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Afghan Report: March 29, 2005

29 March 2005, Volume 4, Number 10
By Amin Tarzi

Afghanistan's much anticipated and already delayed parliamentary elections have once more been postponed to a date in September. Neither the delay nor the September date are surprises as both Afghan and international observers have been saying for some time that it would be impossible to hold the elections in the month of Saur (20 April-21 May) for technical reasons (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 February 2005).

As indicated in "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report" on 31 January, since the current Electoral Law stipulates that electoral "boundaries for election members of the Wolesi Jirga [House of the People], provincial councils, and district councils" shall be set by the president no later than 120 days prior to the elections, a date which expired on 21 January. However, with only scant information provided to the public on the procedural steps regarding the polls the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) delayed the announcement of the new date set for 18 September until 20 March. For some time after the expiry of the 21 January deadline, the JEMB and other authorities issued conflicting information, some indicating that the elections would take place before 21 May.

Even with the delay, in September Afghans will be able to vote for two out of three tiers of their representatives guaranteed them by their constitution. Voters will be able to choose candidates for the 249 seats of the Wolesi Jirga and members of the provincial councils, the number of which is still unclear pending the publication of population estimates for each of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. The elections for district councils have been postponed to an undetermined date in 2006, pending the resolution of district boundaries by the parliament -- a task originally mandated to the president.

The next six months are crucial to Afghanistan's slow and incremental march toward achieving the requirements for establishing a pluralistic governance system based on the rule of law and one that is accepted as legitimate by the majority of Afghans.

There are a few fundamental steps that need to be implemented by the JEMB not only to allow the Afghans to know what and how they are going to choose their representatives, but to make the entire election process legal based on current Afghan laws. Additional steps, also based on existing laws, if taken prior to the polls, would ensure that the Afghan parliament and provincial councils do not become the domain of warlords and drug barons.

In the absence of a scientific census, which could require several years to be completed, it is crucial that the Afghan authorities come up with the best possible population estimates for each province. According to Article 29 of the Electoral Law, the numbers of members of provincial councils are to be based on increments of 500,000 to a million in each province. For example, provinces with less that 500,000 people would be allocated nine members while a province with a population in excess of 3 million would have 29 members. These numbers are not precise and estimating them should not cause much problem. However given the sensitivity of various ethnic groups residing in Afghanistan to the number of their people and the often inflated population figures used by almost all of these groups throughout Afghan history, it is imperative that the people are made aware of the process and sources for these population estimates so as not to leave room for doubt and possible discord.

The second step, again based on the current Electoral Law, is to prevent candidates who are in violation of the spirit of the new Afghanistan from participating in the elections.

Article 20 of the Electoral Law lists among other qualifications that candidates shall not have "nonofficial military organizations," or be part of such organizations, and that they do not receive funds from foreign sources or from "internal illegal sources."

Regrettably it has become obvious that the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) process will not be fully implemented before the elections. Moreover, while the current DDR process is concentrating on the more symbolic dismantlement of military units not under the command of the Afghan Defense Ministry and in cantonment of heavy weapons, many militia units continue to exist and the most effective means of coercion in the country -- small arms -- are in the hands of these militias. A recent report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group estimated that 850 militias with more than 65,000 members remain outside of the DDR process (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 March 2005).

The JEMB, backed by the Afghan government and its international supporters, should utilize the time between now and September to identify any candidates who continue to formally or informally lead or be part of an armed group.

In regards to funding, the organizers and supporters of the partial Afghan elections ought to be vigilant that those individuals or political parties that are in any way connected with the country's booming narcotics industry are disqualified from representing their constituencies.

If either of these two areas is neglected, Afghanistan is set to have representatives who are armed and are dealing in drugs. In such is the case, either the democratic process has to be hampered or the process may yield results totally contrary to the vision of Afghanistan enshrined in the constitution.

During the processes of drafting the constitution and holding the presidential election, one major element missing was sufficient information provided to and input from the public.

Neither the JEMB nor any other party involved in the Afghan parliamentary elections ought to take the burden of vetting candidates on itself. However, the JEMB is obligated to make certain that Afghans, including the more than 70 percent of the population who are illiterate, are fully aware of the election process and of their rights and obligations as citizens, and allow the public information sources, especially the broadcast media, to scrutinize the candidates.

The incremental nature of the Afghan elections has allowed more than one chance for mistakes to be corrected. These chances are not endless.

