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Afghanistan Report: May 9, 2008

Afghanistan: One Of The World's Most Difficult Places To Become A Mother

By - no author -

Afghan women and their children wait outside the main hospital in the western Afghan city of Farah earlier this year

In Afghanistan's northeastern Badakhshan Province, Sharifa feeds rice and bread to her nieces and nephews. The six children are orphans who were left in Sharifa's care when her sister died.

Due to poor conditions, the children's mother bled to death while giving birth in her home. Sharifa says her pregnant sister was not able to travel over the rough roads to a medical center in the city of Faizabad -- just three kilometers from her village -- in time to give birth.

"My sister died while giving birth," Sharifa told the Reuters news agency. "Her orphaned children do not have anyone to take care of them. I am their aunt, so I have to come to take care of them. Sometimes I can't help them. There is no one to care for them. There is no clinic nearby, no cars, and no proper roads. When my sister was about to deliver a baby, we could not take her to the hospital. She stayed at home for one day and one night. Then she died."

Death during childbirth is a scourge in Afghanistan. On average, a woman dies there every 27 minutes from complications during pregnancy, according to the nongovernmental group Save The Children. It is a chilling statistic that contributes to making Afghanistan one of the most difficult places in the world to be a mother.

In fact, Save The Children's latest index on living conditions for mothers does not include Afghanistan among its ranking of 146 countries. That is because economic data was not available for one key category of the index -- a comparison of the incomes of Afghan men and women.

But the statistics that are available from Afghanistan -- data on women's health, education, nutrition, and personal safety -- confirm that life is very difficult for Afghan mothers. The data shows that one out of every eight women in Afghanistan dies during pregnancy or while giving birth. The only country where that situation is worse is Niger, where one out of every seven women dies during pregnancy or childbirth.

Ministry's Top Priority

Afghan Deputy Health Minister Faizullah Kakar says that is why maternal mortality is now the top priority of his ministry.

"Maternal mortality [in Afghanistan] is the second highest in the world. There is an African country that I think has more [deaths] than us. But our maternal mortality is 1,600 for every 100,000 live births," Kakar says. "So that is a very important area of health that we are paying attention to. That is actually our first priority in health. So we are doing quite a few things to reduce maternal mortality."

A clinic near the border with Tajikistan, in the Ishkashem District of Badakhshan Province, is one example. When Mahenow became pregnant recently, her husband escorted her to the clinic on a donkey for an examination. Mahenow says the clinic has helped her learn more about the health risks she faces.

"In the past there was no hospital, no doctor, and no medicine here," Mahenow told Reuters. "That is why we were doing the deliveries at home. Now we have clinics and good doctors. So I decided to come to the clinic in order to become more aware of health issues."

Education Seen As Key

Dozens of NGOs are also actively helping women who have little access to proper medical care. And it is not only pregnant women who are attending the NGOs' special programs.

Rona Azamyan is the coordinator of a midwife-education program in Faizabad that is offered at a series of schools. Azamyan says the goal is to educate women from isolated areas about how to help other women deliver a baby.

"These schools were established in order to bring down the rate of maternal mortality," Azamyan says. "We train local midwives who will be able to provide health services for mothers within the in communities remote areas where they are living. There are no proper hospitals in those areas. So they can save lives and help to rescue mothers from death during childbirth."

Indeed, Afghan men prefer their women to consult only women health workers. But that is easier said than done in a society where there are few female doctors or nurses and where little emphasis has been placed on educating girls.

The problem was worse during the Taliban regime, when girls were banned from schools and severe restrictions were placed on women leaving their homes. During those years, from 1996 to 2001, there were only about 1,000 female health-care workers in the entire country. They staffed female-only hospitals -- leaving women in remote rural areas without any health services. Still the situation remains far from ideal today.

Training As Midwives

One student in the Faizabad program, Momina Hinafy, says the death of her own mother convinced her that Afghanistan needs more women to be trained as midwives.

"The maternal mortality rate in Badakhshan was too high -- especially in the remote and mountainous districts," Hinafy told Reuters. "My mother died while giving birth. That is why I took the detour to become a midwife and help mothers. I want to help save the lives of other mothers."

Meanwhile, the government's plans call for more midwifery schools to be set up and for more female students to be assigned to medical and nursing schools. Authorities hope that will improve dire statistics like those compiled by Save The Children, which show that only 14 percent of all births in Afghanistan were attended by skilled health personnel during 2006 -- a figure comparable to Chad. In fact, only Ethiopia had a poorer score on that issue -- with trained health personnel attending to just 6 percent of the births there.

By comparison, qualified health personnel attended 90 percent or more of the births in countries like Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, China, and Azerbaijan.

At the end of the day, Save The Children stresses that statistics tell only a portion of the story about the harm caused to the well-being of Afghan mothers and their children by years of war, violence, and lawlessness. But it hopes that focusing attention on the problem will mean that more Afghan mothers will be alive to celebrate the next Mothers' Day.

