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Afghan Report: February 19, 2004

19 February 2004, Volume 3, Number 7

By Ron Synovitz

It was 15 years ago on 15 February 1989 that the last Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan after nearly a decade of battling the country's mujahedin guerrillas.

Since their 1979 invasion to support Afghanistan's Marxist government, Soviet forces reportedly had killed more than 1 million Afghans and forced 5.5 million people -- about one-third of the prewar population -- to flee the country as refugees. Another 2 million Afghans became internally displaced within Afghanistan after fleeing their homes.

It was the Geneva Accords of 1988 -- signed by Pakistan and Afghanistan -- that set the timetable for a full Soviet withdrawal by 15 February 1989. The agreement called for the United States and the Soviet Union to act as guarantors. But it was not received well by the mujahedin commanders, who had been left out of the Geneva talks and were demanding the departure of Afghanistan's Soviet-backed President Najibullah.

Thus, although the departure of the last Soviet soldier raised the hopes of many Afghans that peace would return to their country, the fighting didn't stop. Afghanistan simply slipped from one war into a series of others.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is director of the Transnational Threats Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says the disengagement of the United States from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal directly contributed to what happened during the 1990s.

"The 15 February withdrawal of the last Soviet troops from Afghanistan is still having repercussions to this very day because the United States walked away from it, as the Soviets did. And what happened was that ethnic rivalries came to the fore. There was a civil war that led to the creation of the Taliban, which conquered [most of] the rest of the country. And that is a direct consequence of the way [the United States] walked away from the area," de Borchgrave said.

In 1992, after General Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Uzbek militia stopped supporting the communist government in Kabul, President Najibullah was ousted from power by several mujahedin factions -- including the Hizb-i-Islami-yi Afghanistan of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The power vacuum created by Najibullah's ouster was filled by Burhanuddin Rabbani, the political leader of a mostly ethnic Tajik faction called Jamiat-i-Islami. But without the Soviets as a common enemy, it wasn't long before the ethnic, tribal, religious, and personality differences between the mujahedin commanders surfaced. From 1992 to 1996, about 70 percent of Kabul was destroyed and some 50,000 Afghans were killed as the mujahedin factions battled each other for control of the capital.

Anatol Lieven, a senior associate in the Russian and Eurasian Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says he agrees that the United States shirked a moral responsibility to stay engaged in Afghanistan during the early 1990s, particularly considering the contributions Washington had made to mujahedin fighters in the 1980s via Pakistan.

"After the Soviets withdrew, the U.S. really walked away from Afghanistan throughout the 1990s. It took no interest in Afghanistan whatsoever until Al-Qaeda began to be a problem. Whereas if the U.S. had remained closely engaged, if it had used aid as a lever, if it had used much more intensive diplomacy and had brought much more pressure and influence to bear on Islamabad, I think it probably could have made a considerable difference to the outcome," Lieven said.

Lieven recognizes that Washington, Islamabad, and Saudi Arabia all supplied Afghan mujahedin fighters as part of a proxy war against the Soviets. But he says it is wrong for Afghans to blame all of the problems in their war-ravaged country on foreign machinations.

"The fundamental responsibility, or blame, or guilt, for the disaster in Afghanistan which happened in the 1990s [before the rise of the Taliban] is, of course, in the hands of the Afghans themselves -- and above all, the mujahedin parties and their leaderships which took power in Kabul when the communists fell. It was their complete failure to cooperate successfully, their complete failure to establish a stable and effective government, their ferocious civil fighting between each other, and also the appalling behavior of their troops, which created the Afghan disaster," Lieven said.

Lieven concludes that as Afghans look back on the anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal, they should remember the hard-learned lessons from the subsequent events of the early 1990s.

"The overwhelming lesson for the Afghans is not to hate each other so much, and not be so quick to take up weapons. To develop more a sense of being Afghans and less of a sense of being Panjshiris, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks -- or members of different religious tendencies. To develop more of a sense of nationhood. The problem is, of course, that these are tendencies with very, very deep roots in Afghan society, culture, and history," Lieven said.

De Borchgrave says the United States should apply to today's post-Taliban era what was learned from events in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal.

"We should not be repeating the mistakes of the past. We got rid of the bad guys in Afghanistan -- got rid of the Taliban -- and we can't walk away from that. We have to see it through," de Borchgrave Afghan expert Barnett Rubin, the director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, has warned that continued factional fighting in Afghanistan threatens the implementation of the new Afghan Constitution, as well as presidential elections due to take place in June.

