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Afghan Report: October 23, 2003

23 October 2003, Volume 2, Number 37
By Tanya Goudsouzian

As the Afghan Transitional Administration struggles to implement the rehabilitation program prescribed by the international community, the Afghan people lie in limbo -- hovering between what is perceived as an ineffective administration and the looming threat of chaos should residual neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda, or other disruptive forces regain a foothold.

The Constitutional Loya Jirga scheduled for December will deliberate over a proposed constitution that was drafted by a commission appointed by the Afghan Transitional Administration. There is very much hinging on the acceptance of a constitution, without which political parties cannot be formed and democratic elections cannot be held. But the draft constitution has already drawn scathing criticism from players across the political spectrum, and it appears doubtful that participants in the Loya Jirga will approve it (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 16 January, 3, 10, and 24 April, and 18 September 2003).

Ahmad Wali Masud, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United Kingdom and the younger brother of the late commander Ahmad Shah Masud, in telephone interviews with RFE/RL on 20-21 October, said he regrets that the constitution committee did not include "those national forces who have had some presence in Afghanistan."

"The draft constitution came out only two days ago and I have just gone through it. Let me just say that there will be a lot of debate, and there might be a lot of things that will have to be adjusted and corrected," he said. "This is a draft that has been prepared by the government. My idea was that a wider range of people should have prepared it. It's not going to be easy to sell this constitution."

Masud predicted the upcoming Loya Jirga will be "difficult" compared to the previous one: "Last time, it was only about who should be president and nothing else. So everyone came and they elected a president. This time, however, the Loya Jirga will be about the constitution. The constitution will play a basic, important part of everyone's life. It will regulate the lives of the people."

Too Much Power

Masud's main issue with the draft constitution appears to be that it concentrates "too much power in the hands of the president."

"There are probably about 23 items that talk about the power of the president. Too much power has been concentrated in the hands of the president. People will not readily accept that sort of power granted to one man. They will not feel secure, and they will feel vulnerable in the future," Masud said. "It is very dangerous to allow one man to wield such a vast amount of power, especially in Afghanistan. Whenever this has happened in the past, the man has turned into a dictator. We don't need another dictator in this country."

Masud said he believes power should be "spread around" in order to maintain "a balance of power." "We are trying to earn the trust of the people.... And eventually, we want to have one nation who believes in a common destiny. That is the point. If we have a constitution that divides the people rather than unites them -- this would be terrible," he said. "We need more time and more consultations with individuals from a broader range of the political spectrum to draft the constitution. This way, we can come up with a constitution that we can all put our faith in."

He warned: "If the constitution singularly reflects the narrow interests of one party, should another party come into power in the future, this constitution would be discarded. It is important that the constitution be respected by all."

While Masud did not criticize Karzai directly, he cast doubt on all the president's men. "There is no doubt about [Karzai's] desire to do something solid and effective for the country, but he has lost credibility," he said. "I have always said that he is lacking an effective cabinet and administration."

Masud said he believes the transitional government should do "more." "They must do something practical for the people if they want to gain the confidence of the people."

In this vein, Masud has proposed what he calls a "national agenda," which, he explained, is essentially a blueprint for rebuilding war-ravaged Afghanistan.

National Agenda

"The whole idea behind the national agenda is to start a confidence building process between the government and the people, so that the people can feel exactly where we are headed," Masud said. "The people were expecting a lot from the government, and very little of these expectations were met. The people are disenchanted."

For Masud, it is imperative that the government's affairs be made "transparent" and the "ruling circle" expanded to include a broader portion of the political spectrum (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 15 May 2003). "The people have the right to know how much the government has achieved and how much is yet to be delivered. The government must have more consultations with the people. The government cannot just say, 'OK, we've drawn up this constitution for you, so now you live with it,'" he said. "Extensive consultations are needed. It doesn't matter how long it takes � whether two years or three years."

Masud did not rule out the possibility of submitting his candidacy for president in the upcoming elections: "My main interest is to get the government to accept my national agenda. This is for the good of the country. If no one pays any attention to it, then I will have to opt for a different strategy. Either we go together, or we don't go together," he said.