Additional reporting by Ron Synovitz in Prague

Afghanistan: Two Iranian Men Detained On Suspicions Of Spying

Two Iranian men have been detained in Afghanistan in separate incidents on suspicion of spying near NATO and Afghan military installations.

Ghulam Dastagir Azad, the governor of Afghanistan's southwestern province of Nimroz, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that one of the detained men was captured with documents and photographs that prove he had links with militants.

Azad said the man was captured trying to enter the city of Zarang, on the border with Iran. "He had a camera that had photographs of weaponry indicating clear ties with [Afghanistan's] enemies," Azad said.

In a second incident, near Afghanistan's southeastern border with Pakistan, authorities say they detained an Iranian man who was preparing information for what they believe was an attack against NATO and Afghan security forces.

No Passport, Documents

Wazir Pacha, the assistant police chief in the southeastern Afghan province of Khost, said the man was not carrying any passport or documents and that he initially had pretended to be mentally ill. But Pacha says the man later confessed that he was on an information-gathering mission.

Police in Khost played an audio recording for journalists in which the man confesses he was preparing maps of NATO and Afghan military installations in Khost, which lies just across the border from Pakistan's volatile tribal region of North Waziristan.

In that recording, the man says he is from the town of Shiraz and entered Afghanistan from the Iranian border city of Mashhad. He says he arrived in Khost after passing through the Afghan cities of Herat and Kabul.

Meanwhile, Afghan security forces say they discovered a large cache of weapons in the western Afghan province of Herat, just 10 kilometers from the Iranian border. Authorities say they suspect the weapons were sent from Iran and were intended for the Taliban.

Ramatullah Safi, chief of border police in western Afghanistan, told Radio Free Afghanistan that some of the weapons contained Iranian markings.

"The cache contained one mortar shell, 785 land mines, and 445 tripod-mounted machine guns," Safi said. "There also was a lot of ammunition -- 2,400 boxes of ammunition for Kalashnikov assault rifles, 85 rocket-propelled grenades, and other ammunition."

'Interfering' In Different Ways

The Afghan government has not commented on the significance of the arrests or the discovery of the weapons cache. But Richard Boucher, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for south and Central Asia, told reporters in Paris on May 6 that Iran is interfering in Afghanistan in "a variety of different ways -- perhaps not as violently as they sometimes do in Iraq."

Boucher concluded that Iran is seeking to keep Afghanistan weak and unstable by delivering weapons to the Taliban while ostensibly supporting the central government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He said Washington sees "Iranian interference politically" in terms of money that Tehran channels into Afghanistan's political process, as well as interference aimed at undermining the Afghan state by playing off local Afghan officials against Karzai's government.

Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Sharafuddin Stanakzai and Reshtin Qadiri in Herat; Amir Bahir in Khost; and Ajmal Seddique in Prague contributed to this report

Afghanistan: Government Workers Arrested In Plot To Kill Karzai

Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak announces the arrests

Authorities in Kabul have arrested two Afghan government workers for alleged involvement in last week's failed plot to kill President Hamid Karzai.

Afghan officials say the government employees who were arrested were low-ranking workers in the Defense and Interior ministries. Karzai escaped unharmed, but three others were killed in the attack.

Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak identified one of the arrested government workers as a man named Jawed from Kapisa Province, north of Kabul. Wardak says Jawed repaired weapons at an Afghan Defense Ministry factory. He alleges Jawed provided two AK-47 assault rifles and a machine gun to three gunmen who attacked Karzai during a Kabul military parade on April 27.

Wardak identified the second suspect as a police nurse named Zalmay from the Jabal Saraj district of Parwan Province, also north of Kabul. Wardak says Zalmay had been in contact with one of the key organizers of the failed assassination plot.

Although authorities in Kabul have not released details about who they think organized the plot, Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh insists the masterminds behind the attack on Karzai were Al-Qaeda-linked militants based in neighboring Pakistan. Saleh says Kabul has provided information on the militants' whereabouts to "relevant international sources" who have the capacity to "put pressure on those people who are outside our borders."

"Pakistan has agreed with them and told them that jihad is fair against the people of Afghanistan," Saleh says. "This should once again make our people united and see how deep the roots of this crisis go."

Escaped To Pakistan

Saleh says a raid on April 30 by Afghan security forces on a Taliban hideout in Kabul killed a militant involved in planning a suicide-bomb attack on Kabul's Serena Hotel in January that killed eight people. Saleh says that militant, known as Humayun, had escaped to Pakistan after the Serena Hotel bombing but returned to support last week's attack on Karzai.

Intelligence officials have said previously that Humayun had links to a network headed by militant leader Siraj Haqqani. That network is associated with the Taliban and also is thought to have links to Al-Qaeda fighters. It is part of a myriad of militant groups that support Afghanistan's former hard-line Islamist regime and that are trying to topple Karzai's Western-backed government.

Saleh charges that the recent violence in Kabul shows that authorities in Pakistan's tribal regions continue to allow Al-Qaeda-linked militants to cross into Afghanistan to commit terrorist attacks.

