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Afghan Report: May 19, 2004

19 May 2004, Volume 3, Number 18

By Andrew Tully

There are an estimated 10 million eligible voters in Afghanistan, but so far only about 2 million have registered to take part in the September election (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 1 April 2004).

Meanwhile, violence is flaring up in many areas of the country, and Afghanistan's border with Pakistan remains a magnet for members of the former Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda.

U.S. General David Barno, the commanding general of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged the problems last week, but said he has developed a strategy that he believes will keep interference to a minimum and allow Afghans to choose a president in September.

Speaking on 14 May at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Barno said his forces have made a shift away from a strictly military approach to one that includes what he calls an important political element to ensure both good security and good voter turnout.

"There's no security without reconstruction, clearly no reconstruction without security in Afghanistan. In our military mission, as part of the overall effort there, it clearly encompasses both of those dynamics. So whereas earlier in our operation in Afghanistan we were focused very much on that combat, direct action, remove terrorists and focus on the 'military dynamic'; we now -- clearly last fall, clearly today -- are in a much more nuanced environment," Barno said.

Barno stressed that this does not mean he expects there will be no violence as the election nears, or that all 10 million eligible voters will be registered in time. But he says he does believe the vote will be a significant first step into democracy for a country trying to emerge from three decades of war.

Of particular concern is Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, which has long been lawless and is believed to be a haven for neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda members regrouping after the U.S.-led invasion of late 2001.

But Barno expressed optimism that trouble in the border region can at least be minimized, if not neutralized, thanks to what he said was Pakistan's commitment to policing its side of the border. He said his troops now work well in crossborder coordination with Pakistani forces.

Barno acknowledged that this coordination has not yet produced spectacular results, such as the capture of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But he said he believes the region is gradually becoming stabilized.

"We do a great deal of coordination with the Pakistanis. We have what I'd characterize as complementary efforts on both sides of the borders and we share a great deal of information through these various information exchanges. We've got radios that commanders have on both sides of the border, they can talk to each other now. We've made some significant strides there, I think, over the last several months," Barno said.

Many observers say security in Afghanistan has been impossible, especially for foreign armies dating as far back as Alexander the Great more than 2,300 years ago. Some even joke that Karzai is not properly the president of Afghanistan but merely the mayor of Kabul, because, they contend, security outside the capital is nonexistent.

This is a great exaggeration, according to Radek Sikorski, a former foreign secretary and secretary of defense for Poland who now studies international affairs at the American Enterprise Institute, a private policy research center in Washington.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Sikorski, who has traveled extensively in Afghanistan, said there has been measurable progress in making much of Afghanistan secure enough that voters can elect a president who truly represents his people.

"There is basic security in most of Afghanistan. There are, of course, incidents up in the hills, particularly on the Afghan-Pakistani border. But, you know, that's a border that has never been quiet in its many-thousand-year history. So let's not expect too much," Sikorski said.

Sikorski also acknowledged that many Afghan men probably will not permit their wives and daughters to vote, regardless of the country's liberal election laws, and that there are many nomads who are difficult to register for the election.

But he said that is reason enough to increase efforts to enroll as many eligible voters as possible. Sikorsky recalled that Afghans debated vigorously at their constitutional convention last year, and seem, for the most part, to want democracy.

Sikorski also said a vigorous voter-registration campaign is the least the West, and particularly the United States, should do for a country that he said helped bring down Soviet communism and was destroyed in the process: "It takes time, and it won't be perfect the first time. But I think the people of Afghanistan do want to be engaged in the democratic process. So I think we should spend at least a fraction of the money that we spend on arming the Afghan resistance on helping Afghanistan make its passage to the family of free nations," Sikorski said.

On 16 May in Kabul, the United Nations' envoy to Afghanistan described the country's progress toward democracy as "insufficient."

Jean Arnault said that disarming militias, creating an independent police force, and forming a single national army are necessary steps for achieving lasting stability in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 13 May 2004, and news section below).

