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Afghan Report: January 23, 2006

23 January 2006, Volume 5, Number 2
The stalled debate in the Netherlands over the deployment of troops to south-central Afghanistan could lead to the collapse of the Dutch ruling coalition at home and jeopardizes NATO's planned expansion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

A reversal of the planned Dutch deployment to Oruzgan Province due to internal political debate in The Hague would also strengthen the position of the neo-Taliban and their allies.

NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels in December formally endorsed an expansion of NATO's peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan. The revised operational plan for the NATO-led ISAF -- known as "Stage 3 expansion" -- provides strategic guidance for increased NATO support to the Afghan government in extending and exercising its authority and influence throughout the country.

The next stage of that plan is the expansion of ISAF in 2006 to six southern and central Afghan provinces: Daikondi, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Oruzgan, and Zabul. As part of the expansion, the ISAF is expected to grow from its current strength of 9,000 soldiers from 26 NATO and 10 non-NATO countries to 16,000 troops -- with most of the reinforcements coming from Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and non-NATO-member Australia (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 20 December 2005).

Domestic Debate

The Dutch government tentatively agreed to send 1,200 troops -- along with military hardware, including attack helicopters -- to Oruzgan to assume responsibility for the provincial reconstruction team (PRT) based in the provincial capital of Tarin Kot, which is currently under U.S. command.

From the beginning, the decision by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenede to send additional Dutch troops to Afghan hotspots has elicited questions from parties within his ruling coalition. It has consequently also prompted concessions from the international community to help deflect domestic criticism, and in particular to placate the Democrat 66 (D66) party and its ministers in the cabinet. The compromises have included a pledge by Kabul to remove the provincial governor, who has been implicated in corrupt activities; an agreement by NATO to a Dutch request that prisoners of war be handed over to the Afghan government rather than to U.S.-led coalition forces, along with a guarantee that there can be no capital punishment for such prisoners; a NATO decision to provide for additional troops; and agreement by the United States not to withdraw its forces from Zabul Province, south of Oruzgan.

Mounting Pressure

The decision-making in The Hague has attracted criticism from NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a former Dutch foreign minister, and from the United Kingdom, which is awaiting news from the Netherlands in order to plan its own deployment. U.S. Undersecretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried said recently that he was "perplexed by the debate in the Netherlands."

However, the recent escalation of violence in southern Afghanistan -- and the increasing use of suicide bombing -- is not helping the Dutch prime minister make his case.

UN envoy Jean Arnault noted on 17 January, one day after a suicide attack had killed more than 20 people in Kandahar Province, that "while great gains have been made [in ensuring security in Afghanistan], the challenges are still considerable and the job is far from done," according to dpa (for more see below). Arnault noted that suicide bombings were on the rise particularly where NATO troops were moving in to replace U.S. soldiers. A suicide bomber targeting the convoy of recently deployed Canadian forces in Kandahar on 15 January killed a senior Canadian diplomat involved in peacekeeping operations along with two Afghans. Such incidents have highlighted the risks facing the populace and international forces in Oruzgan, which neighbors Kandahar.

Prime Minister Balkenede's eventual failure to win approval for the Dutch deployment would threaten the ruling coalition and put at risk the entire ISAF "Stage 3 expansion." And while NATO might be pondering a "Plan B," there do not appear to be any straightforward alternatives to fill the void if the Dutch back out.

Sending The Wrong Signals?

Those in the Dutch cabinet who oppose sending troops to Afghanistan are facing a dilemma. If they approve Balkenede's plan and a significant attack targets Dutch troops, they are certain to face domestic criticism for having gone along with a plan that they publicly criticized as dangerous for the Netherlands. On the other hand, if they block a troop deployment to Afghanistan, the neo-Taliban and their allies -- particularly Al-Qaeda -- can claim victory in having affected the internal politics of a NATO member state. If the dispute topples Prime Minister Balkenede's government, international terrorists can claim -- justifiably or not -- to have brought down another Western government in addition to that of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar in 2004, following the terrorist attacks in Madrid.

