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Afghan Report: September 17, 2004

17 September 2004, Volume 3, Number 33
By Ron Synovitz

Experts on Afghanistan see the 12 September violence in the western city of Herat as the final phase of a long struggle between the central government and deposed Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan.

The deaths of seven people during riots by Ismail Khan's supporters came a day after the powerful warlord was sacked as Herat governor by Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai (see news items below). But in fact, relations between Herat and Kabul have been souring for more than a year and a half over Ismail Khan's refusal to pay the central government millions of dollars in import duties that his militia fighters have collected on goods from Iran.

Since March, Ismail Khan's private militia also has battled several rival militia groups around Herat. In August, Ismail Khan lost his ability to generate import-duty revenue. That's because militias like that of his longtime rival, the ethnic Pashtun commander Amanullah Khan, surrounded Herat and effectively cut the city off from key transit routes and a strategic airport.

Supporters of Ismail Khan stormed the gates of a UN compound in Herat before looting and burning the offices there. It was one of six compounds attacked by the angry crowd on 12 September.

John Sifton, a researcher for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, has been reporting on the behavior of Ismail Khan and his militia forces for years. "Factors have been coming together and there is no simple explanation for how we got to where we are now," he told RFE/RL. "One thing that is clear is that Ismail Khan's power has been diminished over the last few months -- not only by advances of [his longtime rival, commander] Amanullah Khan, but by dissension of his own commanders who understand that in the long term, they may have a better chance of holding onto power by joining with the Kabul-based government of Hamid Karzai."

Sifton said there is no doubt that Ismail Khan was severely weakened by a series of military setbacks in recent months that have brought his rivals to the outskirts of Herat (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 March and 12, 18, and 26 August 2004). But he also notes that Ismail Khan has a proven ability to make a comeback from seemingly hopeless situations.

"It is clear that he is not as strong as he was, otherwise none of this would have been possible. On the other hand, the fact that these supporters of his took to the streets and, with relative impunity, attacked six different compounds -- it either means that there's a lot of chaos on the streets or that he continues to have power. But either way, the situation is pretty fluid. And we will see in the next few days which way it goes," Sifton said.

But Ahmed Rashid, the author of the critically acclaimed book "Taliban," told RFE/RL that he thinks the events of 12 September mark the beginning of the end of Ismail Khan's time as the ruler of a self-styled fiefdom in western Afghanistan. "I think [these protests against Ismail Khan's sacking] will blow over," Rashid said. "And I think most people in Herat will be quite happy to have a new governor [Sayyed Ahmad Khairkhwah]. But it will take a bit of time. [Ismail Khan] can be a spoiler over the next few weeks. And he can certainly create problems. But I don't think he is going to be able to create major problems. And I think [the street demonstrations] will die down. I don't think there is that kind of public support for him. I'm sure he will be now watched very closely as to what he does."

Rashid rejected the analysis of observers who suggest Karzai sacked Ismail Khan to show voters that he will be a strong against warlords if he is elected on 9 October. "Clearly the timing is bad. And I don't think this is Karzai's timing. I think Karzai was very keen to get rid of Ismail Khan as early as May of 2003," he said. "What we did not have [in the past] was American backing for that move. The recent clashes between Ismail Khan and the Pashtun warlord Amanullah have finally made the Americans wake up to the fact that they have to back Karzai -- they have to back the Afghan government -- in getting rid of these warlords. So I think the timing has really been forced upon them -- upon the Americans. Whereas the Afghans have been quite supportive of wanting to get rid of [Ismail Khan] for more than a year."

The "Financial Times" of London on 13 September noted that local residents of Herat city have accused Pashtun government officials of orchestrating an August attack on Herat by Amanullah Khan. The newspaper notes that one unnamed Afghan government official has said that the allegation held some truth.

"This is an accusation that Ismail Khan has made," Rashid said. "And I think certainly some of the leading ministers -- the reformists -- are Pashtuns in the finance and economic side in the government. They have been pushing Karzai very hard to get rid of Ismail Khan. But I don't think that really implicates these ministers in trying to rouse Pashtuns to join Amanullah and force [Ismail Khan] out through force."

