverished former Soviet republic, whose government is militantly secular, gained independence in 1991. Iran has set up a cultural center in Dushanbe that supports a variety of cultural and educational programs. Since the early 1990s, Tehran has also organized frequent cultural trips to Iran for Tajik writers, journalists, and influential intellectuals.

Journalists who have traveled to Iran in such trips say they have been encouraged by the Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe to write about their journey and impressions. Tajik teachers, university professors, and doctors in recent years have been included on such trips, which are fully paid by the Iranian side.

Many Tajik writers, poets, and scientists have also had their books published in Iran. For example, Muhammadjon Shakuri, a prominent Tajik scientist, travels to Iran almost yearly on trips funded by the government in Tehran. He says he is grateful to Iran because when he fell ill recently he was taken there for two successful operations -- all expenses paid by Iran, of course.

Shakuri says Tajik intellectuals appreciate what he calls Iran's desire to strengthen cultural ties and support people who share the same language. "Many books by contemporary Tajik poets have been published in Iran, in the Arabic/Farsi alphabet," he tells RFE/RL. "Such cooperation is expanding now, and Tajikistan is welcoming it, too."

In addition to its cultural center, Tehran finances "Iranian Rooms," which have been set up in almost every university in Dushanbe. There, students and professors get free Internet access, textbooks, and daily newspapers and magazines.

The cultural center has also taken over a significant part of the Tajik National Library -- a complex long popular among students, professors, and young professionals. In recent years, Iran has also donated thousands of books in Persian, Russian, English, and other languages.

Crowded Field

Rahmatkarim Davlat, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Tajik Service, says many Tajiks believe that Tehran is pursuing a clear political agenda through its cultural programs. "Iran wants to have its supporters among influential intellectuals, and most importantly among the younger generation of Tajiks," Davlat says.

But Hamza Kamol, the head of the Tajik Cultural Foundation in Dushanbe, notes that Iran is just one of several countries that pursue a cultural agenda in the Central Asian country. "When it comes to cultural diplomacy, Iran has not done anything more than other countries, such as Russia, have been doing in Tajikistan," Kamol says.

Russia's cultural centers and embassy in Dushanbe reportedly provide financial support for Russian publications in Tajikistan, among many other activities, such as organizing Russian film festivals and art exhibitions. Likewise, the French cultural center in Dushanbe offers a library, language courses, and promotes French movies.

Turkey has also set up several Turkish-language schools, which have become popular among children from well-to-do families. By contrast, Iran has set up no such schools in Tajikistan.

Tajik authorities, meanwhile, say they support widening cultural and business ties with Iran. But there are tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the secular government in Dushanbe.

In the early 1990s, when supporters of the Tajik Islamic and democratic opposition briefly took control of state-run television, they began rebroadcasting Iranian programs in Tajikistan. But the government, after reasserting control over the station, quickly banned all such broadcasts, which it regarded as too religious.

Tajik authorities also have yet to register the Organization of Persian-Speaking Journalists, a group set up by Iranian and Tajik journalists and their financial sponsors in 2007. The group has reportedly applied at least eight times to the Tajik Justice Ministry for official registration. But the ministry has repeatedly refused to give the group any official permission to operate.

Early Reviews

While Tajik, Afghan, and Iranian officials have played up plans for the new Persian-language satellite channel, many Tajik journalists and experts tell RFE/RL that they believe the project will be dead in the water. They say that despite the shared language, there are big differences among peoples in the three countries when it comes to their attitudes about culture.

For example, they say Iran would not allow television presenters and guests to appear without adhering to its strict Islamic dress code. Nor would Iran want to broadcast modern songs and movies where women are not covered head to toe. In Tajikistan, however, modern songs and dances, Western movies, and television series are extremely popular.

That is to say nothing of politics. Adolat Mirzo, a female Tajik journalist, tells RFE/RL that it would be almost impossible for the regional, state-run, Persian-language television network "to organize even an ordinary political roundtable because the three countries have totally different political lines."

While Iran has poor relations with the West, the government of Afghanistan depends on military and economic support from the United States and European Union.

Tajikistan, while desperate for economic aid from any source, has sought to strike a balance in its relations with Iran, Russia, and Western countries. Tahir Shermuhammadi, an independent Iranian-born analyst based in Germany, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that Dushanbe, which gets significant financial support from Washington, "won't jeopardize its relations with the West by getting too close to Iran."

Other Tajik observers say Iran's cultural policies have actually brought about the opposite of what Tehran might have intended.

Before Iran expanded its cultural activities in Tajikistan, many Tajiks had cherished the idea of improving relations with Tehran. After all, Iranian prerevolutionary literature was popular in Tajikistan, while Iranian songs and movies -- largely created by Iranians abroad -- had attracted huge audiences.

But then the Islamic Republic of Iran started showing movies and concerts with artists covered head to toe. Coupled with Iranian publishers filling Tajik bookstores with Islamic tomes, many Tajiks say they were "disappointed."

