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Afghan Report: January 15, 2004

15 January 2004, Volume 3, Number 2
By Marc Ricks

Of the U.S. officials who touted the opening of the newly refurbished road between Kabul and Kandahar (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 December 2003), Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld perhaps described it best.

"Though that is certainly less dramatic news than the capture of Saddam Hussein, it is important," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon on 16 December, as events in Iraq dominated the headlines.

"It will facilitate commerce, it will help attract foreign investment," Rumsfeld said, momentarily putting off questions about Hussein to talk about a stretch of blacktop in Afghanistan. "It should improve revenues for the central government, it should improve security for the people of the country while helping to unify the country by linking the various regions to the capital."

Rumsfeld's comments echoed for a Washington audience statements by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Andrew S. Natsios, who that same day presided over an opening ceremony for the highway in Kabul with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai.

"Today, we are celebrating completion of the first phase of the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway -- a down payment on the international community's commitment to Afghanistan's economic reconstruction," said Karzai.

Rumsfeld, Khalilzad, Natsios, and Karzai were right to savor the success of the reconstruction project, which offers a physical sign of development alongside the politically symbolic constitution adopted in Kabul on 4 January. The newly completed road stretches 389 kilometers across the barren floor of a river valley scorched by years of drought. The highway is essentially a remake of a road built with U.S. government funds in the 1960s. But like all of Afghanistan's infrastructure, the road fell into ruins in the past two decades.

"That road had been ground down to powder," said James Kunder, USAID's deputy assistant administrator for Asia and the Near East. "For large segments of the road, literally, there was nothing but sand and dirt. The entire surface and subsurface had been worn away."

The highway path was also littered with land mines and assorted unexploded ordinance. Deminers cleared 1,060 land mines and other explosive devices along the route prior to the first phase of reconstruction, which lasted 11 months and cost an estimated $190 million.

The new road cuts the driving time between Kabul and Kandahar from two days to approximately five hours, easing travel in a badly needed way. As a freelance reporter in the region, I drove the road, or what there was of it, in the early weeks of 2002 before reconstruction began. In Kabul, I had struggled to find a driver who would even take me, since the trip was certain to badly damage all but the most rugged vehicles. And once we were on the road, we were forced to move practically at the pace of a crawl. Going faster would have left us swishing and bouncing uncontrollably in the dust.

The poor road conditions posed a major development obstacle for the roughly 7 million people who live within 50 kilometers of the Kabul-Kandahar route, a population rump that accounts for some 35 percent of Afghanistan's 20.6 million people.

"This is a critical communications and transportation link that goes through the heart of the country," Kunder said, describing what he called anecdotal evidence that completion of the road was already improving conditions in the area.

"With the destruction of health facilities in Afghanistan during 23 years of conflict, you'll get an awful lot of folks isolated in the countryside who simply can't get to a health clinic or couldn't get to a health clinic or couldn't get to a hospital because the roads were so bad," Kunder said. "And with Afghanistan having had among the highest infant mortality and maternal mortality rates in the world, access to health care in the countryside is critical."

The rest of Afghanistan's so-called Ring Road, the shattered beltway that loops the interior of the country and connects all the major cities, remains unimproved. U.S. officials estimate that 13.6 million Afghans, about 66 percent of the overall population, lives along the Ring Road.

"When we looked last year at what are some of the critical foundations we needed to rebuild the economy in Afghanistan, one of the first things that hit us in the face was the need to rebuild the Ring Road," Kunder said. U.S. officials plan to spend an estimated $270 million to renew the Ring Road, with work on a 566-kilometer extension from Kandahar to Herat set to begin in the spring. Kunder said work on the Ring Road would continue despite guerrilla attacks on relief officials and workers associated with the project.

"We had Turkish engineers kidnapped; we have an Indian engineer still kidnapped; we had a Pakistani worker killed," Kunder said. "So we took some casualties along the road. But the benefit to the Afghan people is so enormous."

