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Afghan Report: February 26, 2004

26 February 2004, Volume 3, Number 8
By Jeffery Donovan

For what's left of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terror network in Afghanistan, time is quickly running out.

At least, that was the message conveyed in Afghanistan on 17 February by U.S. civilian and military officials seeking to put a positive spin on six months of insurgency ahead of Afghan national elections tentatively set for June (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004 and news section below).

In separate addresses to reporters, both the top American commander in Afghanistan and a senior Pentagon official sought to portray the rump elements of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as desperate and nearly defeated.

Although some 550 people have died in attacks by insurgents over the past half year in Afghanistan, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim said in Kabul that Washington is clearly winning the battle.

"The attacks are very different now, as you well know. A year ago, the Taliban still thought it could mount attacks with numbers of people. Now it tries even more cowardly things like a kidnapping or a bicycle bomb. It's a very different kind of operation, and that is because we are beating them," Zakheim said.

Speaking at Bagram Air Base in southern Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Barno echoed that optimism. He said the hunt for bin Laden -- the alleged mastermind of the September 2001 attacks that killed 3,000 people in America -- was intensifying and bearing fruit.

"For all of the terrorist organizations, it's very clear in my mind, as I look to the future, that the sand in their hourglass is running out," Barno said.

Barno said the Pakistani military is confronting tribal leaders in the border region where bin Laden may be hiding. Their tactics appear to include the threat of violence to force tribal leaders to produce information on extremists in the area.

Barno said Pakistani soldiers and government paramilitaries have been meeting with tribal chiefs for several weeks, threatening them with "destruction of homes and things of that nature" unless they cooperate.

"We see great progress, in my judgment, since I've been here, in the early October timeframe, in what the Pakistanis are doing in the tribal areas. They never had been in those areas at all in the history of their country until this last year. We now see them operating periodically there with their regular army. We also see them taking on, I think, some pretty innovative programs over the last six weeks to get in and use the tribal leadership in the [Pakistani] North-West Provinces area, to get after foreign fighters who may be in those locales," Barno said (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004).

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been under growing pressure from Washington to step up his antiterrorism and antiproliferation efforts following the recent disclosure that the country's top nuclear scientist has sold atomic technology to several rogue states.

Pakistan's new tactics for apprehending Al-Qaeda elements is coupled with a change of approach from the U.S. side as well.

Barno said U.S. forces on the border are moving away from targeted raids on suspected militants and instead placing troops in specific regions for patrol. The desired outcome, the general said, would be "hammer and anvil" effect whereby Pakistani raids would drive the suspects across the border and into the U.S. military's arms.

Anthony Cordesman is a former senior U.S. diplomat and military official now with Washington's Institute for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman tells RFE/RL that Pakistan's tactics are welcome but are likely to come with a cost.

"There's no way to fight a low-intensity war where you don't have negative reactions to what you do. You are, after all, dealing with popular warfare with people who often oppose you politically. And when you take military action against insurgents, you can't always be certain that everyone involved is an insurgent and you can't eliminate collateral damage," Cordesman said.

Cordesman adds that the only alternative to such tactics would be to allow the Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements to operate with freedom -- an unacceptable position for Washington. As for the upbeat picture on the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan depicted by the U.S. officials yesterday, Cordesman had some qualifications.

He says it remains unclear how effective U.S. military raids on extremists have actually been, since no numbers of captured or killed insurgents have been made public.

He says it's clear that extremists continue to launch raids from Pakistan and that Afghanistan's security problems are bad enough that some officials from the United Nations and European Union suggest it may be best to delay the June elections.

"And in other aspects of the situation in Afghanistan -- particularly the economic aid and economic recovery program, and the efforts to prepare for an election -- not only are there security problems, but the programs themselves are not working as well as might be hoped for. So it just seems premature to talk about victory in Afghanistan at this point in time," Cordesman said.

Cordesman also took issue with an upbeat assessment by Pentagon official Zakheim on progress with the new Afghan Army, whose formation is going more slowly than expected.

Zakheim said that while the army is being put together, U.S. officials are focusing on setting up a national guard along the lines of the one in Iraq, which he said number some 200,000. Zakheim called the Iraq guard a successful model to be followed.

But Cordesman called much of the Iraqi guard "glorified security guards" and that the Iraqi defense forces actually only number about 2,600, including untrained recruits. "One has to be very careful about using numbers," he said.

