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Afghan Report: March 18, 2004

18 March 2004, Volume 3, Number 11
By Ahto Lobjakas

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was quick off the mark at the beginning of his term in January this year, making Afghanistan his No. 1 priority (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 January 2004).

He has since said repeatedly that NATO "cannot afford" to fail in Afghanistan. He also said the alliance's work there will not be complete in a "year, two, or three."

The 19-member Western military alliance assumed command last summer of the UN-mandated 4,500-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 14 August 2003). NATO members constitute the vast majority of ISAF troops.

But de Hoop Scheffer and others have not been clear about what constitutes success for NATO and ISAF in Afghanistan. The long-term goal appears simple -- stability and a democratic system. But the medium-term goal seems to be vaguely limited to extending NATO's presence in the country.

Here, the new secretary-general took over where his predecessor, Lord George Robertson, left off -- nagging NATO member states for helicopters, men, and materiel. The task does not appear to have become any easier in the past few months.

Speaking with RFE/RL on 8 March, de Hoop Scheffer painted a picture of slow, if steady, progress toward goals that appear deliberately short on ambition. "What NATO is doing in Afghanistan is trying in more regions than just Kabul -- and Konduz is the first city where there is a first so-called Provincial Reconstruction Team [PRT] where ISAF has taken responsibility -- NATO's ambition is to have more of these PRTs under ISAF's, under NATO's, responsibility," he said. "NATO's job is to create security and stability in -- I'm not going to say in the [entire] country -- but in the regions where NATO is, and that has only been Kabul up to now. And we're trying to have more Provincial Reconstruction Teams and to spread security and stability into the provinces, starting in the north" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 January 2004).

UN and EU officials have already indicated the security situation in Afghanistan will not permit credible elections to be held before autumn. Parliamentary and presidential elections had been tentatively scheduled for June (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 and 26 February 2004).

But elections are only part of Afghanistan's problem. In the background looms the growing drug trade. Drug proceeds are now equal to half the country's gross domestic product (GDP). The NATO chief acknowledged that security and stability in Afghanistan are intricately intertwined with the drug problem. However, de Hoop Scheffer said NATO will take no responsibility for battling Afghanistan's drug trade, saying that is not part of ISAF's mandate (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 February 2004).

"We have to be aware that NATO is not responsible -- or ISAF -- for everything which is happening in Afghanistan. That is certainly not the ambition. Counternarcotics is not in the ISAF mandate. You know that the U.K. is the lead nation, the UN is playing a big role, and first of all, the Afghan government, under [the leadership] of [Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid] Karzai, is of course [the] first responsible for counternarcotics. So, let's not confuse mandates," de Hoop Scheffer said.

De Hoop Scheffer did not say whether Karzai, whose influence does not extend far beyond Kabul, has the power to adequately address the problem.

Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.

Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim said recently that he does not plan to run against Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai in the country's upcoming presidential election, Dubai-based "Gulf News" reported on 10 March. "We plan to form a pan-Afghan movement, which will cover all sectors of Afghan society, and unite the country," Fahim is quoted as saying in an exclusive 7 March interview. In an apparent break with former Northern Alliance allies like Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Education Minister Yunos Qanuni -- who are seeking to form their own political party along with Ahmad Wali Mas'ud, a brother of slain Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Mas'ud -- Fahim said that "our plan is to contest the elections as a team -- with Karzai" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 October 2003 and 11 March 2004). Fahim and other Northern Alliance leaders met in Kabul in October, reportedly to form a joint political coalition to challenge Karzai in the upcoming elections (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 9 October 2003). Securing the loyalty of Fahim, who commands his own militia, would split the ranks of the Northern Alliance and potentially improve Karzai's prospects for the elections. (Amin Tarzi)

