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Afghan Report: February 13, 2003

13 February 2003, Volume 2, Number 6
By Amin Tarzi

Press freedom in Afghanistan does not have a long history. The first experiment with independent media -- involving newspapers only -- took place between 1949 and 1952, when Prime Minister Shah Mahmud allowed relatively open elections and the establishment of what has come to be known as the "Liberal Parliament." The new parliament passed a press-freedom law that resulted in the establishment of several newspapers, most, if not all, of which were in opposition to the existing monarchy, the prime minister, or both. In 1953, Mohammad Daud became prime minister and ordered the closure of independent newspapers, ending the initial experiment.

The second, and last, experiment with independent media in Afghanistan began with the promulgation of the 1964 Afghan Constitution by King Mohammad Zaher, which ushered in what is commonly known as the "Decade of Democracy." After the coup d'etat of 1973, which ended the monarchical system in Afghanistan, the country had no experience with independent media at the official level until December 2001. That said, during the communist period and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1978-1992), the ensuing civil war between various mujahedin factions, and the Taliban period (1992-2001), hundreds of newspapers and a few radio stations began to flourish among the Afghan diaspora -- mainly in Iran and Pakistan, but also in Western countries -- and in different parts of the country that at one time or another enjoyed de facto independence.

The Soviet occupation and the ensuing civil war had two major and somewhat paradoxical effects on the role and position of the media in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the war experience made most Afghans politically savvy and exposed them to various types of media and the power they possess. On the other hand, the same war turned a country with one of the lowest rates of literacy in the world into a virtually illiterate nation.

With the demise of the Taliban regime in December 2001 and the establishment of the Afghan interim administration, media in the entire country has witnessed dramatic changes. When discussing the state of the media in Afghanistan, however, a distinction must be made between the situation in the capital Kabul and the rest of the country, especially those parts of Afghanistan that are under direct control of various warlords, or "regional leaders," as they are referred to by the authorities in Kabul. The dictum "Kabul is not Afghanistan" ought to be remembered not only in relation to the state of the media but also when dealing with much of what is happening in the country today.

The interim administration was established in December 2001 on the basis of the Bonn Agreement, which, while not addressing the issue of the media directly, stipulates that until the adoption of a new constitution, the 1964 Afghan Constitution -- to "the extent that its provisions are not inconsistent" with the Bonn Agreement and excluding articles dealing with the monarchical system -- shall be the law governing the country. Article 31 of the 1964 constitution grants Afghans the right to free speech and to publish newspapers without governmental interference but regulated by a set of press rules and laws. The article grants the government the right to broadcast via radio and television only. In February 2002, a new press law was announced by Afghanistan's Transitional Administration under which the country enjoys press freedom. The only restrictions enumerated in this law pertain to matters that are insulting to Islam or other religions, personal attacks against individuals, publication of literature or photographs that could lead to moral corruption, and any publication that intends to weaken the Afghan national army. The new press law, however, remains vague and open to interpretation.

Alongside newspapers operated by the interim administration or its successor, the Transitional Administration, there are a number of publications -- mostly weekly -- that are independently operated. However, independence does not denote that the media are unbiased and independent in their thoughts. Most of the unofficial press directly or indirectly espouses the view of one of the factions that either forms part of the Transitional Administration or remains outside it, while some newspapers are directly financed by Afghanistan's neighbors, mainly Iran and Pakistan. Foreign ownership of television stations and newspapers is prohibited under the new press law. Kabul television and radio is officially controlled by the Ministry of Information and Culture, but the ministry has had trouble with conservative elements among the ranks of the Transitional Administration in bringing about programming changes, especially related to the role of women broadcasters and singers.

Most recently, the Ministry of Information and Culture was unable to reverse a Supreme Court decision of 21 January that banned cable television nationwide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January 2003). Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari is an ally of the Saudi-backed radical former mujahedin leader Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, whose party was part of the National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, commonly referred to as the Northern Alliance.

According to one Kabul daily, there is a sort of "press war" among various newspapers in the capital, where a relatively free expression of ideas is allowed. The vagueness of the new press law has led to arbitrary decisions being made by members of the Transitional Administration. In December 2002, for example, the editor in chief of a Kabul weekly was arrested upon the order of Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim for publishing a cartoon of President Hamid Karzai. Karzai, who was out of the country at the time of the arrest, subsequently ordered that the editor be released upon his return to Afghanistan.