"In what the Pakistanis are doing, we see two faces," Saleh says. "On one hand, we see a fight against terrorism. But on the other hand, they are agreeing with terrorist groups -- telling them to stay out of Pakistani cities but turning a blind eye if they go to Afghanistan."

Pakistan has repeatedly denied such allegations from Kabul in the past, noting that Pakistani security forces have arrested Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked suspects on its soil. The United States has launched missile strikes on suspected Al-Qaeda hideouts in Pakistan, even though Islamabad condemns those attacks as a breach of its sovereignty.

Domestic Political Rivals

Last week's attack on Karzai led to speculation and allegations in Afghanistan's lower chamber of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, that Karzai's domestic political rivals may have been involved.

Legislator Shukria Barakzai tells RFE/RL that she does not think the arrests of the two Afghan government workers will be the final result of the investigation by a specially appointed Afghan commission. Barakzai says such an assassination attempt is a "major plot" that could not have been planned by just one or two people.

"I think Afghanistan's current administration has two kinds of enemies," Barakzai says. "One kind goes by the name 'Taliban' and clearly says that it is the enemy. The second is inside the system itself, representing old political parties with old aims. They are destroying the system from the inside. If this appointed commission doesn't find anything else besides these two low-ranking government employees, nobody in Afghanistan will trust such commissions in the future."

Last week, Afghan lawmakers passed a vote of no confidence against Wardak, Saleh, and the interior minister after they revealed they had been aware of a plot against Karzai but failed to stop it. Despite the no-confidence vote, all three security officials retained their jobs.

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Zakfar Ahmadi in Kabul and Ibrahim Amiri in Prague contributed to this report

Gates Says U.S. Could Eye Expanded Role In Afghanistan

U.S. soldiers are under two different commands in Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the United States could consider taking over NATO's command in southern Afghanistan, where some NATO allies have been reluctant to provide combat forces.

His comments come as U.S. media reported that the United States is considering sending extra troops to Afghanistan next year.

Gates said the Pentagon would consult closely with NATO allies before making any decision to alter its military role in Afghanistan.

When asked by reporters to comment on discussion at the Pentagon about the possibility of taking over the command in southern Afghanistan, Gates said that this is "a matter that's going to be looked at over probably some period of time, primarily because it requires consultation with our allies."

During a visit on May 2 to the Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, Texas, the defense chief also said the United States needs to look at whether it continues to make sense to have two combatant commands involved in one country.

The United States has 34,000 troops in Afghanistan under two commands.

About 16,000 soldiers under U.S. European Command serve mostly in eastern Afghanistan as part of the 47,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

The other 18,000, which are involved in counterterrorism operations and training of Afghan security forces, are under U.S. Central Command.

Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, and Australia all have forces in southern Afghanistan, which has seen the worst of a rising tide of Taliban violence.

"The New York Times" reported on May 3 that the Pentagon is considering sending up to 7,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan next year to make up for a shortfall in contributions from NATO allies.

Citing unnamed senior administration officials, the newspaper said if the plan was to be approved, the number of U.S. troops in the country would entail at least a modest reduction in troops from Iraq.

It said U.S. forces would then account for two-thirds of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

The officials said the decision for more troops could be left to the next U.S. president, who will take office in January, and that few additional troops were expected in Afghanistan anytime soon.

The United States has recently increased its troop presence in Afghanistan. Some 3,500 Marines have been deployed to reinforce NATO forces in the south for seven months.

The United Sates and other NATO members have pushed their allies to provide combat troops and equipment to fill shortfalls in the south, but the response so far has been tepid.

According to "The New York Times" a dozen NATO countries, including France, have so far pledged a total of about 2,000 additional troops for Afghanistan, while alliance commanders have asked for 10,000.

Seven Dead After Clash In Kabul With Suspected Taliban

An Afghan police officer stands outside the house in Kabul where security forces clashed with suspected Taliban militants

Seven people are reported to have beeen killed overnight after Afghan security forces clashed with suspected Taliban fighters in Kabul.

Afghanistan's national intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, said the operation at a house in the west of the capital targeted what he described as a "terrorist cell." Saleh said the dead included two "terrorists," one woman, whom he said had come "to carry out a suicide attack," one child, and three Afghan intelligence agents.

Saleh said soldiers surrounded the house but that those inside refused to surrender. In the end, Saleh said, Afghan security forces blew up the house. He said the woman, who was not Afghan, had planned to carry out a suicide attack, adding that security forces suspect the militants had "intended to use the child as a suicide bomber."

A Taliban spokesman confirmed two militants were killed in the fighting, along with the wife and daughter of one of the militants. The Taliban said the dead fighters had planned and helped to carry out the April 27 attack against a military parade in Kabul. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, foreign dignitaries, and other Afghan officials were in attendance at the parade, which was marking the victory of Afghan mujahedin fighters against the Afghan communist government 16 years ago.

Karzai was unharmed, but three other people watching the parade -- including an Afghan lawmaker, a 10-year-old boy, and a tribal leader -- were killed, along with three militants.