Jeffery Donovan is an RFE/RL correspondent.

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai on 18 February signed off on the procedure for the general elections, Radio Afghanistan reported the next day. Based on the procedures, an Electoral Secretariat will soon begin its work, which the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) will monitor. The procedures also outline the responsibilities of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Afghan Transitional Administration within the JEMB. (Amin Tarzi)

In Kabul on 18 February an Afghan woman named Fereshta become the millionth voter to register for the upcoming presidential elections, Afghanistan Television reported. Ghotai Khawray, a member of the JEMB said voter registration will begin in areas outside of the capital on 30 April. General elections in Afghanistan are slated for June (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004). One million voters represents less than 10 percent of Afghanistan's estimated 10.5 million eligible voters. (Amin Tarzi)

In his first press conference since becoming the new UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan, Jean Arnault (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 February 2004) said on 18 February "it is extremely difficult to put a date" on the elections, the UN Assistance Mission (UNAMA) announced in a press release ( Arnault cited security as a major hurdle in completing voter registration on time. "It is absolutely critical that irrespective of whatever side of the Hindu Kush [mountain range that divides Afghanistan] you find yourself, you will be able to register under the same condition," Arnault said. Whether the JEMB would be able to ensure a balanced voters' registration is not certain, Arnault conceded. Another problem cited by Arnault is political freedom, which he linked to the disarming of local commanders. Afghans must feel that the elections are credible "and not just a ratification of those in power at the local level," he said. (Amin Tarzi)

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on 18 February criticized the UN for lagging in its preparations for voter registration, the "Financial Times" reported the next day. "Some people will not be registered in time for June. Registration has been slow because of the limited number of voting stations. This shows poor planning on the part of the UN," Khalilzad said. Arnault said on 18 February that the JEMB will set up 4,200 registration and polling stations throughout Afghanistan's 32 provinces from 1-25 May, UNAMA announced. If "work is done properly in the next six weeks Afghans will indeed be able to register," Arnault added. Security for the 4,200 stations remains a concern, however. Arnault said UNAMA expects that "international forces will step up to the plate." NATO has hinted at enlarging its commitment to Afghanistan in support of the election process; however, the existing NATO missions in Kabul and Konduz remain understaffed and under-equipped (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 January 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

A leading U.S. scholar on Afghanistan Barnett Rubin was quoted in "The New York Times" on 16 February as suggesting that the Bush administration's resistance to the postponement of elections in Afghanistan is inconsistent with its policies on not wanting to conduct direct elections in Iraq by mid-summer. Our correspondent began by asking him if he could elaborate on this idea.

Barnett Rubin: If you read the statement by the spokesman for [chief U.S. administrator for Iraq L. Paul] Bremer about why it is impossible to hold elections in Iraq that quickly, everything he is saying applies equally as much to Afghanistan -- about the lack of security, the lack of voter rolls, lack of a census, lack of a basic infrastructure of holding elections.

[The former UN coordinator in Afghanistan and UN envoy to Iraq] Lakhdar Brahimi has been careful in both countries to state that it is a mistake to hold elections before they are properly prepared. He is being consistent, whereas the U.S. government seems to be rather inconsistent in pushing for elections in Afghanistan and pushing against elections in Iraq.

RFE/RL: That same "New York Times" article says that only 8 percent of eligible Afghan voters has been enrolled. Among women, voter registration is only about 2 percent. The UN has said that for a successful ballot, at least 70 percent of eligible voters should be registered. At the same time, the Afghan government says registration is going well. What do you think about the registration process?

Rubin: I wouldn't call it a failure because everyone who is professionally involved with voter registration in the United Nations knew from the beginning that it would be virtually impossible to have proper voter registration in time for elections in June. In addition, the plan that they had to try to meet that goal was to bring a large number of UN volunteers into the country. And that is how they usually hold what they call a 'peacekeeping' election -- that is, a postconflict election.

But the Office of UN Volunteers -- which is located in Bonn, Germany -- stopped recruiting any internationals to come and work on the voter registration after the assassination of a French woman who was working for the [UN refugee agency] UNHCR in Ghazni. They felt it was simply too insecure to recruit international volunteers to come and deploy them all over Afghanistan."