Andrew Tully is RFE/RL's Washington correspondent.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a 13 May press release that mistreatment of prisoners by U.S. military and intelligence personnel in Afghanistan is a systemic problem and not limited to a few isolated cases (see below). HRW Afghanistan researcher John Sifton said that Afghans have been telling his organization "for well over a year about mistreatment in U.S. custody." HRW said the United States has still not provided adequate explanations for three detainee deaths that took place in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003. Two of the deaths were determined to be homicides by U.S. military pathologists. "We've basically been stonewalled," Sifton said. "It's been well over a year since the two detainees were killed in Afghanistan [in December 2002], and U.S. officials are still supposedly investigating," he said. "It's time for them to tell the public what happened." According to HRW, U.S. military officials "have repeatedly refused to explain...the circumstances of the third detainee death." (Amin Tarzi)

The HRW press release also said that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) -- an autonomous institution within the Afghan Transitional Administration -- has received numerous complaints about abuses by U.S. troops in 2003-04. The complaints have been made to the AIHRC's offices in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. military operations regularly take place. According to HRW, the AIHRC has repeatedly raised concerns about possible cases of abuse with U.S. officials, as did local government representatives and officials with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. On 10 May, the AIHRC formally requested access to U.S. detention sites in Afghanistan. HRW has also made several formal requests to visit U.S. detention sites in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004, none of which has received a response, according to HRW. (Amin Tarzi)

The U.S. military says it is investigating allegations that an Afghan police officer was abused and subjected to humiliating photographs while detained on a U.S. base.

In an interview with "The New York Times" on 12 May, police officer Sayyed Nabi Siddiqi says he was falsely accused of being a member of the Taliban last summer and spent some 40 days in detention at various U.S. bases in Afghanistan. He alleges he was subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation, and sexual abuse. Siddiqi said he was repeatedly photographed naked by his U.S. captors, like the Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghurayb prison.

Siddiqi was released without charge. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a statement on 12 May saying the U.S. military is investigating the case.

Afghan and international human-rights groups say they have been investigating similar complaints about the U.S. treatment of Afghan detainees, long before the scandal over Iraqi prisoners surfaced.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission says it has received 44 complaints in recent months against various actions by U.S. forces. It says its most recent request for access to Afghan detainees in U.S. custody -- a request prompted by the Iraqi scandal -- was turned down.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Barno, said on 11 May there would be no change in policy on access to prisoners held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. He said only representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are permitted to visit them.

The ICRC's spokeswoman in Afghanistan, Jessica Barry, told RFE/RL on 11 May that her organization regularly visits U.S. detention facilities in Afghanistan. However, she refused to comment on the treatment of detainees, referring to the ICRC's policy of confidentiality.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch says it, too, has expressed concern over the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and has asked to visit U.S. detentions centers in the country.

John Sifton, the Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, said some detainees who were released from U.S. custody told HRW they had been mistreated: "We reported before this scandal broke in Iraq that there were serious concerns about the way U.S. forces were arresting and detaining prisoners in Afghanistan. We have serious allegations from early, early, early in the conflict from 2001 and 2002 that prisoners captured in Afghanistan were beaten severely, stripped naked, [and] exposed to cold temperatures by U.S. forces. This was in many ways early warning signs to the U.S. military that it has problems detaining prisoners taken on the battlefield, but what we now know is that those lessons were not learned."

He said HRW continues to receive such complaints. In March, the organization released a 59-page report about alleged abuses by U.S. forces in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 March 2004). The report concluded that U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan had arbitrarily detained civilians, used excessive force during arrests of noncombatants, and mistreated detainees.

Sifton told RFE/RL that some allegations of mistreatment have been made by U.S. military personnel themselves: "There are members of the U.S. military who are concerned about what the U.S. intelligence and military service is doing, and they have leaked information to us about those problems."

HRW called on the United States to investigate and publicly report on allegations of mistreatment at its detention facilities in Afghanistan and to instruct military and intelligence personal to take steps to prevent or stop abuses.

Sifton believes the U.S. should give human rights groups access to detention centers in Afghanistan.

"The U.S. military has ignored all of the requests we made to visit detention sites in Afghanistan. We very much urge them to do so now because it harms their credibility and the credibility of [Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid] Karzai," Sifton said.

Barno, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged that the military has been looking into what he called "challenges and problems" at its holding facilities in Afghanistan.

He said military authorities are investigating allegations of abuse, including three deaths.