Masud founded a de facto political party called Nohzat Milli-ye Afghanistan (National Movement of Afghanistan) in May 2002. But the official launch of its activities, despite the hype, never materialized, and there has been much speculation as to why Masud has indefinitely delayed the launch.

"The reason why I did not officially launch the party was because I have been trying to rally together some of the disparate forces in the country under a common vision and goal. I felt that it was only in this way that the party could be a truly national movement," Masud said. "About a month ago I submitted my national agenda to the government, and I am waiting for their response. If it is not accepted, then I will have to decide on another strategy. After all, if the government is reluctant, there are others who will rally around it."

Despite rumors alleging a rift between Masud and fellow members of Shura-ye Nezar -- Education Minister Yunos Qanuni and Defense Minister Marshall Mohammed Qasim Fahim -- Masud underlined his "good relations" with all parties in the country, which include cabinet ministers and factional leaders.

Referring to cabinet ministers, however, Masud insisted: "All members of the government are collectively responsible for the government's failures and successes." He did not elaborate. "I have proposed the national agenda in order to build a bigger, stronger movement. Hopefully, I will know in a few days' time."

(Tanya Goudsouzian is a freelance journalist who covers Afghanistan)

Lieutenant General Goetz Gliemeroth, German commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), on 21 October called for the demilitarization of Kabul, Radio Afghanistan reported. "ISAF definitely asks for a demilitarized city of Kabul," Reuters quoted him as saying. "That means ISAF strongly supports the removal of heavy weapons from the city of Kabul out to cantonment sites on its outer limits." Gliemeroth argued that ISAF's presence in Kabul eliminates any need for heavy weaponry in the capital. In an apparent reference to Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Gliemeroth said ISAF is "promoting very strongly that these heavy weapons are moved out of Kabul by the current owners." Fahim controls his own heavily armed militia in the city. Under the 2001 Bonn agreement, signatories pledged to "withdraw all military units from Kabul." (Amin Tarzi)

Lieutenant General Gliemeroth warned on 21 October that the lack of security in Afghanistan's provinces could eventually destabilize Kabul as well, dpa reported on 21 October. "Fighting in the south and southeast has intensified, and the infiltration of Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and other terrorist groups along the country's borders with Pakistan is becoming an increasing problem," he said. Gliemeroth added that if ISAF does not "bring security to other provinces," opposition forces "will bring instability to Kabul." NATO is due to expand ISAF beyond Kabul for the first time with the deployment of a German contingent in the northern Konduz Province (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 16 October 2003), where the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration pilot project is under way (see below). (Amin Tarzi)

CARE International welcomed this week's UN Security Council vote to expand ISAF beyond Kabul in a statement released on 16 October. However, the statement asserted that the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) system has not proven to be an adequate response to more threatening environments, such as those in which antigovernment terrorism, drug-based criminality, and warlordism are prevalent. Citing the expected takeover of a PRT in Konduz Province by Germany, the statement warned that, rather than fulfilling traditional peacekeeping functions, PRTs continue to implement reconstruction projects in areas where professional assistance organizations are free to work. CARE urged NATO members to move urgently from political acknowledgement of the need for ISAF expansion to the urgent deployment of a security-assistance force of sufficient scale to make a meaningful contribution to improved security throughout Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

Citizens in the Balkh Province are disappointed with the work of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in their province, Hindukosh news agency reported on 15 October. The PRT in the Balkh capital of Mazar-e Sharif that is run by the United Kingdom has a budget of $5 million, which cannot meet the expectations of the people there, according to the report. Troops belonging to the PRT in Mazar-e Sharif did not intervene during fierce fighting in that city. (Amin Tarzi)

As a result of the UN vote to extend the ISAF mandate beyond Kabul, Belgium is willing to contribute troops to the Provincial Reconstruction Team that Germany will be leading in Konduz Province, "De Standaard" reported on 15 October. According to the report, Belgium would contribute 50-60 soldiers to help the estimated 450 German troops who will be assigned to Konduz. (Amin Tarzi)