In the provinces outside Kabul, the state of the media differs from region to region. In Herat and most of western Afghanistan, Mohammad Ismail Khan, the self-proclaimed amir of Western Afghanistan, controls most aspects of life, including the media. Herat has its own radio and television stations, which reportedly receive assistance and programming from the Islamic Republic of Iran. In most of northern Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum remains the most powerful "regional leader," but he and his rivals have their own media alongside more independent publications.

Surprisingly, Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement and where it first exercised its draconian system that included a total ban on television, music, and most newspapers, has had a more liberal policy toward the media. While Governor Gul Agha Sherzai controls Kandahar, he does acknowledge the authority of Kabul in his province and has reportedly allowed independent media to exist. It is noteworthy that Kandahar has chosen not to follow the ban on cable television imposed by Shinwari.

While the international community has not paid enough attention to reviving the Afghan media and the state and quality of journalism in the country, some steps have been taken toward achieving this goal. For example, the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR) is working with Afghan journalists to develop their professional capacities, as part of an IWPR effort to strengthen local media in the country. The IWPR has published a comprehensive guidebook for Afghan journalists (see: Moreover, in November, the Reuters Foundation held a two-week, post-conflict training course in London for a dozen Afghan journalists, and there are reports that the BBC is organizing special training sessions for Afghan journalists.

In Kabul, a number of Afghan journalists have taken steps to safeguard the freedom of the media. One such effort was the establishment in January of an independent association of media affiliates called the Free Press Defense Foundation.

When discussing the state of the media in Afghanistan, attention ought to be concentrated on radio. Given the fact that close to 90 percent of the population cannot read, and very few can afford a television set, the main source for the dissemination of information and ideas is the radio. The importance of the radio in the Afghan state- and nation-building process was well illustrated when Afghan Vice President Nematullah Shahrani, who also chairs the Constitutional Drafting Commission (CDC), recently said the best way to make the public aware of the new Afghan constitution and to obtain their input is through the medium of radio. The radio is also deemed as a necessary educational tool for Afghanistan, especially in confronting the lingering conservative views prevalent in most of the country, views that are currently supported by local leaders as part of preserving their privileges and power, or sometimes because of sheer ignorance. For Afghanistan, this situation will prevail for the next decade or so, until a new generation of Afghans is able to read.

The central administration's lack of influence beyond Kabul coupled with the power of warlords means that the people of Afghanistan are unable to exercise their right to determine the shape of the new Afghan constitution (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 16 and 30 January 2003), "Takhasos" commented on 31 January. The Herat daily added that the representatives who are to participate in the Constitutional Loya Jirga and approve the draft constitution will be selected in the provinces by local warlords and that any elections would be marred by the use of force and intimidation. Therefore, the paper opined that conditions are not ripe for Afghanistan's people to determine the shape of their new constitution. The daily suggested that the 1964 Afghan Constitution, which under the Bonn Agreement is currently being used as the country's basic law, should remain in force for the next two years to allow the central government to establish its control throughout the country and to improve social conditions. After that, when people are safe and are not starving, the process of developing a new constitution can begin, "Takhasos" added. Otherwise, it said, "the irreversible outcome" of the current process will be so negative that "people will not be able to recover from it for many years." (Amin Tarzi)

The Kabul-based "Erada" newspaper on 8 February cautioned Afghanistan's Transitional Administration against hastily drafting a new constitution and pushing it through by October, as President Hamid Karzai's government has pledged to do (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 January 2003). "Erada" compared the United States, which it said has had the same constitution since the days of President George Washington, to Afghanistan, adding, "Unfortunately, when regimes in Afghanistan change,... their first attack is on the constitution." The commentary then traced the history of various Afghan constitutions and proposed that the Karzai administration "should bravely announce that we should ensure credible peace in our country, and then we will make the constitution and other laws." "Erada" suggested that the 1964 constitution be used until that time. (Amin Tarzi)

During a briefing on Afghanistan to the United Nations Security Council, Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for Afghanistan, Lakdhar Brahimi, said on 31 January that the CDC plans to submit in March the final draft of the new Afghan constitution to a larger commission "whose 30 members [are] currently being selected," the UN Security Council said in its report on the meeting. Brahimi said the CDC has consulted with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the United Nations Development Program on the drafting of the new constitution (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 January 2003). He said that from April to June the commission will conduct "countrywide public consultations to discern the public's views on key constitutional issues" and will "finalize a draft by late August." "The final step would be the convening of a Constitutional Loya Jirga in October to review and adopt the constitution," he said. UN officials have not addressed the concerns of many Afghans who believe that no mechanism or political will on the part of the warlords exists to allow the public to participate in the drafting of the new constitution. (Amin Tarzi)