Saleh said the plan to attack the parade had been hatched in Pakistan's volatile tribal regions, but said there is no evidence that Pakistan's government or intelligence services were involved.

He added that Afghan security forces also have arrested eight other militants allegedly involved in providing logistics and weapons to the parade attackers, while a third raid against suspects is continuing in southeastern Kabul.

Ordinary Afghans say the incidents in Kabul this week have raised concerns about the ability of Afghan security forces to protect them.

"We are afraid of this situation because of all these threats against the president, cabinet members, and our nation," says Kabul resident Khan Wali.

"What has happened in front of this huge security force -- rockets being fired or other things -- in fact, this worries all Kabul residents," says Iqbal Shah, another resident of the capital.

Opposition lawmakers like Ramazan Bashardost have been complaining in parliament about the performance of the interior and defense ministries.

"There is no security force in Afghanistan that people trust," Bashardost says. "If you pay attention to [the April 27] attack, the security forces fled from the site before ordinary people did. This shows that our security force doesn't have the talent to ensure the safety of the people."

The Taliban appears to have become increasingly successful at recruiting new, young fighters in southern and southeastern Afghanistan during the last two years. But the violence this week in the heart of Kabul marks the most brazen attempts by Taliban fighters to assert their presence in the Afghan capital since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

Afghanistan: Key Road Toward Pakistan To Improve Trade, Security

By Ron Synovitz

A section of the Gardez-Khost road before reconstruction

A contract has been signed for a $100 million highway project in Afghanistan intended to dramatically reduce travel time from Kabul to border areas near Pakistan's volatile tribal region of North Waziristan.

The 100-kilometer stretch of road will link the provinces of Khost and Paktia to Afghanistan's "ring road," which will circle the country. The contract was signed on April 26 by the Afghan and U.S. governments. The project is being funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and is scheduled to be completed in 2009.

The new asphalt road is seen by Kabul as one of the most important reconstruction projects in southeastern Afghanistan. One reason is its economic impact. The road is intended to reduce travel time between Kabul and the Khost by four hours, making it much easier for agricultural produce from the border areas to be transported elsewhere in the country.

Loren Stoddard, the director of USAID's Agriculture and Alternative Development program in Afghanistan, explains that the primitive condition of roads on the Afghan side of the border has kept economic activity in Khost tied more to Pakistan's tribal regions than Kabul.

"The Khost area has long been isolated from the rest of Afghanistan," Stoddard says. "Khost has a fairly vibrant economy because of its closeness and interaction with the Pakistan economy, but it has always been somewhat of a regional economy that has been tied more to Pakistan than to the rest of Afghanistan. What we expect with this road is that Khost's economy will then begin to be somewhat more oriented toward the rest of Afghanistan, which is new."

Improving Security

Kabul also considers the road development as vital to the goal of improving security along Afghanistan's southeastern border with Pakistan. Khost lies at a strategic position across from Pakistan's tribal region of North Waziristan, an area that serves as a base for Al-Qaeda-linked militants as well as pro-Taliban fighters, who are negotiating a draft peace deal with Pakistan's new government. Despite the peace talks, militants continue to use Pakistan's tribal regions as a staging area for crossborder attacks.

Security officials say road improvements to Khost would make it easier for Afghan and international security forces to rapidly send ground troops and equipment into blocking positions along the border just a few kilometers from the Pakistani tribal town of Miram Shah.

Indeed, U.S. military officials in Afghanistan have told RFE/RL that completion of Afghanistan's ring road -- as well as secondary roads to connect that main highway to Afghanistan's provincial administrative centers -- is central to their strategy of deploying "rapid-reaction forces" overland for counterinsurgency operations.

That is why the regional and national highway system meant to link Afghanistan's major cities and economic centers has been a focus of the U.S. military and reconstruction aid groups since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Work began in 2002 to rebuild and improve the ring road's southernmost section, much of which had been destroyed by the Taliban in late 2001 as the regime fled Kabul.

Reconnecting Kabul with the western Afghan city of Herat required some 700 kilometers of USAID-funded construction work through the cities of Ghazni and Kandahar, and through volatile provinces like Helmand and Zabul where the Taliban remains active.

Complete 'Ring'

In October 2007, the Asia Development Bank approved a loan of more than $170 million to make the ring road a complete circle within the country by building a northwestern spur between Herat and the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif. Work on that final segment of the ring road continues and is expected to be completed by December 2009.

USAID says the latest road improvements certainly will make it easier for surplus food production to be sent from Khost to parts of Afghanistan where there are food shortages. It also is expected to increase international trade through access to Pakistan's nearby rail head, providing a shorter, alternative route for freight to Kabul and relieving the heavily congested freight-traffic route from Jalalabad through the Khyber Pass and on to the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

Stoddard agrees that the new road will help Afghanistan benefit from legitimate trade by increasing its exports to international agriculture markets.

