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Afghan Report: August 28, 2003

28 August 2003, Volume 2, Number 31

"RFE/RL Afghanistan Report" will appear again on 18 September.
By J.M. Ledgard

Islam-Qal'a feels like the end of the world. Sandstorms rip through this desert border region between Iran and Afghanistan. Traders huddle inside a walled bazaar, scarves draped across their faces for protection. Donkeys are pushed backwards by the wind, children stumble, black Shi'a veils of women billow and snap. In the middle of this brutal nowhere is what refugee agencies call "zero point," a few metal huts and a concrete field. This is where Afghan refugees returning home from Iran are set down and a new life begins.

There is some movement from Islam-Qal'a into Iran. For 60,000 Iranian tomans (about $80) boys and men from impoverished Afghan villages are spirited into Iran. Another 90,000 tomans gets them all the way to Tehran, hidden under a load of sheep or wheat in the back of a truck. And in Tehran, these economic migrants dare to hope, anything is possible.

But few dreams come true for Afghans in Iran. Most of those returning home are weary and disillusioned. Rahima Qaim is an old woman. She doesn't know how old. She worked as a maid in Iran for many years. She is returning to Afghanistan now, she said, because she does not want to die in a foreign land. But the hope she feels at her homecoming is tempered by fear. "We wanted so badly to come back home when we were in Iran. But now that we are almost in Afghanistan, we don't know what will happen to us," she said.

Refugees are set down at zero point beside the hangars. They are registered by the International Catholic Migration Committee (ICMC), a humanitarian organization working alongside the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). The sick, elderly, and unaccompanied are set to one side. Others pass on across the hot concrete to lorries piled high with their possessions, which the UNHCR also pays to transport. The agency emphasizes return is a one-way ticket. Returnees are largely on their own once they reach their final destination. "Today is a slow day," said Davor Gazivoda, a Croatian working for ICMC. "Eight hundred and eighty-five returnees by lunchtime. By September we expect 5,000 returnees a day."

It's good news for Iran. It is desperate to unload a chunk of the 2 million Afghan refugees still inside its borders and at least some of the 1 million or so undocumented Afghan workers -- like the men and boys passing through Islam-Qala -- who take up menial jobs for less than minimum wage. The return is not necessarily good news for Afghanistan, however. Ravaged by war and drought, the country is still struggling to absorb those who returned home from Pakistan in 2002.

It is becoming more difficult for Afghans to get by in Iran. Registration drives have isolated illiterate Afghans. Random police raids pick up and deport those without proper papers. Even those with the correct papers are finding it harder to access medical care or place their children in schools. Parents in larger Afghan communities have taken to paying other Afghans to teach their children privately.

Many returnees bring back stories of exploitation and alienation in Iran. Men at zero point speak of scuffles and beatings. "Iranians call us dogs, donkeys," said one. Another spoke of how the mullah in his local mosque in Iran berated Afghan refugees. "Just go home or we will force you to go," the mullah is reported to have said.

Abdul Qadi is a 48-year-old mason from Herat. He claimed to have been swindled by his Iranian employers. "I spent my own money on a building project I was working on -- for materials, you know," he said. "But when I asked for the engineer to refund it he told me to go away."

Qadi continued: "It is always the same for Afghans. The Iranians are happy with us when we start working for them. But when they are going to give us our money they become angry and try to find ways to kick us out without paying us our salaries." A group of men gather around Qadi. They are angry. "Iran is no good," they say in chorus.

The prospects are not good for many of the returnees. Thirty-eight-year-old Sharaf Gul is heading for Kabul. She has nowhere else to go. It will not be easy there. The capital's ruined slums are already teeming with unskilled returnees. Jobs are scarce. So is water and safety. "I cannot read or write," Sharaf Gul said. "My husband is uneducated also. We left because the Iranians would not register our children for school. They said it was because we did not have an identification card. I have to go to Kabul now. I do not have a house there. I will make a tent and I will live there."

Still, the returnees are united by a strong sense of patriotism and a longing for their homeland. Whether that will be enough to sustain them in a country lacking hospitals, schools, and jobs is another matter. An aid worker speaks of a boy returning from Iran who gave thanks to Allah for the dust storms at Islam-Qal'a because it was Afghan dust. After several days in a tent on the concrete site, however, he was cursing it.

J.M. Ledgard is a journalist who covers Afghanistan and a freelancer for RFE/RL.

(The following is the text of a letter dated 27 August, sent to "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report")

We respectfully wish to state that we, the people of northern Afghanistan, have been listening to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan and are aware of your airing the problems of our countrymen to the world at large. We thank you for this most vital service rendered. We request that once again you help us to bring the plight of the farmers in Baghlan Province and points north to the attention of the world.

