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Afghan Report: August 21, 2003

21 August 2003, Volume 2, Number 30
By Tanya Goudsouzian

In the bustling district of Pul-e Bagh-e Umumi, downtown Kabul, the din of car horns drowns out the hawkers' cries. A one-legged man hobbles along the pavement clutching a wad of afghani notes.

"People need afghanis for their day-to-day transactions, but they prefer to save in dollars," explains Abdul Ra'uf, who is one of the many war veterans who have found employment as money-changers. The going rate is 48 afghanis to one dollar.

"There is a lot of competition," he says, pointing to the legions of bedraggled men on the pavement. Abdul Ra'uf has a wife, three children, a father, and a brother to support. His monthly income is roughly 3,000 afghanis ($60).

He concedes it is a paltry sum and hardly enough to make ends meet, but there are no alternative means for him to earn his bread.

"Jobs are available for the educated people, but for people like me, there are no jobs," he laments.

His views about the Transitional Administration are ambivalent: "We can't say the government is doing its best for the people, but we can't say it is doing nothing either."

Anwar al-Haq Ahady, governor of Afghanistan's Central Bank, believes the country has made great strides over the past year in alleviating the burden for the average Afghan on the street.

When Ahady took office in April 2002, he was faced with the colossal challenge of creating a banking system out of a central bank that was looted by the Taliban when the militia abandoned Kabul in November 2001.

"The militiamen took with them some $5.5 million in U.S. currency, plus close to $1 million in Pakistani rupees and Afghan currency," according to an article published in Eurasianet in December 2001.

Moreover, in the wake of the U.S.-led war against the Taliban, there were at least four different currencies in circulation -- the official currency, the afghani, the Pakistani rupee, and money printed by two rival warlords.

Ahady's first move was to introduce a new currency to replace the decimated afghani. Since the conversion, the new afghani has maintained a steady value, which has had "a positive impact on prices in general," he said.

"In 2003, we've witnessed an 8 percent deflation, as opposed to inflation," he pointed out.

Another reform was the "separation of commercial banks from the Central Bank."

"In the past, the Central Bank owned and regulated commercial banks," he explained.

The key to rebuilding war-ravaged Afghanistan is fomenting a suitable climate for private foreign investment. Abdul Ali Seraj, an Afghan-American businessman, insists Afghanistan cannot afford to be dependent on the pledges of donor countries. For sustained development, a strong private sector is imperative, he said.

Omar Samad, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, concurs.

"Private enterprise will surely form the backbone of the Afghan economy in the future, and the legal framework needed to encourage and foster that sector are being put in place at this juncture," he said.

"Small businesses are booming, not only in Kabul but in most Afghan cities. There is an acute shortage of commercial space. Restaurants, Internet cafes, grocery stores, telecom outlets, bakeries, hi-tech stores, and especially household and construction material retail are springing up all over town," he said.

"But a postwar-ravaged economy cannot be sustained by small entrepreneurship alone. The government has to attract mid- and large-size investment -- whether foreign or Afghan -- in the industrial, natural resources, and infrastructure-building sectors."

According to a report compiled by the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, businessmen are daunted by the corruption, bureaucracy, and the lack of access to resources. The most important priorities for creating a sound business climate in Afghanistan are a banking system, improved infrastructure, and strengthening the rule of law.

"Right now, the Central Bank can offer banking services to Afghans and foreigners in the country. Our services have become more sophisticated. And by the end of 2003, we will have commercial banking services. We have introduced a new banking law, which we expect to be passed in the next few weeks. This will allow competition between banks," Ahady said.

"We have also introduced the Central Bank law, which calls for autonomy from the central government," he said. "The law stipulates that we don't take orders from the president. We expect this to be passed in the next two months."

Ahady added that he has also sought to modernize the modus operandi of the central bank.

"When I first came, we had only three computers in the office. It took a year or so to get completely computerized," said the governor, who holds an MBA in finance and management and a PhD in political science. "We hired English-speaking staff with management backgrounds. They will be the people of the future. We also need to form a human-resources department."