Rashid explained that the Afghan Finance and Economy ministries have been trying for years to get Ismail Khan to deliver to Kabul the import duties collected on goods transported from Iran. The United Nations has complained since 2002 that Ismail Khan's "prohibitive" import duties were blocking humanitarian aid shipments. Payments demanded by Ismail Khan's fighters also have prevented many poor Afghan refugees from returning from Iran.

(Ron Synovitz is a RFE/RL correspondent.)

Afghan government forces regained control of the western city of Herat late on 12 September after a day of street clashes that seven four dead, international news agencies reported. Violence erupted early in the day as supporters of ousted Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan attacked local UN buildings. "We have around 50 people wounded and four people killed," said Mohammed Sho'aib, a doctor in the city's central hospital, AFP reported on 12 September. Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai fired Ismail Khan on 11 September (see feature above), and Ismail Khan's supporters took to the streets that night and early the following day. Roughly 1,000 protestors massed at the UN compound on 12 September, torching the door of the building of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), according to Herat police chief Ziauddin Mahmudi. UNAMA spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said staffers hid in a bunker. Afghan forces imposed a curfew on the city as of the night of 12 September, AFP reported. (Marc Ricks)

With the situation in Herat still tense, ousted Governor Ismail Khan urged his followers on 12 September to refrain from violence, AFP reported. "Reshuffling and changes in a government are a normal thing," Ismail Khan said in a statement. "I am deeply affected by the number of brothers killed or injured in the past 24 hours." Karzai's government said Ismail Khan was appointed minister of mines and industries, while his gubernatorial seat was given to Sayyed Ahmad Khairkhwah, Afghanistan's ambassador to Ukraine. "I hope with patience, tolerance, and a single aim you ensure security, peace, and stability of your country and be tolerant," Ismail Khan told his successor. Speaking from Kabul, Karzai said Ismail Khan will continue working with the central government. "Our expectation from our brother Ismail Khan is [that he] serve his nation," said Karzai, who condemned the violence in Herat. "We expect him to come to Kabul and serve his country." (Marc Ricks)

UN personnel and dozens of aid workers from nongovernmental organizations left Herat on 13 September after two days of violent demonstrations in the city, AFP reported. According to AFP, 61 people, including foreign nationals and Afghans, were relocated from Herat to Kabul after demonstrators attacked UN buildings and the offices of nongovernmental organizations. "Oh my God, what have they done to our office?" said Abdul Karim, an employee of the International Organization for Migration, whose compound was burned. "I've seen in my life many destroyed UN premises but I have hardly seen the type of destruction that I saw at the UNAMA offices," said Filippo Grande, a spokesman for the UN's special representative in Afghanistan. "The office is in ashes, everything is burned -- they spilt gasoline and threw matches and the whole office does not exist anymore."

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) halted operations in western Afghanistan on 12 September. "The UNHCR is now reviewing the situation on a daily basis, and hopes to resume its work in Herat soon," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva. UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers voiced concern, saying daily convoys of Afghan refugees returning to the area from Iran need aid. "This suspension comes at the worst possible time for Afghanistan, when increasing numbers of refugees are coming back to their homeland, and just a few weeks ahead of an election that will shape the future of the country," Lubbers said. The UNHCR compound in Herat during the riots. The UNHCR is in talks with the new governor of Herat on how to ensure the safe return of UN workers, who fled the area.

Governor Khairkhwah called on aid agencies to return to the western Afghan city, AFP reported on 14 September. "Today I met with the UN staff, they complained about what happened [to their offices]," said Khairkhwah, who spoke to AFP by telephone. "I assured them that it will not be repeated again, we will do anything that we can to ensure their safety." Khairkhwah said aid workers are urgently needed in Herat. "They will leave for a few days -- I hope they will come back very soon," Khairkhwah said. "I'm very sorry and sad over what happened to the United Nations and nongovernmental offices here in Herat. (Marc Ricks)

Human rights activists in Afghanistan have praised the removal of warlord Governor Ismail Khan by Chairman Karzai, AFP reported on 14 September. "The human-rights commission welcomes the recent administration change in Herat Province," Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission spokesman Nader Ahmad Nadery said. "We believe these changes will improve the human-rights situation in the province." Activists had accused Ismail Khan of infringing on women's rights and hampering the media. "The previous administration did not have a good record in providing a convincing environment for the civilians to freely practice their rights," Nadery said. But Ismail Khan remains popular in Herat, where he was considered a hero by some for his role as a guerrilla fighter against Soviet forces in the 1980s. Ismail Khan's supporters sacked Nadery's office and burned it during street violence that broke out on 11 September, when Karzai removed Ismail Khan. (Marc Ricks)