Markus Lyra, head of the Finnish Foreign Ministry's political department, said on 15 October that his country might send an additional 50 troops to serve outside Kabul, the "Helsingin Sanomat" website ( reported. Lyra did not say where the Finnish troops would likely be based. Finland currently has a contingent serving with ISAF in Kabul. "The problem in Afghanistan is that the situation has to be controlled with fairly modest input. For instance, the Kosovo model is impossible. If we sent a unit equal to the one we sent to Kosovo, it would be enormous," Lyra said. NATO has calculated that Afghanistan requires 2,000-10,000 additional troops. (Amin Tarzi)

The United Nations this week launched its long-overdue program to disarm Afghanistan's factional militias with a pilot project in the northeastern Konduz Province. The $41 million UN project -- known as the Afghanistan New Beginnings Program -- aims to eventually disarm 100,000 Afghan factional-militia fighters and reintegrate them into civilian life.

UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said the initial pilot project has a more modest goal of disarming about 1,000 combatants in Konduz, where Germany is deploying up to 450 soldiers as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Christopher Langton, a regional expert on Afghanistan and Russia at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL that it is essential for the credibility of internationally backed reforms that disarmament begins before a Constitutional Loya Jirga starts in December. "Something is going to start. But it will start in a very small way -- and it will start before the Loya Jirga. It has to start before the Loya Jirga to give the Loya Jirga any kind of feel that it is dealing with demobilization, disarmament, and rehabilitation [of factional militia fighters]. And it needs to [start soon] because it is very much a part of the future, and of security in general," Langton said.

But Langton said he is skeptical about the chances of success for voluntary disarmament projects that do not simultaneously involve rival militia factions. Under UN plans, initial success in Konduz would lead to similar pilot projects in the southeastern province of Paktiya and in the central province of Bamiyan.

Continued success would pave the way for a major disarmament effort across the rest of the country. The expanded program reportedly would give priority to disarming rival militias near the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, as well as militia fighters in Parwan Province from the armed factions loyal to Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) says the UN program intends to remove the support structure beneath Afghan warlords by disengaging their lower-level commanders and troops through individualized counseling, vocational training, and job creation.

In a report issued on 30 September, the ICG noted the Afghan Defense Ministry has become a key player in disarmament due to the lack of a substantial international security force outside of Kabul or a strong Afghan national army (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 2 October 2003). The ICG report said the "heavy footprint" of the Afghan Defense Ministry in the disarmament process creates a "high risk" that it could be co-opted by Fahim's own private militia faction.

For example, the Defense Ministry is now responsible for assigning and training teams of 70 officers tasked with compiling data on militia units and personnel in each district to be covered by the disarmament program. But one of the militia groups involved in sporadic clashes near Mazar-e Sharif is loyal to Fahim's faction of the former Northern Alliance.

Like Langton, the ICG concluded that a credible process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former commanders and fighters into society is a critical prerequisite for meaningful political reform in Afghanistan -- including the adoption of a new constitution, judicial reforms, and democratic elections by next year.

This month's UN Security Council resolution on an expanded mandate for ISAF is expected to contribute to disarmament efforts by putting more international soldiers in tense areas outside of Kabul Province. But experts on Afghanistan are still waiting to see if the expanded ISAF mandate will bring about enough international deployments to make the disarmament program successful. (Ron Synovitz)

The commander of the 7th Army Corps in Balkh Province, General Ata Mohammad, praised his troops on 14 October for "bravery against [General Abdul Rashid] Dostum's militia," Balkh TV reported. In a reference to fighting near Mazar-e Sharif between troops loyal to his party, Jamiat-e Islami, and soldiers loyal to Dostum's Junbish-e Melli on 8-10 October (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 16 October 2003), Ata Mohammad said "unsuccessful enemies of our religion, glory, and nation perpetrated a big plot and conspiracies to rob and plunder everything our people have." He added that his side is "not ready to give our guns to anyone unless our people are given a guarantee that nothing will happen." Ata Mohammad added that it is the right and responsibility of the 7th Army Crops to "defend the dignity and prestige of our countrymen." He said Dostum's forces "have brought about a big disaster." Ata Mohammad concluded his speech by saying, "We will not accept any regime or government that is against Islam and the mujahedin." (Amin Tarzi)

