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Afghan Report: March 4, 2004

4 March 2004, Volume 3, Number 9
By Golnaz Esfandiari

Gurcharan Virdee is no stranger to the hardships facing women around the world. Virdee works with Medica Mondiale, a German-based international organization supporting women in war and crisis situations.

"Before she committed suicide, my sister always said she hoped she would never return to Afghanistan and experience the closed atmosphere of Herat." The group is currently working on a program to provide shelter to women living in the western Afghan province of Herat -- an area where Taliban-era repressions are still very much in place.

There, Virdee met several women who had attempted to kill themselves through self-immolation. The most tragic case, Virdee says, involved a young pregnant woman who survived despite suffering severe burns over 60 percent of her body.

"One of the women that I met, she was about 29. She already had four children, [and] she was seven months pregnant when she burned herself. She was experiencing problems with her husband and family; they wouldn't allow her to go and visit her own family. She set fire to herself. She then gave birth to a baby with no painkillers, nothing. The baby girl was taken by her aunt to look after her, and [the mother] died three weeks after giving birth," Virdee said.

A government delegation that traveled to Herat last week said at least 52 women in the province have killed themselves in recent months through self-immolation.

A Herat regional hospital last year recorded 160 cases of attempted suicide among girls and women between the ages of 12 and 50. But Virdee says the real number is probably much higher.

"The official statistics which the hospitals have are for the women who have actually come to the hospital, who can receive treatment. There are many other cases of women burning themselves in the villages, in the city, in some of the provinces. But these are women we can't give any estimates on, partly because they never reach the hospital or because they die in their villages or city. These are the cases that never come to the attention of any public authorities," Virdee said.

Afghan officials say poverty, forced marriages, and lack of access to education are the main reasons for suicide among women in Herat. Domestic violence is also widespread.

"A lot of women are saying that their husbands don't allow them to go and visit their families. There are severe restrictions on their movement, and also there is violence towards them -- both physical and psychological -- and intimidation and isolation," Virdee said.

During the five-year rule of the Taliban militia, women were not allowed to work or study. They could not leave their homes without a male escort and were forced to wear the all-encompassing burqa.

Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, women have once again been given the right to study and work. But activists say women in many parts of Afghanistan -- including Herat, which is ruled with an iron fist by provincial governor and warlord Ismail Khan -- still face repression and harassment.

Virdee says the continued crackdown on women's rights is contributing to the rise in self-immolation cases.

"The institutional repression of the women's movement is also a big factor because women are not allowed to go on their own in taxi cars, they are sort of socially policed if they are talking to other men, they have to be in the burqa, they have restriction on freedom to work. Just recently in Herat a women's shop which was employing a lot of women was closed. The driving school for women was also closed," Virdee said.

Ahmad Bassir is a Herat-based correspondent for Radio Free Afghanistan. He says women see no difference between their lives now and under the Taliban, and that desperation drives them to attempt suicide.

"They say we were hoping that after the fall of Taliban and after the transitional authority took power, the situation would improve for women, and there would be fewer restrictions. But we see that there have been no changes, and women are using this very violent act [of self-immolation] to show their protest. Most of these girls are literate, they are knowledgeable, and several of them are students," Bassir said.

Bassir adds that the despair is especially strong among women who once lived as refugees in neighboring Iran, where women enjoy far greater rights.

Mina, a Herat resident, told Radio Free Afghanistan that her sister recently committed suicide after returning to Afghanistan from Iran.

"Before, we lived in Iran, and we were used to the life and environment there, which was very good. But since we returned [to Afghanistan], to Herat, there has been a lot of pressure on us. Before she committed suicide, my sister always said she hoped she would never return to Afghanistan and experience the closed atmosphere of Herat. She also had family problems. She didn't like her fiance, but she was forced to get engaged to him," Mina said.

The rise of self-immolation among women in Herat is causing concern among the authorities and citizens. Herat Public Television last year broadcast a program urging husbands to treat their wives with greater consideration. Several NGOs are also trying to address the issue.

But Virdee says these are only small steps toward solving an endemic problem. In many cases, she says, social restrictions continue to prevent women from seeking what little help is available.