(Marc Ricks is a freelance journalist based in Washington who has traveled widely in Afghanistan.)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement released on 8 January that while the recently approved Afghan Constitution contains new human rights provisions and mandates better political representation for women, the domination of the approval process by warlords and factional leaders raises serious concerns about whether the country can hold free and fair elections this year. "Human rights protections were put on paper, but there were a lot of missed opportunities and complaints about threats and corruption during the convention," HRW's researcher on Afghanistan, John Sifton, said of the Constitutional Loya Jirga that concluded on 4 January. HRW said it documented numerous cases of death threats and corruption, as well as a general atmosphere of intimidation at election sites, during voting for delegates to the Constitutional Loya Jirga. UN officials have told HRW that many of the elected delegates to the convention were proxies or allies of local factional leaders, the group said. During the assembly's proceedings, HRW said, "independent delegates complained that warlords and factional leaders, and ministers of [Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman] Hamid Karzai's government, were strong-arming and even bribing delegates." (Amin Tarzi)

In its 8 January statement, HRW echoed recent unconfirmed reports in asserting that U.S. officials met with factional leaders, including General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, to negotiate support for the Karzai government's draft of the constitution. "The atmosphere of fear and corruption at the convention, and efforts by U.S. officials and the Karzai government to secure bloc votes from factional leaders, affected how robustly some provisions were debated," Sifton said, adding that "the entire process casts doubt on the elections that are to be held" in June. Sifton recommended that the "United States and its allies in Afghanistan, especially NATO, need to keep expanding international security forces outside of Kabul, and have them focus on improving security." UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that unless the security situation improves throughout Afghanistan, proper parliamentary and presidential elections cannot be held. Meanwhile, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assumed command of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Konduz on 6 January, as the pilot project for further expansion of ISAF (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 January 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

A number of delegates to the Constitutional Loya Jirga who have returned home to the Herat Province complained that cabinet ministers in Kabul pressured them during the assembly, Hindukosh news agency reported on 7 January. Mohammad Rafiq Shahir said he and his colleagues were pressed to accept the presidential system that is strongly favored by Chairman Karzai for the country rather than a parliamentary system. The delegates refused to name specific ministers who might have been applying such pressure. (Amin Tarzi)

Japan's ambassador to Afghanistan, Kinichi Komano, suggested on 7 January that a second major international donors' conference for Afghanistan might be held in March, Kyodo News Service reported. Komano added that such a meeting would call for larger pledges than the $4.5 billion made at the first donors' conference, which was held in Tokyo in January 2002. He said the ultimate goal of the international effort is to rebuild the war-ravaged country by 2015, adding that with $4.5 billion "we were unable even to lay the groundwork for reconstruction." (Amin Tarzi)

Japanese Ambassador Komano also said on 7 January that given the country's security problems, it will take time to register the Afghan electorate, Kyodo News Service reported. "It almost impossible that both [presidential and parliamentary] elections will be held by June," as envisioned in the 2001 Bonn agreement, Komano said. Komano also cited financial problems in the election process, saying available resources would cover just one-third of the required $76 million. Komano said Tokyo is ready to offer financial support for the election process and may consider sending election monitors. (Amin Tarzi)

U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Zalmay Khalilzad on 8 January rejected warnings from the United Nations questioning the June deadline for Afghan parliamentary and presidential elections in light of the current security environment in the country, AFP reported. "That's not my view," Khalilzad said of UN officials' statements suggesting that voter registration cannot take place if registration teams are denied access to broad parts of the country (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 January 2004). "We need to take a look at the situation." Khalilzad conceded that voter registration has been "slower than expected," but said he does not believe the situation should prevent elections in "June, or this summer." (Amin Tarzi)

Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali told a news conference in Kabul on 8 January that the Afghan Transitional Administration "decides about the elections, but presently there is no reason to postpone elections," Hindukosh news agency reported. "If there is any problem in future, decisions will be taken at the time," he added. (Amin Tarzi)

