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Afghan Report: July 8, 2004

8 July 2004, Volume 3, Number 25
By Ron Synovitz

Afghanistan's official Baskhtar News Agency reported that the UN-sponsored Afghan election commission decided today to go ahead with a presidential election in September or October following two days of talks with members of the Afghan government. But the state-run news agency said the commission is still waiting to make an official announcement about parliamentary elections. The report follows what was described as "final discussions" at the presidential palace in Kabul between commission members and Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's cabinet.

Government spokesman Jawed Ludin said the commission told Karzai's cabinet yesterday that a presidential election is still possible in late September or in October. But Ludin admitted that concerns about logistics, unruly warlords, and ongoing Taliban violence are likely to push back the more difficult ballot for a 249-seat parliament until next year.

"Naturally, the United Nations and the election commission assure us that it is possible for the presidential elections to be held according to the original plans. We are satisfied with this. About the parliamentary elections, we have heard some opinions and some concerns," Ludin said.

Afghan Agriculture Minister Hussain Anwari says the election commission wants another six months to prepare for the parliamentary vote. On the other hand, he said, Karzai's government wants both the presidential and parliamentary polls to be completed before November. The presidential vote originally was expected in June but was postponed until September to give more time to register voters and disarm the militia forces of regional warlords. Afghan officials now say the presidential vote will be during the Afghan month of Mizan, which is from 22 September through 21 October this year under the solar calendar.

Ludin confirmed that no final deal was reached yesterday, when members of the election commission met with Karzai's cabinet. "The decision about when to conduct the elections is the work of the election commission. A team from the commission attended the meeting of the Afghan cabinet [on 6 July] and they discussed this issue. They will present a report to the cabinet. After a discussion [with the cabinet], they will decide on the date of elections," Ludin said.

Karzai is widely expected to defeat about six challengers in the presidential ballot. The Afghan Constitution calls for all attempts to be made to conduct the presidential and parliamentary vote simultaneously. But the election commission says it still lacks census data to calculate the distribution of seats in the future legislature. Laws on campaign finance and media access for some 2,000 anticipated parliamentary candidates also are still being worked out.

Some UN officials also have privately expressed concerns that a parliamentary vote before militia factions are disarmed could consolidate the power of anti-Taliban warlords who work with U.S. combat troops and control large patches of territory across the country.

According to the latest UN figures, more than half of Afghanistan's eligible voters -- about 5.6 million of an estimated 10 million -- are now registered. But UN election workers admit that the success of registration has varied in different geographic regions. Most notably, election-registration teams are still unable to enter parts of Pashtun-dominated southern Afghanistan where small, specialized teams of U.S.-led commandos are battling the remnants of the Taliban.

A series of recent Taliban attacks also has disrupted registration in the south by targeting voter-registration centers, UN election workers, and ordinary Afghans who have registered for the ballots.

Ron Synovitz is an RFE/RL correspondent.

As the promised Afghan elections approach, Radio Free Afghanistan is focusing on the registration process as well as on the broader political landscape in the country. Our weekly bilingual (Pashto and Dari) program called "On the Waves of Freedom" features representatives of the registered political parties in groups of three. The guests are given an opportunity to introduce themselves, debate the issues facing the country, and answer listeners' questions.

Radio Free Afghanistan -- the Afghan Service of RFE/RL -- is on the air 12 hours a day, seven days a week (7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Kabul time), broadcasting in Pashto and Dari. The website,, is updated daily in Pashto and Dari, and in English Monday through Friday. The English page links to dozens of websites about Afghanistan, and all three pages feature special sections about the upcoming elections.

