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Afghan Report: December 18, 2003

18 December 2003, Volume 2, Number 43

"RFE/RL Afghanistan Report" will next appear on 8 January 2004. The editor wishes everyone a joyful holiday season and a peaceful 2004.
By Golnaz Esfandiari

On 15 December some 500 delegates representing all 32 provinces of Afghanistan -- as well as the country's ethnic groups, minorities, and refugees -- began debating a draft constitution unveiled last month (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 6 and 13 November 2003).

Ratification of the country's seventh written constitution will create the framework for Afghanistan's first direct presidential elections, scheduled for June.

Tom Muller is deputy communications manager for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent research organization based in Kabul. Muller says the Constitutional Loya Jirga will play a decisive role in the country's future. "The Loya Jirga is really a milestone along the political process that was mapped out at the Bonn meeting that was held in December 2001," he said. "The Loya Jirga is an essential part of establishing Afghanistan's political future as it will outline the political course for elections to be held next year. It will define the system of government and the nature of the elections that will be held next year."

The main issues that will be debated include the delicate issue of the role of Islam in the new constitution, the balance of power, and the role of women. Security is tight for the assembly. Militants and supporters of the ousted Taliban regime have threatened to disrupt the proceedings. The Afghan Interior Ministry announced earlier this week that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as well as Afghan security officers, will ensure the security of the Loya Jirga participants.

Ghulam Bahawodin, a Loya Jirga representative from Herat, said on 12 December in Kabul that delegates will not let threats of attacks deter them from approving a new constitution. "Foreign enemies of Afghanistan don't want peace in Afghanistan. They support unrest and instability. We have no fear, not even a bit. God willing, the Loya Jirga will proceed in peace and the constitution will be approved with calm," Bahawodin said.

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai is appealing to the delegates for a quick agreement to stabilize the country. He expressed hope that the Constitutional Loya Jirga can be concluded in a week to 10 days. "My wish is that in this Loya Jirga, the representatives of the people of Afghanistan will work according to the country's national interest for the national unity of and also for establishing a consolidated national governing regime and stable conditions in the country," he said.

The draft constitution envisages a bicameral legislature with a powerful president. Some observers say it is vital for the leader of Afghanistan to have enough power to deal with the warlords and factional commanders who are in control of most of the provinces. Some critics warn, however, that giving too much power to the president could lead to a form of dictatorship. Many warlords and former mujahedin commanders who fought against the Soviet occupation favor a parliamentary system with a president and prime minister who would share power. Karzai has said he will not put himself forward as a candidate if such a system is endorsed by the assembly. Observers predict a difficult debate over the issue of power division.

Muller told RFE/RL: "There seems to be strong support from [Chairman] Karzai for a presidential system, while a number of the mujahedin parties and also delegates from other provinces are really pushing for a parliamentary system to ensure a balance of power between the president and the prime minister. And so at this stage, we really can't tell what is the likely outcome of the debate that will take place at the Constitutional Loya Jirga. I assume it will be a vigorous debate and a debate that sees people put forward strong positions" (see below and "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 6 November 2003).

The draft constitution has been criticized by human rights groups, who say it fails to adequately protect the rights of Afghanistan's women and religious minorities. Carl Soderberg is the representative in Afghanistan for Amnesty International. He told RFE/RL that the issue of women's rights remains the group's main concern ahead of the Loya Jirga. He says the language in the current draft does not provide for the specific protection of women's rights.

"Right now in the draft, the word 'citizen' is used without specifying that the term includes men, women and children. This means, for example, that the right not to be discriminated against for women is as yet not specified in the constitution, and this we think is extremely important in order to ensure that women are made visible in this process," Soderberg said.

Under the hard-line Taliban regime, women were barred from public life and denied access to education. Since the ousting of the Taliban, women are back in schools and offices, but they still face violence and discrimination.