A seminar titled "Federalism in the Future Afghan Political System" was held in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif on 1 February, Radio Free Afghanistan reported the next day. Enayatullah Shahrani presented his proposed federal system for Afghanistan at the gathering, the report added. In response to Shahrani's proposal, a participant and deputy to the Loya Jirga, Mohammad Azam Dadfar, said that without peace, security, and the establishment of a democratic system in which suffrage and free speech are guaranteed to all Afghans, any discussion of a federal system is impossible, since the people would have no voice in its selection. The conference established a commission to draft a study on a model of federalism for Afghanistan. The seminar concluded by issuing a report expressing the desire for a federal, democratic parliamentary system or a union in which all central and provincial organs of government are chosen by direct and secret ballot and in which people in the provinces have a right to choose their own leaders. (For more on the issue of federalism and the future Afghan constitution, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 16 January 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Turkish Major General Hilmi Akin Zorlu, who on 10 February turned over command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to a joint German-Dutch contingent, on 6 February urged the international community to keep peacekeepers "in and around Kabul [for] at least two or three more years," Reuters and other international news agencies reported. He said that if the "ISAF leaves the country [before that], it may create some chaos in the capital and [place]...the government in a difficult position," according to AP. The current ISAF mandate expires in December, although Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah on 4 February said his government would like to see that term extended, Reuters reported. Turkey has commanded the ISAF for more than seven months. The ISAF currently comprises nearly 4,000 peacekeepers from 22 countries. Zorlu said the Turkish contingent of some 1,400 troops in Afghanistan will likely be decreased to 160, AP reported. (Andrew Heil)

Major General Zorlu on 6 February also praised the "significant impact" that the ISAF has made on Kabul, adding that "the city has become a safer place live and work, and life is returning to normal," AFP reported from the same farewell press conference. "The rebuilding of the whole of Afghanistan will take many years and a great deal of patience on the part of the Afghan people and the international community," Zorlu said, according to AP. "The international community will and must remain committed to this major undertaking," he added, according to AFP. In addition to "removing and neutralizing" more than 175,000 pieces of heavy weapons and ammunition, Zorlu said, the international peacekeepers have headed off disaster in the form of vehicles packed with explosives. Infrastructure, health, and education endeavors have included the completion of 176 projects and "44 ongoing, with another 38 planned under Turkish leadership," AFP quoted him as saying. "While there remains a lack of jobs, food, water and electricity, as well as a shortage of schools and medical facilities, every day there are new signs of the return to normality." Fourteen peacekeepers have died on duty in Afghanistan since the ISAF was created by the UN in 2001, AP reported. (Andrew Heil)

Turkey handed over leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to Germany and the Netherlands at a 10 February ceremony in Kabul, Ankara's Anatolia news agency reported. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that "Germany and Holland, [which] are taking over now, I'm sure will do as good a job as was done by [Major] General [John] McColl of the British command and as was done by [Major] General [Hilmi Akin] Zorlu of the Turkish command, and I'm sure the new command headed by Germany and Holland will contribute significantly to the peace and security of Kabul," RFE/RL reported. Turkey assumed ISAF command on 20 June, and now the size of the Turkish presence will be reduced to 182 soldiers. German Defense Minister Peter Struck said during the 39th International Conference on Defense and Security in Munich on 8 February that he has pledged to talk to his Spanish counterpart Federico Trillo-Figueroa regarding a Spanish takeover of ISAF leadership after the six-month German-Dutch command, Reuters reported. (Bill Samii)

During the handover of ISAF command from Turkey to joint German-Dutch forces on 10 February, Struck said he has made it clear to Afghan President Karzai that ISAF's "area of operation will be restricted to Kabul and its surroundings," "Welt am Sonntag" reported. Karzai and the UN have requested the expansion of ISAF's area of operations beyond Kabul, but major troop contributors have repeatedly dismissed the idea. (Amin Tarzi)