Ahady outlined several sectors that are primed for investment: telecommunications, mining, transportation, and irrigation.

Twenty-three years of war have left the country's infrastructure in ruins, and Afghanistan is in need of almost everything, be it consumer products, such as electronics, food and clothing, or industrial development -- anything from cement to plastics to construction material and iron smelting.

According to Samad, "Energy and roads are high priorities. Being an agricultural country, irrigation and water management are also important factors. The problem faced by the government is that almost every sector is a priority, and not enough resources are available yet to jump-start the whole system."

Ahady conceded that there are "risks."

There are political risks and a lack of security. "But this is up to the government to provide," he said. "There are also business risks. The businessman may misjudge the need of the product, but this is up to the businessman."

(Tanya Goudsouzian is a freelance journalist who covers Afghanistan)

Fifteen people, including six children, died on the morning of 13 August when a blast tore apart a minibus traveling through Helmand Province just outside the city of Lashkargah, AP reported. A policeman who spoke to AFP said there were 17 bodies, but he said the severity of the wreckage, which appeared to be caused by explosives planted inside the bus, made an exact count difficult. Authorities blamed Al-Qaeda and neo-Taliban militants for the blast, the deadliest bombing since a September 2002 explosion in a Kabul market killed 35 people, according to AP.

Reuters reported there is some speculation the bomb was intended for independence celebrations next week, (see below) but detonated prematurely. The attack was the second major strike in Helmand Province in the past week. On 7 August, six Afghan soldiers and an Afghan aid worker were killed in an attack there (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 14 August 2003).

Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali called the 12 August bombing of a bus in Helmand Province a "terrorist attack," adding that whereas the neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants blamed for the blast had previously restricted attacks to military personnel, "now they are targeting civilians -- innocent people," AP reported on 14 August (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 June 2003). In addition to the 15 people killed by the explosion, Jalali said, 18 were injured; six children and a woman were among the dead. Jalali told reporters on 14 August that the previous day's bloodshed was due to the fact that Afghanistan's national security capacity is not equal to the insecurity problems the country faces, AFP reported. Jalali said the government is attempting to speed up police training but that, "in the meantime, we need international support." (Isabelle Laughlin)

Violence erupted early on 13 August in Oruzgan Province between forces loyal to a deposed provincial official and his successor, killing at least 25 people, Reuters reported. Hostilities reportedly began when fighters of the former head of Kajran District, Amanullah, fired on a busload of supporters of the new district head, Abdul Rahman Khan. According to AIP, Amanullah's men blocked a road in the district, then opened fire when Khan's men attempted to remove the barrier. An unidentified cabinet minister cited by Reuters said fighting continued late into the evening and that the central government was trying to negotiate a truce. (Isabelle Laughlin)

Two Afghan aid workers died and three others were wounded on 13 August when gunmen fired on a Red Crescent convoy passing through the southeastern province of Ghazni en route to Kabul, AP reported. The five attackers reportedly fled on two motorcycles. The killings took on particular significance in light of a message sent earlier in the week, purportedly from Taliban supreme commander Mullah Omar, declaring Western charities to be enemies of Islam (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 14 August 2003). The aid convoy was returning from Paktika Province, where workers had been delivering rice, blankets, and other aid to victims of flooding. In total, 64 people were killed on 13 August -- the bloodiest day Afghanistan has seen in a year (see above and "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 14 August 2003). (Isabelle Laughlin)

Seven Afghan policemen and an estimated 15-20 attackers died in the evening of 16-17 August when the police headquarters in Paktika Province's Barmal District was stormed, international news agencies reported. The district's police headquarters was briefly seized during the attack, which was reportedly carried out by approximately 400 supporters of the ousted Taliban regime and of radical Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, according to the Pakistan daily "Dawn" on 18 August. Paktika Province Governor Mohammad Ali Jalali said the attackers abandoned the police headquarters, burned it to the ground, and escaped across the border to Pakistan, AP reported on 18 August. Jalali blamed Pakistani intelligence for playing a role in organizing the assault. Jalali estimated that 20 neo-Taliban attackers died in the operation, while Paktika Province police chief Dawlat Khan placed that number at 15. (Amin Tarzi)