The Afghan Justice Ministry has officially registered two new political parties, Afghanistan Television reported on 10 March. The new groups are the Islamic Independence Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-e Esteqlal-e Islami-ye Afghanistan) and National Solidarity Youth Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-e Hambastagi-ye Melli-ye Jawanan-e Afghanistan). The report did not elaborate on the parties' platforms or their leaderships. Presidential and parliamentary elections are officially slated for June, although both are likely to be postponed because of the difficulty of ensuring security and registering eligible voters. Only a handful of political parties have been officially registered since a new law on political parties was enacted in September. (For the English version of the Afghan law on political parties, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 September 2003.) (Amin Tarzi)

The recently created Afghanistan National Party (Hizb-e Melli-ye Afghanistan) announced its political platform on 12 March, the Kabul-based daily "Erada" reported the next day. The party -- which "Erada" described as including "some leftists" among its members -- has pledged to campaign for the establishment of a democratic government in accordance with the principles of Islam in Afghanistan, the daily reported. The party has yet to announce a candidate for the Afghan presidency, but its representatives have said the group will back a person who believes in democracy. It was unclear from the report whether the Afghanistan National Party has officially registered with the Afghan Justice Ministry, as political parties are required to do under Afghan law. "Erada" reported that five political parties have been officially registered. (Amin Tarzi)

The European Commission has pledged to provide 100 observers to monitor Afghanistan's upcoming elections, Radio Afghanistan reported on 14 March. The team of observers would remain in the country for a period of two months to monitor the elections and "make sure that they are carried out in a democratic way," the report added. The report did not elaborate on dates for the Afghan presidential and parliamentary elections, which are still officially slated for June. Security threats and a slow registration process have prompted many UN, European, and some Afghan officials to call for the postponement of the elections until September or even 2005 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 and 26 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

An estimated 1,000 members of Hizb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan (Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan) called on Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai to reconsider his decision to dismiss Mohammad Mohaqeq from his post as planning minister at a rally in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif on 12 March, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Mohaqeq, who leads a faction ofHizb-e Wahdat, claimed on 9 March that Karzai improperly dismissed him after a dispute over division of responsibilities within the government, while a spokesman for the Afghan leader claimed that Mohaqeq resigned (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 March 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

The Afghan Constitutional Commission's secretariat issued a statement on 14 March denying allegations that the text of the new Afghan Constitution was manipulated after its adoption by the Constitutional Loya Jirga on 4 January, Radio Afghanistan reported. The commission "has categorically rejected claims by some people" that the final text was altered. The statement listed six "improvements made in the form and words of the constitution," which it claimed are proof "of non-manipulation of the constitution." A group of delegates to the Constitutional Loya Jirga mostly belonging to the Jamiat-e Islami party of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani charged in January that up of 15 changes were made in the text of the basic law after it was adopted. The Constitutional Commission initially said the final text was identical to the one adopted and any confusion might have risen from the fact that loya jirga delegates were handed a text on 3 January that did not include final changes (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 5 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

A spokesman for the U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, said on 13 March in Kabul that "Operation Mountain Blizzard has successfully ended...and Operation Mountain Storm has begun," RFE/RL reported. Hilferty said the new "operation is aimed, like the rest, at rebuilding and reconstructing and providing enduring security in Afghanistan, so it's certainly about more than one person." The U.S.-led coalition is confident that "the leaders of Al-Qaeda and the leader of the Taliban need to be brought to justice and they will be," Hilferty added in presumed references to Osama bin Laden and his senior circle and to Mullah Mohammad Omar. According to Hilferty, Operation Mountain Storm entails eastern, southeastern, and southern Afghanistan, and will "keep pressure on the terrorist organizations and their infrastructure." Vikram Parekh, an analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group in Kabul, questioned the publicity given to the military operations. "What I don't understand is why they've been so public about it. I don't see what it accomplishes," Parekh commented, according to AP on 15 March. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai said on 12 March that Afghanistan needs "foreign assistance" until the country "is perfectly healthy and can stand on its own two feet," Radio Afghanistan reported. Karzai was responding to a questioner on the "You and the Head of State" program who asked, "When will the Americans withdraw [their forces] from Afghanistan?" Karzai said Afghanistan has been devastated in the last 30 years by "foreigners and their mercenaries, who were native" to the country. The calamity began when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and ended with the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Karzai added. Afghanistan was "like a sick person who is in need of others' help" as a result, he said. Karzai did not single out the United States in his response. If Afghanistan refuses external assistance, he said, "the communists and those who are in ambush along the borders of the country will return" and destroy Afghanistan "yet again." Karzai did not provide a time frame for recovery of Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