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said on 8 February during an annual security conference in Munich that the alliance "should take a far bigger role in Afghanistan," dpa reported. Robertson stressed the necessity of NATO involvement in Afghanistan because he sees "no credible alternative." Meanwhile, German Defense Minister Struck the same day echoed that sentiment, suggesting NATO's role should expand after the joint German-Dutch command of the ISAF runs out in October, dpa reported. On his way to Kabul for an official visit, Struck pledged to discuss the possibility of "a NATO flag flying in Kabul" with Afghan authorities. He did not mention a possible Spanish role. The issue of NATO's involvement in Afghanistan has been the topic of intense discussion since early 2002, and NATO logistical support for the ISAF was formally approved during the Atlantic alliance's Prague summit in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 November 2002). Some alliance members, however, remain opposed to involvement in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 20 December 2002). London's "Financial Times" quoted Struck on 11 February as saying that, "for the first time, NATO capabilities are being employed in Afghanistan -- perhaps [this is] an initial step to an extended NATO responsibility." (Amin Tarzi)

The German Army's inspector-general, General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, and the Dutch military representative in Germany, Major General Marcel Celie, inaugurated an Operation Coordination Center in Geltam near Potsdam on 5 February that will monitor Afghan operations during their countries' six-month ISAF command, ddp reported. Celie stressed that the German and Dutch commands "are speaking in one voice" through the operation. The joint force is called the 1 German/Netherlands Corps. (For more information, see (Andrew Heil and Amin Tarzi)

Two missiles hit ISAF headquarters in Kabul on 10 February as Defense Minister Struck was visiting troops there, "Spiegal" reported. The attack took place hours after Germany and the Netherlands assumed joint command of the peacekeeping force, the report added. The missiles caused no injuries, and no one has claimed responsibility for the attack. (Amin Tarzi)

Struck said on 9 February that German troops will remain in Kabul in the event of military conflict in Iraq. He said that Berlin is trying to avoid a war in Iraq but that, if a conflict erupts, the ISAF mandate "is based on UN Security Council resolutions and the declared will of 29 states to actively participate in the fight against international terrorism," "Welt am Sonntag" reported. Struck added that he sees neither a political nor a military connection between the ISAF and the Iraq issue. Afghans have expressed their concern that the attention of the international community, especially the United States, will shift from their country to Iraq in the event of a conflict there. (Amin Tarzi)

The opening on 2 February of the first Civil-Military Operations Center (CMOC) in Gardayz, the capital of Paktiya Province, marked another step in the shift of emphasis by U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan increasingly to promote reconstruction of the country rather than just security, Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported on 4 February. The Gardayz CMOC should serve as "a place for NGOs, international institutions, and others to meet, exchange information, and facilitate the rebuilding" of the area, according to IRIN. Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which include U.S. civilian and military personnel, began work in Gardayz in December (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 January 2003). Ben Mixon of the Gardayz CMOC said PRTs have "already completed the reconstruction of 10 schools, three wells, and one health clinic" in and around the city, IRIN reported. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Robert Finn said new PRTs will start to work in additional provinces each month, adding that the central Bamyan Province is next in line, according to IRIN. Afghan Reconstruction Minister Mohammad Amin Farhag said the PRTs will help his government "focus on larger, long-term reconstruction work," IRIN added. (Amin Tarzi)

Sher Mangal, a tribal leader from Paktiya Province, said his people want the PRTs to construct schools, clinics, bridges, and irrigation systems, but he added that if their purpose is "more than reconstruction and the center [CMOC] established to deceive people and achieve concealed objectives, we will not tolerate such activities," Hindukosh News Agency reported on 3 February. Mangal did not elaborate on what he meant by "concealed objectives." Wakil Amanullah, a tribal elder, expressed his gratitude for the reconstruction projects under way and said the projects are concentrated in the city of Gardayz, adding that no plans have been presented by the PRTs "regarding reconstruction in other parts of the province," Hindukosh reported. (Amin Tarzi)

A group of nongovernmental organizations from Iran's Isfahan Province on 5 February protested against U.S. aid activities in Afghanistan, Mashhad radio's Dari-language service reported. In an apparent reference to Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which consist of Special Forces, psychological-operations, and civil-affairs personnel, as well as security detachments from the 82nd Airborne Division, the Iranian NGOs claim that the U.S. military is attempting to achieve its objectives by distributing aid. Mashhad radio added that U.S. aid activities in Afghanistan face domestic and international objections, and it added that people in Kabul have demonstrated against U.S. activities in Afghanistan and demanded an American withdrawal from the country. The remarks are part of a long-running state-media campaign against U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. (Bill Samii)