About 100 of the delegates participating in the Loya Jirga are women, but Soderberg predicted they will face strong opposition in voicing their demands for equal rights. "There are many prominent women activists who have been chosen. At the same time, there are very strong conservative voices amongst the other delegates," he said. "And the question will be whether the women are given the proper opportunity to give voice to their concerns."

Some civil society and student groups also criticize the draft constitution for not ensuring the right to higher education. "Social, economic, and political rights are also very important issues that the constitutional Loya Jirga will be discussing," Muller said. "At the moment, there is no free higher education in the constitution. There is also no clearly defined decent wages, and so social and economic clauses within the constitution will also be debated."

The main sessions of the Loya Jirga are going to be held in a large tent on the grounds of Kabul's Polytechnic Institute, on the northwestern outskirts of the city. The delegates will be split into 10 groups of 50, which will discuss the constitution in separate, smaller tents.

On 12 December, a Kabul representative to the Loya Jirga, Hafiz Mansur, said he disapproves of these arrangements. "In our opinion, this is not going to be a positive step unless the delegates ask for it. We prefer that all the delegates have discussions and exchange views in one place," he said.

Many observers predict the divisive issues to be discussed will lead to an extension of the Loya Jirga beyond the 10 days allocated by the Afghan Transitional Administration. Karzai has noted that each extra day will cost the government $50,000.

Golnaz Esfandiari is an RFE/RL correspondent.

Delegates to Afghanistan's Constitutional Loya Jirga opened the long-awaited assembly on 14 December with prayers, songs by children, and a speech from the country's onetime king, AP reported. "The people are relying on you and you should not forget them," former monarch Mohammad Zaher Shah told some 500 constitutional delegates gathered in Kabul for the constitutional assembly. "I hope you will try your best to maintain peace, stability, and the unity of the Afghan people." Meeting under a huge tent in the capital, the delegates began debate of the draft constitution that was presented by a Constitutional Commission in early November and that should pave the way for national elections in June. "This constitution will determine the political, social, and economic future of Afghanistan," Afghan Transitional Administration (ATA) Chairman Hamid Karzai told the group. "For the first time in the history of Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan have the opportunity to appoint the representatives of their choice.... This constitution will guarantee the rights of all Afghan people...and put an end to anarchy." (Marc Ricks)

ATA Chairman Karzai urged delegates gathering for the Constitutional Loya Jirga to approve quickly a new constitution that gives the president broad authority, Reuters reported on 10 December. "In countries where there are no strong institutions, where the remnants of conflict are still there, we need a system with one centrality, not many centers of power," Karzai told reporters in Kabul. Karzai reiterated that he will not run in future elections if the loya jirga frames a constitution that calls for a prime minister as well as a president. Delegates to the assembly will take up debate of a draft constitution on 13 December. The draft presented in early November by the Afghan Constitutional Commission (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 6 and 13 November 2003) calls for sweeping presidential powers that some say amount to a dictatorial writ. "My wish from loya jirga representatives is that they work for national unity, the national benefit, and establish a consolidated national governing regime and stable conditions in the country," Karzai said. (Marc Ricks)

ATA leader Karzai defended his efforts to shore up presidential power in the proposed Afghan constitution, telling delegates to the Constitutional Loya Jirga on 14 December that centralized government authority is the only way to stabilize the factitious country, Reuters reported. Karzai said a strong president must be able to wield authority in Afghanistan in the absence of political parties lacking nationwide support. "Because we don't have such organizations, small political groups come to these sort of national assemblies to try and create governments by force," Karzai said. "Experience shows that these organizations just want power and don't think of the national interest." "This is very dangerous for Afghanistan.... Right now, Afghanistan needs one source of power in government." Former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the Jamiat-e Islami party and a delegate to the loya jirga, countered that a president needs a strong parliament for effective rule. "Parliament can serve as a bridge between the government and the people." (Marc Ricks)