Thirty-two people were reportedly killed in clashes during a raid by Pakistan's Frontier Corps in the town of Wana in the South Waziristan tribal agency that borders Afghanistan on 16 March, the Islamabad-based daily "The News" reported the next day. Inter-Services spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan said eight Frontier Corps troops and 24 "foreign terrorists" died in the incident. Violence erupted when Frontier Corps troops attacked two houses owned by fugitive militants Nek Mohammad and Nur Islam, who allegedly were sheltering the foreign militants, "The News" reported. The identities of the dead foreign militants were not known, but two have reportedly been identified as Chechens. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has stated that his country "will not allow foreigners to get training" in Pakistan's tribal areas and "then go back to Afghanistan for killing their Muslim brothers," the BBC reported on 17 March. According to the BBC, also citing General Sultan, most of the 24 people killed in the raid in Wana were Pakistani tribesmen sheltering the alleged foreign terrorists. (Amin Tarzi)

U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Hilferty said on 16 March that U.S. forces were involved in patrols and house searches in southeastern Afghanistan's Paktika Province bordering the South Waziristan region of Pakistan, AP reported the next day. Hilferty said U.S. commanders "continue to coordinate and cooperate" with their Pakistani counterparts, but he declined to say whether the U.S. operations were linked with the Wana raid. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said en route to his trip to the region on 15 March that the United States will ask Islamabad "for greater action along the Afghan-[Pakistani] border," a U.S. State Department press released indicated ( Musharraf told a tribal delegation on 15 March that "over two dozen Americans are operating in the area [of South Waziristan] who are sharing intelligence with the administration," the Karachi-based daily "Dawn" reported on 16 March. However, Musharraf told the gathering, "U.S. troops would not be engaged in the South Waziristan's operation. I can quit [my office], but [I] will not compromise on vital national interest" (see also "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 March 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

Secretary of State Powell arrived in the Afghan capital Kabul on 17 March for a brief visit that was expected to include talks with Hamid Karzai, RFE/RL reported. Powell, who arrived from New Delhi, was expected to discuss antiterrorism efforts in Afghanistan, where U.S.-led forces recently launched a new offensive in search of Taliban and Al-Qaeda loyalists. From Kabul, Powell is scheduled to travel to Islamabad. At a voter-registration station for women, Powell said, "President [George W.] Bush is totally committed to the reconstruction and rebuilding of Afghanistan into a nation that will be resting on a constitution. It will be a democracy with an economy that begins to flourish and where all people in the society can have hope for a better future," RFE/RL reported. (Amin Tarzi)

The U.S. Defense Department announced on 15 March that it has released 23 Afghan and three Pakistani nationals from detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "The decision to transfer or release a detainee is based on many factors, including whether the detainee is of further intelligence value to the United States and whether he is believed to pose a threat to the United States," the statement added, according to the Defense Department website ( The process to review the status of detainees for release is "not free of risk," the Defense Department said, adding that "at least one detainee has gone back to fight." The Defense Department did not provide further details about the Afghans who have been released, citing security concerns. (Amin Tarzi)

U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Hilferty said U.S. troops acted properly in a bombing that killed nine Afghan children in December, international media reported. The children died on 6 December in the central Ghazni Province after a U.S. warplane targeted the home of former Taliban member Mullah Wazir, who was not at the residence at time of the attack (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 December 2003). Hilferty said that, according to the U.S. investigating officer, the forces "used appropriate rules of engagement and did follow the law of conflict," the BBC reported on 10 March. "However, we did slightly change our rules of engagement after that investigation," Hilferty added without commenting on those changes or the content of the report, which he described as "top secret." (Amin Tarzi)