In December, Amnesty International criticized the U.S. military for not disclosing the status of investigations into the deaths of two Afghans who died at Bagram, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, in 2002. Their deaths have been listed as homicides by the U.S. military.

According to HRW, another Afghan detainee died at a U.S. air base in eastern Afghanistan in 2003. The reason for his death is not clear.

U.S. officials say about 300 Afghans suspected of having ties to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, or other insurgent groups are being held in detention at Bagram. An unknown number of others are being held at eight to 10 other sites across the country. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

The UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program is to enter its final phase on 17 May, Radio Afghanistan reported on 16 May. Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Zaher Azimi said that 6,000 militiamen in Kabul Province will be disarmed under the final phase. Approximately 4,000 pieces of heavy weaponry of various types have been registered thus far in Afghanistan under the program, Azimi added. UN special representative for Afghanistan Jean Arnault recently said that a lack of progress in the DDR process is placing the national elections, scheduled for September, in jeopardy (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 13 May 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

The main phase of the UN-backed DDR program was launched on 17 May when the Rocket Brigade 99 in Kabul surrendered 69 surface-to-air missiles, Radio Afghanistan reported. Deputy Defense Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak said the DDR program will be implemented throughout Afghanistan. However, the UN said the results of the program launch were "unconvincing," adding that the program is in jeopardy because some regional warlords are reluctant to hand over their weapons, the BBC reported on 17 May. The UN officials who run the DDR program have acknowledged that it will be difficult to convince major warlords -- such as Mohammad Ismail Khan, who is governor of Herat Province, or the commander of Military Corps No. 7 in Balkh Province, General Ata Mohammad -- to cooperate. Unidentified Western sources have indicated that Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who controls his own militia in Kabul and Panjsher provinces, also poses a problem to the implementation of the DDR program, the BBC added. British Major Jerry Knight, who was on hand for the hand over of the missiles in Kabul, said that most of them were not operational. (Amin Tarzi)

General Ata Mohammad has expressed concern over the statement of a spokesman of the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) regarding the DDR program, Radio Afghanistan reported on 17 May. Ata Mohammad has claimed that UNAMA spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva has accused a number of warlords and commanders, including himself, of being unwilling to cooperate with the DDR program. Ata Mohammad claimed he has cooperated with the DDR program more than other commanders and warned that unless the UNAMA apologizes to him, he will cease such cooperation. Troops loyal to Abdul Rashid Dostum's Junbish-e Melli party have fought against troops loyal to the Jamiat-e Islami party, led in northern Afghanistan by Ata Mohammad, since the demise of the Taliban in 2001. If the Afghan Transitional Administration manages to disarm the two it will constitute a major step toward consolidating its power in northern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 May and 5 June 2003). Thus far, despite assurances to Kabul, neither Dostum nor Ata Mohammad has begun to disarm in earnest. (Amin Tarzi)

Sayyed Eshaq Gailani, a presidential candidate from Afghanistan's National Unity Movement, has said that Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's administration will not be legitimate beyond June, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 13 May. Gailani said that according to the December 2001 Bonn agreement, the administration's mandate expires in June and will not be legal after that date. Gailani suggested that a loya jirga (grand assembly) be held to clarify situation. The loya jirga could either allow Karzai to stay in power or appoint a replacement, Gailani said. The Bonn agreement calls for Afghan elections to be held in June, but that date has since been pushed to September. (Amin Tarzi)

A political party calling itself the Afghan Labor and Development Party has officially been registered with the Justice Ministry, Afghanistan Television reported on 13 May. According to an unidentified spokesman for the party, the Afghan Labor and Development Party is the new name for the National Reconciliation Party. (Amin Tarzi)

The Justice Ministry has officially registered the Afghan Mellat Party (Afghan Nation), Kabul Afghanistan reported on 16 May. The party is also known as the Social Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the report added. Afghan Mellat is a party that was established during the reign of King Mohammad Zaher and supported Pashtun nationalism. The party recently split into several camps and it is not known which faction has been officially registered. (Amin Tarzi)

Mohammad Kaleq Faruqi, chairman of the decision-making council of Hizb-e Islami, and other members of the council on 11 May obtained voter-registration cards for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, Afghanistan Television reported. Faruqi said that all members of Hizb-e Islami in all provinces of Afghanistan will take part in the elections scheduled for September. The U.S. has labeled Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar a terrorist. Recently, however, Faruqi and other members of the radical party have held talks with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 May 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