Afghanistan's elections, scheduled for September, will be delayed until mid-October because of ongoing violence and political disagreements, "The New York Times" reported on 2 July. UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva, however, said that the delay should not be seen as a "major drama." Farouk Wardak, a member of the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), pointed to disagreements between the Afghan government and political parties as the reason for the expected delay. In June, Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai said that elections would definitely be held in the month of Mizan in the Afghan calendar (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 1 July 2004). Mizan falls between 22 September-21 October this year, and so the ballot will still take place within the timeframe set by Karzai. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan Transitional Administration spokesman Jawed Ludin said on 6 July that the country's parliamentary elections will be postponed, Hindukosh News Agency reported. Ludin said the Afghan cabinet reviewed a report by the JEMB that concluded that it would be impossible to hold both the presidential and parliamentary elections in Mizan (September-October), AFP reported on 6 July. The JEMB recommended that parliamentary elections be delayed by two to six months. While the "cabinet welcomed the decision that the presidential elections could take place as expected in the month of Mizan," it "preferred the two-month option," Ludin said. The JEMB is expected to announce the date for parliamentary elections within days, AFP reported. While not unexpected, the delay of parliamentary elections is a blow to international and Afghan efforts to put Afghanistan on track to normalcy (see feature above). (Amin Tarzi)

Madrid is planning to increase the number of its troops in Afghanistan by 465 to 565 personnel, Radio Nacional de Espana reported on 1 July. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and Defense Minister Jose Bono presented a report on the proposed troop increase to the country's parliament on 1 July. Spain currently has 475 troops in Afghanistan. According to the report, the proposed increase is to ensure security during the upcoming Afghan elections, and the number of Spanish troops in Afghanistan would be reduced to 540 by the end of 2004. (Amin Tarzi)

The voter-registration center in the Tolkan area of Panjwai District of Kandahar Province was attacked on 5 July, Hindukosh News Agency reported the next day. According to the report, a group of suspected neo-Taliban attacked the center for about an hour, during which one person trying to obtain a voter-registration card was wounded. Neo-Taliban elements have vowed to disrupt the upcoming Afghan elections. (Amin Tarzi)

Unknown assailants attacked two vote-registration centers in Logar Province on 5 July, Afghanistan Television reported the next day. According to the report, "opponents" attacked a center located in a secondary school in Hesarak village and blew up a second center. There were no casualties reported in the attacks. Afghanistan Television reported that loyalists of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the radical leader of Hizb-e Islami, and members of Al-Qaeda have threatened to disrupt the elections. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, speaking at the NATO summit in Istanbul on 29 June, urged the alliance to speed up sending additional troops to his country, Anatolia news agency reported. Karzai thanked NATO's decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 1 July 2004) and added: "I would like you to please hurry...come sooner than September," the BBC reported on 29 June. In September, elections are being held in Afghanistan. Karzai said that he needs the additional NATO "forces today in Afghanistan to provide a secure environment for elections for the Afghan people and beyond." The Afghan leader said that the main problems in his country are terrorism, the existence of militia forces, and illicit drug production. NATO has so far done little to address the narcotics problem or force warlords to disarm. During the Istanbul summit, NATO leaders agreed to a vaguely worded commitment to address the narcotics problem in Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

A day after NATO announced on 28 June that it has decided to deploy a 1,000-troop NATO Response Force (NRF) to Afghanistan for the elections (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report, 1 July 2004), a dispute erupted between the United States and France over the issue, AFP reported on 29 June. French President Jacques Chirac said during a press conference that NATO leaders have decided "not to mobilize, as some had imagined, NATO's rapid reaction force, because it isn't meant for this." According to AFP, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his French counterpart, Michele Alliot-Marie, had a sharp exchange on the issue of deployment of the NRF in Afghanistan. Chirac said that NATO has decided "on the one hand to put the NRF on maximum alert" in case the security situation deteriorates prior to the elections and, on the other hand, to "immediately [send] an assessment mission" to the country. Most of the NRF troops are French, the BBC reported on 29 June. (Amin Tarzi)

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is to assume command of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Mazar-e Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh, on 1 July, Hindukosh News Agency reported. The PRT in Mazar-e Sharif has been under the command of the United Kingdom but as part of the agreement reached by NATO leaders during their summit in Istanbul on 28 June to expand the area of operation, ISAF will assume command of the unit (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 1 July 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