"Afghanistan is famous for some big export products like pomegranates," Stoddard says. "Some of the best pomegranates in the world actually come from Afghanistan. And even in this area, in the area of Paktika, Paktia, and the Khost area, we see a solid [base of] pomegranate [production]. Also dried apricots, almonds, and walnuts. So there [are] a number of tree fruits -- that's probably the way you would identify them -- that come out of these three provinces. And by having this piece of road between Khost and Gardez and being able to get into the ring road, we expect that those products would be able to be consolidated with other similar products from around the country so we could get higher volume exports."

But as with any development project in Afghanistan's isolated provincial regions, meeting the time schedule for the Paktia-Khost road also depends upon maintained security along the proposed route. Work on the ring road's southern segments often was delayed by kidnappings and killings of foreign engineers in provinces like Zabul and Ghazni.

Taliban Evolves Into Network Of Groups

By Ron Synovitz

Taliban spokesmen speaking to the media

When the Taliban began its rapid rise to power in Afghanistan in 1994, the vast majority of its members were young students of the Koran recruited from hundreds of madrasahs set up at Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Fourteen years later, the Taliban leadership and its supporters no longer consists of young students, as the movement has evolved into more of a network of divergent groups and individuals.

Drawn mostly from Afghanistan's majority Pashtun ethnic group, the original leadership of the Taliban chose the name for the movement because it denotes students of Islamic theology.

Barnett Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan and director of New York University's Center on International Cooperation, explains that the youngest of the original Taliban were Afghans who were born or grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

"The Taliban, of course, are an indigenous Afghan or Afghan-Pakistani organization which really grew up during the 20 years that there were millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan -- where the only education available for them was in madrasahs, often in [Pakistan's] tribal territories," Rubin says. "It recruited from those people and it really had a local agenda."

But the Taliban's supreme spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is much older. He was born sometime around 1959 in the village of Nodeh near Kandahar, into a family of poor, landless members of the Hotak tribe -- one of many sub-tribes and clans within the Ghilzai branch of Pashtuns.

Omar became a village mullah in the Mewand district of Kandahar Province. He also fought against Afghan President Najibullah's communist regime from 1989 to 1992 as a member of Mohammad Yunus Khales' Hizb-e Islami -- a mujahedin group headquartered in Pakistan that had received Western aid and support during the 1980s that was channeled through elements of Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence (ISI).

Significantly, Mullah Omar's Ghilzai tribe is a historical adversary of another important ethnic-Pashtun group -- the Durrani tribe of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Religion To Politics

Antonio Giustozzi is a research fellow at the London School of Economics who has studied the evolution of the Taliban since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Giustozzi tells RFE/RL it would be wrong to consider today's Taliban a single ethnic group or tribe.

"I would basically describe it as a religious network which turned into a political movement," Giustozzi says. "And then they started expanding -- co-opting other religious networks, and then gradually going beyond those religious networks to start forming alliances with local communities or local power players."

He explains that the Taliban lacks a strong organizational structure and is essentially still a network based on personal relations between the leadership and people at the local level.

"Mullah Omar is not an authoritative leader," Giustozzi says. "He is more like a broker among different members of the leadership who may have differences over issues of how to fight the war or whether to negotiate or not. So in a sense, it is modeled from their experience as clerics."

In his recently published book, "Koran, Kalashnikov And Laptop: The Neo Taliban Insurgency In Afghanistan," Giustozzi describes how the Taliban leadership has recently embraced new strategies and technologies, including computers and suicide bombings. Giustozzi's book also describes how the Taliban has reorganized and adapted to changing political conditions in Afghanistan since 2002.

"Of course, the top leaders are people who have been with the Taliban for a long, long time. So in that sense, the very top leaders are still the same," Giustozzi explains. "What is new is that they are trying to incorporate new constituencies and, therefore, represent different tribes and communities. So as their constituencies change, they also adapt to those constituencies."

He says the original Taliban were largely Ghilzai, from the Ghilzai confederation, while in 2003 and 2004, the majority of the leadership were actually Durannis.

"We actually are not totally sure today what the composition of their leadership is," Giustozzi adds. "But one can detect an attempt to represent the different constituencies at the level of the leadership."

Revised Goals

Giustozzi also notes that the goals claimed by the Taliban have changed, along with its fighting tactics, as the security and political situation in the country has evolved.

"Today, the Taliban are essentially a guerrilla movement, whereas in the 1990s -- even in the early days of 1994 or 1995 -- they were never something like that," Giustozzi says. "Even when they were fighting for power, they were not using these guerrilla tactics. They were more like an army moving along the highways and trying to occupy the provincial centers. In that sense, the main difference is the way they operate. It is not so easy to say what their actual aims are."

But he says that, too, might change.

"Essentially, they say what they want is just to get the foreigners out of the country," Giustozzi explains. "But even in the early days, they were claiming that their main aim was to pacify the country and bring back law and order -- not to become a kind of government which would stay in power indefinitely, which, of course, proved not to be correct once they actually took Kabul."

As for ordinary Taliban foot soldiers, recent research suggests that the Taliban has been recruiting a younger generation of Afghans to carry out suicide attacks and to fight within its rank and file.