A PRT led by U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan was inaugurated at a ceremony in Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar Province, on 8 January, Afghanistan Television reported. The Jalalabad PRT is expected to provide humanitarian and security assistance for an estimated 1.5 million residents of the Nangarhar and neighboring Laghman provinces. There are now eight PRTs in Afghanistan, with that number expected to rise to at least 12 in the coming months. NATO, which assumed command of a PRT in Konduz on 6 January (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 January 2004), is expected to take over more PRTs in less volatile northern Afghanistan once that military alliance's members back such missions, freeing up the U.S.-led coalition's resources to work in the south and east of the country. (Amin Tarzi)

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan Defense Ministry signed a protocol on 12 January on the transfer of heavy weapons out of Kabul, the official Afghan Bakhtar Information Agency reported. Afghan Army Chief of Staff General Besmellah, who signed the protocol with ISAF's Canadian acting head Major General Andrew Leslie, said the Afghan National Army will move the weapons from Kabul to cantonments outside of the capital under ISAF supervision. General Besmellah also indicated that heavy weapons from Panjsher Valley will be delivered to the same collection centers. ISAF has repeatedly called for the demilitarization of Kabul (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 October 2003). Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim controls his own heavily armed militia in Kabul and his base in Panjsher Valley. Signatories pledged to "withdraw all military units from Kabul" under the internationally backed Bonn agreement in 2001. (Amin Tarzi)

Twelve ethnic Hazara men were tied up and executed in a remote area straddling the Helmand and Oruzgan provinces of Afghanistan on 6 January, "The New York Times" reported on 9 January. The travelers were reportedly resting at a roadside hotel when unidentified assailants took them outside and tied their hands before killing them. "The attack had all the hallmarks of Taliban militants," the daily quoted police and human rights officials as saying, without going into details. Colonel Mohammad Ayyub, a police official in Helmand Province, described it as a calculated attack apparently committed by "those people who are against national unity [in Afghanistan] and are making problems between tribes." "I am sure it is those terrorists -- Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and followers of [Hizb-e Islami leader] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar," Ayyub said despite also noting that an investigation has not been completed. Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said on 8 January that while it is likely that "terrorists" were involved, there have been many tribal disputes in the area in which the killings took place, Hindukosh news agency reported. (Amin Tarzi)

Five Afghan border guards were killed in the Shorabak District of Kandahar Province on 10 January while trying to prevent armed drug smugglers from crossing the Afghan-Pakistani border, Afghanistan Television reported the next day, citing the official Afghan Bakhtar Information Agency. Meanwhile, Abdul Latif Hakimi, purporting to speak on behalf of the Taliban, claimed the border guards were killed by the neo-Taliban, according to "The News" on 11 January. Hakimi also put the number of dead guards at six. (Amin Tarzi)

Four suspected neo-Taliban insurgents were killed in Helmand Province on 10 January, reportedly as they tried to plant a roadside land mine, the BBC reported on 11 January. Helmand Province police chief Abdul Rahman Saber said his department has the four bodies but has not determined "yet whether they are all Afghans," AFP reported on 11 January. (Amin Tarzi)

A group of suspected neo-Taliban militants attacked a checkpoint in Nimroz Province on 12 January, killing four security officers, international news agencies reported. (AP reports that the victims were police officers, while the BBC identifies them as military personnel.) Nimroz Governor Mohammad Karim Barawi said the incident occurred in the district of Khashrow, without offering more details, AP reported on 12 January. (Amin Tarzi)

Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali arrived in Kabul on 12 January for a one-day official visit to Afghanistan, Radio Pakistan reported. Jamali met with Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai. At the Kabul airport, Jamali said Pakistan will continue to assist Afghanistan's reconstruction and rebuilding process. Prior to his departure for Kabul, Jamali said he is traveling to Afghanistan with high expectations and hopes to find reciprocity from the Afghan side. The visit marks Jamali's first trip to Afghanistan as Pakistani prime minister. (Amin Tarzi)