Some 200 elders from the Barmal District of Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan have arrived in Kabul to lodge complaints with the Afghan Transitional Administration over the behavior of coalition forces in their region, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 9 March. Taj Ali, a member of the delegation, reportedly told AIP that "coalition forces [sometimes] enter people's homes without permission and spend two, three nights there," preventing the occupants from leaving and "liv[ing] with the people inside their homes." The delegation also complained that coalition forces "detain people on the basis of wrong information and harass them a lot," Taj Ali added. He cited the alleged case of a pharmacist who was detained for 72 hours without charges and released with only an apology. "What can one do with an apology?" Taj Ali asked. (Amin Tarzi)

Mohammad Nadi, a merchant from Helmand Province, has traveled across much of southwestern Afghanistan in the past year to reach the bazaars where he sells his goods.

He says what Afghans in the region's remote towns and villages want most from U.S. troops is security against the gangs of roving criminals and militia fighters who plunder their land and property.

Nadi says the U.S. military's Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kandahar -- which plans this month to start building roads to some of those remote settlements -- is a key to winning lasting support from Afghans in places like Oruzgan Province, which spawned the Taliban movement.

"The people are pleased with the work [of the PRT]. But if they don't do this work, the people will not listen to [the Americans]. Nobody will take their advice. When they build the roads, the agriculture can improve. The robbers will be chased away and the people will get their land back," Nadi said.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Duffy, the U.S. Army officer overseeing the expansion of PRTs across five southern provinces, agrees that road construction is critical. Duffy knows that the Taliban became popular during the mid-1990s because they reigned in rampaging militia groups. He says the best way to prevent a Taliban comeback is to improve living conditions along with security.

"A lot of revolutions purport to bring things that people have never seen. You know, 'We're going to bring you freedoms that you don't have. We're going to give you land that you don't own.' The Taliban were here. They failed. Now they're trying to come back with the same little spin on, 'They don't care for you.' So a lot of our efforts are on reconstruction. When [the Taliban] are telling the people, 'The central government doesn't care about you,' and [we] build a two-lane asphalt road through the center of their province -- when clinics sprout up, when schools are renovated, when kids are sitting in a classroom -- those are obvious symbols of the central government's concern for the people. The Taliban have nothing to do. They can't offer that. We're going to outbid them with reconstruction," Duffy told RFE/RL.

The Kandahar PRT is an old fruit factory on the northeast side of the city that has been converted to a forward operations base -- or "firebase" -- for U.S. forces. About 60 of the 80 soldiers there conduct security patrols -- both on foot and in armored Humvees. The patrols show residents there is a U.S. security presence in the area. They also protect foreign reconstruction specialists who work in the city and surrounding villages.

Representatives of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program also live on the Kandahar base. The PRT's construction specialists are due in late March to start building a road linking Kandahar to Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital of Oruzgan Province.

Captain David Hartmann, a resident project manager at the Kandahar PRT, is excited about such projects. He is one of four U.S. military engineers who have volunteered to extend their tours in Afghanistan in order to work on PRT projects in the south. There are clear signs that U.S. troops and Special Forces are mobilizing at the nearby "Ghecko" firebase for a spring offensive against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Hartmann said that "killing the bad guys" is important. But he also said that in the long run, the way for the United States to win against a pro-Taliban insurgency is "by building."

Duffy told RFE/RL that the reconstruction mission is complicated in areas where tribal rivalries run deep. "One of the first things I learned here is that the tribal influences are very key in Afghanistan," he said. "Knowing which tribe, which sub-tribe you are working with and dealing with is very important -- both to understand the background in history and also to see that you are being equitable between the different tribes."