France and Germany confirmed on 13 May that a joint brigade from the two countries will assume command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, AFP reported. According to a joint Franco-German declaration, Paris and Berlin "will participate, as part of the general staff of the European Corps [Eurocorps], in commanding" the ISAF as of August. Canada currently commands the ISAF. It is not clear from the declaration what relationship Eurocorps will have with NATO. (Amin Tarzi)

A German soldier in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was injured in Kabul on 11 May in an apparent rocket attack, Radio Afghanistan reported. An unidentified spokesperson for ISAF told the official Afghan Bakhtar News Agency that it was not clear whether a rocket or a bomb caused the blast. Kabul security commander Lieutenant General Baba Jan said that a rocket fired from southeast of the city injured the German solider. (Amin Tarzi)

One U.S. Marine was killed and several were injured in an attack on 15 May in Helmand Province's Musa Qala' District, Hindukosh News Agency reported on 16 May. The Marines' convoy came under rocket attack from neo-Taliban forces, according to the news agency. An unidentified neo-Taliban spokesman cited by the agency claimed that 10 Marines were killed in the attack, but casualty figures provided by neo-Taliban sources are notoriously unreliable. (Amin Tarzi)

Four suspected insurgents were arrested in Helmand Province's Musa Qala' District on 16 May following the killing of a U.S. Marine on 15 May, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported on 16 May. General Dad Mohammad, head of the province's National Security Department, said that two brothers of Mullah Abdul Gafur, the neo-Taliban commander suspected of killing the Marine, were among the four men arrested. Around 600 pro-government Afghan militiamen with coalition aerial support have been engaged in operations to find those responsible for the attack on the U.S. convoy. (Amin Tarzi)

U.S. forces killed five suspected neo-Taliban members in an ambush on 12 May in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar Province, AP reported on 13 May. According to Khaled Pashtun, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial government, the militants attacked a U.S. convoy and in the ensuing battle five insurgents were killed and five were taken into custody by U.S. forces. Pashtun said no U.S. casualties were reported. (Amin Tarzi)

Suspected neo-Taliban militia killed two Afghan soldiers on 11 May in Zabul Province, AP reported. The soldiers were killed along the Kabul-Kandahar highway in Shah Joy District. General Naimatullah Khan, Zabul's military commander, said that suspected neo-Taliban ambushed the vehicle carrying the soldiers and, after killing the soldiers, commandeered their vehicle with them. (Amin Tarzi)

Two police officers were killed on 15 May while on duty in Kabul's Dasht-e Barchi area, Afghanistan Television reported the next day. Lieutenant General Baba Jan, Kabul's security commander, said the two officers were killed by thieves who managed to escape. Four people were later detained as suspects in the slayings, Baba Jan added. (Amin Tarzi)

Zabul Province Governor Khail Mohammad Hosayni said on 17 May that neo-Taliban forces have launched an attack on the province's Mizan District, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. Hosayni said the offensive was continuing, but had no information on casualties sustained by either side. Colonel Mohammad Ayyub, security commander of Zabul, added that the insurgents "are using light and heavy weapons in the attack [but] the guards in the district are...firmly defending their positions." Zabul is one of the provinces most affected by the neo-Taliban insurgency, and at times officials in the province have claimed that one or more districts in the province have come under the control of militants (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July and 13 November 2003, and 26 February 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

Security forces in western Afghanistan's Herat Province on 13 May freed three Iranian nationals who were kidnapped some 11 months ago, Radio Afghanistan reported. The Iranians were reportedly taken hostage by militiamen loyal to commander Amanullah, a local warlord who operates in the province's Shindand District. The Iranians were apparently kidnapped from the Iranian city of Torbat-e Jam in order to collect a ransom. (Amin Tarzi)

Construction on the 122-kilometer road connecting Jalalabad to Asmar began on 17 May, according to a press release from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The road is intended to better connect Nangarhar, Konar, and Nuristan provinces in eastern Afghanistan. The U.S.-funded road project "will improve the economic possibilities involving trade of all three provinces, perhaps most dramatically in Nuristan, which has been isolated for centuries," U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said. The Jalalabad-to-Asmar road is scheduled to be completed in mid-2005. (Amin Tarzi)

More than two years after the fall of the Taliban, war-ravaged Afghanistan is still struggling to stand on its feet.