Two French soldiers from the ISAF were injured on 29 June when an antipersonnel mine exploded during an operation in the French Battle Group area of operations 20 kilometers north of Kabul, the ISAF website reported ( The area where the explosion occurred was cleared by ISAF and proclaimed to be free of mines. An investigation is ongoing. (Amin Tarzi)

A group of nine Afghan policemen came under attack on a road in the Helmand Province on 29 June and eight of them were killed, Hindukosh News Agency reported. Gholam Jan, commander of the police battalion in charge of security on the main road connecting the southern Afghan city of Kandahar with the western city of Herat, was among those killed in the attack. The policemen were traveling on the road when unidentified gunmen ambushed their vehicle. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. (Amin Tarzi)

The Ulama Council of Afghanistan in a statement issued on 29 June condemned the killing of civilians by the neo-Taliban, Radio Afghanistan reported. The council's statement specifically addressed the killing of 16 people on 24 June in the southern Afghan province of Oruzgan by the neo-Taliban (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 1 July 2004). "We ulama condemn the ruthless actions carried out by mercenary Taliban. Their actions have no religious justification; rather these actions are against all human standards. We ask the government to use every possible means to bring such enemies to justice," the statement said. The neo-Taliban have claimed responsibility for killing the men whom they identified as soldiers and election workers. (Amin Tarzi)

Mofti Latifullah Hakimi, purporting to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban, told Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) on 1 July that the militia captured Mawlawi Assadullah in Ab Band District of Ghazni Province in south-central Afghanistan and beheaded him "for preaching Christianity." Hakimi said that several copies of the Bible and other Christian-related documents were found with Assadullah. Ghazni Governor Haji Assadullah Khaled told AIP that Hakimi's claims "are all lies." Khaled added that he was in Ab Band personally and there were no reports of Mawlawi Assadullah being beheaded. (Amin Tarzi)

Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan has dismissed the province's chief of security, General Abdul Aziz Ma'il, the Kabul daily "Erada" reported on 1 July. Kabul had appointed Ma'il to replace Nasir Ahamd Alawi, but Ismail Khan has asked him to leave the province immediately. Ma'il has said that he will not leave his post under any circumstances. Ismail Khan rules Herat like his own fiefdom and often ignores orders from the central government in Kabul. (Amin Tarzi)

The Afghanistan International Bank began operations in Kabul on 1 July, Radio Afghanistan reported. Afghan citizens established the bank with assistance from a number of foreign investors. The initial investment in the bank is $10 million. (Amin Tarzi)

The three officials from the Joint Electoral Management Body overseeing the country's elections have no idea that the Kuchis will not quietly fall in line with their plans to educate them about democracy and the upcoming elections.

The officials have just told the 15 Kuchi leaders seated inside a United Nations office in Kabul that just one Kuchi election representative will work in each of the 28 provinces in which they live.

The lids of Wakil Ashraf Ahmadzai's eyes narrow with tension and his brow furrows below his bronze-colored turban. It's too much for the 50-year-old nomad leader to take.

"If you choose 28 [non-Kuchi] representatives for all the provinces, it is your responsibility if this fails," Ahmadzai says. "This plan for one person for each province is not enough. For example, there are many Kuchi tribes. If someone from an outside tribe tries to comes to speak [to a different tribe] about the election, they will not accept it."

The Kuchis are a tightly knit nomadic tribe -- a minority with an estimated population of 3 million in Afghanistan. What Ahmadzai and the Kuchi leaders are demanding is all 45 of the members of their tribal council be employed as election educators. He fears if outsiders come to their camps, their tribesmen and women may chose not to vote.

The elections for president and the lower house of the parliament are scheduled for sometime this fall. Registration for the polls is due to close by the end of July. Many election officials worry the voter registration effort will fall short of signing up 10.5 million people. Less than half that number have registered in eight months.