Troubled parts of northern Afghanistan are increasingly stable thanks in part to the deployment of a central-government police unit there, a UN spokesman said on 19 October. Manoel de Almeida e Silva said a cease-fire in the north continues to hold and the security situation is reported to have significantly improved. A contingent of Kabul-based police has been deployed at checkpoints in and around the city of Mazar-e Sharif, while UN restrictions on road missions have been lifted except in two areas. The spokesman pointed to "promising" developments in Balkh Province's Sholgara District, which has remained calm since a peace agreement was signed there in late August. "This is due mainly to a nascent police force in the district, [which] is performing its functions with growing credibility," he said. With international support, the police unit has been able to buy vehicles, uniforms, radios, and other equipment. (Tanya Goudsouzian)

A bomb ripped apart a pickup truck on a dirt road in Afghanistan's eastern Konar Province on 17 October, killing four people, while two Afghan soldiers were killed the same day in a separate land-mine explosion in the country's south, AP quoted Afghan officials as saying on 19 October. No group has claimed responsibility for either of the explosions, but officials blamed fighters of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and the ousted Taliban regime. The explosion in Konar came two days after Taliban sympathizers allegedly distributed pamphlets in the province warning Afghans against working with the post-Taliban, U.S.-backed Afghan Transitional Administration of Chairman Hamid Karzai, according to Irshad Khan, an official in a military brigade based in Asadabad, the provincial capital. In Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, two Afghan military-intelligence agents were killed and three others were wounded when their pickup truck reportedly hit a land mine 40 kilometers south of the provincial capital of Lashkargah, provincial-government spokesman Mohammad Wali Khan said. (Tanya Goudsouzian)

Coalition forces in Afghanistan said Mullah Janan, a neo-Taliban commander, was captured on 19 October, Reuters reported on 20 October. Janan is thought to be responsible for recent rocket attacks on a coalition base in southern Afghanistan. Janan was captured in Oruzgan Province with the assistance of Afghan militia forces. (Amin Tarzi)

The head of Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's office, Omar Daudzay, on 20 October confirmed reports that the former Taliban foreign minister has been released from U.S. custody, Radio Afghanistan reported. According to Daudzay, Mawlawi Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil has been active in talks between the Afghan Transitional Administration and those members of the Taliban who have not committed crimes. Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, told Radio Free Afghanistan on 20 October that some leaders of the Taliban who "do not have people's blood on their hands and are not known as criminals...had just made contact with the government, saying that they are ready to cooperate, with all they have in their power, to help the government. Up until now, the government has not made any attempt to contact them, and if it does, you will be informed." (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan Chief Justice Mawlawi Fazl Hadi Shinwari said on 6 October that talks are under way between the Afghan Transitional Administration and "some Taliban groups," adding that it is Chairman Karzai's policy "to hold talks with those Taliban whose hands are not covered with the blood of the nation" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 9 October 2003). Other unnamed Afghan officials made similar claims, but Karzai and the Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad denied such reports (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 9 and 16 October 2003). The confusion surrounding Muttawakil's release from custody is indicative of the sensitive nature of Karzai's reported attempts to negotiate with some members of the former Taliban regime. (Amin Tarzi)

A spokesman for Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai on 21 October gave differing statements regarding the whereabouts of former Taliban Foreign Minister Mawlawi Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil. Spokesman Jawed Ludin told Radio Afghanistan on 21 October in reference to reports that Muttawakil has been released from U.S. custody that, as far as he knows, "Muttawakil is still in prison." However, in an interview with the BBC's Persian service on 21 October, Ludin said he has "no accurate information" regarding Muttawakil's possible release. According to the BBC, Ludin "seemed unsure himself" as to Muttawakil's whereabouts. (Amin Tarzi)