In April in Berlin, the international community pledged aid to the country totaling some $8.2 billion over the next three years (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 April 2004). A three-day regional conference held this week in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek looked at alternative ways to help Afghanistan. The forum, which ended on 12 May with the signing of a joint declaration, focused on ways that countries in the region could reduce trade barriers, enhance transport infrastructure, and streamline border systems.

Government representatives from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and the five Central Asian states all attended the conference, which was initiated by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and conducted with the participation of the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO).

The UNDP said the forum was an opportunity to enhance trust-building dialogue between the countries of the region, and urged Afghanistan's neighbors to put their traditional rivalries aside.

Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani agreed. He called on participants to outline what he called "modest, practical, and implementable" action plans to smooth out obstacles in the way of crossborder trade and transit.

"We cannot do everything simultaneously," Ghani said. "We must focus. You know what's the difference between us and the Europeans? Europeans disagree 90 percent of the time and agree on 10 percent, and then devote all their energies to implementing that 10 percent. We agree on 90 percent of the issues, disagree on 10 percent, and devote all our energies to saying how we should reach a 100 percent agreement. It's not the way to do business."

Participants said concerns over security are delaying development of deeper trade ties. They agreed, however, that the region overall cannot develop successfully without a stable and prosperous Afghanistan.

Ghani insisted that restrictive trade policies were the main barrier to boosting economic cooperation. He pointed out that development in Afghanistan could help bolster security across the region at a time when fears of Islamic extremism are rising.

Nurollah Delawari, a representative of the Afghan Agency for Foreign Investment, told RFE/RL he is optimistic about future economic cooperation in the region.

"Afghanistan just joined the ECO countries. To us, ECO means a hope that this region could unify its economic activities and benefit from each other's experience," Delawari said. "Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia are developing strategies so that they will strengthen their economies to compete effectively. In order for [our region] to effectively use its resources and participate in the world economy [we've] got to find ways to move forward together."

There are numerous opportunities for economic cooperation within the region, as Afghanistan is in need of nearly everything and aiming to spend billions of dollars on reconstruction projects in the coming years.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev said there was no shortage to the potential partnerships.

"Central Asian countries have huge resources -- hydroelectricity, coal and ferrous metals, as well as transportation and communication networks," Akaev said. "We have great opportunities to participate in joint projects in Afghanistan in many spheres."

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could export hydroelectric power to Afghanistan, where only a small minority of the population has access to electricity. Afghanistan has a huge demand for qualified workers and specialists to reconstruct and develop the infrastructure. It is also a potentially convenient route to the sea for export goods such as hydrocarbons and cotton.

Isroil Makhmudov, Tajikistan's deputy economy minister, told RFE/RL that "Tajikistan is ready to send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and to help it in other ways. We can cooperate in the health, education, and cultural spheres. Afghan youth can study in Tajik universities in their native language and without much expense. There are [also] many opportunities in the energy sector. We continue to export electricity to Afghanistan. We can increase [these exports] to 2 billion kilowatts an hour this summer. We have opportunities to cooperate on the establishment of the electricity system in Afghanistan," Makhmudov said.

But Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev said such regional partnerships could only go so far. He said the many donor countries that have promised assistance to Afghanistan must honor their pledges.

"Unfortunately, it must be noted that some of the more than 50 donor countries are not fulfilling their obligations entirely, and consequently, some of the projects are not yet realized," Tanaev said.

Tanaev said Afghanistan has received far less aid than other countries in need over the past two years. (Antoine Blua; RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service Director Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev and Mirzo Salimov from the Tajik Service contributed to this report)

16 May 1972 -- Kabul Radio broadcasts a demand for Pashtunistan's independence from Pakistan. Pashtunistan was the name used by Kabul for Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.

14 May 1992 -- Afghan President Sibghatullah Mojaddidi appoints former communist militia leader Abdul Rashid Dostum as a four-star general.

17 May 2001 -- Mohammad Ismail Khan returns to Afghanistan from Iran to head a western front against the Taliban.

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