RFE/RL: What does the absence of international workers in the voter registration process mean, in practical terms, for Afghanistan?

Rubin: It means that the whole program is now being carried out with Afghan staff in a country where there has never been a genuine free election -- not a genuine free election with voter registration. There has never been voter registration. There are no paved roads to which most of the population has access. Those people have no identity cards or anything indicating their identity. They have no addresses. They have no birth certificates. The registration is going rather well in the sense that people are coming to register. But, of course, it is taking a long time. It can't be done successfully if it is rushed for an election in June.

RFE/RL: What is the international community doing to help improve the security situation outside of Kabul during the process of voter registration?

Rubin: The current plan to bring more security to Afghanistan is to deploy these units called Provincial Reconstruction Teams to various provincial capitals -- mostly run by the [U.S.-led antiterrorism] coalition in the south and members of NATO in the north. There is no indication whatsoever that most of those teams will be ready before the elections. They are needed right now in order to carry out voter registration, and they are not ready right now. The deployment of those teams is not immediately followed by an improvement in security. They have to be in an area and work for some time.

RFE/RL: It sounds as if you are saying that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams will not be able to have the desired impact on voter registration in time for a June presidential election.

Rubin: Most observers feel that while those [Provincial Reconstruction] Teams can play a very welcome role in promoting security, they are not adequate in and of themselves. They are meant to be there to provide a supportive environment for the training of Afghan police, the deployment of Afghan security forces, the empowerment and improvement of the quality of local Afghan administration, and so on. So, it would take some time -- probably at least six months to a year -- before the deployment of those teams shows really appreciable results in the improvement of security, if they are successful. Those teams are a welcome partial step toward bringing security to Afghanistan. But they are not going to bring security in time for a national election in June.

RFE/RL: It has been reported that the new Afghan Constitution agreed upon last month requires both parliamentary and presidential elections to be conducted in June.

Rubin: There is a misunderstanding on what the constitution says. The constitution does not give any date for holding elections. The constitution states that the government must publish an electoral law providing for how and when the elections are to be carried out. [This electoral law must be published] within six months of the adoption of the constitution. It also says that the government should make every effort it can to hold the presidential and parliamentary elections concurrently. But it does not require them to do so. So the constitution leaves the date open.

RFE/RL: To what do you attribute this misunderstanding about a June 2004 deadline for Afghan elections?

Rubin: The Bonn Agreement says that the presidential election is to be held within two years after the Emergency Loya Jirga, which took place in June of 2002. But, of course, the constitution will supersede whatever it says in the Bonn Agreement.

RFE/RL: Do you think it is possible for both presidential and parliamentary elections to be conducted in Afghanistan this year?

Rubin: Everyone who looks at the issue seriously agrees that it is not just difficult -- it is completely impossible to hold a parliamentary election in Afghanistan this year. They would have to agree on an electoral law, on constituencies, on the registration of political parties, the registration of hundreds, if not thousands, of candidates. It is a much more demanding type of election for the Electoral Commission because they have to print different kinds of ballots for each constituency, in addition to which the constitution provides that there must be at least two women from each province [in the parliament], which presumably would mean reserved seats. That will mean probably two ballots in each province, and so on.

So it is just a far more difficult and demanding operation than a presidential election. And it will be completely impossible to carry it out without at least a year of preparation.

RFE/RL: What public statements are you personally aware of from members of the Bush administration that the presidential election in Afghanistan may have to be pushed back beyond June?

Rubin: William Taylor, who is the [U.S.] special coordinator for Afghanistan, said before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on, I believe, January 27 [2004] that it is possible that the [June] election date would slip because of the slowness of voter registration and the problems of security and logistics and so on.

RFE/RL: You were among the group that drafted the Bonn Agreement on Afghanistan's post-Taliban political transition. Will the failure to stick to the June deadline for the presidential election signal a failure on the final step of the Bonn process?

Rubin: Well, my personal view is that it was a mistake to have such a deadline in the Bonn Agreement in the first place. I certainly never expected -- and I did not expect at the time we were drafting the Bonn Agreement -- that it would be possible to hold elections in Afghanistan so soon. So, in my view, it just confirms what I always thought was a flaw in the Bonn Agreement.

RFE/RL: What problems could a delayed presidential election create for Transitional Administration President Hamid Karzai?