Just hours after the attack on the Barmal police headquarters, three government soldiers were killed and four were abducted on 17 August when neo-Taliban forces attacked the municipal office of the Paktika Province village of Tarway, Reuters reported on 18 August. About 200 neo-Taliban forces were involved, according to Paktika Province police chief Dawlat Khan. As in Barmal, the attackers set fire to the building and escaped across the Afghan-Pakistan border, which lies only a few kilometers from the village. It is not known if the same group that carried out the attack in Barmal was responsible for the Tarway assault. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan Transitional Administration spokesman Jawayed Ludin said on 18 August that the armed men who attacked the police headquarters in Paktika Province's Barmal District on the evening of 16-17 August (see above), were not Afghans, Radio Afghanistan reported. Ludin claimed the attackers entered Afghanistan from Pakistan and spoke "Urdu and Arabic," adding that Afghan authorities have detained a number of the alleged perpetrators. In an interview with Radio Afghanistan on 18 August, Paktika Province security chief General Dawlat Khan claimed the attack was carried out by neo-Taliban forces "supported by Pakistan." He added that the "Pakistanis have created the recent disorder." Pakistan has consistently denied that it is supporting the neo-Taliban, although it has acknowledged that some of the insurgents might be on Pakistani territory near the Afghan-Pakistani border. (Amin Tarzi)

Calling the neo-Taliban a threat to both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan said on 18 August that while most of the neo-Taliban are on the Afghan side of the border, "there might be some remnants on the Pakistani side," the Pakistani daily "The News" reported. Responding to an accusation leveled by Afghan authorities that Islamabad is assisting the neo-Taliban in carrying out attacks on targets in Afghanistan (see above), Khan said Afghans should stop blaming Pakistan for recent cross-border attacks and cooperate with Islamabad in addressing the problem. (Amin Tarzi)

The head of Khawar District in Logar Province, the district's security commander, and seven security personnel were killed on 19 August in an ambush blamed on supporters of the ousted Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda, Bakhtar news agency reported. The nine were attacked as they returned after investigating an attack on a home in which two people were killed, also reportedly by neo-Taliban forces, according to Bakhtar and the BBC. The eastern Logar Province, which lies southwest of Kabul, does not border Pakistan. If this ambush was, in fact, carried out by the neo-Taliban, it is evidence that the "insurgency is spreading as most of [the neo-Taliban] attacks so far have taken place in the tribal lands bordering Pakistan," the BBC commented on 19 August. An attack on a British aid agency on 18 August in Afghanistan's northern Balkh Province -- which borders Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- was also blamed on the neo-Taliban (see below and "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Two Afghans working for the Save the Children Fund were injured in Balkh Province on 18 August when unidentified gunmen attacked a vehicle belonging to the U.K.-based nonprofit organization, Hindukosh news agency reported. The attack occurred 15 kilometers west of the provincial capital Mazar-e Sharif. Balkh Province security commander Mohammad Isa Eftekhari has blamed neo-Taliban forces for the attack, Reuters reported on 19 August. Eftekhari said the attack was carried out by members of the former Taliban regime "who melted into the local population," and not by individuals from abroad. A spokesman for the neo-Taliban was recently quoted as saying the militants intend to expand their operations in northern parts of Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 14 August 2003). No group has yet taken responsibility for the attack. (Amin Tarzi)