By Ron Synovitz

Besmellah Besmel, the chairman of the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), announced on 20 March that a firm date has been set for the country's first post-Taliban legislative elections.

He said the voting will include ballots for Afghanistan's 34 provincial assemblies as well as the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of Afghanistan's bicameral parliament. "The Joint Electoral Management Body, after careful consideration, has decided that the elections for the Wolesi Jirga and provincial assemblies will be held on Sunday, 18 September 2005," Besmel said.

But Besmel said it will not be possible this year to conduct more complicated local elections for district councils within each province. "Due to some technical and logistical problems, we cannot hold the district-council elections this year," Besmel said. "It is up to the Wolesi Jirga [to resolve outstanding issues related to] the borders of the districts. And then we shall be able to finalize the dates for the district council elections."

Under the Afghan Constitution, the Afghan president appoints one-third of the members of parliament's upper house -- known as the Mushrano Jirga, or Assembly of Elders. The provincial assemblies and local district councils within each province also elect delegates from among their members.

But the lack of district councils has forced the JEMB to improvise. It says a temporary upper house will be created so the parliament can function until district elections are held.

Under that system, there will be 51 representatives in the temporary upper house. Each of the 34 provincial assemblies elected in September will send one representative. The remaining 17 seats -- one-third of the total -- will be appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Musa Marufi is a professor of political science and law at Kabul University who helped draft Afghanistan's constitution. He told RFE/RL that the system for creating a temporary upper house appears to follow the spirit of the constitution.

"The language of the constitution is very clear about this," Marufi said. "And it says that the president will elect the remaining one-third [of the upper house of parliament] from experienced and knowledgeable people. Now if that one-third comes to 17, then that is the figure. So I think the commission will be very mindful to abide by the letter and spirit of this article."

Meanwhile, UN officials working on a census project to determine the population of Afghanistan have told RFE/RL that their work could take another four to five years.

Marufi said that until the information is available, nobody knows how many district councils will be in each Afghan province. "That's one reason why this election [for district councils] has been delayed: No one knows what the population is," Marufi said. "And then, the districts are divided on the basis of the population. So unless you have reliable statistics, you don't know how many [local district] councils you are going to have, how many representatives [in the upper chamber or parliament] you are going to have, or how many representatives are going to come from a certain province."

One thing is clear, however. The most populous areas of Afghanistan will have relatively fewer representatives in the temporary assembly than the constitution envisages. For example, as the most populous province in Afghanistan, Kabul should have the greatest number of seats in the Assembly of Elders. Instead, it will have only one provincial assembly representative -- the same as less populous provinces.

Marufi suggested that such a system, if made permanent, would violate the constitution. "What is important is that each province and each [district] council is given equal opportunity to have fair elections and send as many representatives as they have a right to send," Marufi said.

Still, Marufi said, the need to get a parliamentary system working justifies the creation of a temporary upper house. "They are trying to first of all get the right statistics for those [electoral] borders, at the district level, to be certain," he said. "Otherwise, they're going to make a big problem. It can make a crisis. And we're talking about ethnic boundaries as well. Many can complain. In order to prevent the emergence of such complaints and crises, they have to first of all make sure that they have the right [population] statistics and that the inhabitants of each district trust those figures."

More than 10.5 million people will be eligible to vote in the elections for the 249-seat lower house in September. About 50 political parties have registered.

(Ron Synovitz is an RFE/RL correspondent)

RFE/RL's Afghan Service interviewed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her official visit to Afghanistan on 17 March.

RFE/RL: What is the purpose of your visit to Afghanistan and are you going to discuss any new issues with the Afghan authorities?

Condoleezza Rice: This is my first trip to Afghanistan and I came here to demonstrate the commitment of the United States as a long-term partner and friend of the Afghan people. To congratulate the Afghan government and especially the Afghan people on the inspirational efforts that they are making to build a democracy and a better and more prosperous life. I discussed with President [Hamid] Karzai the upcoming parliamentary elections and I also had a chance to discuss that with the Independent Election Commission. That was very good. I had a chance to talk to people about the rights of women and the progress that women are making in this country and the need for further education.

RFE/RL: You are arriving at a time when the United States and the Afghan government are discussing the possibility of establishing long-term or permanent bases in Afghanistan. Is there any connection?

Rice: Well, we have not yet determined what we would do in terms of a presence here, but we are committed to a long-term relationship -- whatever that might mean -- and we understand that it was not a good thing the last time when the Soviet Union left that the United States did not stay by the Afghan people. This time around the Afghan people can be certain that they will have friends and partners for a long time to come.