Baghlan Province historically has been known as the "breadbasket of Afghanistan." Over the past three years, due to the drought and the migration of farmers and the repressive regime of the Taliban, this area did not do well.

However, with the return of the farmers after the downfall of the Taliban [in December 2001] and the end of the three-year drought, there is a bounty in wheat and barley production, so much so that such a harvest has not been seen in this province for the past 20 years. Both in quantity and quality, we have a bountiful harvest. This is good news on the one hand but on the other hand, due to continued importation of wheat from Kazakhstan and Pakistan and the donation of wheat from the United States, the price of homegrown wheat is so low that it does not even meet the cost of fertilizer. Presently the price of one seer (7 kilograms) of naturally irrigated wheat stands at 30 afghanis and artificially irrigated wheat at 36 Afghanis, or $0.75 and $0.80 respectively. This amount is far below what it costs to produce the product. The minimum amount should be around 48 afghanis, or $1 per kilogram.

There is no longer any grain storage facilities in Afghanistan, as there was in the past when the government would buy excess production and store it in order to stabilize the price. Therefore we must sell all the production this year. To reach the figure of 48 afghanis, the world, especially the United Nations, must utilize nationally produced wheat to feed the populace, before importing from abroad. This would help stabilize local prices and encourage farmers to continue planting wheat and barley.

Unless this amount can be achieved, in order to alleviate debt and meet family obligations, the farmers will be forced to turn to other cash crops, such as opium.

As much as it is against our religion to earn money from sale of opium, we will be left with little choice if we are to survive economically.

The closing of the Salang Tunnel [on the main road connecting northern Afghanistan to Kabul and beyond] has put an additional financial burden on us, as we are unable to transport our melons and watermelons to the markets in Kabul and Pakistan. As such, huge quantities of these products lie wasted on the fields and warehouses. Those that are shipped through the Shebar Pass take about 20 hours over rough roads. These roads are so bad that over 90 percent of the fruits do not make it to the market due to breakage.

We beseech you to air our plight to the world, especially to the United States of America so that immediate action could be taken in order to safeguard the traditional and staple agricultural products of Afghanistan from ruination.

Respectfully yours,

[Signed] Haji Abdul Baqi, Haji Qurban Ali, Haji Sayyed Shah, Azim Bay, Juma Khan, Haji Baba Nazar

Three supporters of the ousted Taliban regime were killed on 23 August in an "abortive military attack" in Daichopan District of Zabul Province, Radio Afghanistan reported on 24 August. According to a 25 August report by Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari Service, nine people were killed in the clash and four neo-Taliban, including one of their commanders, were captured. The report did not indicate to which side the nine casualties belonged. Five pro-government Afghan soldiers were killed in the attack, "The New York Times" reported on 25 August. Mohammad Hanif, a spokesman for the neo-Taliban, claimed that 12 pro-government soldiers were killed while his side suffered no casualties, AP reported on 24 August. (Amin Tarzi)

More than 200 neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters have reportedly gathered in the Arghestan and Maruf districts of Kandahar Province and the Daichopan and Ata Ghar districts of Zabul Province, Afghanistan Television reported on 23 August. According to that report, most districts of those two provinces have witnessed sporadic attacks, but due to its mountainous terrain, Daichopan has become a favorite base from which to launch neo-Taliban operations. In April, five people, including two pro-government soldiers, were killed in an attack attributed to the neo-Taliban in Daichopan. Six police officers were killed in Ata Ghar District in July in an attack by some 200 neo-Taliban forces (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 1 May and 3 July 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Between 14 and 50 supporters of the ousted Taliban regime were killed on 25 August during joint assaults in Daichopan District of Zabul Province by pro-government Afghan troops supported by U.S. forces, international news agencies reported. The commander of the operation in Zabul, Brigadier General Haji Grani, said that 20 neo-Taliban fighters where killed and two of their bases in the Dawzi area of Daichopan were captured, Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported on 25 August. Grani said that U.S. warplanes bombed Taliban positions, adding that the few U.S. soldiers on the ground "took part in infantry combat but [their main mission was] to tell the pilots the exact location of" neo-Taliban force concentrations. A spokesman for Zabul Province Governor Hafizullah Khan said that up to 50 neo-Taliban fighters were killed, but the U.S. military estimated the number at 14, the BBC reported on 25 August. (Amin Tarzi)