The Kabul office of the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) was attacked and robbed on 18 August, Reuters reported. The robbers injured an Afghan employee of the state-run organization and took $132,000 in cash. Germany's Economic Cooperation and Development Ministry said in a statement that the attack "robs the people of Afghanistan, who urgently need support, of important resources for their future." A bomb damaged GTZ's office in Kandahar in late May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 June 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Two students with suspected links to Al-Qaeda were killed and another injured on 12 August in a bomb-making accident at a home in Kabul, AFP reported. The 4 a.m. blast rocked a neighborhood in the western part of the capital and destroyed the room they were in as well as the basement, leading authorities to suspect the bomb they were reportedly working on was a large one, although relatives of the dead said the three had been working on a grenade. In addition, police found two old Volkswagens at the residence that they suspected might have been intended for use in car bombings. All three men were students at Kabul Medical Institute and were suspected by police of being Al-Qaeda militants. (Isabelle Laughlin)

An explosion occurred on 19 August at the Kandahar city home of Ahmad Wali Karzai, a brother of Hamid Karzai, AP reported. Kandahar police said Wali Karzai was not in his home at the time of the explosion, which initially was described as having been caused by a bomb. Wali Karzai later said the explosion was "no act of terrorism" and Transitional Administration spokesman Jawyed Ludin said that "some munitions accidentally went off. It wasn't a bomb or anything like that," Ludin said. "It was just...a servant who was moving small-arms munitions and for some reason it suddenly exploded." Wali Karzai said two guards were hurt in the explosion but their injuries are "not life threatening," dpa reported. Wali Karzai, who does not hold any official government titles, represents his brother in their native Kandahar Province. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai has stripped Herat Governor Ismail Khan of his position as military commander of western Afghanistan in accordance with an earlier decree that officials may not serve in civil and military capacities simultaneously, Bakhtar news agency reported on 13 August. Meanwhile, Kandahar Provincial Governor Gul Agha Sherzai was named minister of urban development, while the outgoing minister, Mohammad Yusuf Pashtun, will assume Sherzai's former post. Kandahar security chief General Mohammad Akram was also replaced. Finally, the governor of southeastern Afghanistan's Zabul Province, Hamidullah Tokhi, was transferred to Wardak Province. Karzai spokesman Jawayd Ludin told AFP that the changes, which he did not expect to be met with opposition, are part of the government's reform process, adding that "it was time these changes were made." (Isabelle Laughlin)

Different tribes in Kandahar Province have reportedly signaled their support for Karzai's decision to replace Kandahar Governor Gol Agha Sherzai, Bakhtar news agency reported on 16 August. Khaled Pashtun, who heads Kandahar Province's foreign-relations department, said civilian and military officials in the province will support Governor Mohammad Yusof Pashtun, who was named as Sherzai's replacement. Meanwhile, Bakhtar added that Sherzai has repeatedly stated he will abide by any order Karzai gives him. A peaceful departure would be considered a victory for Karzai in his effort to clamp down on independent regional leaders and facilitate his efforts to remove other warlords. Sherzai's removal from Kandahar might be related less to his opposition to Kabul than to disputes within his own administration (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

A gathering of representatives of the Herat Province Loya Jirga on 15 August issued an 11-point manifesto that called for Herat Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan's command of military forces to be restored, Herat television reported. The "esteemed Al-Haj Amir Mohammad Ismail [Khan] should continue holding two posts [governor and commander of the 4th Military Corps] as before," it said. Karzai recently stripped Ismail Khan of his command of the 4th Military Corps, on the basis of an agreement under which no government official can simultaneously hold military and civilian titles (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 May 2003). While Ismail Khan signed the pledge, he did not relinquish command of his military force -- which is larger than the Afghan National Army. (Amin Tarzi)

Lieutenant General Baz Mohammad Ahmadi on 19 August officially assumed command of the 4th Military Corps in Herat Province, Radio Afghanistan reported. A spokesperson for Herat Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan said the governor has "no differences" with Ahmadi and has "asked all officials in the province to cooperate" with him. Ismail Khan's cooperation with the Kabul-appointed Ahmadi would be seen as a major victory for Karzai in his effort to suppress the power of warlords and independent military commanders. (Amin Tarzi)

Lakhdar Brahimi has urged the UN Security Council to authorize the expansion of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Kabul, saying it is crucial to the success of the political reform process.

