13 January 2005, Volume 4, Number 2
AFGHAN MEDIA EXPANDS RAPIDLY BUT STILL FACES INTIMIDATION, VIOLENCE.By Golnaz Esfandiari
Under the hard-line Taliban regime there were only a few newspapers in Afghanistan -- and they were controlled by the state. The only radio station -- Radio Shariat -- broadcasted mostly religious programs. Television was banned.
Three years after the Taliban's fall, all that has changed.
More than 250 publications are now registered with the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture. There are also 42 radio stations and eight private television stations.
Experts applaud these developments, saying a healthy media is essential to Afghanistan's political and economic development.
Yet Afghan journalists are still not considered entirely free. They face pressures from conservatives and intimidation and violence from warlords and militias in regions still not under the full control of the central government.
Siamak Herawi is a media specialist in the communications office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"I think the media are free by all means, but sometimes there is self-censorship because of problems that arise from Afghanistan's current conditions. For example, a number of journalists fear that if they tell the truth, they will possibly be threatened. And in most of the regions, the central government doesn't have 100 percent control yet, so journalists fear that local authorities will harass them," Herawi says.
But there are also reports that suggest government pressure on journalists.
In December 2004, Abdul Hamid Mobarez, former deputy minister of information and culture, resigned in protest over what he called the ministry's "censorship of the media." Sayyed Makhdum Rahin, newly reappointed minister of information and culture, denies those accusations (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 6 January 2005).
Herawi, formerly editor in chief of the state-run "Anis" daily newspaper, also denies reports of government pressure on the media.
"There is no [state] censorship at all. The critical view you currently see in state media is unprecedented in history. I myself was the chief editor of 'Anis' until four or five months ago. I used to harshly criticize the government but there was no reaction," Herawi says.
Because of the high illiteracy rate, radio is the main source of news for most Afghans. In major cities such as Kabul, television is also finding its place in daily lives.
Still, media workers in Afghanistan face a number of problems -- from a lack of training and equipment to intimidation, threats and harassment.
And many journalists reportedly choose not to cover politics or Islamic issues simply out of fear.
Vincent Brossel covers the region for Reporters Without Borders in Paris:
"The worst enemies remain the conservatives who are either with the government or with the opposition, especially the Taliban. [The enemies are] the religious conservatives who do not tolerate the assertion of pluralistic news and information. So we've had some decisions by the Supreme Court -- which is controlled by conservatives - against cable television and against women who sang on the radio. But there is also pressure from the warlords, from former mujahedin, drug traffickers; they cannot stand the media criticizing the way they manage the country," Brossel says.
Brossel tells RFE/RL that threats and intimidation are part of the daily work of Afghan journalists -- especially in the provinces.
"In the south of the country, near Khost or Kandahar, in places where the Taliban is active, journalists are caught between two fires -- the fire from the Taliban as it is very difficult to cover the activities of the Taliban in the country. [The journalists] are also facing fire from militias, warlords who are being paid by the government and the Americans to fight the Taliban. So we had many cases of local commanders who were making threats against the journalists with their guns and kalashnikovs," Brossel says.
Yet there are also cases of progress.
Karzai's recently appointed cabinet does not include some influential warlords who were reportedly behind several cases of threats against journalists.
And the media had been under considerable pressure in the western city of Herat until Karzai sacked its governor, Mohammad Ismail Khan in September 2004 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 24 September 2004).
Adela Kabiri, a journalist in Herat, says conditions for journalists in Herat has now improved.
"Until these new developments in the country a few months ago, journalists in Herat were facing problems and had to censor their reports. Otherwise, if they commented on the realities as they are, they would face problems. But now, in my opinion, there are no limitations on journalists," Kabiri says.
Last October, Afghanistan held its first direct presidential elections. Parliamentary elections are scheduled in May. It is still not clear if Afghan journalists and other media workers will be able to freely cover the elections throughout the country.