While the ISAF is not expected to conduct counterterrorism operations in southern Afghanistan, a troop reversal by the Netherlands could embolden the forces opposing Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. It might also send the message that terror and intimidation can prevent NATO from even beginning its expanded mission in Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghanistan's southern border town of Spin Boldak was in shock on 17 January after the bloodiest suicide bombing in the country�s history. The blast on 16 January killed 22 people as they left a wrestling match. It was one of three suicide bombings within 48 hours in Kandahar Province. A recent increase in suicide attacks has raised concerns about whether Taliban militants are adopting the tactics of Iraqi insurgents. But Afghan government officials and U.S. military officers say they don't think the attacker at Spin Boldak was an Afghan.

Najamudin was one of the Afghan wrestlers competing in front of a large crowd in Spin Boldak just minutes before a suicide bomb attack. Speaking from a hospital across the border in Chaman, Pakistan, Najamudin still appeared to be in shock.

"We were participating in a wrestling contest in the late afternoon," he said. "The competition had just finished and we were changing clothes. While we were dressing, all of a sudden, there was an explosion. It knocked us unconscious."

People in Spin Boldak -- on the main highway between Kandahar and Quetta, Pakistan -- were grappling with the tragedy on 17 January. Most shops and businesses were closed. Many people could be seen milling around a 20-square meter crater left by the attack. And the mangled wreckage of a motorcycle thought to have been used by the bomber still lay nearby.

Spreading Fear, And Combating It

Across the country, Afghans are wondering whether such suicide attacks will continue.

Hours before the Spin Boldak blast, another suicide bomber in Kandahar had killed three Afghan soldiers and a civilian. A day earlier, a suicide bomber also killed a Canadian diplomat and two Afghans.

An adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the aim of the attacks appears to have been to frighten NATO countries, like Canada, that are deploying troops in the volatile south -- as well as to frighten donors meeting in London at the end of January to draw up a new long-term assistance plan (see above).

Karzai said the increase in suicide attacks shows that Taliban fighters and their allies are becoming desperate as living conditions for ordinary Afghans continue to improve in the post-Taliban era.

"As much as possible, the enemies of Afghanistan are trying to stop the development of the country," Karzai said. "But they cannot do it because every day we are moving another step forward. Still, these attacks are raising concerns, killing our people and are causing a lack of security."

A purported spokesman for the Taliban has claimed responsibility for all of the recent suicide attacks in Kandahar Province. However, that claim could not be independently confirmed.

Analysts and some military officials said the rise in suicide attacks reflects an increase in the influence of Al-Qaeda since the presidential election in October 2004.

Imported Tactic?

Abdul Ahrar Romizpur, a professor of law, politics, and human rights at Kabul University, told RFE/RL that it is important to note that suicide bombings did not occur in Afghanistan in the past -- despite decades of conflict.

Romizpur concluded that the current wave of suicide bombings is the result of influence from foreign militants -- including those of Arab origin as well as those within some Pakistani madrasas that have educated young Afghan refugees.

"Most of these [suicide attacks] are, therefore, coordinated and organized from abroad in places where these fundamentalist religious circles advocate such ideas," Romizpur said. "But it can't be ruled out that Afghans are involved -- especially those in traditional fundamentalist areas."

Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khaled rejected the idea that Afghan nationals carried out any of the recent suicide attacks in his province. But Khaled told RFE/RL he agrees that suicide attacks are being coordinated abroad -- most likely, in his opinion, from within Pakistan.

"It is clear that this area has a long border with Pakistan," Khaled said. "And it is also clear that all enemies of Afghanistan live inside Pakistan. They have centers for training suicide bombers. They can easily infiltrate Kandahar [Province]. Afghans don't have the history of suicide bombing. These are all foreigners."

Crude Weaponry

The U.S.-led coalition that is hunting down the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters across the country said it does not see a trend of Iraq-style suicide attacks in Afghanistan.