A mob estimated in the hundreds attacked the office of an aid agency in Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan Province, on 7 September, international news agencies reported. At least two employees of the aid agency, which is run by the Agha Khan Development Network, were beaten and the agency office was damaged. An Afghan government official, who insisted on remaining anonymous, said that the attack was provoked by rumors that the agency was converting Sunni Muslims in the area, Reuters reported on 7 September. Agha Khan is the spiritual leader of the Isma'ili branch of Islam, a sect of Shi'a Islam. The Isma'ilis represent a small religious minority in Afghanistan. However an aid agency official who also wished to remain anonymous said that the attack was the result of a misunderstanding in which people thought two local women were sexually assaulted in the agency. Agha Khan has invested heavily in the country since the demise of the Taliban. (Amin Tarzi)

Ramazan Bashardost said that more attacks against nongovernmental organizations working in Afghanistan are inevitable, AFP reported on 8 September. While not directly commenting on the attack in Faizabad, Bashardost said that he fears "the worst can happen to nongovernmental organizations in Afghanistan because Afghans are convinced [the NGOs] are taking for themselves the money that should be distributed to the Afghan people." Bashardost accused NGOs of acting like "private firms" and using 80 percent of their aid budgets on their staff. "Afghans pray for them to leave," Bashardost told AFP, referring to the thousands of aid agencies in the country. According to the planning minister, "it was a strategic error to confine the reconstruction" of Afghanistan to humanitarian organizations rather than the private sector and the Afghan government. According to Afghan Planning Ministry figures, there are currently 2,300 humanitarian organizations and 337 international aid agencies working in Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous on 8 September rejected Ramazan Bashardost's recent claims that nongovernmental organizations supported by France are campaigning against him, according to a statement issued by the ministry ( Ladsous said that Bashardost's comments "deal, for the most part, with his country's domestic situation," and said the insinuation that France would campaign against a member of the Afghan government is groundless. (Amin Tarzi)

Chairman Karzai expressed his deep concern regarding recent terrorist attacks against nongovernmental organizations in Afghanistan, Radio Afghanistan reported on 9 September. A statement issued by the office of Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, said that Karzai has ordered an investigation into the recent attack against an NGO run by the Agha Khan Development Network in northeastern Badakhshan Province (see above). The statement said that Karzai lauds those NGOs that have provided valuable services to the needy people of Afghanistan in extremely difficult times. However, the statement also acknowledged that Karzai is aware that there are a number of other firms known as NGOs, whose workers are interested in their own personal gain. These organizations, according to the statement, should be distinguished from "real" NGOs, which he defined as those that do not seek monetary or political gains. Planning Minister Bashardost recently criticized NGOs and in May launched an investigation into their activities (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 2 June 2004). Karzai's statement did not touch on Bashardost's comments. (Amin Tarzi)

The neo-Taliban militia carried out an attack in the Nawbahar District of the Zabul Province on 6 September, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported the next day. According to Gholam Gailani, a Zabul security official, around 70 militants launched an attack on at the center of Nawbahar District. In fighting that lasted five hours, four neo-Taliban militiamen and one Afghan soldier were killed. Nawbahar has been the scene of neo-Taliban activity in the past and the central government had been largely unable to function there. More recently, however, government forces are operating in the district; this marks the first attack since those central forces arrived, AIP reported. (Amin Tarzi)

In clashes with U.S. forces in the village of Dewalak near Zabul's capital Qalat, two neo-Taliban militiamen were killed, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 7 September. Zabul Governor Khial Mohammad Hosayni said the clashes lasted for about an hour, during which U.S. forces did not sustain any casualties. According to the Iranian broadcaster, neo-Taliban did not commented on the incident.