Rubin: The real problem is that President Karzai was elected at the Emergency Loya Jirga for two years. If he were simply to lengthen his term for whatever reasons he might give -- however valid they might be -- that would greatly weaken his political legitimacy both domestically and internationally. And I would be even more concerned about it domestically because there is a history of previous presidents -- particularly President [Burhanuddin] Rabbani [in the early 1990s] -- staying in office beyond the term for transitional purposes, turning their transition into a kind of presidency for life or until they are overthrown. President Karzai, quite rightly, does not want to follow in that precedent.

RFE/RL: If elections must be delayed, is there anything that can be done to preserve Karzai's legitimacy -- and to prevent the worst-case scenario of civil war between rival militia forces, like the fighting that occurred during the early 1990s?

Rubin: What members of [Karzai's] government are kind of hinting is that if it turned out to be impossible to have elections, they would at least have to reconvene the Loya Jirga in order to reaffirm the legitimacy of extending his term in order to carry out national elections. And I would also guess that if they did extend the presidential term, part of the political deal they would have to make then would be to have presidential and parliamentary elections concurrently. (Ron Synovitz)

The state-funded Kabul daily "Anis" published a commentary on 23 February saying that it "is clear that no one except [Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman] Karzai can confidently and optimistically anticipate success in the forthcoming elections." The commentary then focuses on the leaders of the former mujahedin factions, adding that they "failed to become the protectors of the people after" coming to power in 1992. "Anis" claims that Afghans "detest" these leaders and adds that if they run for president, they will certainly lose outside of their power bases. According to "Anis," the Afghan people "will certainly take their revenge by making their wishes known through the ballot boxes," and will vote for someone "who does not have a biography similar" to those of the mujahedin leaders. Karzai was also part of the mujahedin, having worked with one of the Pakistan-based factions and having served in the first mujahedin government as deputy foreign minister. "Anis," however, seems to be distinguishing former lower-ranking mujahedin members from the factional leaders whose battles for power devastated Afghanistan and led to the emergence of the Taliban. (Amin Tarzi)

The Kabul daily "Erada" in a commentary on 23 February wrote that while the Afghan Transitional Administration is emphasizing that general elections will take place as scheduled in June (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004), there might yet be problems that could delay that process. "Erada" mentioned the increase in terrorist activities in the southern and southeastern regions of Afghanistan; slow progress in the program to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate former fighters; and regional administrators or commanders who "follow the footprint of the Taliban" by imposing various restrictions on the people and rely on their militias. The commentary recalled the Constitutional Loya Jirga held in December, noting that many candidates withdrew their candidacies for fear of their lives and that "armed men made their way into the Constitutional Loya Jirga" as deputies. In conclusion, "Erada" wrote that "a truly democratic climate for future elections in the country cannot be provided until arms are collected and warlords" are rendered powerless. (Amin Tarzi)

Mawlawi Mohammad Omar, deputy governor of the southern Afghan province of Zabul, said on 18 February that forces loyal to the ousted Taliban regime have gathered in his province for a possible attack on two districts, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. Mohammad Omar estimated that around 400 militants have gathered near Mizan and Ata Ghar districts. In July, Ata Ghar was the scene of heavy fighting between neo-Taliban and pro-government troops, and Mohammad Omar claimed in November that in the Ata Ghar, Naw Bahar, Shinkay, and Shamalzai districts, "either the government does not have control...or [the provinces] are abandoned or they are controlled by people connected with the Taliban" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July and 13 November 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Leaflets distributed in eastern and southern Afghanistan in the name of the ousted Taliban regime warn residents not to participate in the ongoing voter-registration process, "The New York Times" reported on 19 February. Leaflets recently found by police in southeastern Afghanistan warn people "not to take an election registration card," adding that "if anyone does, his life will be in danger." Rahmuddin, security chief for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kandahar, said, "People want to register for elections, but they are scared." Mullah Dadullah, a senior official under the Taliban regime, has warned that the "people of Afghanistan must not participate in the election.... If they do, they [will] come under Taliban attack," the BBC reported on 18 February. (Amin Tarzi)