Brahimi said the expansion of forces was needed to ensure that the Bonn process, which envisions national elections next June (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 June 2003), would permit what he called "fair political competition."

The UN envoy also said that poor security conditions in much of the country have stalled development activity, disrupting services to the public, and threatening confidence in the peace process.

Brahimi told reporters after his closed-door meeting with the council yesterday that he outlined a strategy for improving security, legislation on political parties, and other matters.

"To organize credible, free, and fair elections, there are a lot of other things that need to be done by the Afghan government and by the international community. And we have invited the council today, in very clear terms, to really take on the job of providing what we call the 'benchmarks' that are needed in the security field, in the legislation field, and in other issues," Brahimi said.

UN officials and Afghan authorities have repeatedly called on the Security Council to authorize an expansion of the security mandate in Afghanistan. But the United States, which leads an antiterror coalition of forces in Afghanistan, and other council members have instead stressed the need to train the Afghan National Army and police. In recent months, Washington has begun setting up small teams of military-backed reconstruction teams in provinces outside Kabul as a way of spreading security.

Brahimi welcomed the deployment of the provincial reconstruction teams. He said they will support the Constitutional Loya Jirga -- or grand assembly -- in October as well as demobilization and disarmament efforts. But he said a greater international security presence was needed to help the Afghan central government expand its authority.

He said he did not discuss with council members yesterday specific troop levels for any expansion of the 5,000-member ISAF now deployed in Kabul. But he suggested to reporters that about 8,000 to 13,000 more international troops would be needed to safeguard the political process.

Brahimi said his proposal was modest compared to the international deployment of about 40,000 peacekeepers in Kosova after it became a UN protectorate in 1999. He noted that the number of returning Afghan refugees alone last year was greater than Kosova's population of 2 million.

The U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, said a number of council members have welcomed NATO's assumption of command this month for the international force in Kabul. He noted that there has been talk of a broader NATO role.

"There is the expectation that one of the issues that NATO might discuss in the weeks or months ahead is the issue of considering the possibility of the expansion of the ISAF role beyond Kabul. [Meanwhile,] many delegations commented [yesterday] on the importance of these provincial reconstruction teams as a useful element in supplementing security in Afghanistan," Negroponte said (see below and "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 January 2003).

Brahimi stressed that despite security concerns, much progress had been made on carrying out the reforms outlined at an international conference in Bonn late in 2001. He urged the international community to remain engaged in Afghanistan.

"There is every reason to think this peace process can be taken to a very, very successful end in a relatively short time if we don't walk away or do things halfway, as it were," Brahimi said.

Brahimi's meeting with council members took place on a day of widespread violence in Afghanistan. News agency reports say more than 60 people were killed and dozens wounded in a series of attacks and skirmishes across the country.

The United Nations suspended its mission in parts of southern Afghanistan during the weekend after growing attacks on relief workers. (Robert McMahon)

Amid fighting across Afghanistan yesterday that killed more than 60 people, there are fresh calls for a new UN Security Council resolution allowing the ISAF to expand beyond Kabul (see above).

Those urging a wider deployment of international troops in Afghanistan include senior UN officials as well as human-rights groups and nongovernmental aid agencies. The consensus between them is that political reforms in post-Taliban Afghanistan are at risk unless the UN authorizes ISAF to work outside of Kabul.

But NATO officials say they will not be ready to discuss an expansion of ISAF until the alliance has had several months to settle into its new role overseeing the UN-mandated force.

Among them is British General Jack Deverell, who has been in charge of ISAF's technical operations since NATO took over command of the mission on 11 August.

"The [ISAF] mandate is very specific and was laid down by the United Nations. And there will be no change to that mandate unless the [NATO member] nations and the North Atlantic Council decide that there will be changes -- and [decide] what those changes will be -- in agreement with the United Nations."