Prime Minister Jamali said at the end of his one-day official visit to Afghanistan on 12 January that Pakistan and Afghanistan have agreed to fight terrorism "hand-in-hand," the Karachi-based daily "Dawn" reported the next day. Jamali said that "there is no looking back" in the "fight against extremism and terrorism," adding that Kabul and Islamabad must work together to "try to eradicate it." The Pakistani prime minister also said Islamabad wants to ensure "that there is no crisscross from Afghanistan into Pakistan, or from Pakistan into Afghanistan." Pakistan has already deployed some 65,000 troops at 800 posts along its border with Afghanistan, Jamali said. Upon returning to Pakistan, Jamali said he witnessed a positive change of attitude in the Afghan Transitional Administration toward Pakistan during the visit, "Dawn," reported. Throughout 2003, Kabul repeatedly accused Islamabad of not doing enough to stop cross-border infiltrations and encroachment on Afghan territory.

Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai also pledged to cooperate with Pakistan as it continues operations aimed at capturing or eliminating remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from Pakistan. "It's recognized in Pakistan and it's recognized in Afghanistan that the fight against terrorism is a joint fight," he said. "It's for the future of both countries and for the future of this region. And eventually, for the future of the international community as a whole," RFE/RL reported on 13 January.

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan deteriorated last year after gun battles were reported between military forces from both sides in the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11, 17, and 24 July 2003).

But Karzai told RFE/RL on 12 January that relations have improved dramatically since their low point last year, when an angry mob of Afghans ransacked Pakistan's embassy in Kabul in response to reports of cross-border skirmishes. "In the last few months, the situation has been getting better and I am happy about that," he said.

Still, Karzai says, Pakistan has a responsibility to prevent Islamic militants in Pakistan from crossing into Afghanistan and conducting attacks that could threaten the final stage of the internationally backed Bonn process -- presidential elections scheduled for June (see above).

"It is a reality that fundamentalism has come to Afghanistan from the other side [of the Pakistan border]. We have talked with President Pervez Musharraf about this and I will continue to talk about this matter in the future," Karzai said.

Afghanistan has complained repeatedly that remnants of the Taliban regime have taken shelter in the tribal regions of Pakistan and are using the rugged mountains there to launch attacks into southern and southeastern Afghanistan.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who also attended the meeting between Karzai and Jamali, repeated the complaint in an interview with RFE/RL on 12 January. "Afghanistan's people and government expect the government of neighboring Pakistan to try to stop the Taliban leadership -- who are sheltering in Pakistan -- from causing the security situation in Afghanistan to deteriorate," he said. (Amin Tarzi and Ron Synovitz)

Also during his 12 January visit to Kabul, Pakistani Prime Minister Jamali announced a donation of 100 buses and 200 trucks to Afghanistan, "Dawn" reported the next day. Jamali said a contract for the reconstruction of a road between Jalalabad and the Pakistani border town of Torkham has already been awarded, adding that he hopes the road will be rebuilt by mid-2005. Islamabad has also offered to build a railway linking the Pakistani border town of Chaman to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, Jamali said. The Kabul-Jalalabad-Torkham road is a vital commercial and passenger artery linking the Afghan capital to Pakistan. Afghanistan has no rail lines and is landlocked, so a link with the Pakistani rail network might allow it to use Pakistani ports more efficiently -- and in time could make the country a major link between landlocked Central Asia and the Arabian Sea. (Amin Tarzi)

An official announcement on 11 January of the Joint Economic Commission (JEC) between Afghanistan and Pakistan stated that Kabul and Islamabad have agreed to increase bilateral trade and establish new trade routes, the Islamabad-based daily "The News" reported on 12 January. Pakistani Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz, who arrived to Kabul on 11 January to meet with his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai as part of the JEC dialogue, said bilateral trade in July-December totaled $360 million. "Pakistan is [a] natural trading partner of Afghanistan," Ahmadzai said. Pakistan indicated that it will open a third customs checkpoint between the two countries at Qila Ghulam Khan, which borders Khost Province in Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