Brossel of Reporters Without Borders says the future of the media in Afghanistan will depend on several factors.
"I think as long as the international community keeps a careful eye on developments in Afghanistan, it will go in the right direction. What is very positive is that now the media is created, managed and financed by Afghans. And also, disarmament [of militias] should be accelerated and there should be an assertion of the central government's authority all over the country so that the journalists can work freely," Brossel says.
Meanwhile, experts hope the government takes a higher profile in promoting media. The organization Human Rights Watch has urged Karzai to make a public statement in favor of the freedom of the press.
Golnaz Esfandiari is an RFE/RL correspondent.
ELECTION SPECIALVisit RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated webpage "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05" (http://www.azadiradio.org/en/specials/elections) for the latest news, analysis, and background on the country's upcoming parliamentary elections. Find profiles of emerging political parties, and view key documents in the electoral process. Plus, a host of other tools to help you follow this year's parliamentary campaigns.
CALM RETURNS TO AFGHAN-PAKISTANI BORDER FOLLOWING DEADLY EXCHANGE...The border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan has calmed since an exchange of fire between the two sides on 2-3 January, with no further incidents reported, PTV reported on 4 January. One Pakistani paramilitary soldier was killed in a gun battle with Afghan militiamen on 2 January in North Waziristan Agency along the border with Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 6 January 2005). Major General Shaukat Sultan, chief spokesman for the Pakistani Army, said Pakistani forces responded to artillery and mortar fire from the Afghan side but that "the situation remained quite normal" on 4 January.
General Sultan dismissed reports of a prevailing tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan beyond the border incident as "totally incorrect," PTV reported on 4 January. "Locally, it is possible that someone [on the Afghan side] made a mistake" by firing across the border to Pakistan, however, "fraternal relations exist between the two governments," Sultan said. In 2003, Afghanistan and Pakistan came close to large-scale conflict over claims by Kabul that Pakistani troops had entered Afghan territory. The border between the two countries, which has never been demarcated nor recognized by Afghanistan, remains a point of friction between Kabul and Islamabad (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 August 2003). (Amin Tarzi)
...AS PAKISTANI OFFICIAL SAYS FOREIGN MILITANTS REGROUPING NEAR AFGHAN BORDER.Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) Governor Iftikhar Hussein Gillani said remaining Al-Qaeda fighters in tribal regions like South Waziristan are now under tremendous pressure from Pakistan's army.
Pashtun tribesmen living in the tribal regions are thought to be sympathetic to Al-Qaeda-linked fighters like Abdullah Mehsud, a local tribesman who has emerged as a key militant in the region in recent months. The tribal region of South Waziristan has been the scene of intense battles between militants and Pakistani security forces during the past 10 months.
Gillani said Pakistan's crackdown is forcing most foreign militants to seek out new safe havens and logistical bases.
"There were concerted operations which have taken place over the last two or three months, and the months of September and October -- and especially so in the Mehsud area," Gillani said. "Most [foreign terrorist] dens, their harboring areas, and their logistic areas have been destroyed. So I think, because of that, they are under tremendous pressure. Some of them, they have gone back to Afghanistan. Some have gone [further south] to [the Pakistani province of] Baluchistan. And some are now trying to regroup and reorganize and find new bases for themselves in the same [tribal] area, South Waziristan."
Gillani said he is convinced that Mehsud will be captured or killed by Pakistani forces if he refuses to surrender before a 15 January deadline that has been set by authorities in Islamabad.
"[Abdullah Mehsud] has got a group of terrorists," Gillani said. "He's getting support from abroad. He is training people. Now where is that money coming from? So, for the operations -- the communications infrastructure which he has, the transportation system that he is operating -- he is being supported by sources from outside."
Gillani did not specify the sources of Mehsud's support. He also brushed aside accusations by some Afghan officials that militants based on Pakistan's side of the border routinely cross into Afghanistan to carry out attacks.