Colonel Jim Yonts, a spokesman for the coalition, said the equipment used in most neo-Taliban attacks in Afghanistan is not as complex as the devices being used in Iraq. He said many improvised explosive devices encountered by U.S. troops in Afghanistan either fail to detonate or explode prematurely.

Yonts concluded that the only similarities between attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan are the fact that suicide attacks are being aimed at civilians, religious leaders, and nongovernmental organizations in an attempt to break the will of coalition forces and Afghanistan's emerging civil society.

Sign Of Discontent?

Rasul Khan, a security officer in Kabul, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 17 January that he thinks the increase in suicide attacks is a result of growing dissatisfaction with Karzai's central government.

"Enemies of the government are increasing," he said. "There are shortcomings in the three armed forces of Afghanistan. In fact, many who work for the government, whether it be civilians or military posts, are not happy with the government. They are not rewarded well and they feel disillusioned. My personal opinion -- and I may be proven wrong -- is that the current policies of the government are not to the benefit of the country and the people. Maybe [in the future] it could be positive."

But many Afghans are convinced that Afghan militants are not carrying out suicide bombings against other Afghans. Kabul resident Joma Gul is among those who see the recent wave of suicide attacks as the work of foreign terrorists.

"I think suicide bombings across Afghanistan are the work mainly of Arabs," Joma Gul said. "At times they are accompanied by Pakistanis."

Faisal, another resident of Kabul, told RFE/RL today that regardless of their nationality, suicide bombers should be condemned as cowards. In his words, if suicide bombers were "real men, they would come out and fight openly."

(Ron Synovitz -- Contributors to this report include Reshtin Qaderi in Kandahar and Safia Hasaff in Kabul from RFE/RL's Afghan Service and Farhad Milad in Kabul and Farengiz Najibullah in Prague from RFE/RL's Tajik Service.)

Once again, Osama bin Laden has issued an audiotape threatening new attacks against the United States. But this time the Al-Qaeda leader also offers a truce to allow for the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Washington, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says there are no plans to elevate the threat level, and the White House rejected a cease-fire.

Osama bin Laden dismissed repeated assertions by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush that its security policies have deterred Al-Qaeda violence in the United States since the attacks of 11 September 2001. In fact, he says, more attacks are being planned.

"The delay in similar operations happening in America has not been because of failure to break through your security measures. But the operations are happening in Baghdad and you will see them at home the minute they are through [with preparations], with God's permission," bin Laden said on the audiotape broadcast by Al-Jazeera.

There was no way to determine whether an attack was imminent. Intelligence agencies reportedly have seen no increase in communications among militants indicating that, and the DHS is keeping the threat level at "elevated" on a five-tier scale ranging from "low" to "severe."

Bin Laden accompanied his threat with an offer of a truce with the United States. "We do not mind offering you a long-term truce with fair conditions that we adhere to," the voice believed to be bin Laden said. "We are a [religious] community that God has forbidden to lie and cheat. So both sides can enjoy security and stability under this truce so we can build Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been destroyed in this war."

A cease-fire would deprive what bin Laden called the "merchants of war in America" of the profits they've made from the conflict.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected the truce offer. "We do not negotiate with terrorists, we put them out of business," he said. "The terrorists started this war, and the president made it clear that we will end it at a time and place of our choosing. We continue to pursue all those who seek to do harm to the American people, and to bring them to justice."

The tape was first broadcast on 19 January by the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera. The CIA authenticated bin Laden's voice within hours.

A question that remains is when the tape was made. Al-Jazeera said it was recorded in the Muslim month that corresponds to December. Some experts believe the message was recorded some time after late November because bin Laden referred to a British newspaper report about alleged U.S. plans to bomb the headquarters of Al-Jazeera in Qatar.

In any case, it probably was made before the 13 January U.S. attack on the Pakistani village of Damadola, near the Afghan border, which is reported to have killed 13 to 18 residents, including women and children.