Rubin, who helped draft the 2001 Bonn Agreement, has argued during the past year that the main priority for the international community should now be to prevent renewed conflicts between factional militia by curtailing the power of Afghan warlords -- some of whom are members of the internationally backed Transitional Authority.

Ron Synovitz is an RFE/RL correspondent.

Although Afghanistan has been the object of one of the largest international aid efforts, there is little optimism within the European Union regarding its future.

A debate in the European Parliament on 12 February identified a myriad of problems while offering few, if any, pointers as to how they might be overcome.

Opening the discussion, the EU's external affairs commissioner, Chris Patten listed a number of recent improvements. He cited the adoption of the new constitution, moves to disarm and demobilize fighters, the return of 2.5 million refugees, the expansion of health services, and greater-than-expected international aid allowing the salaries of teachers, doctors, and police officers to be paid.

However, Patten noted, Afghanistan's future "depends critically on security."

"Without better security, reconstruction will certainly stall, and we will find ourselves struggling to hold open and credible elections. So I very strongly welcome [EU] member states' engagement in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, as well as their continued support to ISAF, and I strongly hope that NATO will be able to provide more troops," Patten said.

Patten recognized that improving security, in turn, is dependent on stamping out drugs production, which feeds lawlessness in the regions. He said the trade is worth 2.5 billion euros ($3.2 billion) a year and is on the rise.

Patten did not offer any views as to how the drug problem might be resolved. Responding to Patten, many members of the European Parliament (MEPs) returned to this issue, adding to his somber statistics, but most equally at a loss when it came to remedies.

Two conservative British MEPs, Charles Tannock and Nirj Deva, stood out in this context. Both suggested the EU should simply buy the poppy crop from the Afghan farmers and warlords and burn it. Deva said this would also save EU taxpayers tens of billions of euros in law enforcement costs at home.

However, most speakers today indicated they believe that Afghanistan's problems run deeper than a lack of security. Many criticized the new constitution on account of the precedence it gives to Islamic law, and the perceived curbs it imposes on freedom of expression.

Women's rights -- or more precisely, the lack thereof -- in most of Afghanistan were taken to be particularly indicative of the new government's inability or unwillingness to establish a Western-style democracy in the country -- a prerequisite for continued large-scale EU assistance.

Emma Nicholson, a British deputy, said no advances at all have been made in this respect.

"Commissioner Patten said that Afghanistan has reached a crossroads. I believe, and so does Amnesty [International], Human Rights Watch, and the [Afghan] Revolutionary Association for Women, that the [current] government has taken a wrong turn, and that the position of women is, in fact, worse than it was before," Nicholson said.

Nicholson supported her point by quoting reports by human-rights organizations saying Taliban-style repression is rife in the countryside, that rape and sexual violence -- committed as well by members of foreign military forces in the country -- is high, and that the number of female suicides is higher than under the Taliban regime.

Like Nicholson, a number of female MEPs sharply criticized Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's record on women's education.

Ulla Margrethe Sandbaek, a Danish deputy, made a direct appeal to Patten to raise the issue on his visit to Afghanistan.

"In November 2003, Mr. Karzai's government allowed the enforcement of a 1970 law banning married women from the classroom, which led to the expulsion of possibly...2,000 to 3,000, according to the deputy education minister. Do you think you could raise the issue of this law enforcement? Also, Article 3 of the constitution states that no law in Afghanistan could be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of Islam. This language, designed to secure a relatively smooth approval of the new Afghan Constitution, may entail high costs for women in the future," Sandbaek said.

Sandbaek said there have been 16 armed attacks on girls' schools since September 2002.

Some MEPs sets their sights higher, trying to draw distinctions between differing international agendas.

Andre Brie, a German and the author of a European Parliament report on Afghanistan, argued that the future of the country will be a crucial test for the credibility of the EU and its brand of foreign policy.

"It would be irresponsible if the international commitment to Afghanistan and solidarity with its people were reduced because of the war in Iraq or the current dramatic problems there. I believe that it is precisely in view of the situation in Iraq, and the unilateralism being practiced there, that Afghanistan must be made into a success for the international community on the basis of the UN Charter, with a central role [being played by] the United Nations," Brie said.