Duffy says another difficulty is the vast distance across the five provinces that the Kandahar PRT now has to cover -- Kandahar, Oruzgan, Zabul, Helmand, and Nimroz. That is why work is now under way to establish new PRT bases at Tarin Kowt and at Qalat, the provincial capital of Zabul.

"One of the difficulties we have is just the expanse that we are expected to cover. It's an all-day drive to get to Nimroz. Until we get a PRT there, there is no place to base from. A lot of our activities are within one day's drive -- maybe two days' drive. We hope to, by expanding the PRTs, have a base of operation where we can expand. So when Tarin Kut, for example, is stood up, they'll have a civil affairs team that can base out of there. One day's driving distance will cover just about three-quarters of the province. And then they can start doing projects in that area," Duffy said.

Attention has focused on the planned Tarin Kut PRT and the road project there because Oruzgan Province is the home of both Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and the spiritual leader of the Taliban movement, Mullah Mohammad Omar. Indeed, U.S. officials say combat operations against suspected Taliban fighters in Oruzgan Province are "ongoing." But Duffy notes that the Tarin Kut road is just a part of the overall reconstruction plan in the south.

"Actually that road is one of seven roads in the secondary road project that we are working on. The intent right now is to go from the ring road [between Kabul and Kandahar], or Highway 1, [and build] roads down to each of the provincial capitals -- influencing distant areas from the built-up areas. Right now, Highway 1 runs through Kandahar. But, for example, it doesn't go through Lashkar Gah, which is the capital of Helmand. It doesn't go through Tarin Kowt, which is the capital of Oruzgan. So we're trying to do those connecting roads to get us to the provincial capitals. The intent is to do those simultaneously. Six roads will be completed [to provincial capitals in the south] within a year," Duffy said.

And the reconstruction efforts go beyond road projects in Oruzgan Province.

"Along with the road projects, we have a pilot program that we've been working on with the UN, the Afghan government, and the international community, developing an integrated strategy that not only builds the roads through [to the provincial capitals] but also along those roads, there will be other connecting roads that will get to the villages that aren't along those main roads. There are schools and clinics planned for renovation and repair. There are 150 water projects, from irrigation systems to drinking-water wells. So it's not doing the roads first. There are all these other projects. So hopefully, within a year you'll see a substantial increase in all the facilities in the district that is north of Kandahar and connects to Oruzgan," Duffy said.

One reason that PRTs are able to move quickly on reconstruction projects is that they can gain access to appropriated funds without the months of bureaucratic delays faced by some international aid groups.

Colonel Craig Morton, who oversees plans for all PRTs in Afghanistan, says worthwhile projects can quickly draw funds from $40 million in the Commander's Emergency Response Program.

Colonel David Bennett, the Bagram-based public affairs officer for civil affairs projects of the U.S.-led task force "Victory," notes that PRTs also draw upon international donations. "USAID is, of course, a large player in that arena. We have something that's called ODOCHA. Those funds are for reconstruction purposes," he said. "The British have been very actively involved in providing funding for activities. The Germans are getting involved now. The New Zealand contingent has been funding. We actually have [South] Korean assets here as well. It truly is a coalition and it truly is an international participation in funding" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 January 2004).

The finance mechanisms allowed the Kandahar PRT to resolve an emergency last year at the Kajiki Dam in northern Helmand Province when its last functioning turbine, a decades-old electricity generator, threatened to spin itself apart. USAID funds were used to bring in 14 mobile diesel-fuel generators that kept electricity flowing into Kandahar while replacement parts for the 9-megawatt turbine were being built. Today, the turbine is back on line and work is continuing to repair the other turbine at the dam.