A small number of U.S. Special Forces supporting 450 pro-government Afghan soldiers searched the Daichopan District on 26 August, one day after large-scale fighting in the region left many neo-Taliban fighters dead, Reuters reported. According to Daichopan police chief Juma Khan, the "fighting has come to an end," and his forces "are conducting house-to-house, village-to-village, and cave-to-cave searches" for neo-Taliban forces. Juma Khan believes that most of the remaining neo-Taliban forces have escaped to neighboring districts. According to some reports, more than 600 neo-Taliban fighters had gathered in Daichopan in recent weeks and were responsible for killing up to five pro-government soldiers on 23 August. (Amin Tarzi)

Mulla Abdul Jabar, who has been appointed as the governor of Zabul Province by former Taliban regime leader Mulla Mohammad Omar, said on 25 August that only four of their fighters were killed in the operation, Reuters reported on 26 August. He also said that more than 25 pro-government soldiers were killed. Abdul Jabar said 1,000 neo-Taliban fighters took part in the operation, which was led by Mulla Abdul Razzaq Nafis. Nafis is a member of the recently formed leadership council of the neo-Taliban. Abdul Jabar added that he considers himself "the real governor of Zabul because Mulla Omar is the real ruler of Afghanistan" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

In the mop-up operations that were conducted on 26 August by U.S. Special Forces and pro-government Afghan soldiers in Daichopan District of Zabul Province, 80 people suspected of loyalty to the ousted Taliban regime were arrested, Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 August 2003). Kandahar Province Governor Yusof Pashtun said on 26 August that the house-to-house searches might continue for weeks, Radio Afghanistan reported. Pashtun added that the operations were conducted in Daichopan, Ata Ghar, and Mianashin districts of Zabul Province. The searches began after a 25 August joint U.S.-Afghan attack on neo-Taliban forces in Daichopan. (Amin Tarzi)

According to unconfirmed reports, the security commander of Khas Oruzgan District of Oruzgan Province Asadullah and a number of bodyguards were killed in a terrorist attack on 21 August, Hindukosh news agency reported. According to the report, around 200 Afghan soldiers and 15 coalition troops have launched a mop-up operation in Khas Oruzgan. The report did not specify if the operation was launched after Asadullah was killed or before. (Amin Tarzi)

Five neo-Taliban and two pro-government soldiers were killed on 24 August in a clash in the Hashmatkala area of Oruzgan Province, Radio Afghanistan reported on 25 August. According to Oruzgan Governor Jan Mohammad, the neo-Taliban elements had disguised themselves as government officials in order to plan future attacks. (Amin Tarzi)

Three people were killed on 25 August in Badakhshan Province in a clash between forces loyal to two unidentified rival commanders, AFP reported on 26 August, quoting Bakhtar news agency. According to General Sayyed Akbar, the security commander of Badakhshan, "the reason for this fighting [was] the previous enmity between two commanders." Badakhshan is generally peaceful, but the province is "a major opium-growing region," AFP commented. It is not clear from the report if the killings were drug-related or not. (Amin Tarzi)

A U.S. special-operations solider died on 21 August from wounds received in a military operation in Orgun in Paktika Province on 20 August, "The New York Times" reported on 22 August. The soldier has not been identified. On 21 August, an Afghan official said a U.S. military helicopter fired on a civilian minibus near Orgun, injuring two men and one woman. A U.S. military official said the vehicle was seen "speeding aggressively" toward coalition troops. According to an unconfirmed 22 August report by the Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari service, six people are missing or killed as a result of the helicopter attack. (Amin Tarzi)

The airport in Jalalabad, the capital city of Nangarhar Province, was hit by two rockets on the night of 19 August, but no casualties or damage were reported, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported on 20 August. Nangarhar Province security commander Zalmay said blamed remnants of Al-Qaeda for the attack, Radio Afghanistan reported on 20 August. He said that while the attack did not cause any damage, "it created concerns among the residents of Nangarhar." (Amin Tarzi)

Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri said on 19 August, prior to a 21 August meeting in Kabul with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, that he has an open agenda but will try to clear up any misunderstandings between his country and Afghanistan, Associated Press of Pakistan reported. Kasuri said the minor misunderstandings that exist are akin to those between brothers. He did not elaborate on what those misunderstandings could be. He said the countries' bilateral relations cannot be compared to those of any other states. "If Afghanistan sneezes, Pakistan catches cold," he said. Afghan authorities have blamed Pakistan for supporting neo-Taliban and other elements that oppose the Transitional Administration and for violating Afghan territory (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11, 17 and 24 July and 21 August 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