"At the moment, although there are lots of different women's NGOs and the department of women's affairs all trying to raise some kind of public awareness about this issue, the problem is that women are so restricted that for them to even get out of the house, to be able to seek support is also sometimes very difficult," Virdee said.

Nor is the problem restricted to Herat. Female suicide through self-immolation is common in many parts of Afghanistan and throughout all of South Asia.

But statistics are incomplete and largely anecdotal. There is a strong social stigma attached to suicide in Afghanistan, and many families are reluctant to seek help for victims of self-immolation or talk about the reasons behind the attempt.

Golnaz Esfandiari is an RFE/RL correspondent.

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai is considering meeting the ousted Taliban regime's foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, AP reported on 25 February. Karzai said in an interview with a Pakistani television station that he received a "nice letter" from Muttawakil and might meet with him. Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, on 25 February confirmed Karzai's statement. According to Ludin, no meeting between Karzai and Muttawakil has been scheduled, nor is there a "definite plan" for the two to meet, AP reported. (Amin Tarzi)

Former Taliban Foreign Minister Muttawakil was released from U.S. detention in October and has reportedly been living in Kandahar. However, while some Afghan administration officials at the time confirmed his release, others denied it, and the entire episode remained shrouded in controversy (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 9, 16, 23, and 30 October 2003). Muttawakil was considered a moderate member of the Taliban regime who reportedly opposed the presence in Afghanistan of Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Karzai has sought to gain the support of some elements of the former Taliban regime in an effort to limit the destructive activities of the neo-Taliban and to bolster his own political standing among Pashtuns (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July and 18 September 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 3, and 15 September and 2 October 2003. (Amin Tarzi)

Abdul Latif Hakim, purporting to speak on behalf of the ousted Taliban regime, denied claims that former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil has contacted the Afghan Transitional Administration, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 26 February. Hakim said that Mutawakkil was a founder of the original Taliban movement and that the neo-Taliban will not hold negotiations with the United States or the Afghan authorities who have an "illicit relationship" with Washington. Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai said in an interview with a Pakistani television station that he has received a "nice letter" from Mutawakkil and is considering meeting with him. Mutawakkil was released from U.S. detention in October and has reportedly been under surveillance since then in Kandahar. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan leader Karzai said on 26 February that people "would be surprised" if he disclosed the number of approaches his government receives from former members of the Taliban "on a daily basis," "The New York Times," reported on 27 February. "All those Taliban who are not involved with Al-Qaeda or terrorism, or who have not committed terrorism in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the world, are free to return to their country and live a normal life," Karzai added. He also said that terrorism and the Taliban are defeated and "are gone." However, since 14 February, nine Afghan aid workers have been killed by assailants "apparently opposed" to Karzai's government, the New York daily noted. (Amin Tarzi)

Pakistani troops hunting for Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters zeroed in on 24 February on the Pakistani village of Azam Warsak near the Afghan border (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 26 February 2004).

Some 20 suspects, including a number of foreigners, were arrested in the operation in Pakistan's tribal South Waziristan region (see news section below). It's the latest offensive by Pakistani forces in the area and follows the expiration of a deadline for locals to hand over militants.

But the raids also come amid heightened speculation that the United States and its allies are closing in on Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who is thought to be hiding in the area straddling the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Britain's "Sunday Express" newspaper this week cited unidentified American sources as saying U.S. and British forces have pinpointed bin Laden to a 16-square-kilometer area along the border.

Pakistani officials dismiss speculation that the latest raids are targeting bin Laden, though Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat say there is a "strong possibility" that senior Al-Qaeda figures like bin Laden and top aide Ayman al-Zawahri are hiding in the region.

"Most of these stories linking some reports that Ayman al-Zawahri and Osama bin Laden have been seen there. They have been witnessed by people. They are merely conjectures and highly speculative. There is no denying the fact that this border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan is a very porous area, and there could be a possibility of certain high profile elements connected to Al-Qaeda hierarchy. There could be a strong possibility that they could be anywhere in these areas. Although we do feel that there [is] sufficient and strong evidence to the effect that Osama bin Laden and his top henchmen would be somewhere in Afghanistan," Hayat said.