Election officials say faltering security and the lack of voter education are preventing people from registering. Ahmadzai says these 45 men, also called maleks, are recognized and respected throughout the tribe, and will be trusted when they speak about democracy and elections.

"There are some Kuchis who are living in such far-off places that they don't even know who the president of Afghanistan is. We are here because we have to find out about the election, and then we are going to go to our tribes and to the maleks and explain to them what the election is, whey they need to register, what the rules are and how to make a choice," Ahmadzai says.

Finding the Kuchis is difficult because they are constantly on the move along the many nomadic trails that crisscross Afghanistan. The Kuchis argue their leaders not only know how to find their wandering people, but they are the only ones who will be welcome when they do.

These men are fiercely protective of what they see as their women's honor. They will not allow an outsider to see one of their women, let alone talk to her about democracy and elections.

Moreover, participating in the vote has become an issue of security.

Amandine Roche, the United Nations' election civic-education supervisor for the five provinces surrounding the capital Kabul, takes the Kuchis' security concerns seriously. She says earlier this month a group of 70 armed men entered a Kuchi camp in southern Afghanistan, warning the nomads not to register to vote.

She says when Kuchi leaders came for election education training, one of them handed her a letter.

"He gave me this letter because when he went in Logar in the camp the Kuchi gave him this letter," Roche says. "They [told him] Al-Qaeda came during the night and they give this [letter], but they [couldn't] read it, so they even didn't know what it was talking about. But [Al-Qaeda] just threatened them and said 'If you collaborate with this foreign invader we will kill you.' It's like propaganda and intimidation."

Roche says another threatening letter was posted on the door of the election education office in Logar Province, just south of Kabul. Earlier this week that office came under rocket attack. No one was hurt -- this time.

Roche says warlords are a problem too: "How can you bring democracy [to] a country where all the warlords have weapons? I mean, people are very scared and all of them say 'I will take my [election] registration card once the warlords do not have weapons.'"

It took two days of negotiating, but the Kuchi are successful. All 45 council members are hired to educate their tribe about democracy and register them for the elections. They are taking to the trails on camel and donkey. They are armed with election posters, stickers and large charts with pictures that help explain the voting process to their mostly illiterate tribe. And they have just over a month to get the job done. (Laura Winter)

A viable and free media in Afghanistan is widely recognized by the international community and Afghans themselves as a top priority in the reconstruction of one of the world's poorest and most war-ravaged countries. Yet Western donors have also come to see that conditions in Afghanistan have meant both scaling back expectations and adapting to realities on the ground. When governments pledged $5.2 billion in assistance for Afghanistan in 2002, with $3.8 billion to be given in the form of grants, media development was envisioned as an important, albeit secondary priority. Millions of dollars have now been spent to reform or create media since the war, yet money alone has not been able to surmount basic logistical difficulties and philosophical differences.

So far, the United States, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and other countries, as well as UNESCO and other UN agencies, have all contributed millions to media assistance in Afghanistan. With so many diverse projects and differing definitions of what constitutes a "media" project (some humanitarian reconstruction projects contain media infrastructure), it is difficult to assess how much of the aid packages worked out by the West really target media issues, and of that figure, how much has gone directly to subsidizing local Afghanistan media.

Noah Miller, currently business manager of Internews Afghanistan, a U.S.-based media-assistance nongovernmental organization, is working to make local media sustainable. As a graduate student last year at the London-based Stanhope Center for Communications Policy Research, he published a study of Afghan media-development issues. Miller cited the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority's database of 31 media-assistance projects with funding requests totaling $56.8 million. But he found that the requests had generated donor commitments of only $29.8 million, of which only $4.7 million was disbursed at that time, that is actually transferred into accounts to which grantees can gain access.

Furthermore, of the $4.7 million, Miller found that $2.22 million was spent repairing facilities damaged during the U.S.-led 2001 bombing campaign or on radio broadcasts providing information on relief operations and the Loya Jirga, rather than on local community-news development. More funds have flowed since Miller's study last year, but the time lag between requests and expenditures and the difficulties of getting projects going and sustained in Afghanistan mean that such programs cannot be assessed only by their budget line at donors' conferences.