Gillani said Pakistani security forces are doing their best to prevent cross-border infiltrations from their side. He said the Afghan forces need to do much more on their side of the porous, 2,400-kilometer border.
Earlier, Pakistan asked the U.S. military to investigate what Islamabad has described as an "unprovoked" cross-border mortar attack on 2 January from Afghanistan's Khost Province. One Pakistani soldier was killed by that attack on the nearby tribal region of North Waziristan (see above).
Hayatollah Khan, a Pakistani journalist based in the tribal regions, said of the clashes: "The Afghan and Pakistani forces clashed [on 2 and 3 January] in the border area close to Afghanistan's Khost Province. From Pakistan's side, military scouts were involved in the clash. From the Afghan side, the Afghan forces fired mortars. This kind of incident also has happened in past, with Afghan and Pakistani forces mistakenly fighting. I went to the border area [on 4 January]. The media has been reporting that forces have been mobilized on both sides of the border. I did not see any evidence of that. The Afghan border posts are in the same positions and the Pakistani forces also remained in their previous positions."
Khost Governor Mehrajoddin Pathan told RFE/RL that the Afghan forces had fired the mortar shells after spotting Pakistani scouts who were approaching their positions.
"Pakistani forces moved near to our Moghulgi border post," Pathan said. "Our division and coalition forces prepared themselves quickly to confront their movement. But fortunately, after our preparations, they stopped their advance and withdrew."
U.S. Army Major Mark McCann, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, downplayed the cross-border clashes as a misunderstanding.
"First of all, coalition forces had no direct role in any of the incidents that occurred along the border," McCann said. "Initially, after the incidents, the government of Pakistan had expressed some concern to officials in the coalition forces. And as a response to that, we dispatched some forces to the scene. And so our role in this has been much more indirect than direct. We're working with both sides to try to help them determine what happened, to facilitate some understanding and, hopefully, to put some measures in place to ensure that misunderstandings like this don't happen again in the future."
NWFP Governor Gillani said foreign terrorists are trying to recruit unemployed, local youth in the tribal regions to replace several hundred Al-Qaeda fighters who have been killed during the past 10 months in the Pakistani army's crackdown. He said young people are being paid $250 to complete basic training.
Gillani said Pakistan is trying to confront the problem through a political dialogue with tribal leaders. He said the strategy appears to be working because tribal and religious leaders are being persuaded not to allow youngsters to be recruited.
He also said efforts are now under way to disarm resident of the tribal regions. He described the initial response as "good" but noted that most tribes obtained the weapons by buying them in neighboring Afghanistan. (Ron Synovitz -- RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report)
AFGHAN AUTHORITIES REPORTEDLY NEGOTIATE WITH NEO-TALIBAN...Afghan authorities opened peace talks with neo-Taliban forces in a reconciliation bid aimed at convincing the insurgents to participate in the country's nascent political process, the Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported 5 January. Paktiya Province Governor Asadullah Wafa said talks with neo-Taliban forces have gone forward in Paktiya and Khost provinces in step with reconciliation policy laid out by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "Our talks with the Taliban are continuing smoothly," Wafa said. "We have told them that any Taliban member is welcomed and can join the peace process, except those whose hands are stained with people's blood." Wafa added: "I believe that a large number of the Taliban will return home and adopt a civil way of life." Karzai has offered amnesty to large numbers of neo-Taliban fighters, but insurgents leaders have officially rejected the offers. Many neo-Taliban fighters remain fearful that U.S.-led coalition forces will jail them if they surrender, the news agency reported. (Marc Ricks)