An unidentified aide to Chairman Karzai has stated that former Taliban Foreign Minister Muttawakil has offered to cooperate with the Transitional Administration, "The New York Times" reported on 22 October. Karzai's administration has not responded to the offer, according to the aide, who stated that Muttawakil remains in custody inside Afghanistan. According to Muttawakil's aides, he has been invited to join the Transitional Administration as an adviser or to seek asylum outside of Afghanistan, the BBC reported on 21 October. Muttawakil's aides believe he would likely prefer to seek asylum in an Arab country. (Amin Tarzi)

A statement dated 22 October, faxed to RFE/RL from the office of the spokesman for the Afghan Transitional Administration, denied the reports of Muttawakil's release from prison and contacts between him and the Afghan administration. The statement said the Transitional Administration "has not entered into any form of discussion or negotiation with members of the former Taliban movement. It is confirmed that a number of individual contacts have been received from some members of the former Taliban movement - including Mawlawi Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, expressing interest and readiness to side with the Government and offering assistance. The Government, however, has not responded, either positively or negatively to these. The statement added that the Afghan Transitional Administration "has not initiated any contacts with, or authorized the release" of Muttawakil, who "continues to be held in detention by the coalition forces." The reports that Muttawakil "has been released, or is held under house arrest are false," the statement concludes. (Amin Tarzi)

Pakistani Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat reiterated his government's accusation that India has set up terrorist camps in Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan, Karachi daily "Dawn," reported on 17 October. "There are six terrorist camps where the Indian intelligence agency that is called the Research and Analysis Wing trains Pakistani dissidents and like-minded Afghans to stir [up] ethnic and sectarian unrest and carry out attacks in Pakistan," Hayat said. Pakistan has accused Indian consulates in Afghanistan of setting up such camps (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Reports," 1 May, 7 August, and 2 October 2003). Hayat added that Islamabad has told the Afghan Transitional Administration "that activities of Indian consulates are [also not] in the interest of Afghanistan.... We expect reciprocity from the Afghan government in cracking down on these camps." One of Pakistan's strategic objectives in supporting the Taliban was widely believed to have been fomenting disagreement between Afghanistan and Islamabad's archenemy, India. At the time, New Delhi accused Pakistan of training Kashmiri terrorists inside Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

A statement released on 18 October by the Foreign Ministry of the Afghan Transitional Administration rejected charges that India's intelligence service has established "terrorist camps" inside Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan. The Afghan Foreign Ministry statement "categorically" denied Pakistani Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat's "allegations," adding "such subversive activities do not occur on Afghan soil." The statement said Afghanistan "reiterates once more that it follows a policy of good neighborliness and non-interference toward all countries in the region, including Pakistan and India, regardless of disputes that may exist among them, and to which Afghanistan is not a party." (Amin Tarzi)

Participants in a seminar that began on 15 October in the Pakistani city of Peshawar have reportedly questioned the legality of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported on 16 October. The seminar, titled "The Pakhtun People Under the Negative Influence of the Durand Line," was organized by the Pakhtun Quami Party and attended by ethnic Pashtun political figures from Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the report, most speakers at the conference "expressed [their] strong opposition to the Durand Line, describing it as a plot designed to tear apart an ethnic group [i.e., Pashtuns]." The current border between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- known as the "Durand Line" after Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the British signatory of the 1893 agreement that demarcated the border between Afghanistan and British India -- has never been officially recognized by Afghanistan. It has been at the core of disagreements between Afghanistan and Pakistan since the creation of Pakistan in 1947 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 2 January, 11, 17, 24 July and 7 August 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

The Afghan Commission for Human Rights (ACHR) recently obtained a photocopy of the list of 4,782 people allegedly murdered by the Afghan communist regime, Reuters reported on 16 October. The document, bearing the stamp of the "Democratic Revolutionary Court of Afghanistan," contains names, professions, and dates of execution. "A large number of people were killed during the Communist regime [1978-92], and their relatives still think they might be alive or have been transferred to jails in the [former] Soviet Union," Lal Gul, head of ACHR, said. However, the list obtained by ACHR "unfortunately...shows [that] most of them were killed," Lal Gul added. The total number of individuals killed by Afghan communist governments or their Soviet allies is a mystery. According to Lal Gul, "thousands of innocent people" were killed because "they were against the policies of that regime." Unlike the cases of the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, there has been no formal attempt so far to bring Afghans accused of mass murder to justice. The discoveries by ACHR and other human rights groups could pave the way for some sort of tribunal for crimes committed by successive regimes in Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