Others suggested the EU should capitalize on its position as the largest aid donor to Afghanistan and impose what some termed "political conditionality" on its government.

Per Gahrton, a Swede and the parliament's recent rapporteur on the Southern Caucasus, sharply attacked U.S. motives in Afghanistan, saying its troops have "no plans" to defend women's rights, support democracy, or fight the drugs trade. Instead, he said, the main demand of the U.S. administration is to be able to return to the country whenever it wishes, most likely as part of the war against terrorism.

Glyn Ford is a British MEP active in issues pertaining to Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan. Ford also criticized U.S. troops for "sitting in a fixed and immobile fortress." At the same time, he said, the NATO-led ISAF forces are largely confined to Kabul, leaving regional warlords to "dispense arbitrary justice" in the provinces.

Ford's final assessment was bleak but, on the whole, representative of the debate. He noted that the spreading of ISAF forces to the provinces will remain "wishful thinking" because its mostly European backers have no wish to finance the up to 40,000 troops needed for nationwide coverage.

Meanwhile, Ford said, foreign-aid workers will remain vulnerable to attacks, reconstruction efforts will stall, and ordinary Afghans will see no improvement in their situations. Elections in the populous southern region will at best return supporters of an Islamic regime.

Consequently, he said, the international community must temper its hopes in Afghanistan.

"Human rights are important, particularly the situation of women. Formal rights may well be given, but they're unlikely to play out in the villages. The best hope for the future may be universal education, which will not change current attitudes but rather those of the next generation. The U.S. and the EU are pushing bottom lines that in practice are probably undeliverable. [As] Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative, said, 'If you're trying to institute Western-style democracy in Afghanistan, you're wasting your time,'" Ford said. (Ahto Lobjakas)

The European Union's ministerial troika of Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, his Dutch counterpart Bernard Bot, and European Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten held talks with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders on 17 February, an Afghan Foreign Ministry press release stated. Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told the EU delegation that Afghanistan "stands at a crucial crossroads," adding, "The choice is ours -- the Afghans and the international community -- to accelerate the process of stabilization and reconstruction or take a potentially dangerous course." Patten said the EU pledged more than 1 billion euros ($1.28 billion) over five years at the Tokyo Conference in 2002 but has exceeded its commitment over the past two years. (Amin Tarzi)

European Union officials are beginning to question whether Afghanistan's presidential and parliamentary elections -- tentatively scheduled for June -- should be postponed.

The EU has pointed to the continued absence of security outside the capital, Kabul. It also notes that only 600,000 Afghans have registered to vote -- a tiny fraction of the country's 10 million eligible voters.

Unless the registration process can be accelerated -- preferably under the guidance of the United Nations -- EU officials have warned that the June vote will not be a proper representation of the Afghan people.

With this in mind, a high-level EU delegation met on 17 February in Kabul with Afghan leaders for what has been called "intensive discussions" on the timing of the poll and whether the presidential and parliamentary votes should be held at the same time (see above).

The EU mission is led by Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen and the bloc's external relations commissioner, Chris Patten.

Speaking on 16 February in Brussels, the EU's security policy chief, Javier Solana, said the vote may be postponed, but should still take place as soon as possible: "After the constitution was finished, we talked about the possibility of keeping the [election time table] with President Karzai. There is the possibility of postponing part of the elections -- as you know, we will have presidential elections and parliamentary elections. We would prefer, in principle, to have both together, but it may be impossible to do it in the time that is left. Maybe it's possible to have the [presidential] elections, as President Karzai mentioned this morning. But in any case, we have to work very hard to get a climate of security that would allow -- the sooner, the better -- to have the elections."

Solana said the new Afghan Constitution does allow for a delay, specifying only that a decision on elections must be made by June.

EU officials have called for the activities of NATO-led ISAF stabilization forces and U.S.-led coalition troops to be significantly expanded in the run-up to the polls and during the elections themselves.

Speaking on 16 February in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance is looking for ways to ensure that at least the presidential vote can be held in June.

"I was with President Karzai last week, as you know," he said. "And it is, of course, clearly his ambition to have the elections -� the presidential elections, that is -� as they are scheduled. We, of course, from the NATO side, are looking to what extent ISAF can support the electoral process. Now, please do realize that when I do say that, ISAF of course is not able, because of the [limited troop] levels, to go everywhere to support the electoral process. But we'll certainly have a discussion in the NATO Council [of ambassadors] about what ISAF could do."