Will the new satellite television network change their minds? It's unlikely, but stay tuned.

Afghan Army Reaches 70,000 Mark, As Taliban Vows New Offensive

By Ron Synovitz

The growing ranks of the Afghan National Army

Officials in Kabul say the Afghan National Army soon will number 70,000 combat-ready soldiers -- the strongest the force has been since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

The buildup has come amid urgent calls within NATO for more combat troops to be sent to assist counterterror and stabilization efforts in that country. But the Afghan government says it will be years before Afghan forces are able to provide security throughout the country by themselves -- and the Taliban says it's not worried about the growth of the army.

In early 2002, just weeks after the collapse of the Taliban regime, the transitional government in Kabul announced a bold schedule to build the Afghan National Army from scratch. That schedule called for the recruitment and training of 70,000 Afghan soldiers before the presidential election in the fall of 2004.

But that target proved to be overly optimistic. Until this year, desertions were so high among the fully trained Afghan soldiers that Kabul had difficulty maintaining a force of 30,000 troops.

Now, six years after the 70,000-soldier announcement, the goal is finally within reach.

General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the recruitment, training, and retention of Afghan soldiers during the winter has been better than ever.

"We have succeeded to bring about enormous changes in the quality and quantity of troops in the Afghan National Army compared to previous years. From [about early May], we will be able to have at least 70,000 soldiers deployed to fight against the enemy," Azimi says. "Last year, this number was about 30,000 soldiers. And our army is very well equipped this year. We have obtained new weapons and other military equipment. Our air force has been reestablished. And we have formed new commando and engineering battalions."

Spring Offensive?

Taliban spokesman Qari Yusef Ahmadi, in an exclusive telephone interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, dismisses Azimi's remarks about the strengthening of the Afghan National Army.

"They can't do anything," Ahmadi says. "They have been claiming for years that they are going to have 70,000 soldiers, but our view is that these are only paid soldiers who are temporary workers. These people aren't able to fight against our mujahedin, who are fighting jihad on the basis of their faith."

Ahmadi claims the Taliban is planning a series of attacks in the coming days, called Operation Unforgettable Lesson, that is part of a spring offensive.

"It will cover all of Afghanistan -- the big cities and the small cities," Ahmadi warns. "We will attack all those areas where our enemy is present. We will use our old tactics as well as new tactics. I can't disclose what these new tactics are because that is a military secret, but you will see when it starts."

Ahmadi also tells Radio Free Afghanistan that Taliban militants will focus their attacks on military bases where foreign troops have been deployed. He says Taliban fighters will try to refrain from carrying out attacks in situations where there are many civilians.

"Everything will be included in this operation," Ahmadi says. "We will be looking at an area first and then we will attack according to the situation in each particular area. Suicide attacks will be included."

For his part, however, General Azimi dismisses Ahmadi's remarks as an attempt by the Taliban to manipulate public opinion in Afghanistan.

"Propaganda plays a significant role in military operations, especially in guerrilla and militia fighting," Azimi says. "It is a very strategic tactic. When the enemy does not have the ability to defeat a well-organized military force, they start trying to terrify innocents. [The Taliban] now fights a psychological battle. This is their pre-operational battle."

International Presence

The strengthening of the Afghan National Army comes as the United States, Britain, and Canada have sought to get other countries in the NATO alliance to send more soldiers into the combat zones of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

U.S. Vice President Cheney and Afghan President Karzai on March 20

Last week, during a visit to Kabul by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that the growth of the Afghan Army will take some pressure off of NATO. But with militant violence on the rise, Karzai said international security forces were still needed to help provide security throughout the country.

"The continuation of NATO's role in Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism -- and providing stability for Afghanistan -- is very, very important. The Afghan army is also doing very, very well," Karzai said. "In my meetings with the Afghan people, I find out that the army is more and more seen as a force that brings stability. So as the Afghan army gets stronger and stronger, [there will be less] pressure on international security forces. Until then, the cooperation between Afghanistan and the rest of the international community is a must -- both for the war against terrorism and for stability in Afghanistan."

Karzai also warned that Kabul would be dependent "for a long time" on international security forces to help train and equip Afghan government forces.

"We like an effective continuation of the two missions that we have here. One is the fight against terrorism. The other is the rebuilding of Afghanistan -- and especially the rebuilding of the security institutions; the army," Karzai said. "As it is a gradual improvement on our side, it is also a gradual reduction of responsibility on the shoulders of the international community; but that is not going to be [completed] anytime soon. Afghanistan will need for a long time support from the international community in the rebuilding exercises here in Afghanistan and in the strengthening of the Afghan security institutions."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Freshta Jalalzai contributed to this report from Prague

Afghanistan: Report Says Foreign Aid Being Wasted, Billions Still Not Delivered

Is enough aid pledged by the West reaching the Afghan people?