Deverell suggests the fastest way to bolster the influence of Transitional Authority Chairman Hamid Karzai's government outside of Kabul is through so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) that are being set up by the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition.

"I think it is quite clear to everybody that Karzai will not be successful unless he is able to extend his influence beyond Kabul. And that will be achieved not just by the military. It will depend upon the increasing importance of the lines of development -- the humanitarian, the legal, the social, the political -- being successfully directed at the regions. And in that, the military play their part. But we have to be imaginative in the way we do that. It is not just a matter of drawing bigger and bigger lines around Kabul and filling them with soldiers."

Because the PRTs are operated under the auspices of the U.S.-led coalition rather than the UN, the program can be expanded in provinces across Afghanistan without specific authorization from a new UN Security Council resolution.

General Deverell says that could make the PRTs the most practical way to deploy foreign troops across the country and bring stability to areas outside of Kabul.

"The Provincial Reconstruction Teams are not part of the [UN] mandate and not part of a NATO operation. But they are a very interesting way of perhaps expanding the influence of Karzai into the regions and outside Kabul. The whole of the international community, I'm sure, will be very interested to see how they work and how effective they are -- and whether they really can enhance his influence in those regions."

Detachments of combat troops are in charge of providing security for the PRTs. But the teams themselves are not comprised entirely of soldiers. The PRTs also have civilian members from the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Justice Department. Representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture are also expected to start working with the PRTs in the near future.

According to the website of the U.S. Department of Defense, PRTs also include members of the U.S. Special Forces who work together with military reservist officers specializing in civilian affairs.

The main job of the civil affairs officers is to run reconstruction projects ranging from the building of schools and the repair of damaged bridges to helping start fledgling medical clinics or digging water wells.

Four PRT bases have been established since last December. U.S. coalition troops have set up PRTs in the southeastern city of Gardayz, the central city of Bamiyan, and the northern city of Konduz. British forces started working in late July to establish the fourth PRT in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

Now, coalition forces are in the process of creating four more PRTs. They are working in places like the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, the southern city of Kandahar, the western city of Herat and the town of Charikar just north of Kabul. The plan is to complete all four new PRTs this year -- some as soon as September.

As the PRT test program grows, some coalition allies are signaling their readiness to contribute troops and specialists to take over some of the existing PRT bases.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder announced yesterday that his country will send an exploratory mission to Kunduz to study the participation of German troops there.

Reports say France and the Netherlands also are considering whether to join the Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

New Zealand Minister of Defense Mark Burton already has announced that about 100 men and women from his country's armed forces will take over the Bamiyan PRT from the Americans.

Burton's description of the mission offers insight on how the PRTs are perceived within the overall framework of reconstruction and security operations in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

He stresses that the PRTs are not combat missions. Rather, Burton says, the PRTs are an attempt to enhance the security environment and promote reconstruction efforts across Afghanistan. He says the teams also are monitoring and assessing civil political and military reform throughout the country.

It is hoped that the mere presence of coalition forces in the provinces, combined with the reconstruction efforts, will enhance the credibility of Karzai's government -- and thus, expand its influence outside of Kabul.

At the same time, the PRT bases could eventually become regional centers for an expanded presence of multinational forces in Afghanistan -- either with or without a UN mandate.

Another possibility being explored is that troops from the fledgling Afghan National Army might eventually be deployed to work as security alongside civilian members of the PRT teams.

One big criticism of the coalition's PRT program is coming from civilian aid agencies and other nongovernmental organizations working in Afghanistan.

Many foreign aid workers question whether the PRTs will really make Afghanistan's provinces more secure for humanitarian organizations.

Denis McClean, a spokesman for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, says the safety of civilian aid workers could be threatened by the trend of military forces taking on a greater humanitarian role.