Kandahar Province police chief Ustad Nazir said that 18 civilians were killed on 31 January when a powerful bomb destroyed the Rambasi Bridge south of Kandahar, AP reported. Ustad Nazir said the blast was most likely intended for Afghan soldiers loyal to Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, whose base is less than 2 kilometers from the bridge. While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Ustad Nazir believes it was carried out by members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, AP reported. On 27 January, Afghan forces loyal to Sherzai assisted U.S.-led international coalition forces in a major battle against remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda that took place near Spin Boldak in Kandahar Province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Provincial corps commander General Khan Mohammad said on 5 February that fighting broke out north of Kandahar on 4 February between government forces and "Taliban and Hizb-e Islami forces," Reuters reported. "Three people have died on our side, and two were wounded," Khan Mohammad said, adding that "five of the enemy were killed, and that toll could rise." Military officials have expressed concern that radical leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has allied his Hizb-e Islami with Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in an effort to carry out his proclaimed intention of ousting foreign troops from Afghanistan. (Michael Scollon)

Coalition forces following up fighting in the Adi Ghar Mountains on 27 January used F-16 jet fighters near Spin Boldak on 4 February to bomb a cave complex there that is believed to be a hideout for Hizb-e Islami forces, international media reported. U.S. military spokesman Colonel Roger King said four caves were destroyed by coalition bombs on 4 February and that 46 caves have been inspected and 15 destroyed since the 27 January battle. "Those caves that show evidence of improvements by humans or occupation are destroyed," King said. (Michael Scollon)

King announced on 6 February that coalition forces have completed their mop-up operation at a cave complex in the Adi Ghar Mountains, AFP reported. Up to 80 former Taliban and Al-Qaeda members thought to be united with radical leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami were believed to have taken refuge in the cave complex after battling with coalition forces near Spin Boldak on 27 January. King said 75 caves were cleared or destroyed during the eight-day sweep but that no opposition fighters were discovered other than the 18 that were reportedly killed in the 27 January fighting. "We didn't find them in the caves. If they are still in the region, we may have other opportunities to find them," King said. (Michael Scollon)

Newly appointed Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said on 28 January that his top priority is forming a police force "that will be nationally oriented, ethnically balanced, and professionally skilful" in order to enable the central government to overcome the influence of "warlords," whom he described as a legacy of the many years of war in Afghanistan, "The Kabul Times" reported on 29 January. Jalali said the police force will not succeed without the community's cooperation, adding that developing the belief "that people can trust police" will be one of his major challenges, the Kabul daily reported. Jalali said he supports the idea of extending the mandate of the ISAF beyond Kabul but realizes that "donor communities are reluctant to do that." However, he said he believes that the newly formed Provincial Reconstruction Teams will be able to provide security outside of Kabul until the new Afghan national army and police force can take over those operations, "The Kabul Times" reported (for analysis on the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 January 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan commanders or warlords who commit atrocities may face prosecution by the new International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said on 10 February, the same day that Afghanistan formally acceded to the ICC treaty at the United Nations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2003). Under ICC provisions, the treaty will come into force in Afghanistan on 1 May. After that date, the ICC will have the authority to investigate and prosecute serious war crimes, genocide, or crimes against humanity committed on Afghan soil. "This is a historic day for Afghanistan," said John Sifton, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "For over two decades, perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan have enjoyed total impunity. On May 1, that impunity will formally end." It was unclear from the reports whether there is any cutoff date for when past crimes were committed. (Amin Tarzi)

In an interview published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on 28 January, President Hamid Karzai said: "I'm satisfied with the humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan by the United Nations. But I would also like to concentrate more on removing the causes of humanitarian difficulties rather than treating the symptoms. We would like to slowly move from a humanitarian operation and more toward one of reconstruction, moving toward removing the causes of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan so people can make a living on their own." Karzai said he would like UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations to provide his administration with "a clearer account of where our work has taken place and how much it costs." Karzai listed as his administration's greatest accomplishments in 2002 the introduction of the new afghani banknotes, the repatriation of more than 2 million refugees, the successful implementation of educational programs, and the movement toward freedom of the press. He said the administration's failures include the inability to establish security throughout the country, an initiative he said has been hampered by continued fighting among armed groups. (Amin Tarzi)

31 January 1966 -- "Wahdat," edited by Khal Mohammad Khasta, publishes its first edition, becoming the first privately owned newspaper to be published in Kabul in 14 years.

8 February 1991 -- Afghan mujahedin parties send 300 fighters to Saudi Arabia for participation in the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Radical mujahedin leaders Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf protest the move.

12 February 1995 -- Taliban forces push forward to the stronghold of Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami in Chaharasiab at the outskirts of Kabul and expel his forces.

Sources: "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," "Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan" by Ludwig W. Adamec (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1997)