Afghanistan is highly dependent on foreign aid, and a new study says that some $10 billion in international aid pledged to the country has not been delivered.

The study by the Agency Coordinating Body For Afghan Relief (ACBAR) also says that much of the aid that has been sent is not being properly used.

The study says that since the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001, the international community has pledged some $25 billion in aid to Afghanistan. But it says only $15 billion of that total has been delivered -- in a country where some 90 percent of public spending is international aid.

The study, "Falling Short," also finds that a "staggering" 40 percent of the Western funds that are spent on aid projects are returned to the donor countries through fees to contractors and salaries to employees from those countries.

Ramazan Bashardost, an Afghan parliament member and former planning minister, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that a lot of the aid money is being wasted.

"In the United States, Britain, and other countries, people work and taxpayers pay money that goes to help Afghanistan to build roads, dams, and electricity lines," Bashardost says. "But when the money comes to Afghanistan, it's spent for those people who have cars costing $60,000 and who live in houses with a $15,000 monthly rent. This money goes to these expenses -- 90 percent logistics and administration."

The ACBAR report, which was written by the British charity Oxfam, points out that the United States, the European Commission, and Germany are among major donors that have failed so far to fulfill their pledges of aid. The United States has delivered only half of the $10.4 billion it pledged to 2008, while the European Commission and Germany have sent less than two-thirds of their commitments.

The World Bank's country manager for Afghanistan, Mariam Sherman, told AFP that its disbursal rate -- said to be just over 50 percent -- was "actually very good," considering projects take years to complete and pledges do not arrive immediately.

The report also criticizes the "wasteful and ineffective" use of available aid money.

'Frustration Is Growing'

ACBAR Deputy Director Mohammad Hashim Mayar tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that both rural and relatively secure areas are being neglected.

"The donations are spent mostly in cities, not villages, while most people live in villages," Mayar says. "They are spent in areas where security is not good, hoping that it will improve there. But the opposite is happening. We have seen that security didn't improve in those areas, but worsened instead. In areas where there are possibilities of [implementing projects], no work is being done."

The report also indicates that a "disproportionate" amount of aid is being used for military objectives rather than reducing poverty.

While the U.S. military spends $100 million a day, the average amount of aid spent by all donors combined has been just $7 million a day since 2001.

Mayar says the report's findings echo the feelings of many Afghans, who are disappointed by a lack of tangible progress. "If the donations are not used in the right way, security will worsen and peace cannot improve. Or, if it comes, it takes too long," he says.

"Therefore there is a fear that there will be more insecurity, more frustration because at the beginning the government promised 'we will do this and that.' But the international community could not help properly and the government didn't have the capability [to improve the situation, so] frustration is growing," Mayar adds.

The report notes that the shortfalls in aid could be partly attributed to "challenging operating conditions, high levels of corruption, and weak absorption capacities."

The report adds that these failings could also be the reason that about two-thirds of foreign assistance bypasses the Afghan government, undermining efforts to build effective state institutions.

ACBAR includes some 94 aid agencies working in Afghanistan, including Oxfam, Christian Aid, CARE, Islamic Relief, and Save the Children.

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

Afghanistan's New Helmand Governor Wants To Talk With Taliban

Governor Mangal in June 2006, when he was governor of Laghman Province

The new governor of an embattled province in southern Afghanistan has confirmed his intention to negotiate with "second- and third-tier" Taliban to achieve greater security.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Helmand Province Governor Golab Mangal insisted that his call for talks enjoys the support of President Hamid Karzai.

"From the authority point of view, I can say that I'm the representative of President Karzai in the province and the highest-ranking official," Mangal said. "What I do in Helmand is always according to the guidance of President Karzai and the independent regional organ. Under the law, there is no problem regarding [my] authority [to conduct such talks]."

The central government in Kabul has at times struggled to reconcile its stated desire to rehabilitate militants who disavow armed resistance with its effort to counter terrorism and deliver stability to beleaguered regions.

Mangal stressed that the invitation to talks excludes what he called top-tier Taliban, whom he described as "foreign-affiliated" and Al-Qaeda militants.

Helmand is among the country's most violent provinces, and lies in what is frequently referred to as a "poppy belt" that contributes to Afghanistan's massive opium trade.

Mullah Abdul Rahim Taliban, a Taliban militant who also claims to be the rightful governor of Helmand, insisted to Radio Free Afghanistan that the central government is divided over its approach to negotiations.

Abdul Rahim Taliban cited a difference of views between Karzai's closest political allies, on one hand, and officials with strong links to former mujahedin allied under the former United Front (aka Northern Alliance).

"As the respected governor of Helmand says that they are ready to conciliate with moderate or second- and third-ranking Taliban, I would like to say that we are one group, we have one leader and one voice," he said. "On the other side, they have no authority to negotiate freely with us. Even inside the government, they are separated in two groups -- one is Northern Alliance and the other is Karzai group. The Northern Alliance is absolutely opposed to talks with Taliban."