Even before debate on the draft Afghan constitution began officially on 15 December, a controversy over the representation of women in the Constitutional Loya Jirga threatened the process, "The New York Times," reported on 16 December. The row reportedly arose from Constitutional Loya Jirga Chairman and former Afghan President Sebghatullah Mojadeddi's refusal to appoint a deputy chairwoman after he told female delegates that they should not try to put themselves on a level with males. Mojadeddi, who is considered a moderate among the religious leaders, reportedly said that even God did not grant women equal rights with men, citing sharia doctrine that makes the votes of two women equal to that of one man. The Constitutional Loya Jirga was originally envisaged with just two deputy chairpersons, but Mojadeddi instead appointed three, all of them men. After female delegates threatened to walk out of the assembly on 15 December, Mojadeddi named a woman, Nangarhar Province delegate Safia Sediqi, as a fourth deputy chairperson. "On the first day [of the Constitutional Loya Jirga], we lost all hope for women," Saira Sarif, a female delegate from Khost Province, said upon hearing Mojadeddi's comments, according to the daily. (Amin Tarzi)

Female delegates to the Constitutional Loya Jirga say they are worried that their male colleagues are trying to deny them leadership positions in the process, the BBC reported on 16 December. A female delegate from Kabul Province identified as Nadera said there are "100 women against 400 men" at the Constitutional Loya Jirga despite the fact that females "represent more than 50 percent of Afghan society." Even after Sediqi's appointment, many female delegates said they are being treated like second-class citizens, according to the BBC. (For more on women's rights in the draft Afghan constitution, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 13 November 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

An unidentified female delegate to the Constitutional Loya Jirga from Farah Province said on 17 December that the assembly should not include former mujahedin leaders, describing them as "criminals," Afghanistan Television reported. The delegate specifically objected to the presence of Abdul Rab al-Rasul Sayyaf, the ultraconservative leader of the Ettehad-e Islami party. Sayyaf countered that those who call the mujahedin criminals are themselves "criminals." Chairman Mojadeddi, himself a former mujahedin leader, reportedly ordered the Farah delegate to be thrown out of the assembly. Former mujahedin leaders have assumed leadership positions in the Constitutional Loya Jirga and appear to be trying to safeguard their status in Afghan political and social life by promoting conservative religious norms in the Afghan constitution. (Amin Tarzi)

Ettehad-e Islami leader and Constitutional Loya Jirga delegate Sayyaf has rejected the notion of secular laws in the Afghan constitution, the Kabul-based weekly "Farda" reported on 14 December. Sayyaf said the "inclusion of Islamic points in the law [draft constitution] is a major achievement" of former mujahedin leaders who aspire to see Afghanistan develop an Islamic administration. "There is no place for secularism in Afghanistan," he said, according to "Farda," before warning, "If the United States of America and the present [Afghan] government try to exclude the participation of former mujahedin [from the political process], blood will be shed all over Afghanistan." Sayyaf rejected the presidential system that the current draft recommends, saying it contradicts Islam and Afghanistan's traditions and could not survive. The former mujahedin parties fought the Soviet occupation forces and their hand-picked regimes from 1978 to 1992, but subsequently engaged in internecine warfare that took a heavy toll on the country and its civilian population. (Amin Tarzi)

The second working day of the Constitutional Loya Jirga, 15 December, resulted in a decision to form 10 committees to discuss the draft Afghan constitution -- one for each article of the document -- Afghanistan Television reported. The chairman of the constitutional assembly, former President Mojadeddi, said each committee will comprise 50 members and will debate a given article of the draft before reporting back to the full assembly. The report did not provide the rationale behind the formation of the committees. (Amin Tarzi)

ATA Chairman Hamid Karzai sent a congratulatory note to U.S. President George W. Bush on 15 December on the capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Bakhtar news agency reported. Karzai said the "capture of despotic Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein will help consolidate peace and stability in Iraq and the world and [will] give innocent Iraqis their rights." (Amin Tarzi)