RFE/RL: It is your first trip to Afghanistan, so how do you assess the general situation here, and from your point of view what kind of challenges are the Afghan people, Afghan government, and the United States facing.

Rice: I find Afghanistan incredibly energetic and vibrant. The Afghan people have obviously had tremendous challenges. After 25 years of civil war, to build a strong and stable economy will take time.... I hope that the people are responding to President Karzai's call that responsible Afghan citizens would not engage in poppy growing. I know that he has made that call. We also have challenges to complete the efforts to rid Afghanistan of terrorists on this side of the border and also with the Pakistanis. It is a wonderful story of the last three years. So much has been accomplished and, even though there is much more to achieve, we have seen a lot of progress.

Neo-Taliban insurgents said they killed five U.S. soldiers on 12 March in fighting on the outskirts of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 13 March.

"The Taliban attacked a convoy of U.S. soldiers in Shinwar District of Nangarhar yesterday evening and the clash lasted for one hour," said Qari Mohammad Esmail, who in a telephone interview with the Pakistan-based news agency said he was a spokesman for the group.

"Five U.S. soldiers were killed in the clash, and one of their jeeps was destroyed. The Taliban escaped from the area unhurt." Sixteen neo-Taliban fighters were involved in the attack, Esmail said. He also said guerillas would step up assaults on U.S. forces and their Afghan allies when warmer weather melts snowfall currently covering much of the area.

A U.S. military statement said two U.S. soldiers were wounded in a skirmish north of Jalalabad but reported no deaths. The Taliban spokesman said the fighting that left the five U.S. troops dead was south of Jalalabad.

A day later on 13 March, neo-Taliban insurgents said they destroyed a truck carrying supplies for U.S. forces in a bomb attack in southeastern Afghanistan, AIP reported.

"The Taliban destroyed a lorry carrying some material to the U.S. forces in an explosion in the Ismail Khel area of Khost today," neo-Taliban spokesman Mofti Latifollah Hakimi said, though he offered no other details.

Khost security chief Mohammad Ayyub said a driver was wounded in the attack. "The enemy planted a mine under the saddle of a bicycle," Ayyub said. "It went off as the lorry was passing and wounded its driver." He added, "The lorry that had taken some material to our friends, the U.S. forces in Khost, was on its way back to Kabul when this incident took place." Local authorities have begun an investigation but so far no one has been arrested in connection with the attack, Ayyub said.

Meanwhile Hakimi said the militia will continue its insurgency despite a slowdown in violence in recent months, Russia's RIA-Novosti reported on 14 March. "As soon as the weather changes, the snow melts, and the cold season is over, our attacks will be intensified," Hakimi said in a telephone interview with the news agency.

Hakimi also said Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar still heads the movement. "We believe that our campaign is quite a success, and intend to achieve better results. The resistance to the pro-American authorities is mounting," Hakimi said.

Hakimi said that efforts by the Afghan government and U.S. military forces to negotiate a peace with guerilla groups did not involve fighters loyal to Mullah Omar. "We did not initiate any talks with the pro-American government of Afghanistan and did not delegate anyone to negotiate on our behalf," Hakimi said. "The people who are allegedly in talks with the pro-American government in reality represent themselves only."

On the same day that Hakimi made his comments regarding the neo-Taliban's intention to escalate activity, Afghan authorities arrested three suspected militias after a gunfight in southeastern Afghanistan, AFP reported on 14 March.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi identified the three as Esmatullah, Mullah Jan Mohammad, and Mullah Abdul Karim. The three men were captured on 14 March in the Arghandab District of Zabul Province, Azimi said. "They were Taliban. When they were arrested they were armed," he added. Azimi said Afghan National Army soldiers have "cleared the area" of insurgents but offered no further details about the incident. Two civilians were reportedly wounded in the clash.

Later, neo-Taliban forces claimed responsibility for two separate attacks in eastern Afghanistan in recent days, AIP reported on 20 March.

"The Taliban attacked three vehicles carrying equipment for U.S. forces in Khost Province," said Hakimi, who spoke to the news agency by phone. He said the attack took place on the road linking Khost and Gardez, an area where neo-Taliban forces are thought to be active. "The Taliban fired rockets at the vehicles and detained the drivers for some time and then freed them."

Hayagol Solaymankhayl, the security chief for Gardez, denied the incident. "This is baseless," Solaymankhayl said. "Such an attack has not been carried out here. An untrustworthy source has released this report."