The target of the raid -- carried out by a remote-controlled drone aircraft -- was Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's most trusted associate and his second in command. Al-Zawahri was evidently not present when the attack took place, but Pakistani officials say three other senior Al-Qaeda officials were killed.

They include explosives expert Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar; Abdul Rehman al-Maghribi, al-Zawahri's son-in-law who served as Al-Qaeda's publicist; and Khalid Habib, who directed Al-Qaeda's operations in Afghanistan.

The deaths of these three men have yet to be confirmed. DNA tests will be conducted to determine their identity, but even in the best circumstances, such tests can take weeks.

Their loss would be a serious blow to any plans bin Laden may have to mount new attacks on the United States or elsewhere in the West, according to retired Colonel Kenneth Allard, who served in U.S. Army intelligence in Europe during the Cold War.

Bush's critics often have dismissed his claims of success in killing or capturing senior Al-Qaeda officials. They say these men can be easily replaced from among a host of men who share bin Laden's ideology. But Allard told RFE/RL that filling these empty positions can, in fact, be very difficult.

"You realize there are two things," Allard said. "One is the technical issue: Does the guy have the skills? And number two: Can we trust him? One of the things you also look for in that whole form of warfare is: Has this guy been had? Has he sold out to the opposition? Part of the reason why the Islamic movement is as good as it is because they have got fairly high ideological standards. That helps the trust issue. But you can still get to [compromise] anybody, I don't care who they are."

Allard is equally dismissive of the tape's offer of a truce. But he said this shows not only weakness in Al-Qaeda, but also in U.S. policy. "It's a simple extortion plea more than anything else," he said. "'We'll not come after you if you guys just back off and retreat. In fact, do the same thing we've seen you do so many times before.' And that is from a man who understands our history and our weaknesses."

Since the Vietnam War, Allard said, the United States has lacked the determination to follow through on military matters, at least in part because of popular distaste for protracted warfare.

In fact, bin Laden made reference to a drop in U.S. President George W. Bush's approval rating in opinion polls last year that were linked to frustrations over the war in Iraq.

"I have been encouraged to undertake the mission of this speech by your [U.S.] president's repeated misinterpretations in commenting on public opinion polls in your country," bin Laden said. "The polls have shown that the vast majority of you support the withdrawal of your forces from Iraq. But he objected to this desire and said the withdrawal of troops would give the wrong message to the enemy."

Allard said that ever since the 11 September attacks, the Bush administration has reminded the American people that the war against Islamic militants will be long and hard.

Yet Bush followed that warning by merely urging his people not to fear air transport and to help revitalize the U.S. economy by resuming travel around the country. He also got Congress to approve generous tax cuts, also in an effort to help the economy.

Instead, Allard said, Bush should have mobilized the American people to face the Al-Qaeda threat by raising taxes to field a larger and better-trained army. By not doing so, he said, the president has lost much of the national support he needs to win this war.

(Andrew Tully -- RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon contributed to this report.)

Suicide bombers have struck more than two dozen times in Afghanistan since neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents stepped up use of such attacks following the provincial and national elections of September 2005. While sporadic until recent months, suicide bombings have killed at least 90 people in Afghanistan since late 2001 -- including the attack in the days leading up to 9/11 that left legendary Afghan mujahedin commander Ahmad Shah Mas'ud dead.

17 January 2006 -- "Hundreds of Afghan Taliban mujahedin are ready for suicide attacks," Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah tells Reuters, adding, "They only await orders from the Taliban leadership."

16 January 2006 -- Bombers kill 26 people in two separate attacks in the Kandahar Province (Spin Boldak and Kandahar) in southern Afghanistan one day after a Canadian diplomat and two civilians were killed in the same area. First, a suicide bomber hurls himself in front of an Afghan Army vehicle in the heart of the provincial capital, Kandahar, killing three Afghan soldiers and two civilians and wounding four soldiers and 10 civilians. Later the same day, at least 20 people are killed and 20 others injured when a bomb attached to a motorcycle explodes at a playground where hundreds of people were gathered for a festival in Spin Boldak, bordering Pakistan.