Last year, the U.S. military distributed 200,000 free transistor radios -- an indication of the very basic needs of Afghanistan, which differ considerably from nearby Central Asian countries and even some African developing nations. With only about 36 percent of the population literate and with the country's poorly developed infrastructure, radio remains by far the most popular medium. Many areas still lack electricity and television sets, so reaching most the population through television is not an option.

About 37 percent of the population, or 7.5 million Afghans, listen to the radio, Internews reports. Another Internews survey found that 24 percent of rural Afghans can be reached by local radio or television stations, although many households do not have electricity and the number of those who possess radios and batteries is not known.

In addition to the reformed government-broadcasting system, Radio Arman, the first independent station, was launched in 2003. Some conservatives were outraged that "young girls can be heard laughing on the air," according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a nongovernmental press-freedom group. The station grew popular in what an Afghan journalist told RSF was a "radio-centric" country, and others soon followed.

Internews has now set up 14 radio stations across Afghanistan with funding from the United States Agency for International Development's Office of Transitional Initiatives. Additional support from Germany has been provided for such Internews activities as a publication called "Media Monitor," which tracks press-freedom violations and development issues for the local media community and the general public.

In July 2003, Internews asked station managers across the country to map the footprint of their radio stations. They found there is a disparity between urban and rural listeners. International broadcasters such as VOA, RFE/RL, the BBC, and Deutsche Welle have all organized programming for Afghanistan. In a study of Afghan media prepared last year called "Afghan Media Landscape," the Baltic Media Center (BMC), based in Denmark and implementing programs in Afghanistan, says that for now international stations "provide pluralism in a country where private broadcasting can hardly survive." Without a thriving, independent business sector, advertising cannot flourish, the report noted. The BMC is concerned that international projects might inadvertently displace domestic efforts that also need support. "In a midterm perspective, the immense competition from these [foreign] radios will threaten both Radio Afghanistan and possibly Afghan private initiatives," the BMC study worries.

Such concerns, however, might be misplaced. Although foreign stations have considerable audiences, when Internews conducted a survey last year of 2,000 radio sets, they found that 80 percent were tuned to the two Afghan independent radio stations, which feature mainly Indian, Afghan, and Western music with some news programming.

As with other areas of support for fledgling civil society and liberal institutions, media developers have to face the reality that journalism as a profession is not established or protected in Afghanistan. In its annual report, RSF describes as "old enemies" of the press "warlords, conservatives, and the Taliban." RSF and the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have tracked dozens of cases of threats, harassment, and even murder of Afghan journalists for their work.

With the history of suppression of women's rights in Afghanistan, donors have also focused heavily on building the capacity of women to access and use journalism training and to participate in broadcasting. Internews and other media-assistance providers have found that radio listening is a male-dominated activity, and broadcasts came at times of the day that are not convenient for some listeners.

Slowly, this is beginning to change. Women have begun to work for national media outlets, and at least four stations that are specifically run by women and feature women's issues have begun broadcasting in Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, Jabul Saraj, and Herat. These stations can only broadcast a few hours each day, and face challenges from various forces challenging their effort to participate in society. They have experienced the difficulties of all fledgling institutions in Afghanistan, with conservatives clashing with liberals -- many of whom are returning from exile -- in a dynamic that affects all of Afghan politics, including the media.

Aina, or "Mirror," is an organization that was founded in 2001 by an Iranian photojournalist to promote press freedom. It is based in Paris with offices around the world, and it supported an educational mobile cinema in Afghanistan, the first women's radio station, and the first school for photojournalists. The London-based nongovernmental Institute for War and Peace Reporting runs training programs and publishes the weekly "Afghan Recovery Report," which uses stories written by student journalists.