Qari Mohammad Esmail, who identified himself as a spokesman for neo-Taliban forces in Nangarhar Province, told the Pakistan-based news agency that insurgents killed four Afghan government soldiers in the Wazir area of Nangarhar Province on 19 March. Esmail said three other troops were wounded in that fighting, including two U.S. soldiers. The claim could not be verified. (Marc Ricks)

The Afghan Special Narcotics Force (ASNF) on 10 March began a series of raids in Achin District of Nangarhar Province, the Afghan Interior Ministry said in a statement. The operation's main objective is to disrupt illegal narcotics activities and arrest the individuals involved. In its last operation in Nangarhar, ASNF destroyed 17 tons of opium and a number of laboratories in December 2004. According to the statement, ASNF has been granted special powers through a presidential decree to hold detainees for up to 72 hours, after which time they are to be transferred to the Counternarcotics Police in Afghanistan.

In a separate operation, the Counternarcotics Police captured and destroyed 15 kilograms of heroin and more than 2 tons of opium during recent raids along the Pakistani border, AFP reported on 15 March.

The Interior Ministry said it had seized 15 kilograms of heroin, 2,200 kilograms of dry opium, 1,750 liters of liquid that contained opium, and nearly 2,000 liters of other chemicals. Targeting Nangarhar Province, U.S.-trained antidrug officers raided drug labs in the districts of Achin, Shinwar, and Dar-e Noor. "The National Interdiction Unit used helicopters to travel to a landing zone near the suspected labs," an Interior Ministry statement said. "They then hiked several kilometers to the drug labs, which were located in the village of Gul Baghak in three separate compounds." Afghan officials said at least four men were arrested in connection with the raids but no one was hurt.

Meanwhile, an antinarcotics operation in Achin led to exchange of fire between Afghan police and opium farmers, an incident that left two farmers wounded, AP reported on 17 March.

The fighting erupted as about 100 Counternarcotics Police officers combed Achin District. Farmers, apparently trying to save their opium-poppy crops from destruction, fired on police, officials said. Police returned fire, injuring two attackers, deputy police chief Amir Khan Lewal said. The condition of the injured farmers remained unclear.

The area is notorious for opium production, and authorities say Achin is a leading district for the local narcotics trade. Afghan officials claim opium cultivation is down this year, though Afghanistan's drug market remains the largest sector of the country's economy and recent reports indicate that the cultivation of opium poppies is not on the rise (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 March 2005).

In a related story, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister, Lieutenant General Mohammad Daud, has called for continued international support for his country's efforts against its flourishing drug trade, the "Financial Times" reported 22 March.

"This is not just a national problem, it is an international one," Daud said during a visit to London. "Our message is clear. We can see the poverty of our farmers and the responsibility there is to provide them with additional crops and finance." He added that Afghanistan will see a reduction of between 30 and 90 percent in the amount of land used for growing poppies in the coming months.

Mohammad Daud's boss, Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, earlier said Afghanistan will not legalize opium production for medicinal use despite proposals to do so, AFP reported on 14 March. "We cannot just legalize it," Jalali said. The Senlis Council, a drug-policy think tank, urged President Karzai in December to consider allowing opium production for use in medicines.

"Changing this and legalizing it from my view is not that easy and is not possible," Jalali told reporters in Kabul. He added that drug money "finances crime, terrorism, and also using this money some groups form private militia." According to UN statistics, Afghanistan produces 87 percent of the world's opium. An estimated 2.3 million Afghan farmers grow poppies, which can be worth up to 10 times more than other crops. Countries such as Australia, France, Turkey, and India produce opium legally under a UN licensing program (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 1 September, 18 November, and 3 December 2004). (Marc Ricks and Amin Tarzi)

Floods in Afghanistan have killed at least 24 people and left some 200 missing in recent days, AP reported on 20 March.

Following one of the harshest winters in recent memory, flooding rains have washed out hundreds of houses in the central province of Oruzgan. Running through southwest Afghanistan, the Helmand River overflowed in the Deh Rawud District, washing over two villages. "The villages are very close to the river and all the houses have been damaged," local police chief Rozi Khan said. He said no bodies had been found yet but added, "Some of them must surely have been killed."

On 18 March, U.S. military helicopters airlifted some 200 villagers stranded on an island in the middle of the swollen river. U.S. troops and UN officials have been distributing relief supplies, including tents, food, and blankets for the displaced. UN officials said more than 100 houses were destroyed in floods in western Farah Province as well.