Duffy says that when that project is completed, the 1-megawatt mobile generators can be moved to supply power elsewhere in Afghanistan. (Ron Synovitz)

Four civilians have been killed in the Daikondi District of the central Oruzgan Province as a result of a clash between rival commanders of the Shi'ite Hizb-e Wahdat party, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported on 15 March. According to an unidentified former delegate to the Constitutional Loya Jirga from Daikondi, the two commanders have long harbored mutual animosity. Bakhtar reported that the same source claimed many residents of Daikondi have been forced to migrate to foreign countries to flee the persistent fighting. Hizb-e Wahdat is the main party representing Afghanistan's Shi'ite minority. One of its leaders, Mohammad Mohaqeq, was until recently the planning minister within the Afghan Transitional Administration (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 March 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

The deputy police chief of Kandahar Province, General Salim Khan, reported that three militants and one Afghan soldier were killed when some 60 neo-Taliban attacked a government office in Shurabak District on 13 March, AP reported a day later. According to Salim Khan, the tracks of the vehicles used by the militants suggested their point of departure was across the border with Pakistan. (Amin Tarzi)

One Afghan soldier was killed and another injured in an attack in Kandahar Province on 15 March, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. General Khan Mohammad, commander of the 2nd Military Corps in Kandahar, said unidentified attackers in a vehicle targeted a security post along a highway west of the city. He said the attackers managed to flee. (Amin Tarzi)

Two Afghan soldiers died and three others were wounded when their vehicle hit a land mine in eastern Afghanistan on 11 March, AIP reported the next day. An Afghan commander is reportedly among the injured. AIP reported that the incident occurred in the Saberi District of Khost Province, while a military commander in Khost was quoted by AP as saying the explosion occurred in Yaqubi District and that one soldier was killed and five others were wounded. The casualties are part of the combined forces of Afghan and coalition troops that are fighting militants and terrorists in the area, AIP reported. (Amin Tarzi)

A base used by U.S. forces in the Kandahar Province came under fire from rockets and small arms on 10 March, Radio Afghanistan reported. One civilian was injured in the incident, but it was unclear from the report which side inflicted the injury. An unidentified spokesman for the U.S. military suggested the attackers belonged to the Hizb-e Islami of former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (Amin Tarzi)

Armed clashes have broken out between Afghan and Pakistani tribes across the disputed border between those two countries, Hindukosh News Agency reported on 14 March. The fighting reportedly pits the Tani tribe, on the Afghan side of the so-called Durand Line, with the Madakhayl, Wazir, Zeli Shakh, and Badarkhayl tribes residing in the northern Waziristan region of Pakistan. Both sides have laid claim to the Sutarki region. The current border between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- known as the "Durand Line" after Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the British signatory of the 1893 agreement that demarcated the border between Afghanistan and British India -- has never been officially recognized by Afghanistan, and has been at the core of disagreements between Afghanistan and Pakistan since the creation of Pakistan in 1947 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 August 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Six new provincial governors were appointed on 10 March at the initiative of the Interior Ministry and with the approval of Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai, the official Afghan Bakhtar News Agency reported. They are, in the north and northeast: Sayyed Mohammad Akram in Badakhshan; Faqir Mohammad Mamozai in Baghlan; Mohammad Omar in Konduz; Amer Latif in Samangan; and Abdul Kabir Marzban in Takhtar. Mohammad Aman Hamimi was appointed to head a provincial government in Logar, south of Kabul. Reports in February suggested that the Afghan Transitional Administration had plans to transfer or replace about 10 provincial governors in order to increase the influence of the central government, and two gubernatorial appointments were made that same month (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 5 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

A top U.S. official, just back from Kabul, marked International Women's Day on 8 March by stating that progress on Afghan women's rights is "unstoppable." But Afghan-born human rights advocates, pointing to slow progress and a number of self-immolations by Afghan women over the past year, begged to differ.

The contrasting comments came at a forum held at RFE/RL's Washington office on 8 March as people across the globe observed International Women's Day.

Charlotte Ponticelli, coordinator of International Women's Issues for the U.S. State Department, painted an upbeat picture of the situation for Afghan women nearly 2 1/2 years after the fall of the Taliban. "I can tell you from my experience that progress is unstoppable. There's a lot that the United States of America can be proud of. There's a lot more to do," Ponticelli said.