"We don't believe that military forces should have any part in the delivery of humanitarian aid, or be involved in it -- unless in very extreme and difficult circumstances. And we feel that when people see soldiers throwing aid out the back of a truck and providing humanitarian assistance, it blurs the lines of distinction between humanitarian aid workers and the military."

Other nongovernmental organizations -- like Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch -- have made similar criticisms.

They say that if civilian aid workers are seen to be working alongside combat troops from the U.S.-led coalition, they risk becoming "soft targets" for Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 June 2003). (Ron Synovitz)

Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai said on 17 August that a feasibility study for building a railway from Pakistan to Afghanistan will be conducted soon, "Dawn" reported on 18 August. "Pakistan and Afghanistan fully see eye-to-eye on the importance of deepening economic ties and, in particular, we are both keen that Central Asian trade [would be] redirected through Afghanistan to Pakistan and Iran," Ahmadzai said. According to the report, the feasibility study will be carried out with the cooperation of the Asian Development Bank. Afghanistan is the sole country in the region without a rail network. (Amin Tarzi)

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program said on 14 August that Afghanistan's cereal crop this year will break records and exceed last year's crop by 50 percent. The crop forecast predicts 4.36 million tons of wheat, 410,000 tons of barley, 310,000 tons of maize, and 291,000 tons of milled rice in a bumper harvest attributed to good rainfall and farmers' improved access to seeds and fertilizer. As a result, the country's cereal-import requirement this year will shrink to 400,000 metric tons -- one-quarter of last year's. A report by the two agencies cautions, however, that many of Afghanistan's poorest households will continue to face food shortages this year. WFP Country Director Susana Rico said years of conflict have worn on the country's poorest people, "and the improved economic and agricultural situation will simply not filter down to them." (Isabelle Laughlin)

A 24-hour FM station called Radio Kelid began broadcasting in Kabul on 18 August, Afghanistan Television reported. The radio station has a coverage area of about 30 kilometers and will air news, educational, cultural, and sports programs. (Amin Tarzi)

The publication department of the Border Affairs Ministry reported that a twice-monthly Pasha'i-language journal called "Tara" has began publication, Afghanistan Television reported on 16 August. Pasha'i is an Indo-European language spoken by approximately 100,000 people in areas of Nuristan, Kabul, and Kapisa provinces. (Amin Tarzi)

The U.S.-based "Newsweek" reported on 12 August that the White House has chosen Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. President George W. Bush's special envoy to Iraq and Afghanistan, to serve as the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. The magazine contended that the move, coupled with the recent announcement of a $1 billion aid package to Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July 2003), signals Washington's increased commitment to Afghanistan. Khalilzad is reportedly a highly respected White House insider who enjoys access to the president that his predecessor, Robert Finn, did not. The magazine also said the move highlights the degree to which Afghanistan has been neglected, as Khalilzad reportedly told Afghan officials his duties in Iraq left him no time to spend on Afghan issues. (Isabelle Laughlin)

At an Independence Day celebration held under tight security at Kabul's Olympic Stadium, Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai on 19 August called on Afghans to "launch a holy war to reconstruct this nation," AP reported. "We must try harder. We must catch up with the rest of the world," he told the crowd of several thousand celebrating Afghanistan's 84th year of independence from Britain. Karzai marked the day by ordering the release of prisoners more than 70 years of age, women with one-year prison sentences, and women serving six-year sentences who have completed half there sentence, dpa reported. After a brief war, Afghanistan and Britain signed a peace treaty in Rawalpindi on 8 August 1919, leading to Afghanistan's full independence. Prior to this Afghanistan was independent in its internal affairs while Britain controlled the country's foreign affairs and, in theory, protected it from external threats. (Amin Tarzi)

21 August 1934 -- The United States formally recognizes Afghanistan.

20 August 1966 -- Supreme judiciary committee set up as foundation of future Supreme Court.

16 August 1994 -- Pakistani authorities prevent Ariana Afghan Airlines from flying over Pakistani territory.

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