During his visit to Kabul on 21 August, Kasuri met with the Chairman Karzai, Foreign Minister Abdullah, Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim, and former Afghan monarch Mohammad Zaher, and said that Pakistan will "do everything [it] can to support the present government," Pakistan TV reported. As a result of the talks, "confidence between the two governments will improve further," Kasuri said. He added that Islamabad is "wedded to the Bonn process." Kasuri said that he and Abdullah have decided to "talk to each other, when required, by telephone more often so as not to allow negative headlines and spin doctors to go [into] full gear," the Pakistani daily "Dawn" reported on 22 August. (Amin Tarzi)

Responding to a question from a reporter during a news conference in Kabul on 21 August, Pakistani Foreign Minister Kasuri strongly rejected the charges that Pakistani troops have violated Afghan territory or have attempted to do so, "Dawn," reported on 22 August. "I repudiate with full force every word of what you have said," Kasuri told the unidentified journalist who posed the question (for an analysis of problems related to the Afghan-Pakistani border, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 August 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

During the meeting between Pakistani Foreign Minister Kasuri and Afghan officials, it was decided that Afghanistan will soon hand over 643 Pakistani prisoners who have been held in Afghan prisons since the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001, Pakistan TV reported on 21 August. Many Pakistani nationals fought alongside the Taliban, and some were captured at Al-Qaeda terrorist network camps in Afghanistan. The Pakistani prisoners who remain in Afghanistan are not considered dangerous. (Amin Tarzi)

Four artillery shells fired from Afghanistan landed in Pakistan's Mohmand region on 20 August, AP reported the next day. The attack did not result in any damage, and Pakistan did not retaliate, an unidentified official of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province said. Pakistan's military spokesman said he was not aware of any attack from Afghan territory. In July, sporadic fighting in the tribal area of Mohmand led Afghan protestors to storm the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul, and to the worsening of bilateral relations. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border remains porous and the situation there tense despite the formation of a tripartite commission comprising Afghan, Pakistani, and U.S. officials to monitor the border and establish a hotline to ensure that no misunderstanding or act carried out by rogue elements on either side can lead to greater conflict (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 August 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Governor Hafizullah Khan said that one of the neo-Taliban fighters captured in Daichopan (see above) admitted that he was offered money in Pakistan to fight in Afghanistan, "The New York Times" reported on 25 August. Many Afghan officials have claimed that Pakistan either assists infiltrators to Afghanistan or at least is not doing enough to prevent them from crossing the Afghan-Pakistani border. U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) told journalists in Kabul on 22 August that Islamabad is "not doing as much as it can" to prevent cross-border movements, the New York daily reported. (Amin Tarzi)

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri said on 24 August that his country will not allow terrorists to use its territory to launch attacks against Afghanistan, the Pakistani daily "Dawn" reported on 25 August. Kasuri added that if incidents of cross-border infiltration are found to have occurred, they will be investigated. The accusations of Pakistani support for neo-Taliban forces inside Afghanistan have come from numerous officials in Afghanistan, in particular, from members of the United Front (Northern Alliance) who fought a bitter war with the Islamabad-backed Taliban from the late 1990s to 2001. Asked why members of the United Front accuse Pakistan of supporting the neo-Taliban, Kasuri replied, "Our only effort is to bring improvement to the conditions and not to allow [them] to deteriorate." (Amin Tarzi)

Discussing the reports of Pakistani advances into the Mohmand areas that border with Afghanistan, Kasuri said, "We went there directly on the invitation of the U.S.," "Dawn," reported on 25 August. Pakistan's military activities in late June in the hitherto semi-autonomous Mohmand Agency in that country's North-West Frontier Province (ostensibly to combat elements of Al-Qaeda and neo-Taliban forces who were using the area as a launching area for attacks in Afghanistan), triggered accusations by Afghan officials that Pakistani forces had crossed into Afghanistan. These charges led to an attack on the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul in July, bringing the two countries to the brink of a larger conflict. The issue of security along the partially un-demarcated and disputed Afghan-Pakistani border remains a point of contention between Kabul and Islamabad (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11, 17, and 24 July and 7 August 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Former Zabul Province Governor Hamidullah Tokhi on 24 August assumed his new post as the governor of Wardak Province, Afghanistan Television reported. Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai transferred Tokhi earlier this month from his position in Zabul, a province under constant threat of attack by the neo-Taliban (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 21 August 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Commanders loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, special adviser on security and military affairs to Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai, and those of General Ata Mohammad, commander of the 7th Army Corps, were disarmed in Sholgara District of Balkh Province on 26 August, Hindukosh news agency reported. Forces loyal to Ata Mohammad, who represents the Jamiyat-e Islami party in northern Afghanistan, have clashed sporadically over the past year with armed supporters of Dostum's Junbish-e Melli party. According to a 24 August briefing by UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the Sholgara disarmament plan is "organized and conceived by the Security Commission of the North and is not really a part of the national disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program (DDR), which is yet to begin." (Amin Tarzi)