Working for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Christine Fair last year studied the phenomenon of suicide bombings across Afghanistan. Her work led to important conclusions not only about suicide bombers, but also about the emergence of this new generation of Taliban fighters.

"The important big picture is Afghans like to tell you that this is a Pakistani phenomenon," Fair says. "As we all know, there is Pakistani involvement. There is recruitment across the border. In the tribal areas, madrasahs figure prominently. But even if Pakistan went away, you still have a largely Afghan-driven insurgency."

Fair describes the situation as a "cross-border phenomenon," and says that "the insurgency is not going to be resolved if you think that the problem stops either at one side or the other of the Afghan border."

Her findings are supported by a series of interviews with Taliban fighters in Kandahar Province that was published online last month by Canada's "The Globe And Mail."

Those interviews suggest NATO air strikes and drug-eradication programs have fed the insurgency in southern Afghanistan. Many Taliban soldiers said their family members had been killed in air strikes or that they had been opium-poppy farmers until their crops were destroyed by drug-eradication teams.

Some said family members who were killed were innocent civilians. Others admitted that they joined the insurgency to replace older male relatives who were killed while fighting in the Taliban ranks.

Complex Realities

Paul Fishstein, the director of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent Kabul-based research organization that receives funding from the United Nations, the European Commission, and other international donors, says that researchers should be careful not to oversimplify the demographics of today's Taliban.

"We always have to be careful about referring to 'The Taliban,'" Fishstein says. "Often, anything violent -- anything bad that happens -- is attributed to either 'the enemies of Afghanistan' or, more generally, 'The Taliban.'"

Fishstein concludes that the structure of today's Taliban is complex -- and that foreign researchers often have difficulty understanding the rivalries and local agendas that have contributed to the resurgence of the movement.

"What we generically refer to as 'The Taliban' is a set of different individuals and groups who have differing grievances, differing motivations, differing attitudes -- and take a hostile attitude toward the [Afghan central] government," Fishstein says. "There's an awful lot of groups out there that either have personal grudges, political grudges, or actually profit from the lack of law and order in the country."

Peace Deal Between Islamabad, Pro-Taliban Militants Rankles U.S.

By Ron Synovitz

Taliban militants in Pakistan's border region in March 2008

Pakistan's new government is close to signing a peace accord with pro-Taliban militants as part of a softer counterterrorism policy from Islamabad that deemphasizes military strikes and calls for U.S. forces to show more restraint in the area.

Britain has expressed reservations about the strategy, and Washington has said it wants Pakistani forces to continue fighting insurgents in the tribal regions near the border with Afghanistan.

Reports from Pakistan said a top leader of pro-Taliban militants has directed his fighters to "immediately cease their activities" in connection with the deal.

The reports come as the new Pakistani government of Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani moves toward signing the peace accord, with militants in the volatile tribal regions near the Afghan border where some believe that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is hiding.

Under the proposed deal, pro-Taliban militants would order their fighters to stop using violence and stop sheltering or giving support to foreign Al-Qaeda fighters. In return, Pakistani government troops would be gradually withdrawn from the region.

The orders to the militants were reportedly issued in pamphlets on April 23 by Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the country's umbrella militant group Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The pamphlets say militants who violate Mehsud's directives "will be publicly punished."

"If [Mehsud] has said it, we welcome it," Rehman Malik, a senior Pakistani Interior Ministry official, said of Mehsud's reported call for a cease-fire. "We should welcome any good step."

The new government in Islamabad, which came to power as a result of elections in February, has drafted a six-point peace plan that is expected to be signed soon with the pro-Taliban militants in the restive tribal region of South Waziristan.

In Good Faith?

Mehsud -- who has been linked to Al-Qaeda and is accused of organizing the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December -- is entrenched in South Waziristan near the border with Afghanistan along with thousands of his loyal fighters.

Malik said the peace deal would not bring an end to an investigation into allegations that Mehsud was involved in Bhutto's assassination.

"According to the newspaper reports I have seen, [Mehsud] has categorically denied it. But an investigation will take its own course," Malik said. "I assure the nation that whoever has [killed Bhutto] is not going to escape the clutches of the law."

In what was seen by security analysts as a good-faith gesture by the government, authorities in the Northwest Frontier Province on April 21 released a high-ranking pro-Taliban mullah, Sufi Mohammad.

A draft of the six-point peace agreement makes no mention of cross-border attacks into Afghanistan by militants.

But Latiff Afridi, an influential Pashtun political leader in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he is confident the militants would also stop incursions into Afghanistan under the accord.

"The group of Sufi Mohammad has gone through different experiences in recent years," Afridi said. "This group sent thousands of fighters into Afghanistan in 2002, but these circumstances have now changed fully. [Sufi Mohammad's people] have assured that those who choose ways other than peaceful ones for their movement -- those who commit violence -- will be violating Shari'a law. And this is wrong."

Western Reaction

On a trip to Pakistan this week to meet the new government, British Foreign Secretary David Milliband gave Islamabad's new policy a cautious welcome.