Chairman Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, said on 15 December that while Afghanistan is pleased with Hussein's capture, Afghans feel that "Iraq has always overshadowed" them in a "kind of unfair" manner, Reuters reported. Ludin referred to the opening of the Constitutional Loya Jirga on 14 December as one of Afghanistan's "greatest national days." He added that the constitutional assembly would have topped world news headlines, but that "suddenly changed" with Hussein's capture. Ludin stressed that Hussein's arrest is a "positive development" that sends a message to Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who are presumably still in hiding. Kabul supported the U.S.-led intervention to oust Hussein, but many Afghans remain concerned that the situation in Iraq has shifted international attention from their own war-torn country. (Amin Tarzi)

The U.S. military has opened its biggest offensive against neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan since 2001, AP reported on 8 December, with 2,000 soldiers fanning out across southern and eastern areas of the country. U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty said the assault, called Operation Avalanche, "is the largest we have ever designed." Hilferty said the enemy "isn't going to know when we hit, he isn't going to know what we're doing." Hilferty said some Afghan National Army and militia forces are taking part in the operation but offered no details about when it started or what provinces are slated for attacks. (Marc Ricks)

U.S. officials in Afghanistan said a new assault on neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces in the country is meant to prevent guerrillas from disrupting the upcoming Constitutional Loya Jirga scheduled for Kabul, AP reported on 9 December. In the biggest U.S. offensive in Afghanistan in two years, hundreds of U.S. troops swept into areas of eastern Afghanistan via helicopter on 9 December. U.S. officials said they had specific intelligence on insurgents' plans to attack the watershed constitutional gathering, scheduled to begin on 13 December. "We have intelligence of specific threats against the Constitutional Loya Jirga," U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Hilferty said. "We think we have a pretty good security plan." "We anticipate that they will try to be more active," the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said, "to go after loya jirga-related activities and the loya jirga itself." Khalilzad said Operation Avalanche is aimed at bogging down guerrilla forces "to keep them busy protecting and defending themselves." (Marc Ricks)

Nine Afghan children were killed on 6 December during a U.S. air strike aimed at a suspected neo-Taliban member, U.S. and Afghan officials said on 7 December. The air strike in Ghazni Province also killed one man who was not the intended target, "The New York Times" reported on 8 December. A statement issued from Bagram Air Base, the main base for the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, said that "coalition forces regret the loss of any innocent life." The coalition statement said troops still in Ghazni "will make every effort to assist the families of the innocent casualties and determine the cause of the civilian deaths." The coalition statement also said a commission will be established to look into the incident, but offered no details about the attack. An Afghan official in Ghazni, Haji Masud, said the attack was intended for former Taliban member Mullah Wazir. "They bombed Mullah Wazir's house and civilians were also killed," Masud said, adding that an official Afghan delegation will go to the area to conduct an investigation. (Marc Ricks)

A U.S. attack that targeted suspected neo-Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan on 5 December resulted in the death of six Afghan children and two adults, according to a U.S. military spokesman quoted by AP on 10 December. Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty said the children died when a wall fell on them during an assault on a complex in eastern Paktiya Province. U.S. warplanes and special forces struck the area in the assault, triggering secondary explosions. "The next day, we discovered the bodies of two adults and six children," Hilferty said. "We had no indication there were noncombatants" in the vicinity, he added. The incident is the second in recent days in which the deaths of children have been blamed on U.S. military operations. Controversy has continued over the deaths of nine children in a similar attack on 6 December in Ghazni Province. "As well as contributing to a sense of fear and insecurity, these incidents make it easier for those who wish to spoil this process to rally support," said UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva. (Marc Ricks)