Brian Hilferty, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, plays down reports about bin Laden's location. "If we knew where he was," Hilferty says, "we would go get him."

But other statements suggest the U.S. military is confident bin Laden will be captured soon.

It was Hilferty who boldly stated last month that the U.S. military is "sure" it will capture bin Laden this year. Another spokesman, Matt Beevers, said today that time is running out for bin Laden.

Christopher Langton is a defense expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"If they are so certain that they are closing in on bin Laden, which indicates they know roughly where he is, it's probably not a good thing to make that knowledge public because it would only alert [bin Laden] to that fact. So my feeling is that this has been said partly to [give] more credibility to the U.S. approach in Afghanistan before the [November] U.S. [presidential] elections, but also maybe to encourage the Pakistanis to [make a] greater effort," Langton said.

Richard Evans, a terrorism expert with Jane's military publishing group, is cautious also. He says it's possible the U.S. and Pakistani authorities do, indeed, have accurate intelligence on bin Laden's movements. But he notes it's not the first time bin Laden has been reported to be cornered.

"During [U.S.-led] Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it was thought that bin Laden had been cornered at Tora Bora [at the end of 2001]. And after several days of fierce fighting, when the troops finally got up there, they found he'd managed to slip away. It's been assumed for several months that bin Laden was in the Northwestern Frontier Province of Pakistan, moving around regularly with a small number of bodyguards, having bought off certain tribal leaders in that area to act as a kind of early warning whenever Pakistani or U.S. forces might be drawing near. He's gotten away before. It remains to be seen whether the latest claims -- generally by unnamed officials [quoted] in the media -- have any substance to them," Evans said.

This week, two audio tapes attributed to al-Zawahri gave what some experts interpret as Al-Qaeda's response to the speculation.

On one tape, al-Zawahri threatens new attacks on the U.S. and dismisses a claim by U.S. President George W. Bush that two-thirds of the Al-Qaeda network has been crushed. (Kathleen Knox)

In a statement faxed to a Tehran-based radio station, the neo-Taliban have written that Saif al-Adel does not speak on behalf of the movement, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 26 February. The statement names Hamed Agha as the movement's only authorized spokesman. In some instances, various individuals have spoken name of the Taliban or the Islamic Movement, and sometimes in contradictory terms (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

A campaign to postpone the Afghan parliamentary and presidential elections has been initiated by the Afghan Transitional Administration and its embassy in Washington, the Karachi daily "Dawn," reported on 1 March. The idea of delaying the elections, which are scheduled for June, is reportedly supported by "influential U.S. lawmakers," according the report. The new proposal is to hold the presidential elections in September and the parliamentary elections sometime in the spring of 2005. Thus far, only 8 percent of the estimated 11 million eligible voters in Afghanistan have been registered, the report added. "Observers have also objected to a U.S. proposal to recruit tribal leaders to hold the elections, because they say that giving weapons and money to these leaders for security arrangements during the elections can jeopardize the Afghan government's plan to disarm private militias," "Dawn" added. Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah in February said that security in southern regions of Afghanistan must improve if the elections slated for June are to proceed (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

The commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Lieutenant General David Barno, said on 1 March that there are no security problems ahead of the Afghan elections, the official Afghan Bakhtar News Agency reported. Barno said the main challenges are technical in nature, adding that coalition forces are in contact with the UN and that, with the establishment of new voter-registration centers, the elections can take place. It is not clear from the report whether Barno indicated the elections would take place as scheduled in June or later. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on 18 February criticized the UN for lagging in its preparations for voter registration (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 26 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

The European Commission on 2 March warned that it might be necessary to postpone the Afghan elections scheduled for June because of insufficient voter registration, Reuters reported. Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said only one-tenth of an estimated 10.5 million eligible voters have been registered. Udwin said the parliamentary and presidential elections cannot be considered free and fair unless a substantial segment of the population is registered. She said it is more important that the elections be credible than that they stick to the existing timeline, and that a delay might thus be necessary (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 February 2004). The commission also announced that it is providing an additional 8 million euros ($9.8 million) to fund the Afghan elections. (Amin Tarzi)