But Milliband suggested deals that create safe havens for terrorists -- like a failed accord made last year in Waziristan by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf -- will not work. Milliband said reconciliation deals require a "far greater degree" of precision and detail.

"We should negotiate with those who are willing to negotiate, and we should reconcile with those who are willing to reconcile," Milliband said. "Even in the Irish situation, large numbers of people did reconcile. But some refused to reconcile. And we did not negotiate with those who refused to reconcile. Those who are willing to renounce violence, I think it's important to reconcile with them."

Meanwhile, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has suggested that Islamabad is leaving the option open for military force if militants fail to comply with their obligations under the proposed deal. "The government would want to give dialogue and reconciliation its utmost full chance," Qureshi said. "But, on the other hand, if we feel that the spirit behind this initiative is not being met, well, other options are there."

In Washington, there were concerns that an accord between Islamabad and pro-Taliban or Al-Qaeda linked militants would merely allow terrorists to regroup and bolster their strength.

Officials at the Pentagon said there is a growing threat of attacks against the United States and Western Europe from Al-Qaeda militants who are thought to be sheltering in Pakistan's tribal regions -- a threat so serious that it requires the use of military force.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Washington was encouraging Pakistani government forces "to continue to fight against the terrorists and to not disrupt any security or military operations" aimed at denying militants a safe haven in the tribal regions.

But Rahul Bedi, a New Delhi-based correspondent for "Jane's Defence Weekly," tells RFE/RL that U.S. military activity in the tribal regions has become more politically complicated in recent months because Washington's key ally in Pakistan -- President Musharraf -- has been politically sidelined.

Bedi said continued military operations in the tribal regions that "divide Pakistan and Afghanistan" -- especially those involving support from U.S. forces -- could undermine the new government in Islamabad.

"The writ of the Pakistan government doesn't run there. And a lot of the militants have bases in these tribal areas -- particularly in places like South Waziristan and North Waziristan. That is what is causing the problems for the NATO forces as well as the American forces in Afghanistan, because the militants retreat to these bases in this no-man's land, regroup, and rearm themselves, and come in [to Afghanistan again]," Bedi says.

"This technically is Pakistani territory; with the American forces reportedly planning cross-border attacks with unmanned [aircraft] or artillery or even special forces, infringements into this area are going to cause a lot of problems -- not only for the Pakistani government but also for the tribals," he adds. "The tribals are very opposed to the Americans and any form of incursion is going to be met with a lot of resistance."

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

Afghanistan: Warlordism 'Is Winning' Versus Democracy

A former government minister accused by some of war crimes, Abdul Rashid Dostum remains a leading power broker

Ordinary Afghans are becoming increasingly concerned about their future as the power of warlords appears to be growing in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan broadcaster Jan Alekozai spent the past month in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan, where he was often approached by students, local officials, and Afghan tribesmen who expressed their concerns about corruption, security, and distrust in the government. He spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz about those concerns.

RFE/RL: During the past month when you were in Afghanistan, outside of your own efforts to speak with people from different segments of Afghan society, how were ordinary Afghans able to approach you and what were some of their concerns?

Jan Alekozai: I participated, for example, in a meeting [in Jalalabad]. It was the celebration of orange blossoms -- a huge traditional gathering with 10,000 to 12,000 people. Someone announced my name -- Jan Alekozai from Radio Free Afghanistan. When the meeting was over, hundreds of people approached me -- students from high schools and from universities. They were asking, "Do the Westerners and the Americans know our problems -- that aid money is coming from the Westerners but it goes into the pockets of [corrupt] people in the government offices."

That was their concern when they talked to me because they know I am running a call-in program on the airwaves of Radio Free Afghanistan. There were lots of concerns. They were desperately approaching me and asking those things -- if we could bring their concerns to government officials. And they were expressing their concerns about their future and their lives, security, and education.

RFE/RL: What did Afghans tell you bothered them most about the security situation in Afghanistan?

Alekozai: People think now that [troops from] 37 countries or more are there in Afghanistan the security should be much, much better. They should terminate the warlordism and the private militias. [Instead], those people have connections with the governmental officials and they still have protection from the government. And that brings insecurity. In Kabul, especially, but also elsewhere in other parts of the country.

People want the international community to stop the private militias -- the groups that are so powerful. That's the main concern of the people, for security. And also, they should promote democracy. Real democracy. And work for that.

People are scared. They cannot say anything because of [the warlords]. We are an international radio [station]. We do something. But our correspondents, even, cannot say something against those warlords because they are very powerful. They could be killed easily or harmed easily. That's the situation. Everybody is asking why the international community doesn't hear.

Warlord Parliament

RFE/RL: Who do Afghans think is responsible for the strengthening of warlords in Afghanistan today?

Alekozai: No. 1, the international community -- or especially the Americans. They say: "Why have the Americans brought those people into power -- the warlords? They knew they were warlords." And [Afghans] can name them for you -- from the vice president to the deputy ministers and ministers. Quite a few were brought from outside.