...AND CLAIM TO HAVE KILLED 1,200 COALITION TROOPS IN 2004...Neo-Taliban insurgents have claimed they killed at least 1,200 U.S. and Afghan troops in 2004, Afghan Islamic Press reported 5 January. Neo-Taliban spokesperson Mufti Latifullah Hakimi said militia fighters staged up to 282 attacks on "American invaders and their puppets" last year and destroyed 243 military vehicles, including 46 tanks and armored vehicles. A "fact sheet" disseminated by the militia said the group downed 12 spy planes and struck U.S.-led coalition forces in nearly all of Afghanistan's provinces over the past year. Hakimi said 58 neo-Taliban fighters, including five top commanders, were killed in fighting in 2004. U.S. military officials offered no immediate response to the claims, which far outstrip the losses that coalition forces have acknowledged. (Marc Ricks)
...WHILE RENEWING CALL FOR ARMED RESISTANCE...Mohammad Yasir, the top neo-Taliban spokesman, has issued a public appeal calling on Afghans to fight foreign troops in the country, Al-Jazeera reported on 5 January. In comments aired by the Arabic news channel, Yasir said fighters opposed to the U.S.-led coalition in the country are waging a "battle for the liberation of Afghanistan." Yasir added: "I call it the fourth war between the Afghans and the British. We have fought three major wars against the British in our history. Therefore, I call it the fourth war against the British and the Americans. It is the war of liberation. It is a battle for liberation. We do not just accept, but rather call on all jihadist factions to raise the banner of jihad against the Americans and take their positions in this historic battle to expel the occupation and foreign soldiers from Afghanistan." Yasir aired further comments in another Al-Jazeera report, calling on Afghan President Karzai to give up U.S. military protection. "Being protected by U.S. guards, this means one of two things," Yasir said. "Either he does not depend on his people, who voted for him, or he is a captive of the Americans and has lost his freedom." (Marc Ricks)
...AND REPORTEDLY RECEIVE SUPPORT FROM PAKISTANI MILITANTS.A Pakistani militant leader has said that neo-Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan will have the continued support of jihadi outfits in Pakistan, the Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported on 6 January. Addressing followers in Pakistan, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of the Islamic Clerics Society -- Fazlur Rahman Group and chairman of the Pakistani Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), an umbrella group of Islamic opposition parties, said his organization has long provided the Taliban with political and moral support and will do so in the future. "A number of people say that MMA Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal have been supporting the Taliban, but that it is tight-lipped regarding the army operations in Wana North Waziristan, Pakistan," he said. "The answer is that we have supported the Taliban politically and morally and will continue to do so." The organization supported the Taliban during its rule of Afghanistan and strongly opposed the U.S. overthrow of the regime in 2001. Afghan authorities have long complained that Pakistan has done too little to stop Pakistanis from aiding insurgents who move back and forth across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. (Marc Ricks)
UN SAYS HALF OF AFGHAN FIGHTERS DISARMED...UN officials have said more than 50 percent of the former fighters in Afghanistan are now disarmed, with more than 32,000 of them having given up their weapons, Xinhua News Agency reported on 6 January. "To date, 32,210 former military personnel have disarmed and from this number 28,984 have begun their reintegration package," said Manoel de Almeida e Silva, a spokesperson for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). According to UN figures, between 50,000 and 60,000 former combatants loyal to different warlords and regional leaders were at arms shortly after the Taliban lost power in late 2001. The Afghan administration launched the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program in October 2003. The program calls for all irregular militias throughout the country to be disarmed before the parliamentary elections, which are set for spring. Fighters who give up their weapons are eligible to begin a reintegration process that offers a financial package ranging from $100 to roughly $650. (Marc Ricks)
...AS DEMOBILIZED COMMANDERS ARE TO RECEIVE SALARIES...The Afghan Defense Ministry announced on 4 January that 28 commanders who have joined the DDR program will receive monthly salaries based on their military ranks, Afghanistan Television reported. Lieutenant General Mohebollah, deputy defense minister in charge of policy and strategy, said on 4 January that around 96 percent of the heavy artillery in the country has been collected under the DDR program. (Amin Tarzi)