In a 29 February editorial, Herat News Center said there "is a strong possibility that the forthcoming presidential election will be postponed." According to the commentary, there are more than 100,000 militia fighters who need to be disarmed. However, the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program has so far managed to disarm only about 5,000 fighters. The commentary adds that it will take "at least 10 years to establish the country's national army." Therefore, in the absence of a national army and in view of the very slow progress in the DDR process, the Afghan people "have the right to be concerned" and this is the reason "why a great number of the people worry that the elections will not be democratic." (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan Planning Minister Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq told the "Kabul Weekly" on 25 February that he is running for president as an independent candidate. Mohaqeq, who is the leader of one of the factions of Hizb-e Wahdat, a party representing the Shi'ites of Afghanistan, said that he is "not a candidate of Hizb-e Wahdat or any other group." Factionalism does not appeal to the Afghan people and, therefore, he has chosen to run as an independent candidate, Mohaqeq said. The former mujahedin said he has "been on the frontlines against the Soviet Union and the [Afghan] communists...[and he] defended the people in the resistance against the Taliban." Since it was not just one tribe or group of Afghans that fought against communism and terrorism, he hopes to secure votes from all strata of population, Mohaqeq said. Mohaqeq said he hopes the Information and Culture Ministry will provide all candidates equal access to the media. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan Planning Minister Mohammad Mohaqeq has said that he and a number of other presidential candidates have been warned against participating in the upcoming elections, the Kabul daily "Erada" reported on 2 March. Mohaqeq did not name which candidates have been threatened or by whom, but added that some people are not abiding by the principles of the new Afghan Constitution and are coercing people into voting for specific candidates. He also that the presence of armed factions in different parts of Afghanistan has seriously harmed the country's efforts to hold elections. The law on political parties passed in September stipulates that political parties must not "have military organizations or affiliations with armed forces" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 September 2003). Mohaqeq has entered the presidential contest as an independent candidate despite the fact that he is the leader of one of the factions of the Hizb-e Wahdat, which has armed wings (see above). (Amin Tarzi)

Jawed Ludin, spokesman for Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamed Karzai, said on 1 March that the new Afghan Constitution allows every eligible person to run in the presidential elections, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 2 March. Ludin said there are no obstacles to other candidates running in the elections. (Amin Tarzi)

Mohammad Akram Uzbek on 28 February announced his candidacy for president of Afghanistan in the upcoming elections, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 29 February. Uzbek was a member of the Junbish-e Melli Party, but he indicated that he left the party some time ago. (Amin Tarzi)

Pro-Afghan Transitional Administration forces have arrived in Zabul Province from neighboring Kandahar Province, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported on 25 February. According to an unidentified official in Zabul, the reinforcements are currently in Mizan District and "have carried out a series of operations," but no major fighting has taken place "because the Taliban fled their positions." Zabul Province Deputy Governor Mawlawi Mohammad Omar said on 18 February that around 400 militia loyal to the ousted Taliban regime had gathered in his province for a possible attack on Mizan and Ata Ghar (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 26 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

Five Afghan nationals working for an aid agency were killed on 25 February in the village of Ozbin in Kabul Province, 50 kilometers from the Afghan capital, AFP reported on 26 February. Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said that one aid worker is missing and two others sustained injuries when their vehicle was ambushed, the BBC reported on 26 February. The victims were working for the Swedish Development Fund, which is supporting the Rural Development Ministry in implementing a National Solidarity Program, AFP reported. No one has taken responsibility for the attack. Four staff members of the Organization for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation were killed in an ambush in the western Afghanistan's Farah Province on 14 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

One Afghan soldier was killed and two were injured in a 1 March clash that occurred at the customs house of the southeastern Afghan city of Khost, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. The clash took place between local residents and soldiers belonging to Khost Military Division No. 25. The cause of the fighting is not known, but an unspecified number of local residents have reportedly been arrested. (Amin Tarzi)

One person was killed and another injured on 28 February in the northern Afghan town of Taloqan, "The New York Times," reported on 2 March. Afghan sources suspected the attack on the video store to have been inspired by the former Taliban regime, which banned videos and music. This was the second attack on the store in the past two weeks. (Amin Tarzi)