Donors' plans for television have clashed with realities such as the January 2003 conservative Supreme Court ruling banning cable stations on the grounds that the programming was "pornographic" and "anti-Islamic." A Justice Ministry official has said that Voice of Afghan Women radio is "against Shari'a law." But in April, cable-television networks resumed broadcasting, reportedly evidence that more liberal forces in the Karzai government had prevailed. An official ban on singing on television and state radio remains in place, but radio stations ignore it. The cable programs likely do not reach an audience greater than 100,000, and a lot of the programming is strictly entertainment oriented.

The BMC says that when Afghanistan began to reform and reconstruct, it moved faster toward freedom of expression than most of its Central Asian neighbors did. There is reason to be optimistic about local support for press freedom. One reason is that the ministers now responsible for the media lived in the West for many years and have some understanding of the importance of editorial independence. Another reason is that the same international donors who worked in the Balkans and Central Asia have not pushed as much for full-fledged free-media legislation that "lives up to international -- in reality, Western -- standards," says BMC. Yet another factor is that donors have introduced conditionality by providing equipment under the pledge of editorial independence. This was not always done in the former Soviet Union in the haste to professionalize the media. But the freedoms gained have been quickly seized upon by factional forces controlled by various warlords, and without a clearly established institution of the "fourth estate," freedom could paradoxically lead to less freedom over time.

Education Minister Yonus Qauni was quoted in an interview with BMC as saying the media could promote a new culture, the rights of women, and national unity as long as they do not undermine the government, which he believes is the only hope for peace. The BMC voices the concerns of many Western donors when it says it believes that extensive training and the founding of ethics boards can reduce the tendency of journalism toward "destructive sensationalism."

Differences over how media should be developed reflect the larger divisive issues of the society, says BMC. For example, some officials want to promote media freedom and others want to suppress it. Even many of those promoting it want the media to perform certain missions. The official state media body Radio Television Afghanistan is described by BMC as "a profound defender of editorial independence" while also demonstrating "warm support of Islam as an integrated part of programming." Qauni defends independent public broadcasting and wants some programs featuring religion and some free of it.

So far, despite the professional training that occurred in the Soviet era in Afghanistan and that some experienced while in exile in the West, local institutions have not been formed easily. Journalists who tried to create an independent journalists' union last year with international help failed because of political conflicts, says RSF. RSF believes that the tensions playing out in other areas between progressive journalists and conservatives, made the union impossible. "The editor of an independent publication exclaimed at a preparatory meeting: 'I see so many warlords here that I wonder when they became journalists,'" RSF reported.

RSF says that one problem in media development is that Taliban groups and others such as Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have abused the media for their political goals. RSF has documented dozens of incidents in which reporters have been intimidated, detained, and even killed by various factions. Media outlets find themselves under constant pressure. For example in Jalalabad, staff at one radio station went on strike after armed mujahedin came to the station to complain it was not giving their activities enough coverage.

Although Western assistance officials fret about media footprints and have to cope with daunting logistical and cultural differences and physical danger in trying to launch media projects, war-torn Afghanistan already has an existing, durable, portable, and effective system for disseminating information and knowledge: the mosque. People might be without radios and electricity, but as the Afghanistan Peace Education Program of McMaster Center for Peace Studies in Canada has noted, "there is one mosque for every 50 to 100 households, while countless villages have no school at all."

Looking at the institutions already in the communication business, the McMaster Center has pointed out that mosques are "community-built, community-run, and community-supported institutions, the expenses of which are paid through voluntary or community-organized mechanisms." In addition to the mosque, many Afghans get their news by going to the bazaar, family weddings, or other local cultural events. These age-old methods for spreading information may be low-technology, but they are trusted and used, without any special Western training, and very accessible. (Catherine A. Fitzpatrick)

6 July 1996 -- Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar forms new cabinet.

8 July 1998 -- The Taliban regime orders the destruction of all television sets and the testing of individuals on their knowledge of Islam.

2 July 2001 -- U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain and Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage meet with the Taliban ambassador in Islamabad to threaten reprisals if Osama bin Laden attacks any American interests.

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