Authorities expect more flooding as warmer weather and seasonal rain melts the deep snowfall that covered much of the country during the winter.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN's World Food Program have begun moving into flood-stricken areas in western Afghanistan, AFP reported 21 March. "

"We sent 25 metric tons of food to Farah from Herat last week, which should cover the needs of 5,000 people for two weeks," said Maarten Roest of the World Food Program. He said distribution will start on 22 March. The UNHCR has also been handing out plastic sheeting, sleeping mats, soap, and other supplies. U.S. military helicopters have been ferrying UN relief supplies.

Afghan officials said floods raised the death toll in Oruzgan to 115 people and added that 76 have been killed in Farah.

Afghan Interior Ministry officials said heavy snowmelt has also caused widespread damage in the provinces of Balkh, Jawzjan, Panjsher, Laghman, and Nimroz.

UN officials said on 22 March, however, that they could confirm just two deaths that had been reported as a result of flooding in Oruzgan while making no comments on the number of deaths in Farah, RFE/RL reported. (Marc Ricks)

Villagers in northern Afghanistan have called for emergency food aid, saying harsh winter weather has left thousands at risk of starvation, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 13 March from Herat.

"All roads have been closed as a result of rain and heavy snow," said Mohammad Yusof, a spokesman for the district of Parchaman. "Some 5,000 families live in this area, and they are in dire need of food and facing widespread famine. We call on the esteemed president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as well as the international community to launch emergency aid programs and help the people of this area."

Disease, food shortages, and freezing weather have reportedly killed 104 people in the area. "The people need immediate help," said Mohammad Rahim, the head of the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance health team, who visited the region. "It was extremely difficult for us to reach this area, as we had to carry some medicines as well. The residents of the district are suffering from many hardships, including famine, poverty, and hunger. If they are not helped promptly, my guess is that inevitably there will be a humane catastrophe." (Marc Ricks)

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi has denied rumors that the United States has set up additional military bases in recent months, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 15 March.

"No military base has been set up by U.S. officials in Afghanistan in the last two months," Azimi said. "The bases that were set up in the past still exist and we feel these bases are needed to fight terrorism and narcotics [trafficking] in the country." He added: "A few months ago, there were rumors that the United States is setting up a military base in Ghowrian District of Herat Province in northwestern Afghanistan. I do not deny this. However, it was only a plan. In fact, the U.S. officials pledged to construct a military base for the [Afghan] National Army troops in the mentioned area. The primary assessments have been carried out on a site but no practical step has been taken yet" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 17 December 2004).

Meanwhile, General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Kabul that the United States is considering a permanent presence in Afghanistan as part of a reconfiguration of U.S. forces in the region, AP reported on 16 March.

"We've developed good relationships and good partnerships in this part of the world, not only in Afghanistan," Myers said, pointing to new U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. "That'll all be considered as we go forward with the whole global basing construct." Major General Eric Olson, who recently left his post as second in command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the large U.S. base north of Kabul at Bagram airfield "is a place where we see a long-term presence of coalition and, frankly, U.S. capabilities" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 March 2005). (Amin Tarzi)

President Karzai reassigned Kandahar's police chief and five others in a reorganization prompted by protests in that city, which is a former Taliban stronghold, AFP reported on 16 March.

"In total, six police chiefs have been replaced," Interior Ministry spokesman Dad Mohammad Rasa said. Karzai moved Kandahar police chief General Khan Mohammad to the northern Balkh Province to serve as police chief in the area around Mazar-e Sharif.

Karzai's order followed 7 March demonstrations by hundreds of people in Kandahar over poor security. It is unclear whether Mohammad will accept the move to a different region, which would effectively leave him without a tribal following (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 March 2005). (Marc Ricks)

President Karzai arrived in Islamabad on 22 March on a two-day official visit to Pakistan, the Associated Press of Pakistan reported. Karzai will be the guest of honor at the Pakistan Day parade on 23 March.

Karzai held talks with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on 22 March, Associated Press of Pakistan reported the same day. Musharraf called the relationship between his country and Afghanistan very special and one that is based on historic and cultural links. He said Pakistan has already spent $43.3 million in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan out of a pledged $100 million. Afghanistan and Pakistan "are resolved to combat terrorism until it is completely removed. We will fight terrorism together in a coordinated manner," Musharraf said. According to the Pakistani leader, terrorism has been defeated, but "small pockets" remain.