The renegade leader of Hizb-e Islami, former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has declared 2004 the "Year of War" and issued orders to his supporters to increase attacks against U.S.-led coalition forces, NATO forces, and pro-government Afghan militia, the Lahore-based "Daily Times" reported on 24 February. According to an unidentified source, Hekmatyar and former Afghan Mujahedin commander Jalaluddin Haqqani will direct the new "strategy," which is to be carried out by "militants recruited in the name of the 'Secret Army of Mujahedin,'" the source is reported to have said. The source cited by "Daily Times" reported that around 1,100 militants have been recruited and trained by Hizb-e Islami. During the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan, both Hekmatyar and Haqqani were celebrated Mujahedin leaders. (Amin Tarzi)

A speaker claming to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is second in command of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, threatened more attacks on forces of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and specifically criticized Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, Al-Jazeera TV reported on 24 February. Al-Zawahiri called Karzai "an agent of Washington" who is "defended by U.S. soldiers." He said that Al-Qaeda is "expanding and growing" and will attack U.S. targets, recalling the experiences of British and Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. (Amin Tarzi)

Al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden have moved from Pakistan into the Afghan mountains, ABC News reported on 24 February, citing unidentified U.S. intelligence officials. According to the officials, the two Al-Qaeda leaders moved out of Pakistan because of pressure being put on their sympathizers by Pakistani forces. On 17 February, U.S. Lieutenant General David Barno, who is commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said cooperation between coalition forces and Pakistan has improved recently. In what he 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 (see, "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

UN spokesman in Afghanistan Manoel de Almeida e Silva said on 22 February that four commanders belonging to the Jamiat-e Islami faction were killed in Sholgara District of Balkh Province in "brief fighting" on 18 February, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) announced. A joint Afghan/UNAMA security commission visiting the area confirmed the incident and identified eight commanders loyal to Junbish-e Melli party as suspects in the slayings. Arrest warrants, carrying the support of Junbish leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum, have been issued for the suspects, De Almeida e Silva said. No further violence has been reported in the area. In 2003, Sholgara was the scene of factional fighting between Jamiat and Junbish loyalists, but it has remained calm since a cease-fire was signed in August and Kabul-based police were deployed in the area (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 May, 10 July and 23 October 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

UN spokesman in Afghanistan de Almeida e Silva said on 22 February that while the disarming of fighters has been completed in Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province, they are yet to be demobilized and reintegrated, the UNAMA announced. De Almeida e Silva declined to give a date when the full disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program would be completed. He said that the main phase of DDR will be launched taking into consideration unspecified lessons learned during the pilot phase. General Dostum, the principal warlord in northern Afghanistan, has been reluctant to surrender his weapons, saying that his side will follow suit when regional leaders in other parts of Afghanistan lay down their arms (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 January 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

One person was killed and two were wounded in southern Afghanistan on 22 February when a helicopter carrying employees of the U.S.-based Louis Berger construction firm came under automatic-rifle fire, international media reported. According to a press release from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, an unidentified assailant fired on the helicopter as is was preparing to take off near Kandahar city. The pilot, an Australian national, died at the scene, and injured were a security guard and a construction supervisor inspecting one of seven health clinics the construction firm supervises in the Kandahar area. Police arrested some 30 suspected neo-Taliban members in the village of Thaloqan, where the chopper was attacked, AP reported on 23 February. Abdul Samad, claming to speak on behalf of the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack. However, his claims that eight guerrillas were involved did not correspond with eyewitness accounts. (Amin Tarzi)

Lakhdar Brahimi, former top UN envoy to Afghanistan, said more NATO forces are needed to help the Afghan government improve security and disarm local warlords ahead of upcoming elections, AP reported on 24 February. Brahimi said the warlords and Taliban-led groups threaten to undo Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's efforts to rebuild the country. NATO agreed in October to expand its 6,000-strong Stability and Assistance Force in Afghanistan beyond Kabul (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 October 2003 and 23 January 2004), but member countries have been reluctant to send more troops. Brahimi, currently the top adviser on Iraq to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said he fears the pace and scale of the expansion currently under way might "not be enough." (Amin Tarzi)