Western media reports from Afghanistan tend to agree that women are making progress since the collapse of a regime that brutally suppressed them and denied them basic rights.

Ponticelli, who recently returned from Kabul, said things have "categorically" improved for Afghan women. She said U.S.-sponsored projects for women in Afghanistan now number 175 and include health-care, educational, and economic programs as well as a drive to register women voters to take part in national elections in June. "I can state absolutely that things are better in Afghanistan now than they were a year ago, and certainly two years ago, not to mention a decade ago," she said.

But Ponticelli's message was contrasted with the views of Afghan-born human rights advocates who also spoke at the forum.

Zieba Shorish-Shamley directs the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan. Taking issue with an assertion by Ponticelli that 28 percent of registered Afghan voters are women, Shorish-Shamley said the national figure is closer to 10 percent as women are regularly harassed in the provinces when they seek to assert their rights.

"A great deal is better for the Afghan woman. She can go outside without the Taliban in tow, but she's harassed by a lot of armed men. She can go if she wants a job, but there are not jobs available for her to do. She wants to be healthy, but there's not a health-care system there. The worst part is that she does not have the right to choose who she wants to marry," Shorish-Shamley said.

The issue of forced Afghan marriages is making headlines in the Western press. Several newspapers and broadcasters have recently carried stories about a recent string of self-immolations by Afghan women in despair over forced marriages, domestic violence, and a lack of respect for their rights. "There are still forced marriages and women are burning themselves," Shorish-Shamley said. "In Herat, at least 40 women burned themselves alive, and four more just last week. This is widespread and it is not reported most of the time."

Sima Wali, head of Refugee Women in Development, is another Afghan-born activist. She told the forum that what the U.S. government is reporting in Afghanistan differs with what she has seen there herself.

Wali said that "relative" advances have been made for women, but the situation is still dire. "These advances are tempered with neo-Taliban practices against women. Women are still subjected to sexual violence, torture, trafficking in women, forced marriage, domestic violence -- and the list goes on and on," Wali said.

Wali says she is troubled by the slow pace of improvement in the lives of all Afghans, by accommodation deals made with provincial warlords, by continuing poor security and by financial pledges to the country reneged on by the international community.

"We, sadly, are losing momentum to build on the initial goodwill of the Afghan people toward the United States. And in my discourse and dialogues with scores of Afghan women, it is evident that there is a heightened frustration over a lack of what I deem as the trickle-down of peace and democracy to the common Afghan person -- this is not happening," Wali said.

Some of these shortcomings were cited yesterday in a speech in Kabul by Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai. Karzai used International Women's Day to urge his country's religious leaders to do more to free women from social and tribal bonds and end their continued oppression.

"Women and young girls are being forced to marry," Karzai said in a speech at Kabul Polytechnic Institute. "There can't be any worse oppression than this. It is in direct contravention of Islam, our religion. We are hoping that our country's ulema [religious scholars], through their preaching in mosques, will tell people that this is unjust, is oppression and is against Islam."

Karzai urged women to ignore security threats from remnants of the Taliban regime and register to vote in Afghanistan's first free general elections, which are tentatively scheduled for June. Afghanistan's constitution, passed in January, allows women to engage in political and social life and is supposed to give them 25 percent of the seats in parliament (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 March 2004) (Jeffrey Donovan)

Even in life-or-death emergencies, Afghan taboos against women mixing with male strangers are apparent, RFE/RL reported from Afghanistan.

That's according to medical staff at Afghanistan's most sophisticated trauma and surgical-care unit -- the U.S.-run Combat Support Hospital at the Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. The 140 doctors and nurses at the hospital, located inside a ventilated U.S. Army tent, have treated about 6,000 seriously injured people since being deployed to Afghanistan last June.