AFGHAN GOVERNMENT BEGINS FINAL PHASE OF PANJSHER PROVINCE DISARMAMENT.As part of an ongoing disarmament campaign, Afghan officials collected tanks and other heavy weapons in the former United Front (aka Northern Alliance) stronghold of Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, Xinhua News Agency reported on 10 January. Security forces loyal to the central government of President Hamid Karzai moved a column of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other heavy weapons on 9 January from Panjshir Valley to Kabul for cantonment. "This is a step towards establishing the security in the country," said Anil Nayer, managing director of heavy-weapons collection under the UN-backed program. The final push to disarm Panjshir Valley, once a bastion of Taliban resistance, comes two weeks after the replacement of former Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who joined U.S. forces in the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001 but remains a powerful warlord. The disarmament is expected to go on for 12 days in the valley, where roughly 7,800 pieces of heavy weapons have already been cantoned, according to Afghan officials. (Marc Ricks)
U.S. HELPS AFGHAN ARMY RECRUITMENT DRIVE.The U.S. military plans to help the Afghan National Army (ANA) in a recruitment drive aimed at bolstering the fledgling force, Xinhua News Agency reported on 10 January. "Eleven more recruitment centers are set to open in the next few months, bringing the total to 35, including two centers in Kabul," said Graig Weston, head of the U.S. Office of Military Cooperation in Afghanistan. Weston said the recruitment centers will be established in the southern Afghan provinces of Helmand, Nimruz, Zabul, and other regions where neo-Taliban insurgents are thought to operate. Under the Bonn agreement signed in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban, postwar Afghanistan was to have an army numbering 70,000 troops loyal to the new government. According to Weston, more than 21,000 have already been trained. "Today the Afghan National Army has more than 21,000 soldiers, about 17,800 trained soldiers, and more than 3,400 in training," Weston said. U.S. military officials say the army will be at full strength in September 2007. (Marc Ricks)
THREE DIE IN AFGHAN DRUG GUNFIGHT...A gun battle that left three dead erupted when pro-government troops came under fire on 6 January while destroying opium-poppy crops in central Afghanistan, AP reported. One government solider and two gunmen were killed in the fighting, which broke out near Deh Rawud in Oruzgan Province, according to Oruzgan Governor Jan Mohammad Khan. The gunmen struck a group of 50 pro-government militia fighters at work in the poppy fields. Khan blamed the attack on neo-Taliban supporters but offered no details, saying only that poppy eradication will continue. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pledged to crack down on Afghanistan's flourishing drug trade, which accounts for most of the opium in the world. Afghan officials have voiced concern that action against poppy production could spark retaliation by drug lords and farmers who profit from the trade. (Marc Ricks)
...WHILE AFGHAN TRIBAL LEADERS THREATEN VIGILANTE JUSTICE FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS...Tribal leaders in southeastern Afghanistan have threatened to burn the houses of farmers who grow poppies for opium, AFP reported on 9 January. Vowing vigilante justice against drug traffickers, a council of tribal elders in the area said anyone involved in drug production or trafficking would be fined in addition to seeing their house torched. The tribal council of southeastern Khost Province announced the plan in a recent radio broadcast, saying that anyone arrested for robbery, setting explosives or growing opium will have to pay a 100,000-afghani ($2,083) fine and would have their house burned. "All the tribes agreed to obey this agreement and all tribes signed it, so ordinary people in each tribe will obey and respect it," said Sultan Mohammad Babrakzai, assistant head of the Tribal Affairs Department in Khost. The pledge underscored the inability of the central government to stem the increasing drug trade in the country, which supplies most of the world's heroin. Karzai, who did not endorse the tribal pronouncement, recently vowed to wage a "jihad" against Afghanistan's drug trade, which many observers consider a major threat to the country's stability. (Marc Ricks)