Karzai expressed support for Musharraf's emphasis that the international community should address the problem of terrorism "through a process of socioeconomic uplift of Muslim countries."

The two leaders discussed issues related to trade relations between their countries and Central Asia. Karzai specifically mentioned the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan natural-gas pipeline as a project from which both Kabul and Islamabad would "gain tremendously" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 February 2005).

During Karzai's visit, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed five agreements on culture, media cooperation, tourism, and the initiation of bus services between the two countries. In addition, a protocol covering political consultations between the two foreign ministries was also signed, Associated Press of Pakistan reported on 23 March.

This trip was Karzai's fourth to Pakistan since assuming the presidency after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Karzai last visited Pakistan in August 2004 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 26 August 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

Afghanistan plans to open the country's first post-Taliban military academy on 23 March, dpa reported on 22 March. Sitting on the outskirts of Kabul, the academy's campus dates back to the 1920s, when Afghanistan used the site for military training during the rule of King Amanullah Khan. "From now on, all military educational institutions will operate under the supervision of this academy," said General Zaher Azemi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry.

The United States is the chief underwriter for the academy, which hopes initially to train 150 Afghan National Army officers. The United States and coalition allies in Afghanistan want to see Afghan forces eventually assume responsibility for security in the country, which remains troubled by an insurgency.

Currently, the Afghan National Army numbers about 25,000 troops, many of whom are poorly trained and illiterate. U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan hope to raise the number of troops serving in the Afghan army to 70,000 in the next two years. (Marc Ricks)

President Karzai on 21 March inaugurated the construction of the American University of Afghanistan, AP reported. The private, liberal arts university is scheduled to open in September 2006 for 1,100 undergraduate students. The language of instruction will be English. Unless Afghanistan "has its own doctors, diplomats, or engineers, it cannot develop," Karzai said.

According to an earlier press release from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the agency is funding the initial start-up and operating costs and certain construction costs for the university.

According to a recent UN report, less than 30 percent of Afghans can read and write (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 March 2005). (Amin Tarzi)

Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin urged Afghan journalists in Kabul on 22 March to raise and discuss their problems of censorship and other issues related to the media and press, Tolu television reported. Rahin and his deputy in charge of publications, Sayyed Hosayn Fazel Sangcharaki, chaired a meeting titled "Open Discussions Among Journalists," in which editors from state-run and independent publications and representatives of the broadcast media in Afghanistan participated. Rahin gave his assurances that the media will be free in Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

The Afghan government's budget for 2005 rose 15 percent to $678 million, AFP reported on 15 March. "The budget is balanced," Finance Minister Anwar al-Haq Ahadi told reporters in Kabul. Ahadi vowed to maintain "strict financial discipline." Domestic taxes are expected to bring in $333 million for the 2005 fiscal year, while international donations, chiefly from the United States and the European Union, will make up the shortfall, Ahadi said. According to the Finance Ministry, the country's gross domestic product grew 7.5 percent in 2004.

A drought last year slowed economic growth in Afghanistan, which saw peak growth of 29 percent in 2002 and then 18 percent in 2003. The government's statistics do not include figures for the massive Afghan opium trade, which remains the largest economic sector and a major force behind officially recorded growth. (Marc Ricks)

Thousands of Afghans marked the country's new year with dancing and kite flying around Kabul, AFP reported 22 March. President Karzai sounded a somber note amid the celebrations, however, saying in an address that Afghanistan still faces many problems. "It is up to us to rebuild Afghanistan with our hard work," he said.

Celebrations for the Afghan new year, or Noruz, went on throughout Kabul. Families picnicked amid loud music drumming from cars in an scene unthinkable in the city during Taliban rule. "When I see all this enthusiasm and joy, a newly elected government, and a rainy winter after years of drought, it makes me think the dark night is over and we are at the dawn of a new age," said Sayyed Rahim, an Afghan who is in the country for the first time following 10 years in exile. (Marc Ricks)

21 March 1956 -- Afghanistan formally protests SEATO decision confirming Durand Line as Afghan-Pakistani border.

14 March 1963 -- King Mohammad Zaher asks Mohammad Yusof, former minister of mines and industries, to form new government.

13 March 1973 -- Iranian Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda and Afghan Prime Minister Mohammad Musa Shafiq sign a formal settlement of the Helmand River dispute.

Sources: "Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan," Third Edition, by Ludwig W. Adamec, (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003).