Their patients include U.S. and allied Afghan militiamen as well as civilians who are in danger of losing their lives or limbs. But the chief nurse at the hospital, Colonel Judy Tracy, says Afghan men only rarely bring female relatives to the high-tech facility for treatment. "We don't have very many of the women patients come to us, and the ones that do are mainly mine victims unless they are a case with an explosion in the whole house where a whole bunch of people are injured," she said. "We haven't had [many women as] individuals come in."

One of the rare exceptions was a young woman from Jalalabad who was recently brought to the facility by Afghan officials who suspect she tried to commit suicide by lighting herself on fire. Yesterday, the woman lay unconscious in an intensive-care unit after surgery for burns on her hands, arms, and chest. Female U.S. nurses hovered over her motionless body, trying to bring her comfort. Her face, which also showed traces of blackened skin, was frozen in an expression of pain and despair.

If the Afghan officials are correct, it is one of hundreds of instances of female self-immolation since the collapse of the Taliban regime. Many women who have survived such an ordeal say they tried to kill themselves because they felt trapped in forced marriages to husbands who beat them. The trend appears to be most widespread in Herat, but it also is noticeable to hospital staff and aid workers in other parts of the country.

The case at the U.S. Combat Support Hospital demonstrates why accurate statistics are difficult to come by. The story behind the woman's injuries remains a mystery to the Bagram staff for now. The burn victim is in no condition to speak about her ordeal, and her family refuses to provide details.

Even when the woman's condition improves, the U.S. doctors and nurses may not hear her true story. All of the Dari and Pashto translators at Bagram are men -- and the country's women often are reluctant to speak openly and honestly about their plight in the presence of Afghan men. Even outside of the Bagram base, the directors of humanitarian-aid organizations complain that they have difficulty recruiting female translators because men in their families often refuse to allow them to mix with foreign men.

Captain Michael Moyle, a public-affairs officer for the U.S.-run hospital, says there is an additional stigma associated with the Bagram base because of the abuse of women there during the Soviet occupation when Russian soldiers allegedly used Afghan women as prostitutes. Captain Moyle says Afghan men still worry that women will be "corrupted" if they visit the U.S.-run air base. He admits the U.S. military has had to bribe Afghan warlords to ensure Afghan mothers could visit their children at the Bagram hospital.

Judy Tracy confirms that troops from Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim's militia -- a faction that works with the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition and guards the outer gates of the Bagram base -- have prevented Afghan mothers from visiting their critically injured children inside.

"We have an awful lot of sick children. We've noticed that the mothers never come to visit them. And with one of the children that came into the hospital, the father came in and his wife wanted to come and visit the child. He said that she was stopped at the gate. The Afghan militia force soldiers out at the front gate, who guard the outer front gate, would not let his wife come in to visit her child," Tracy told RFE/RL.

Tracy says she was compelled to act when she realized that women were being prevented from entering the base -- even when escorted by their husbands. "I went out to the front gate and spoke with the guards out there and said, 'You know, it's very important for these mothers to visit their children.' And so we have seen a little bit of an improvement in that area," she said. "But certainly, women [still] don't get around and visit a whole lot."

Tracy says the distrust of Afghan men toward U.S. medical workers is especially apparent when the workers leave the base to try to help women elsewhere. "It's hard for women to get out of their own houses," she said. "And when you get out into the field, you can see this. They can't do anything without the permission of their husband or brother, or things like that. [We also see this] when we do get the women in the hospital, and we see a few of them."

Tracy says she feels she has won a small victory in the occasional instances when she helps women visit their injured children. She called it one "little step" in a country where progress toward women's rights comes only in little steps. (Ron Synovitz)

17 March 1986 -- Afghan Foreign Ministry rejects a UN report on human rights violations in Afghanistan as "a collection of groundless slander and accusations."

14 March 1988 -- Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is appointed spokesman of the mujahedin alliance.

13 March 1995 -- Hizb-e Wahdat leader Abdul Ali Mazari and a few other party leaders are killed while in Taliban captivity.

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