In a separate incident, U.S. forces killed 22 neo-Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan overnight on 12-13 September, AP reported on 13 September, citing U.S. military spokesman Major Scott Nelson. A 12-hour battle broke out in the restive Zabul when some 40 militants attacked coalition soldiers conducting a search operation, Nelson said. Two Apache helicopters came to the aid of the ground forces during the firefight. "Skirmishes continued throughout the night, and the final battle damage assessment from the incident, from our soldiers on the ground, was 22," Nelson said. Three Arabs were among the dead rebels, according to Nelson, and another Arab was among three people arrested. None of the coalition troops was hurt, he said. The U.S. troops found a global-positioning system, a video camera with tapes, four grenades, and two assault rifles, Nelson added, although he refused to identify the nationality of the alleged Arab fighters or disclose what was on the tapes. (Marc Ricks and Amin Tarzi)

A top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and senior members of his terrorist organization have likely been directing insurgent activity in Afghanistan, AP reported on 12 September. Major General Eric Olson, the operational commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, told AP that the U.S. military has not picked up any radio transmissions by either bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahri, Al-Qaeda's reputed No. 2. However, the involvement of highly trained foreign fighters in guerrilla attacks along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan suggests that bin Laden is taking part in the insurgency, Olson said. "What we see are their [the two leaders'] techniques and their tactics here in Afghanistan, so I think it is reasonable to assume that the senior leaders are involved in directing those operations," Olson said. He also cited as an example the 26 August car bombing in Kabul that killed roughly 10 people at the office of a firm providing bodyguards for Karzai, saying: "We've even tied it to a group that has ties to Al-Qaeda. It could be a splinter group of some sort" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report, " 1 September 2004). (Marc Ricks)

The Nasar and Babar tribes have been involved in what has been reported as "heavy fighting" since 4 September in the border area between Logar and Nangarhar provinces, AIP reported on 6 September. According to eyewitnesses, heavy weapons have been used in the clashes but no reports of casualties are available. An eyewitness told AIP that Afghan government helicopters hovered over the zone of conflict, "but there have been no signs of any interference by the government." The cause of the fighting is not known. (Amin Tarzi)

Major Ra'is Khan, head of finance section of Division No. 9 in the northeastern Konar Province, was killed by a bodyguard on 6 September, AIP reported the next day. Two other people were injured in the attack. Ra'is Khan was the son of General Malik Mohammad Zarin, the commander of Division No. 9. The motive behind the killing is unclear, but AIP speculated that personal disputes might have been behind the incident. The report also added that Ra'is Khan previously worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces based in Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

An Afghan court on 13 September briefly resumed the trial of three Americans and four Afghans accused of running a private prison in Afghanistan, AFP reported. But the proceedings were quickly adjourned amid defense protests over lack of media access. Four journalists were present at the court's closed session, which was held in a different location from previous hearings. Around 20 members of the media have attended previous hearings. "I...object to those proceedings going forward," said John Tiffany, the defense attorney for the group's alleged ringleader, Jonathan Idema. "I respectfully request to have the trial on [15 September] in a normal court for the international press to be here." The courtroom exchange marked another strange turn in the case. Idema claims he was conducting counterterrorism operations with U.S.-led forces in the Kabul area. But coalition forces have denied any relationship with Idema. (Marc Ricks)

Chairman Karzai issued a decree ordering the release of 372 prisoners, Afghanistan Television reported on 8 September. Ahmad Wahid Muzhda, a spokesman for the Afghan Supreme Court, said the prisoners are "Taliban members and will be released very soon," AFP reported on 8 September. According to Muzhda, the prisoners are all Afghan nationals. The release order came after a recent request by a UN human rights expert for the release of more than 700 former Taliban fighters who remain in Afghan or U.S. custody, AFP reported. (Amin Tarzi)

Chairman Karzai has freed the former Taliban minister for the prevention of vice and the promotion of virtue, Mawlawi Qalamuddin, dpa reported on 14 September. Muzhda said Karzai ordered Qalamuddin's release after repeated appeals from residents of Logar Province in the southeastern part of the country. Afghan authorities arrested Qalamuddin last year in Kabul and invited people to file charges against him with the Supreme Court. "No one approached the court to complain about Qalamuddin. On the contrary, lots of people frequently requested his release," Muzhda said. Qalamuddin's ministry enforced the Taliban's draconian Islamic edicts, which included a ban on girls attending school, compulsory prayer five times a day, and mandatory beards for men. The ministry also was responsible for smashing televisions and musical instruments, which the Taliban deemed illegal on religious grounds. (Marc Ricks)