...AS AFGHAN GOVERNMENT CONSIDERS AMNESTY FOR DRUG LORDS.President Karzai's government is considering offering amnesty to reformed drug traffickers, AP reported on 9 January. Karzai's office would not comment on the proposed amnesty plan, but two Afghan government officials reportedly said the plan is under discussion. Karzai is "considering the issue," said Rural Rehabilitation and Development Minister Hanif Atmar. "[Karzai] finds it extremely difficult to bring any kind of amnesty for these people. But as a very responsible leader, he is always looking at all policy options." Atmar claimed Karzai will consider the ethics of such a policy as well as the feelings of Afghanistan's Western backers and average Afghans. "Can you give amnesty to those people that have made their wealth out of the miseries of Afghans and the youth of the West?" Atmar was quoted as saying. "It's not a government policy yet. It's a debate that has been opened." Lieutenant General Mohammad Daud, deputy interior minister for counternarcotics, said an amnesty plan would get former drug lords involved in the ongoing counternarcotics campaign. "We would ask them to join the government and use their influence and capital to help eliminate poppies and to support the economy," Daud said. (Marc Ricks)
TWO CIVILIANS KILLED IN LAND-MINE EXPLOSION.Two people were killed in western Herat Province on 3 January when a land mine exploded, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 4 January. The explosion occurred near the air base in Shindand District. Lotfollah Nikzad, district police chief in Shindand, denied the reports that the land mine was freshly planted. (Amin Tarzi)
AFGHAN JUDGE ADMITS TO HARBORING BOMBING SUSPECTS.A judge arrested for helping the perpetrators of twin bombings in Kabul last year said the bombers stayed in his house, but authorities say it is unclear whether the judge was aware of their activities, AP reported on 9 January. The 29 August car bombing killed 12 people, including four Americans. About two weeks ago, authorities arrested Naqibullah, a 60-year-old preliminary court judge whom two captured suspects identified as having provided residence while they orchestrated the attack on a U.S. security company as well as a suicide strike in the city. Officials claim the ringleader of the group is a Tajik national named Mohammad Haidar who took his orders from an Iraqi Al-Qaeda member. "The judge said he gave them shelter and that he knew they were foreigners," said General Abdul Fatah, a senior Afghan prosecutor. Ten people, including three Americans, died in an attack on the offices of Dyncorp, a contractor which provides bodyguards for President Karzai and helps train Afghan police. Two months later, a suicide bomber blew himself up on a shopping street near a group of Icelandic peacekeepers in a blast that injured three soldiers and killed an American woman and an Afghan girl. (Marc Ricks)
U.S. MILITARY SAYS BIN LADEN MAY BE IN AFGHANISTAN.A top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden could be hiding inside the country, AP reported on 10 January. Colonel Gary Cheek, who leads U.S. forces in 16 Afghan provinces, also said neo-Taliban leaders seem to be less organized, despite continued insurgent activity along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. "It would appear that the Taliban in particular may be fragmenting and that its central core of leadership is unable to direct coordinated actions," Cheek said. "I would guess that there are a lot of things the Taliban and others want to do, but their ability to do those things is limited." Forces loyal to Taliban commanders such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have kept up attacks on U.S. forces near the mountainous Pakistani frontier. Cheek said that bin Laden and other terrorist leaders and insurgents may be in that area. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last month that bin Laden was "definitely" still in the region. (Marc Ricks)
AID GROUP SAYS AFGHANISTAN HAS SEVERE SHORTAGE OF FEMALE HEALTH-CARE PROVIDERS.An aid group training midwives in Afghanistan said the country needs roughly 5,000 female health-care providers over the next 10 years to curb its high infant-mortality rate, "Health & Medicine Week" reported on 10 January. According to Dr. Jeffrey Smith, a safe motherhood adviser in Afghanistan for the Johns Hopkins Program for International Education in Reproductive Health, a class of 24 midwives graduated in April. Afghanistan has one of the worst infant-mortality rates in the world. "Midwives are so few and far between, we are really looking at the birth of midwifery in Afghanistan," Smith said. "Are you able to deliver a baby successfully? That's the goal of the program. So when they get into the hospital they can make the most efficient use of that clinical environment," Smith said. (Marc Ricks)