EU officials, however, must count costs as they consider any changes to security arrangements in Afghanistan. ISAF -- which is made up of largely European troops -- costs between 2 billion and 3 billion euros a year.

A German-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) currently being developed for work in the provinces would reportedly cost an additional 500 million euros a year (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 January 2004).

The EU has committed to spending 200 million euros a year in Afghanistan until 2007. The bloc has already overshot that margin considerably with security expenditures over the past two years.

This comes at a time when many member states are facing intensifying budget pressures at home. Finding extra troops for the 5,000-strong ISAF force has also proven difficult.

One possible solution may be expanding the role of PRTs from providing security for reconstruction work to counternarcotics and law-enforcement activities (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 February 2004).

This reflects growing EU concern about Afghanistan's booming opium trade. Ninety percent of heroin sold in Europe is believed to come from Afghan-grown poppies.

EU officials also see a reduction in poppy cultivation as the key to disarming local warlords, who use proceeds from the drug trade to fund private militias and undermine the central leadership in Kabul.

Another issue to be discussed during today's talks will be the Afghan donors conference to be held in Berlin from 31 March-1 April.

EU officials have said the bloc will make no new pledges. It remains to be seen whether any non-EU countries -- particularly the United States -- will make long-term commitments. (Ahto Lobjakas)

Abdullah Abdullah said on 17 February that security in southern regions of Afghanistan must improve if the elections slated for June are to proceed, AP reported. The comments came one day after the Afghan Transitional Administration chairman's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, declared that "elections will take place as planned in June," AP reported on 16 February. "Of course, we need to focus on improving security in some areas in southern Afghanistan more than we have done so far with the help of the international community," Abdullah said, adding that such an "effort is needed to make sure that elections are on time." Ludin also conceded that security is a "concern," but he added, "Our analysis is that it won't be a big obstacle to the elections." (Amin Tarzi)

An unidentified individual stopped a car carrying the deputy head of the Afghan National Security Department in the eastern province of Khost, Colonel Mohammad Isa, before fatally shooting Isa and wounding a bodyguard, Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. The gunman fled but subsequently detonated explosives he was carrying in an apparent attempt to avoid being captured, killing himself. (Amin Tarzi)

A statement faxed to several newspapers in Peshawar, Pakistan, and signed by Hamed Agha, who identifies himself as a spokesman for the Islamic Movement, claims responsibility for Mohammad Isa's killing, AIP reported on 11 February. The handwritten statement claims that Isa, who is identified as Mohammad Yusof, "was a major spy for the Americans" and "was causing a lot of trouble for the pious and mujahed people of Khost Province, [he] was annihilated with the help of Almighty God." Saif al-Ardil, also purporting to speak for the Taliban, claimed in a telephone conversation that Hafiz Helal, a Taliban fighter from Khost, carried out the attack, "The New York Times" reported on 12 February, citing AP. Abdul Latif Hakimi, also claiming to speak on behalf of the Taliban, said in January that his forces have "hundreds" of fighters ready to carry out suicide missions across Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 5 February 2004). The Isa killing is not the first case in which different individuals have claimed responsibility for the same attack in the name of the Taliban or the Islamic Movement. (Amin Tarzi)

The Kabul-based publication "Mosharekat-e Melli" wrote in a commentary on 10 February that insecurity is spreading in Afghanistan. The commentary claimed that while Afghanistan has been an insecure place in which to work and live for the last 25 years, last year marked the first time that international social workers were killed or attacked. "Mosharekat-e Melli" added that UN and other aid agencies have scaled back their activities in Afghanistan because of the surge in terrorist attacks. There are many domestic and foreign factors that "have increased barbarism and insecurity" in the country, the paper added. External factors include the insufficiency of financial contributions, a lack of policy coordination by Western countries, and "unsatisfactory cooperation of the neighboring countries like Pakistan in the eradication of terrorism," the paper said. The commentary listed several domestic problems, including a lack of progress in the disarmament process, the inability of the central government to extend its authority throughout the country, and unemployment. "Mosharekat-e Melli" warned that both Afghanistan and the world "will have to pay a great and heavy compensation" if extremists prevail. (Amin Tarzi)

Self-styled Islamic Movement spokesman Hamed Agha rejected a public appeal by a U.S. military spokesman for low-ranking militants to cooperate with Afghanistan's central government, the Pakistan-based "Wahdat" reported on 8 February, citing a faxed statement from Hamed Agha. "Taliban, or even a true Muslim and any upright Afghan, would never agree to holding talks with those who attacked Afghanistan," the statement reads in a presumed reference to the United States and its coalition partners. On 4 February, U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty was reported to have said that low-ranking militants who oppose the Afghan Transitional Administration should realize their mistake and begin cooperating with Kabul (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

Zayn al-Abidin was one of many young Afghans who got caught up in the Taliban movement when the militia ruled most of the country from 1996 to late 2001.