15 January 2006 -- A suicide car bomb strikes a Canadian military convoy in southern Afghanistan, killing two civilians and a Canadian diplomat and wounding 13 other people.

14 January 2006 -- A suicide car bombing targets a U.S.-Afghan military convoy traveling along a main road in the southern Helmand Province, wounding a U.S. soldier.

5 January 2006 -- A suicide bomber attacks a crowded market in an Afghan town just a few hundred meters from where the U.S. ambassador was meeting with local leaders. Ten Afghans were killed and 50 wounded.

2 January 2006 -- A suspected suicide bomber detonates explosives in a car near a U.S. military convoy in the southern city of Kandahar, killing himself and wounding a U.S. soldier and two passersby.


20 December 2005 -- Three International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldiers are injured in a suicide-bomb explosion in the western Herat Province.

14 December 2005 -- A suicide attack rocks the famous blue mosque of Afghanistan's northern Balkh Province but did not cause serious injuries.

11 December 2005 -- A suicide bomb attack injures three civilians in the southern Kandahar Province.

mid-November 2005 -- Suicide bombers strike three times in three days, killing a German peacekeeper and several Afghan civilians. In all three cases, vehicles carrying explosives were driven into military convoys. "Taliban [fighters] have long planned and prepared for suicide attacks, and a large number of Taliban are present in cities all over Afghanistan, including Kabul, and are only waiting for orders to attack," commander and Taliban-era Defense Minister Mullah Obaidullah is quoted by Reuters as saying.

14 November 2005 -- Twin attacks in Kabul target NATO-led peacekeepers, killing a German soldier and eight Afghans and marking the first attack in a wave of suicide bombings that will continue into 2006.

1 June 2005 -- An attacker reportedly dressed in a police uniform detonates a bomb at the entrance to a mosque at a funeral for a slain anti-Taliban cleric, killing 19 and injuring 52, including Kabul's police chief.

7 May 2005 -- A suicide bomber attacks an Internet cafe at a guesthouse in Kabul, killing a UN engineer and an Afghan national and injuring five others.


23 October 2004 -- Two weeks after a landmark presidential election that hands Hamid Karzai a majority, a bomber posing as a beggar approaches ISAF soldiers on a Kabul street that is popular with tourists before blowing himself up. The blast wounds three soldiers and kills a young Afghan girl.

30 January 2004 -- A bomber pulls a taxi laden with explosives up to an ISAF vehicle near a military base in Kabul before detonating his cargo, killing a British soldier and wounding four others.

27 January 2004 -- An attacker nears an ISAF vehicle before detonating mortar rounds strapped to his body, killing a Canadian soldier and an Afghan civilian and wounding three Canadian troops and eight civilians. A Taliban spokesman is quoted as vowing that the attack is the start of a campaign of suicide attacks that "will continue until coalition forces leave our country."


29 December 2003 -- Five Afghan security officers are killed when a man they arrest detonates explosives strapped to his body.

9 June 2003 -- A taxi cab filled with explosives slams into a bus carrying German ISAF troops, killing four soldiers and one Afghan national.

February 2003 -- A speaker, purportedly Osama bin Laden, calls in an audiotape for suicide bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan to challenge the United States.


9 September 2001 -- Commander Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, who has spent years fighting Soviet occupation and then leading the anti-Taliban United Front (aka Northern Alliance), is killed by Algerian suicide bombers disguised as a camera crew. The so-called 9/11 attacks against the United States take place days later, prompting the United States to invade to invoke NATO's Article 5 and lead an invasion to oust the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan.

Pre-2001 -- Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan recruit internationally and teach suicide bombing as part of their training.

(Sources: compiled from RFE/RL, Afghanistan Watch, Reuters, AP, Xinhua, "Miami Herald," "Montreal Gazette," and reports.)