TRANS-AFGHAN CORRIDOR COUNCIL STARTS UP IN TASHKENT.An interstate coordinating council for a planned trans-Afghan transportation corridor that will link Afghanistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan held its inaugural session in Tashkent on 5 January, UzA reported. The council will prepare recommendations on financing, mapping, and constructing the 2,400-kilometer road, IRNA reported. According to UzA, the trans-Afghan corridor will connect the Uzbek city of Termez with the Afghan cities of Mazar-e Sharif and Herat and the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. (Daniel Kimmage)
UN ENVOY SAYS AFGHANISTAN UNREADY FOR PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS...A top UN official said Afghan authorities still need to figure out how refugees and nomads will vote, along with other logistical details, before parliamentary elections slated for this spring can go forward, AP reported on 10 January. Jean Arnault, the UN's envoy to Afghanistan, told the UN Security Council that the government must determine the populations of electoral districts, saying the figures must be agreed upon 120 days before the vote. "District boundaries must therefore be finalized within the next couple of weeks at the latest," Arnault said. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in April or May. Arnault said other issues that needed to be dealt with included updating voters' lists and revisions of the electoral law. A UN-backed independent election commission is supposed to set a date for the vote within the next few weeks, he said. (Marc Ricks)
...WHILE CITING PROGRESS IN STABILIZATION EFFORTS.Jean Arnault says progress in that country's UN-led Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) campaign has played a major role in improving stability in much of the country.
Arnault told the UN Security Council on 10 January that 33,000 militiamen have now been disarmed in the country and the program of heavy weapons cantonment is nearly complete. He said the demobilization of remaining Afghan militia forces -- numbering more than 20,000 -- should be finished by next summer.
The DDR program provides space for political reforms to proceed. Arnault expressed confidence that parliamentary elections set for this spring will help strengthen the state-building process. "The repeated failures of extremists to derail the electoral process, combined with the better performance of security forces, point today to the possibility that the current improvement in the overall security situation will be sustained," Arnault said.
But Arnault said preparations for the elections require the demarcation of election-district boundaries within the next few weeks. He said President Hamid Karzai also must appoint an independent election commission in the near future which will then need to set a date for elections between 21 April and 21 May (the month of Saur 1383).
Arnault also said there must be improved efforts against the illicit narcotics industry, which is now equivalent to about 60 percent of the country's gross domestic product. "It is estimated that in 2004, 356,000 families were involved in opium poppy production, an increase of 35 percent from 2003," he said. "Poppy cultivation has also spread to 34 provinces and accounts for 56 percent of the total cultivated land."
The Afghan government last month launched a narcotics eradication program focusing on seven provinces. It will include a provision for alternative livelihoods for poppy-growing farmers, the extension of law enforcement, and the introduction of prevention and treatment for addicts.
Japan's UN ambassador, Kenzo Oshima, whose country is a key donor of aid programs in Afghanistan, told reporters it will require enormous effort and financial resources to persuade poppy growers to find alternative livelihoods. "We do not underestimate the difficulties involved but it is also very important to recognize it as critically important to bringing peace, stability and development in that country," Oshima said.
UN special representative Arnault told the council the UN mission is concerned that the targeting of international personnel in some areas could occur once winter weather recedes. But he said a recent UN review of security concluded UN personnel could continue to work at the same levels as in 2004 as long as they followed proper precautions. (Robert McMahon)
THIS WEEK IN AFGHANISTAN'S HISTORY6 January 1842 -- British retreat from Kabul commences during the First Anglo-Afghan War.
6 January 1879 -- British forces occupy Kandahar during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
6 January 1994 -- Fighting around Bala Hisar and Microrayon in Kabul; former President Sibghatullah Mujadeddi supports the alliance of General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Sources: "Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan," Third Edition, by Ludwig W. Adamec, (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003).