However, the 25-year-old says he has put his past firmly behind him. Zayn al-Abidin lives with his wife and child in the village of Chanjir in southern Helmand Province. He says he is satisfied with his new lifestyle and cannot dream of ever supporting the Taliban again.

"We like the current government because this government does not put pressure on anyone. Factories and facilities are functioning, and roads are being built. It means this is a good government. Once the Taliban were gone, I resumed my schooling. After school, I work in my small store selling spare car parts," Zayn al-'Abidin said.

Afghanistan's Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai has said ordinary Afghans who were forced to join the Taliban should not have to stay at home to avoid harassment. But it's not that simple. Former Taliban fighters who have decided to take up civilian life do so quietly. Fearing prosecution and harassment, most of them try to remain silent about their pasts.

While Afghan mujahedin -- factional fighters from anti-Taliban groups -- are offered retraining for civilian jobs under a special UN-sponsored program for disarmament, demilitarization, and rehabilitation, former members of the Taliban have no such support network and must fend for themselves.

Mullah Mohammad Khaksar served as deputy interior minister for the ousted Taliban regime. He says former Taliban fighters who have given up their weapons and renounced militia activities should be distinguished from those who continue to fight against the transitional government.

"No one knows what percent of Taliban fighters have returned to [civilian life]. However, according to people and my own estimates, I would say some 50 percent of the former Taliban have come back home and taken up civilian life. They are confident that no one will bother them. This optimism and their return is a result of the amnesty given by Afghanistan's transitional president," Khaksar said.

Remnants of the Taliban continue to oppose Afghanistan's transitional government and the presence of coalition forces in the country.

On 10 February, the region around the southeastern city of Khost was hit by rocket attacks. At least two Afghans were reported killed in an explosion at a government military post. The blast was blamed on Taliban operatives. Two days earlier, a suspected Taliban militant killed the region's deputy intelligence director.

Nematullah, a Kandahar resident, says people condemn the Taliban's frequent attacks.

"There was relative peace during the Taliban times, but people did not have personal freedom. People were not able to live freely. They were under strict control. But people are free now. Kandahar has relative security. There is not a major [security] problem. Some small incidents and blasts occur, but these incidents are normal when a new government comes. Well, there are still some people who oppose [the government], and they are responsible for such attacks, but people condemn these attacks," Nematullah said.

Ahmadullah, a fellow resident of Kandahar, agrees. "People do not support the Taliban because they don't have good memories from Taliban leaders or the rest of the group. If Kandahar residents find out that a group of former Taliban fighters is based somewhere, I think 98 percent of the people would help to detain the Taliban and hand them over to authorities," Ahmadullah said.

Recently, some tribes in Afghanistan's southern regions -- including the large and influential Zadran tribe -- decided that if any member of their tribe is found to be supporting the Taliban, his house will be set on fire and he will be expelled from his village. (Farangis Najibullah)

U.S. Lieutenant General David Barno, who is commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, said on 17 February that those forces have introduced "a fairly significant change" in their strategies to confront militants in Afghanistan, American Forces Press Service (AFPS) reported. Barno attributed the new tactics to changes in enemy operations. In a reference to fighting in the summer of 2003, Barno said the coalition "would encounter hundreds of Taliban in the field and other terrorists in large groups." In such encounters, he continued, the enemy was "destroyed in large numbers. So they have adapted their tactics" by targeting nongovernmental aid organizations. The new coalition plan is "a classic counterinsurgency strategy" in which small units operate continuously out of the troubled areas while maintaining and developing "relations with the tribal elders, with the mullahs, with the local government officials," and working closely with the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. (Amin Tarzi)