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on 18 February released its "Afghanistan Farmers' Intention Survey 2003/2004," the UN Information Service reported. The 53-page survey of 1,329 farmers and village headsmen randomly selected across regions of Afghanistan in which the opium poppy is grown ( illustrates that opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan could increase in 2004. "Two farmers out of three interviewed...stated they intended to increase significantly their opium-poppy cultivation in 2004." The survey also shows that most of the farmers surveyed own the land they cultivate, and that they themselves decide what to plant. Overall, one-fourth of Afghan farmers were engaged in opium-poppy cultivation in 2003. Opium-poppy crops accounted for 27 percent of the land the farmers cultivated, but generated more than 60 percent of their annual income. Poppy seeds are easy to obtain, either from the previous harvest or local markets. In 2003, Afghanistan produced its largest its amount of opium since 1999, estimated at 3,600 tons, representing more than three-fourths of the world's illicit opium production (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

Herat News Center on 18 February quoted an Afghan farmer in Shindand District of western Afghanistan's Herat Province as saying that while he is aware of "the consequences of poppy cultivation," he has no choice but to grow it. The unidentified farmer added that he is 30 years old and should be getting married, "but without poppy growing" he can "never make it," because marriage is an expensive endeavor. Another unidentified farmer said that "poor agricultural conditions, particularly water shortage and drought, are threatening us," and complained that farmers have yet to receive assistance from any organization. This, the second farmer said, has led farmers to cultivate poppies. "In my opinion, the policy of the government, as well as of the international community, regarding the campaign against drugs is still unclear," he said. "Once they announced they would substitute another crop. Once they said they would give us $350 for each jerib [44 square meters] where the poppy was grown. However, they have broken their promises," he said. "The yield of other crops has disappointed us, and now we have no hope or options." (Amin Tarzi)

The Afghan Labor and Social Affairs Ministry established a commission on 18 February to prevent the smuggling of children, Afghanistan Television reported. The move was prompted by an order from Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai. The commission is tasked with identifying factors in and motives behind the recent increase in child-smuggling cases. Deputy Minister Mohammad Ghaws Bashiri reported that 198 Afghan children have been repatriated since being smuggled to Saudi Arabia, adding that the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry is in the process of returning those children to their families. In October, some 40 Afghan children were returned from Saudi Arabia, and authorities in the northern Afghan province of Takhar in September rescued more than 50 boys who were abducted with the suspected intention of trafficking them to Iran or Pakistan for induction into religious schools or for sale as sex slaves (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 2 and 23 October 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

UN spokesman in Afghanistan de Almeida e Silva on 22 February said that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) received more than 300 reports of missing children in the last five months of 2003, according to a UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan press release. The AIHRC is investigating approximately 85 cases in which children were reportedly kidnapped for their body parts, de Almeida e Silva said. The AIHRC has launched a nationwide awareness campaign to prevent child kidnapping. AIHRC said it is aware that many kidnapped Afghan children are taken to Persian Gulf states, chiefly Saudi Arabia, to work as laborers. (Amin Tarzi)

The United States and Afghanistan on 19 February announced the launch of a health-focused literacy program aimed at raising literacy rates and health-care training across the country, a press release from U.S. Embassy in Kabul announced. The Afghan ministries of Women's Affairs, Health, and Education, along with the U.S. Agency for International Development, will work together to implement the "Learning for Life" program. Organizers hope to teach young adults living in 13 provinces to read and write, and instruct them in improving their family's health and hygiene. The U.S. government provided $4.9 million to support the program. Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. (Amin Tarzi)

Guy Willoughby has vivid memories of visiting Afghanistan 15 years ago at the time of the Soviet pullout. As founder of the nonprofit demining group The Halo Trust, he went to Kabul to assess how many mines would have to be removed after 10 years of Soviet occupation. He and other demining experts were well aware that until the mines were cleared, millions of Afghan refugees would be unable to return home.

Willoughby, speaking recently with RFE/RL from his group's headquarters in Thornhill, Scotland, said that in 1989, many people in Afghanistan believed there might be as many as 30 million mines scattered about the countryside.

"The rumors were that there were between 10 million and 30 million land mines left behind in Afghanistan, mainly laid by the Russians but also laid by some of the mujahedin factions. We didn't believe these rumors at all. We simply couldn't work out how that number could possibly have been laid in the previous 10 years," Willoughby said.

Willoughby said records kept at the time by the Soviet-supported government of Ahmadzai Najibullah showed instead that there were about 250,000 mines in the country.

"We worked very closely with the Afghan Ministry of Defense of the Najibullah government, who were extremely cooperative, and they had copies of the Russian minefield records. The Russian engineers handed over many of their minefield records to the Afghan government, and it was clear that the figure [when the Soviets left in 1989] was more like 260,000 or 270,000 land mines," Willoughby said.