Around forty Afghan children allegedly abducted by traffickers are to return home from Saudi Arabia, Hindukosh news agency reported on 16 October. According to the report, the children were kidnapped by smugglers and taken to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. The children's return, originally scheduled for 14 October, has been delayed because of documentation problems. In September, Afghan authorities in Takhar Province rescued more than 50 boys who were abducted with the possible intention of trafficking them to Iran and Pakistan for induction into religious schools or for sale as sex slaves (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 2 October 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Some 40 Afghan children allegedly trafficked to Saudi Arabia over the past several years have been repatriated, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Nur Mohammad Qarqin said on 19 October, according to AFP. The Saudi government arranged the return of the children, who had been living illegally in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, he said. They are now being lodged in an orphanage run by the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry in Kabul, he said. Most of the children are from the northern Baghlan Province. Another 208 minors are scheduled to arrive in Kabul in the coming days, the minister told AFP. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) last month expressed serious concern over reports of children being abducted and trafficked in northern Afghanistan. (Tanya Goudsouzian)

The newly formed Renaissance Party of the People of Afghanistan officially launched its activities on 19 October, Radio Afghanistan reported. The new party, led by Sayyed Zaher Qaid Omulbeladi, discussed its platform, no details of which were divulged. (Amin Tarzi)

The 2002 film "Osama" by Afghan director Sidiq Barmak was awarded the top prize at Montreal's New Movie and New Media Festival on 19 October, Reuters reported. The work is one of the first major feature films produced in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Barmak, who was unable to work in his country after the Taliban rise to power in 1996, tells the story of the social situation in Afghanistan at the time, with a focus put on women and their lack of status in society. The film's title refers to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was based in Afghanistan at the time. (Tanya Goudsouzian)

Afghanistan had established six national wildlife reserves before the Soviet invasion in 1979. One was Ajar, a canyon wilderness on the border of Samangan and Bamiyan provinces, deep in the arid western sweep of the Hindu Kush range.

The canyon itself is exquisite. It begins with a narrow gorge of honey-colored rock, opens into a green valley, and ends at the base of a kilometer-high cliff with the Chiltan Cave, from which gushes the Ajar River -- a source of the Amu Darya.

Locals say 40 men of pure spirit waded into the Chiltan Cave centuries ago and remain alive to this day, sleeping or praying until judgment day.

The upper Ajar, up to and including the Chiltan Cave, was a private hunting ground for the last king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zaher Shah, from 1952 until he was deposed in 1974. The royal hunting lodge lies in ruins. The swimming pool is filled in. Shards of tile from the former king's bathroom -- built by the monarch's own hand -- are scattered in the tall grass.

The surviving royal servants claim to be destitute. Their leader is the former king's hunting guide, Abdul Husayn, who lives in a tent behind the lodge, under the shade of apricot trees. He is of failing eyesight and uncertain age -- around 70, he thinks. He has fathered 10 boys and 14 girls -- the youngest a 1-year-old -- from five wives.

Husayn appears moved by the arrival of a small group of visitors recently. "You are the first foreigners to stay in Ajar since 1979," he tells us.

Husayn says his family lived in Ajar before the former king arrived in search of fly-fishing and hunting grounds. His grandfather planted the orchard in which his large clan now camps. "Yes, I was born here in the valley," he says. "I started working for the father of the nation [Mohammad Zaher] when I was 17 or 18."

At night in his tent, Husayn recalls stories of his life in Ajar. He remembers an earthquake that shook the canyon one autumn morning in 1956. A rockfall dammed the Ajar River and created a deep lake before the sacred Chiltan Cave. The river ran dry for three days. Trout lay exposed and flapping on the riverbed. Explosives had to be used to release the waters.

"The earthquake closed the way. His majesty came and said you must open the river. With the help of one of his captains, we opened it," Husayn says.