Eight of the 11 people killed near Wana, in Pakistan's South Waziristan region on 28 February were Afghans, including a 14-year-old boy, the Islamabad daily "The News" reported on 29 February. Six others were injured in the shooting. The incident occurred when Pakistani soldiers opened fire on two vehicles that did not stop at a roadblock, the BBC reported 28 February. Initially, Pakistani military sources said that while some civilians might have been killed, militants initiated the attack. However, an unidentified Pakistani intelligence source called the incident "mistaken fire." Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf has called for an immediate inquiry into the incident, and has expressed his deep sorrow to the families of those killed, the Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on 1 March. Speaking before the Pakistani Senate on 29 February, Minister for Water and Power Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao, said that while the Wana incident is regrettable, it should be viewed against the background of Pakistan's national security, Pakistan Television reported. South Waziristan is considered to have served as a sanctuary for the Taliban and al-Qaeda fugitives since the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

Sunni and Shi'ite recruits for the Afghan National Army clashed on 2 March in Kabul, Radio Kelid reported. The clash occurred as the Shi'ites were making preparations for the Shi'ite religious holiday of Ashura. An unidentified spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force said one person was killed in the clash. However, Afghan police sources said no one was killed, but 16 people were injured, Kelid reported. The Shi'ites are a minority in Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

The Junbish-e Melli party has handed over four of its commanders to authorities in northern Afghanistan's Balkh Province, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 1 March. Faizullah Zaki, a spokesman for Junbish leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum, confirmed the handover of four commanders and added that the party is committed to finding and handing over four other commanders wanted by the authorities. The eight Junbish commanders have been accused of killing four commanders belonging to the rival Jamiat-e Islami party on 18 February in Balkh Province's Sholgara District (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 26 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali has said his ministry will step up its fight against illegal drugs, Afghanistan Television reported on 26 February. The fight against illicit narcotics is high on the agenda of the Afghan Transitional Administration, as the increase in opium production is one of the major factors contributing to insecurity in Afghanistan, Jalali said. Referring to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime "Afghanistan Farmers' Intention Survey 2003/2004," Jalali said poppy cultivation in the country increased in 2003 compared to the year before and, if measures are not taken, will rise again in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 26 February 2004). The ministry's new strategy involves the destruction of poppy plantations and laboratories and more effective measures against drug trafficking, Jalali explained. (Amin Tarzi)

At a meeting held on 26 February in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan's Counternarcotics Directorate (CND) Director Mirwais Yasini stressed the need to destroy opium-poppy plantations in eastern Afghan provinces, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported. Yasini said the CND has prepared a strategy for the destruction of opium poppies in eastern Afghanistan that takes into account the financial problems of farmers. He did not, however, say if farmers will be compensated. Interior Minister Jalali on 26 February said paying farmers to stop cultivating poppies was an unsuccessful experience, Afghanistan Television reported. Yasini added that he has held talks with governors of Konar, Laghman, Nangarhar, and Nuristan provinces regarding the CND strategy. A CND commission has determined that two-thirds of the irrigated land in Nangarhar, Konar, and Laghman provinces is producing opium poppies (see above and "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 26 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

Members of the First Frontier Brigade in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province have destroyed a laboratory allegedly used to produce heroin, Hindukosh news agency reported on 29 February. The operation against the Khoginani District laboratory netted 80 500-kilogram bags of opium and equipment used to produce heroin. (Amin Tarzi)

The Czech Chamber of Deputies on 25 February approved the government's request to deploy 150 Czech soldiers to Afghanistan, CTK and AFP reported. The resolution was supported by 127 deputies, with 46 voting against, and 13 abstentions. The resolution stipulates that 120 of the troops will serve with the U.S.-led coalition and 30 will be assigned to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul. The Senate has already approved the request. (Michael Shafir)

28 February 1993 -- Hizb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar pounds Kabul with grenades. Eighty people are killed.

25 February 1995 -- The Taliban threaten to attack Kabul if forces loyal to Burhanuddin Rabbani do not lay down their arms.

27 February 1997 -- Taliban regime forbids the possession of foreign magazines and books.

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