In parliament, well-known warlords are there. In that situation, how do you expect [the] implementation of democracy and the rule of law -- unless those people are removed from their positions and weakened, at least, and educated people are given a chance -- [those] who think positively about the betterment of their country. Not for themselves. Those [warlords] are collecting money and putting the money in their pockets. They do little or nothing for the society and for the people.

RFE/RL: How do Afghans think the warlords have been able to consolidate this power?

Alekozai: In parliament, 65 percent [of the lawmakers] are warlords. There is no question. A few of them are ordinary Afghans or politicians. But most of them are warlords. They are much stronger than they were six years ago or five years ago, because now they get more money, more security from the international community, more bodyguards. They get stronger and stronger.

RFE/RL: Are there any specific examples of complaints from people about the increased power of warlords?

Alekozai: If you started from parliament or from the high governmental officials, you can see that warlordism is stronger than in years past. Television and other media cannot operate independently, if they do something and the next day they are in trouble in the parliament or with the high governmental officials.

Foreigners Must Deal With Warlords

So if there is a conflict in Afghanistan now between warlordism versus democracy, which is winning?

Alekozai: At present, the warlordism is winning. If the international community does not pay attention -- strongly -- not by words. By action. They should eliminate the warlords. [The international community] thinks some of them are very strong. But they don't have public support.

I'm stressing this point. They are not that strong. They don't have public support because always they were thinking about themselves, their own pockets. They invest money outside of the country. People say that the Westerners, or in some ways they say the Americans, support these warlords. Otherwise they are nothing. They [say the warlords] were not powerful but [the Americans] made them powerful. And that was a main concern [of the Afghans].

It's very easy to remove them and bring in some people who have no connection with the warlords. And that would be real democracy that the people would enjoy.

Does this disdain for warlords contribute to feelings of anti-Americanism or to negative views about the international community?

Alekozai: I never heard people saying that they don't want Americans or international forces in their land. That was interesting for me. Even mullahs -- the clerics I talked with and tribesmen. There were just a few who -- like Taliban or pro-Taliban people -- who said, "Oh, they are infidels."

But the majority of people, they never talked about that issue -- why [foreign troops] are here. [Ordinary Afghans] think there is some propaganda from other neighboring countries saying, "They are occupying your country." But to be honest, I haven't heard that from [ordinary Afghans]. They say, "Those people are here to help us." The only problem is that they don't trust the [Afghan] government. They also think that money is coming [to Afghanistan] from the international community and from the Americans. But it goes into the wrong hands and into the wrong pockets.

New Schools, Old Thinking

What about the reconstruction work being done by international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or by foreign troops on the provincial reconstruction teams, the so-called PRTs?

People say their general feeling is that they think the PRTs are doing well. They trust them because they say they are foreigners and they are not corrupt -- so far. But they don't like NGOs and there is no question that they don't trust the Afghan government at all. Still, people hope the PRTs will be doing well and probably will do something about road construction, about schools and other things. People count on PRTs.

RFE/RL: U.S. officials often talk about the schools that have been built by PRTs as a positive step in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Is this enough?

Alekozai: I've seen many schools that have been built and that are being built right now in different parts of eastern Afghanistan. There's no doubt about it. Nice schools. But there is no teacher. No chairs -- students are sitting on the floor. No electricity. No running water. No books. No [teaching materials]. No lab. What will be the quality of education in that situation?

RFE/RL: International media also report about greater rights and freedom for Afghan women since the collapse of the Taliban regime. How did that situation appear to you in the provincial regions as opposed to Kabul?

About the civil society or civic society, the participation of women is zero in the provinces. Girls are going to school. There is no doubt about it. But they cannot walk, for example, in a park -- or even with their families.

Still the work is not done for the promotion of democracy and freedom. I think the culture is the same, with little changes in the mentality of the society. It is very bad. And it will continue like that now six years after the Taliban. The mentality is still very strong. The Talibanization or fundamentalist ideas are still very, very strong.

Presidential Challenger

All of these insights from ordinary Afghans suggests that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's popularity has declined dramatically since he was elected in 2004. Does Karzai have a chance to win reelection in the ballot that is scheduled for 2009?

Alekozai: As a journalist, one should talk with various people or people [with different political perspectives.] I learned [from doing this that something like] 25 percent or 20 percent will vote for Karzai. And I have doubts about [whether Karzai will even win that much of the vote.] It will be very difficult for him to get 20 percent. They need an alternative or another government.

RFE/RL: Are ordinary Afghans talking about any potential candidate who they think would help reign in the power of warlords?

In the eastern part of Afghanistan -- even in Kabul -- people were talking [about this] when I was sitting with them. They said [former Interior Minister] Ali Ahmad Jalali. His name was being mentioned by people now. [They were saying] he is coming and he is a stronger man and he can do something. He can eliminate warlordism. They were talking about him, saying that if he is [a candidate] that people will vote for him and he will be the winner. That was the expectation of some when I talked to them.