Avaz Yuldashev, head of the press office of the Tajik Agency for Narcotics Control, announced on 7 January that Tajik law enforcement and Russian border guards seized 9.6 tons of illegal drugs along the Tajik-Afghan border in 2003, RIA-Novosti reported. This represented an increase of 3 tons over 2002. The total included 5.6 tons of heroin. Yuldashev said the cultivation of opium poppies and other plants providing the raw material for contraband drugs is expected to double in Afghanistan in 2004, and complained that the international antiterrorism campaign in that country has not affected drug production. (Bess Brown)

State-owned Kabul TV surprised its prime-time viewers on 12 January by showing a decades-old film clip of "Salma," an Afghan woman who was a popular singer during the 1970s and early 1980s, performing a romantic ballad. The broadcast marked the first time in more than 10 years that a woman has been seen singing on local television in the Afghan capital.

Western observers view the broadcast as a small victory for moderates like Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai. Since the collapse of the Taliban regime more than two years ago, moderates have been struggling against conservatives who oppose -- on religious grounds -- things such as broadcasting images of women singing.

The 12 January broadcast featured a five-minute film clip from the early 1980s that shows Salma singing a Pashtu-language ballad called "Pa Lawaro Ghruno," or "On The Highest Mountains." She was shown in a red-and-white blouse with a simple veil over her hair as she sang: "On the highest mountains, a storm is coming. Don't go. Stay the night. It is raining."

Later in the evening, Kabul TV also broadcast a decades-old film clip of another famous female singer named Parasto as she performed a song without a headscarf.

In a brief interview with Reuters on 13 January, Afghan Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin said Kabul TV is beginning to rebroadcast Afghan artistic works regardless of the performer's gender. His remarks indicate that authorities have essentially lifted a ban on broadcasts of women singing. That ban was imposed in 1992 by the administration of President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, they banned all television broadcasts -- as well as radio broadcasts and private performances of music -- as part of their strict interpretation of sharia law.

There are strong indications that the issue of broadcasting female singers is still a sensitive one in Kabul -- particularly among members of the fundamentalist Jamiat-e Islami faction that formed the backbone of the former Northern Alliance (United Front) that helped the U.S. military topple the Taliban in late 2001.

When asked by RFE/RL to discuss the lifting of the ban on 13 January, Rahin said that for the time being he is declining all interviews on the subject with Afghan media. The RFE/RL correspondent in Kabul reports that the Information and Culture Ministry is studying public reaction to the broadcasts as similar programs are aired in the coming days.

So far, there has been no official criticism from the most prominent religious conservatives in the Afghan Transitional Administration. But rank-and-file members of the Jamiat-e Islami faction headed by Rabbani told RFE/RL on 13 January that they think the broadcasts are un-Islamic and that the ban should be reimposed.

Many Afghans welcomed the broadcast as a sign that conditions in Kabul are continuing to return to what had been considered normal in the country before 1992.

The broadcast on 12 January may also reflect a power struggle for the airwaves in Kabul. Shortly before the start of the December-January Constitutional Loya Jirga, a religious conservative named Mohammad Ishaq was replaced as head of Kabul Radio and Television. Ishaq, a high-ranking member of the Jamiat-e Islami faction, had been criticized by moderates in the Afghan government because of his refusal to heed the standards and norms for broadcasting set forth by the Culture Ministry.

Isahaq's replacement, Ghulam Hassan Hazrati, has close ties to Rahin. Both have supported the argument that Afghan men and women should not be banned from exercising their cultural traditions and customs. (Ron Synovitz and Amin Tarzi)

12 January 1879 -- During the Second Anglo-Afghan War, British General Donald Steward occupies Kandahar.

14 January 1929 -- Reformist Afghan King Amanullah Khan abdicates the throne after a rebellion that started against his rule ostensibly because of his modernization plans for the country, some of which were reflected in the 1923 constitution.

14 January 1994 -- Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi, the leader of Harakat-e Inqelab-e Islami-ye Afghanistan (a former mujahedin party), declares a jihad against the alliance of Abdul Rashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

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