By lantern light, Husayn holds up a letter from the former king granting him authority over the royal lands. He cannot read it. He never learned how. "No, no. I went to a country madrassah, nothing else," he says. "Yes, we tried to learn how to read and write. But we were poor people, so we couldn't study in school and continue our education."

Husayn carries the title of "shekari," or hunter. Hunting is what he understands. He produces the head of an ibex -- a type of wild goat -- recently killed by a leopard. He describes in detail how a leopard springs at the neck of its victim from the side.

Husayn does not hunt anymore himself -- not since the Taliban stole his hunting rifle in 1999. But he fondly remembers his hunts with Mohammad Zaher Shah, especially the moonlit nights alone with the monarch on the mountaintops.

"He was a good king, a macho king. Very honest, very brave. He had a kind heart. He was generous to the poor and paid attention to them," Husayn says.

The lands Husayn oversees are in sorry shape. The population in upper Ajar has risen tenfold since the former king's time to about 700 inhabitants -- most of them descendants of Husayn himself.

The meadows are overgrazed by cattle driven up from the lower canyon. The walnut trees are shriveling. The apple trees have been cut down. Only a handful of pine trees remains from the thousands which once stood.

Fishing by electrocution and grenades has decimated the population of speckled trout in the river. The Bactrian deer brought from the Darqad wetlands -- small and rare -- were mowed down by Kalashnikov-toting mujahedin during the Soviet period. A herd of feral yaks brought from Badakhshan Province were slaughtered earlier, in 1978, as a political statement by communist officials.

Yusof, Husayn's second son, remembers better times in the Ajar. "It was good here before the revolution," he says. "It was very green. There were tamarisk trees. The roads were fine. The cars could come and go. People came here for fishing and hunting. It was a time of coming and going. That is my happy memory. The bad memories began when the revolution happened and the war started. The parties came to power and everything was destroyed."

The highlands -- which constitute most of the national wildlife reserve -- have fared better than the canyon floor. Mesas reaching up to 4,000 meters stretch to the north and south, encompassing 40,000 hectares of so-called protected land.

Husayn and other local hunters say Siberian ibex survive in good numbers in those heights, along with a handful of Urial sheep. Snow leopards, leopards, lynx, wolves, and jackal remain also, though no one can say how many.

Protecting Ajar will not be easy. Afghanistan's legal system gives little thought to conservation. One idea being floated is the adoption of Ajar and other Afghan wildlife reserves by foreign national park systems with the support of the former king and Ajar elders, including Husayn.

Under such a scheme, a country would send a team of experts to survey a reserve, establish a ranger station, train Afghans in conservation, and take the pressure off the land by developing alternative livelihoods for locals.

Afghanistan has pressing environmental concerns, notably deforestation in the south and east of the country. But the protection of the reserves will guarantee that at least some of the country's wild areas prosper, including the snow leopards of Ajar. (J. M. Ledgard)

There are two clarifications to be made concerning items that appeared in the last issue of the "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," Vol. 2, No. 36 of 16 October 2003. First, the last paragraph of the feature article entitled "Kabul Welcomes Expansion of ISAF, But Many Questions Unanswered," might have created some confusion about the mandate of ISAF in Afghanistan. To be clear: The mandate of ISAF currently runs through December 2004. Second, the number of casualties in the Mazar-e Sharif conflict, according to international media sources, was quoted as high as 60. RFE/RL has subsequently been informed by the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan that the actual number of those killed in the conflict was much lower, although actual figures are not yet available.

21 October 1988 -- Diego Cordovez, UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, calls on former king Mohammad Zaher Shah to assist in establishing a national reconciliation government in Afghanistan.

23 October 1992 -- Mujahedin parties agree upon a Loya Jirga to take over government affairs after President Burhanuddin Rabbani's expected resignation on 28 October.

22 October 1995 -- UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Mahmoud Mestiri proposes new peace plan: transfer of power from Rabbani to 10-member interim council, Mohammad Zaher Shah and former President Sibghatullah Mujaddidi among them.

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