Afghan authorities have freed more 300 Pakistani fighters captured during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, AFP reported on 12 September. Muzhda said the 363 Pakistanis were "allegedly captured a few days before the fall of the Taliban regime," adding that "they were Pakistani Taliban." Afghan authorities released the prisoners to the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul, which will repatriate them, AFP reported. Backed by a U.S.-led invasion force, United Front (aka Northern Alliance) troops captured thousands of Taliban fighters in 2001, when the former regime was toppled. Many of the Taliban fighters were volunteers from Pakistan. Pakistan has pressed for their release, and the interim Afghan government periodically frees hundreds at a time. Muzhda said this represented the last group of Pakistanis held in Afghan jails. However, tensions persist between the two neighboring countries. Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of not doing enough to fight neo-Taliban insurgents believed to be hiding in Pakistan. (Marc Ricks)

In an interview on 5 September, newly appointed Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said that he looks forward to better relations with Afghanistan, the Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on 7 September. Aziz said that relations between Kabul and Islamabad have been improving and on the economic front Pakistan is Afghanistan's largest trading partner. "On the political front...[Afghans are concerned] that their internal security is affected by people who reside on this [Pakistani] side of the border," Aziz said. According to Aziz, his country has been very active in trying to contain the movement of militants into Afghanistan. A politically and economically stable Afghanistan is in the interest of Pakistan, Aziz maintained. (Amin Tarzi)

Presidential candidates Abdul Satar Sirat, Mohammad Mohaqeq, and Mohammad Yunos Qanuni have reportedly reached an agreement to form a coalition, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 8 September. According to the report, Mohaqeq and Sirat are to withdraw from the race in favor of Qanuni, who is seen as the most credible challenger to the front-runner, Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July and 5 August 2004). Under the agreement, if Qanuni wins the election, Mohaqeq would become a key minister while Sirat, who served as justice minister under King Mohammad Zaher, would become the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Other candidates, such as Abdul Latif Pedram and Abdul Hafez Mansur, might also join the coalition against Karzai, the report added. (Amin Tarzi)

Presidential candidate Qanuni said that Afghanistan's presidential election is "coming rather early," Paris daily "Le Figaro" reported on 9 September. Qanuni said that more time is needed to prepare the people of Afghanistan for their first-ever democratic election. "People do not yet have identification cards; how can we ensure all that the voting stations will function in a rigorous manner?" Qanuni asked. The former interior and then education minister under Karzai's administration charged that the United States "was absolutely insistent that the [presidential] election take place," and it is essentially "being held for the Americans." Qanuni accused Karzai of not working to foster national unity, which he said is "disintegrating." (Amin Tarzi)

At a gathering held at a stadium in Kabul on 8 September, Afghan leaders gathered along with thousands of people at a stadium in Kabul on 8 September to mark the third anniversary of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, Afghanistan Television reported. Two Arabs, reportedly on orders from Al-Qaeda, posed as journalists and then killed Mas'ud, the military leader of the United Front on 9 September 2001. In the ceremony, Chairman Hamid Karzai, many members of his cabinet, some former mujahedin party leaders, and one of Mas'ud's brothers delivered speeches about the slain commander. On 7 September, in a speech read at a conference commemorating Mas'ud's legacy, Karzai called Mas'ud "a hero and a patriotic mujahed with high morality." Mas'ud is generally regarded as the most renowned hero of the struggle against the Taliban regime, and several candidates have invoked his image or memory as the Afghan presidential election nears. Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, a brother of the slain commander, is the first vice-presidential running mate of Karzai (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July and 5 and 26 August 2004). (Amin Tarzi)

Afghanistan's reconstruction minister, Amin Farhang, has said that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) fielded by U.S.-led coalition forces have failed to instill security, AFP reported. In an interview to be published on 14 September in the German business daily "Handelsblatt," Farhang said the PRTs are not dealing aggressively enough with insurgent activity. "I criticize the concept of the PRTs fundamentally," Farhang said. "For me, the PRTs were from the beginning for a combination of security and reconstruction. You can do reconstruction when you have security. But when the PRTs do not intervene when something happens, that is wrong." Farhang said that German-led PRT teams are ignoring the drug trade and failing to take military action when needed, such as in the case of recent clashes in the northern town of Faizabad. "Drugs and reconstruction cannot be separated from each other," Farhang said. "Otherwise it is a waste of money." There are currently 14 coalition PRTs in Afghanistan, and Germany has offered to set up an additional team this month to speed reconstruction efforts ahead of presidential election scheduled for October. (Marc Ricks)

Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and Iranian Ambassador to Afghanistan Mohammad Reza Bahrami signed an agreement on cooperation in police affairs on 13 September, Afghan Radio Kelid reported on 14 September. Under the agreement, Iran will erect and equip 25 border posts, train 180 Afghan police officers in Iran, and donate 125 motorcycles to the Afghan police. (Bill Samii)

Asian political leaders have created a special fund to help Afghanistan with priority reconstruction projects. The fund was announced on 14 September as the heads of state from 10 countries in the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) gathered in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. One the sidelines of the summit, the presidents of Iran and Tajikistan along with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai have been talking about a proposed highway projected that could become a major trade route for their countries.

The creation of a fund to finance reconstruction projects in Afghanistan is one of the key developments emerging from the ECO summit.

Askhad Orazbae, the group's secretary-general, announced the news to journalists at the conclusion of the summit's main meeting in Dushanbe.

"I think the creation of this fund, of course, cannot resolve all of Afghanistan's problems," Orazbae said. "But from a political point of view, it is very important to demonstrate our solidarity with the Afghan people and to show our readiness to provide concrete support for Afghanistan's reconstruction -- and the recovery of the economy after the devastation of Afghanistan."

So far, Pakistan is the only ECO member that has announced a pledge to the fund.

Pakistan, which seeks to build a pipeline to carry Turkmen natural gas across western Afghanistan to a distribution center in southern Pakistan, has promised to contribute $5 million to the fund (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 27 February 2003).

Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov confirmed that money from the fund would be used to finance regional energy projects.

He also suggested the fund could be used for infrastructure projects, such as a proposed highway link between Iran and Tajikistan that would pass through northern Afghanistan: "The leaders of [ECO] states and governments believe that our organization has reached such a level of maturity that it can actively and directly help implement large-scale, economically profitable projects of regional importance -- including hydro-energy projects, infrastructure, industrial and hydro-economic projects that contribute the most to the strengthening of the economic potential and progress in our larger region," Rakhmonov said.

At the conclusion of the formal summit sessions, Rakhmonov held a private meeting with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami of Iran. Tajik government officials told RFE/RL that the three-way talks focused on the proposed Iran-Tajikistan highway through northern Afghanistan.

Svante Cornell is a research director of the Contemporary Silk Road Studies Program at Uppsala University in Sweden. He told RFE/RL that it is the interest of both Iran and Tajikistan to build the highway through northern Afghanistan.

"Given the present situation where Tajikistan is economically and trade-wise isolated from Uzbekistan, its opportunities to conduct trade are crucial," Cornell said. "And in this sense, opening up to the south -- and potentially to South Asia or the Middle East, including Iran -- is of paramount importance for any kind of economic development in the country."

Cornell noted that by passing through northern Afghanistan and into Tajikistan, the proposed highway would link together several regions where Persian or the closely related Dari language is spoken.

"Tajikistan, for both cultural and political reasons, is the country that has been the most positive toward Iranian involvement in the region," Cornell said. "Other countries in Central Asia have been wary of Iran. Tajikistan is really the main inroad for Iran into Central Asia. And the changes in Afghanistan have, of course, made it possible for the Iranians to figure [create] a type of Persian cultural zone that stretches from Iran to Tajikistan."

But Cornell said that other ECO countries in the region -- such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan -- will not benefit directly from the proposed highway. They are therefore unlikely to contribute significantly to that project. The two other ECO members are Azerbaijan and Turkey. (Ron Synovitz and Sojida Djakhfarova)

12 September 1961 -- Islamic Conference of Jerusalem appeals to Afghanistan and Pakistan to resolve their differences.

9 September 1999 -- A Taliban spokesman, Mulla Mutawakkil, says that war it the only solution for the conflict in Afghanistan.

9 September 2001 -- United Front military commander Ahmad Shah Mas'ud is killed in a suicide attack by two Arabs posing as journalists.

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