But while that number was considerably less than what the public imagined, it still posed an enormous challenge. So, too, did the fact that the laying of land mines did not end with the Soviet pullout but continued for more than a decade afterward.

Willoughby says the Najibullah government laid new mines to protect its main supply routes and garrison towns before its collapse in 1992. Subsequently, more mines were laid by factions trying to hold Kabul and other areas against the Taliban, which captured the capital in 1996.

The demining expert says that by the time peace finally came to Afghanistan with the U.S.-backed toppling of the Taliban in 2001, the total number of land mines had increased substantially.

"Overall, Halo believes that the grand total figure for Afghanistan will be about 450,000 land mines. We will be amazed if it is more than that. So, the estimates of millions and millions of land mines were just wrong. And there has been a huge amount of clearance in Afghanistan, and all the clearance so far has given no indication that the figure will be [much] above 400,000," Willoughby said.

Willoughby says that, so far, some 200,000 land mines have been cleared in Afghanistan. Much of that work has concentrated upon the Soviets' once heavily mined supply line that extended from Kabul north to the former Soviet border. But lower priority areas, particularly heavily mined hilltops around former garrisons, are unlikely to be cleared for many years more.

The task of clearing away the country's hundreds of thousands of land mines falls to some 7,600 deminers currently operating in the country. They work under the auspices of a number of mostly Afghan organizations which -- with Western funding -- trained deminers in the refugee camps of Pakistan. Whenever conditions after 1989 permitted, the demining groups moved into Afghanistan to pursue their dangerous work.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva says that mines and other buried explosives in Afghanistan continue to kill civilians.

Camilla Wasznik, a spokesperson for the ICRC Mines-Arms Unit, says some 60 people are reported killed or maimed by land mines across Afghanistan each month. Many other injuries are believed to go unreported.

"In 2003, the ICRC recorded 728 new victims of mines and other explosive remnants of war. And this equals about 61 victims per month or four new victims every day. But, in fact, in addition to these recorded incidents, you would have to count in probably quite a high number of unrecorded incidents, so the ICRC estimates there might be as much as about 100 incidents per month still taking place in Afghanistan," Wasznik says.

Wasznik says some 18 percent of the victims are killed in the explosions, while another 25 percent suffer loss of limbs. She says the number of casualties today is down from an estimated 150 a month in previous years, which she says reflects the progress of the demining efforts.

The Afghan government and the United Nations last year embarked on a joint 10-year plan to rid the country of mines and buried explosives by 2012.

Mohammed Shahab Hakimi, the chairman of the Afghan Campaign to Ban Land Mines, says the plan calls for increasing the number of deminers in the country to almost 9,000. He described the effort by telephone recently from Geneva, where he was attending a land mine symposium.

"To implement this strategic plan, we need to expand our personnel to achieve our goals, and maybe by the end of 2007, the number of personnel will increase to 8,800 people, and also equipment and other things will be expanded. [But] implementation of this strategic plan depends on the availability [of funds] from the donor side," Hakimi said.

Demining activities in Afghanistan are funded by donor countries both within and outside the UN system. The UN has budgeted a reported $80 million for mine clearance and associated activities in Afghanistan this year, including maintaining 5,600 deminers.

The Halo Trust -- the largest foreign charitable demining group operating in Afghanistan -- has budgeted $8 million and is fielding 2,000 deminers in the country this year.

Afghanistan is considered by mine experts to be one of the three most heavily mined countries in the world. The other two are Cambodia and Angola. (Charles Recknagel)

Russian President Vladimir Putin on 19 February commemorated the 15th anniversary of the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 2 January 2003 and 19 February 2004), Russia's ORT television reported. "Time has come to stop all sort of political fuss around events that took place in Afghanistan," and review those events in an unbiased manner, Putin said. He added that those who fought in Afghanistan have nothing "to be ashamed of." The number of Soviet dead has been estimated at 15,000, while it is estimated that between 1 million and 1.5 million Afghans perished. (Amin Tarzi)

20 February 1919 -- Amir Habibullah assassinated in Laghman Province.

20 February 1986 -- The Revolutionary Council Presidium appoints a 74-member commission to draft a constitution.

23 February 1988 -- The mujahedin alliance announces the formation of an interim government in exile.

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