German Defense Minister Peter Struck said on 20 August that if the German cabinet adopts the required resolution, a small group of German soldiers could be deployed this fall in Konduz to lead a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), ddp reported. Struck rejected reports that Germany is planning to deploy 300 soldiers in the province, saying the number would be determined after the tasks and size of the PRT was determined. He said Germans participating in the PRT would "not accept any responsibilities for pacifying the region." Struck said opposition among German politicians to such deployments is "not justified" (for more on PRT's, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 January and 21 August 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said on 27 August that his country would send 250 soldiers to Konduz Province in northern Afghanistan, but only if the United Nations mandated such a deployment, dpa reported. Schroeder, downplaying the calls from opposition parties that the country could not afford such an undertaking, said, "the money will be found." The proposed German deployment would take control of a PRT currently managed by the United States. Germany currently has 2,000 troops in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul and an undisclosed number of Special Forces who are part of the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition. Schroeder's demand for a mandate for the PRT's may be an effort to expand ISAF's mandate beyond Kabul and integrate the PRT's into ISAF. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan Justice Minister Abdul Rahim Karimi said on 20 August that under the new Afghan law on political parties, communist parties will be banned, Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari service reported on 21 August. Karimi said that "under the Afghan Constitution," all political parties and movements whose activities do not run counter to the strictures of Islam are allowed to function, but since communist ideology denies the existence of God, such parties will be outlawed. Karimi did not specify to which constitution he was referring, but since the new draft Afghan constitution is yet to be made public, he might have been referring to the 1964 constitution. Afghanistan is to hold general elections in June 2004, and a few political parties have been formed in recent months in addition to the previously existing parties. However, there are no specific rules regulating political parties. Karimi said a draft law on political parties will be forthcoming. (Amin Tarzi)

After a discussion on 25 August under the leadership of Chief Justice Mawlawi Fazl Hadi Shinwari, the Afghan Supreme Court unanimously decided to ban the activities of the newly formed United National Party (UNP), Radio Afghanistan reported. The new party was established by supporters of the former Afghan communist party, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The Supreme Court justified its decision by saying that members of the PDPA committed grave crimes against the people of Afghanistan and caused widespread suffering after the party came to power in 1978. The Supreme Court further recommended that PDPA members should be put on trial. It is not clear from the report if members of the UNP should also be tried. The decision of the Supreme Court was based on a recent verdict issued by the Ulama Council of Afghanistan, which stipulated that any political party that has a history of anti-Islamic activities or that adopts anti-Islamic policies should not be allowed to function in Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

Chief Justice Shinwari said on 26 August that he sees no reason to prevent former members of the ousted Taliban regime reentering political life in Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera TV reported. Shinwari added that if the Taliban movement is to be revived, it ought to change its name and continue to adhere to the principals of Islam as the basic condition for the establishment of political parties in Afghanistan. Shinwari said that the "door will remain open" to anyone who adheres to Islam, including the Taliban, to enter Afghan politics, adding that "Karzai has already announced this." As for former communists, Shinwari said, "the [Afghan] people will never allow these communist murderers," who he said are "responsible for the past 23 years of destruction and ruin, to resume political activities" (see above and "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July 2003). Afghanistan still has no constitution or laws to regulate political parties. (Amin Tarzi)

Burhanuddin Rabbani said on 24 August that the Afghan people should directly elect the members of the Constitutional Loya Jirga that is scheduled to adopt a new constitution for Afghanistan in October, AP reported on 24 August. Rabbani also called for the formation of a parallel commission comprising teachers, lawyers, judges, and other "people with open minds" to help the current 35-member Constitutional Commission finalize the new constitution. Rabbani added that he has "heard, and it's a rumor, that the [October] Loya Jirga for the constitution might be delayed until December 2003. And that is good because until then the commission members could continue their work and people could give more ideas about the constitution." The draft constitution remains shrouded in secrecy, although it is scheduled to be made public by 1 September (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 16 January and 3, 10, and 24 April 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

23 August 1961 -- Pakistan announces it is closing Afghan consulates and trade offices in Pakistan and is considering prohibiting transit facilities given to Afghanistan.

26 August 1965 -- Elections of Afghan Parliament members begins. Over 1,000 run for 216 seats in the Wolusi Jirga (House of the People) and 100 for 28 elective seats in the Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders).

14 August 1973 -- Deposed King Mohammad Zaher announces his abdication.

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