Barno said on 17 February that cooperation between coalition forces and Pakistan has improved, leading to improved security in Afghanistan, AFPS reported. In what Barno described as "a hammer-and-anvil approach," Pakistan hopes to drive militants and terrorists out of its territory and into Afghanistan, where coalition forces and Afghan military units can confront them. According to Barno, Pakistani forces have begun using "innovative" measures to "uncover and disrupt terrorist organizations that may be living and operating" in tribal areas along the Afghan border. "The Pakistani troops are confronting the tribal elders and [holding] them accountable for the behavior in their area. That's a traditional approach that has not been used till now in that particular part of Pakistan," the Karachi-based daily "Dawn" quoted Barno as saying on 18 February. Those tribal chiefs who do not comply could face "destruction of homes and things of that nature," Barno added. However, Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad said on 18 February that there "will be no joint operation by Pakistan and U.S. troops either in Pakistan or Afghanistan," the Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported. (Amin Tarzi)

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf acknowledged on 12 February that Al-Qaeda and neo-Taliban elements might be using Pakistani territory to launch attacks inside Afghanistan, the Karachi-based daily "Dawn" reported the next day. "On the western border [with Afghanistan], certainly everything is not happening from Pakistan, but certainly something is happening from Pakistan," Musharraf said. "Let us not bluff ourselves.... Whatever is happening from Pakistan must be stopped. That is what we are trying to do." "Dawn" called Musharraf's de facto acknowledgment that militants and terrorists have been crossing his country's border into Afghanistan "Pakistan's most explicit admission" to date in the ongoing diplomatic feud over Islamabad's efforts to help curb cross-border insurgency. Western diplomats based in Islamabad have noted that Pakistan appears more willing to rein in the neo-Taliban since the new Afghan Constitution enshrined the rights of Pashtuns, Pakistan's recent allies in Afghanistan, the Karachi daily concluded. Afghan authorities have long asked Islamabad to do more to stop cross-border activities by militants. (Amin Tarzi)

In a raid on a village near the Afghan border, Pakistani paramilitary troops arrested two suspected members of Al-Qaeda on 12 February, AP reported. The raid took place in the village of Mir Khankhel in Jamrud, 25 kilometers northwest of Peshawar, an area dominated by Afridi Pashtun tribesmen. The suspects are reportedly a Moroccan national, Abdul Rahman, and Adnan Khan Afridi, a local resident who is believed to have been sheltering Abdul Rahman, an unidentified Pakistani intelligence official was quoted as saying. The operation in Jamrud, which lies on a main road connecting Pakistan to eastern Afghanistan, is believed to be the first in the area, AP commented. (Amin Tarzi)

Visiting French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai on 12 February that Paris supported the upcoming presidential elections and would contribute 1 million euros towards the process, Afghanistan Television reported. De Villepin expressed satisfaction on the expansion of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond Kabul and said that Eurocorps will assume command of ISAF in the coming months and France will play a central role with these forces. Germany has also hinted that Eurocorps might assume command of ISAF sometime in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 January 2004). Germany and France established the Eurocorps in 1992. (Amin Tarzi)

The German Foreign Ministry announced on 11 February that the country is planning to host an international conference on Afghanistan in March-April, ddp reported. The Berlin conference is expected to include a review of the political process in Afghanistan and address financial issues involved in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Kabul is seeking $28.5 billion in aid and reconstruction funds over a seven-year period, AP reported on 11 February. Some $4.5 billion was pledged to rebuilding Afghanistan through 2004 at a donors' conference in Tokyo in January 2002. Most observers are skeptical of the planned Berlin conference's chances of raising the amount that Afghan officials are seeking. (Amin Tarzi)

Senior Tajik and Afghan officials signed an intergovernmental agreement in Dushanbe on 10 February on the construction and use of a bridge linking the two countries across the Panj River, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 11 February. Tajik Transport Minister Abdujalol Salimov signed on behalf of Tajikistan, while Afghan Ambassador to Tajikistan Muhammad Dovud Panjsheri signed for Afghanistan. The United States, which signed an agreement to that effect with Tajikistan on 31 December, is funding the $30 million-$40 million bridge project. U.S. engineers and seismologists have already selected a site for the bridge, which is intended to promote the economic integration in the region. Construction is to begin in spring. (Bess Brown)

15 February 1989 -- Last Soviet soldier leaves Afghanistan.

16 February 1993 -- Shooting in Kabul stops for the first time since 19 January.

17 February 1995 -- Kabul airport opens after being closed for more than a year.

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