The senior UN official in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, has appealed for an investigation of the recent U.S. air strike that killed nine children, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 8 December. "This incident, which follows similar incidents, adds to the sense of insecurity and fear in the country," said a statement issued in Kabul by Brahimi. Brahimi said he is "profoundly distressed" by the deaths and called on the U.S. military to make the results of any investigation public. "The protection of civilians is an obligation that must be observed by all," Brahimi said. The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the 6 December air strike also killed the man being targeted, former Taliban commander Mullah Wazir. Afghan officials have claimed that Wazir escaped. A U.S. military spokesman at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, said Wazir's body was discovered near the attack site in Ghazni Province, 80 miles southwest of Kabul. But Jawaid Khan, a spokesman for the governor of Ghazni, said, "The Americans wanted to bomb Mullah Wazir, but they bombed a different house." UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, voiced concern over the 6 December incident. "The fight against terrorism cannot be won at the expense of innocent lives," Annan spokesman Fred Eckhard said, according to AP. (Marc Ricks)

The U.S. air strike in the southeast Afghan town of Hutala on 6 December led to mourning for nine slain children. It also led to bitterness among local Afghans, despite an apology from U.S. military command.

Reports from Hutala quote Khial Mohammad Husayni, the deputy governor of Ghazni Province, as saying the anger was appropriate, apology or no. Afghanistan's interior minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, was more diplomatic in speaking about the incident in Kabul on 7 December. "The government has asked for explanations and also has launched an investigation into the incident," Jalali said.

The U.S. military in Afghanistan does not make such mistakes often, but when it does, it faces tough questions about its reliance on air power in efforts to kill even a single individual, and the quality of the intelligence it uses to locate such people.

In fact, for the past decade, the U.S. civilian and military leadership have been accused of relying too heavily on air power as a way to avoid U.S. casualties for fear of saddening and angering the U.S. public.

Jack Spencer is a policy analyst on defense and national security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative private research center in Washington. Spencer says Americans are averse to casualties only if they do not understand why the United States is militarily involved in a particular conflict, or if the conflict is not seen as being in America's interest. He told RFE/RL that any U.S. aversion to casualties is rooted in the country's military operations of the 1990s -- primarily in Somalia and the Balkans. He says these operations did not advance U.S. interests or enhance security.

"For that type of thing, yes, the United States has a low tolerance for casualties. However, when you're in an operation, as we are in Afghanistan, as we are in Iraq, where there is a compelling national security imperative that is understood by the public, then the fact is there is no casualty aversion. In fact, the United States public is very supportive of doing what we need to do around the world in order to advance not just American interests but, I think, American ideals," Spencer said.

Further, Spencer says it is wrong to dismiss the value of broadly used air power in any modern conflict. He says a ground force hunting down insurgents moves too slowly, and usually too noisily, to enjoy the element of surprise, and air power often can employ more powerful weapons than a small group of soldiers.

As for accuracy, Spencer contends that air strikes are getting more precise every year, and that military aircraft are appreciably more capable of this precision than their predecessors of only a few years ago.

Spencer says a failure of intelligence certainly could have led to this weekend's errant air strike. For example, he says, the pilots may have accurately struck the target that was dictated to them, not realizing that it was the wrong target. But Spencer quickly noted that intelligence often changes quickly during war: "If they got the coordinates right and there was a bunch of kids in there, then something was wrong. Tactical intelligence is a very mercurial thing."

Finally, Spencer says, people should not put too much weight on such incidents, as distressing as they are. He says mistakes are bound to happen in time of war, and that legitimate civilian casualties are recognized as inevitable even by international laws and other conventions governing warfare. "The most modern interpretations of these things understand that there will be civilian casualties [and] you do what you can to minimize those civilian casualties. [But] there is no country in the world [besides the United States] who devotes so much time, so much energy, so many resources, and puts their own troops in danger sometimes [to avoid civilian casualties]," Spencer said.

Kenneth Allard sees the use of both air strikes and intelligence much differently. Allard is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in Europe as an intelligence officer. He told RFE/RL that he agrees that a well-informed public would not be averse to casualties among its forces if the cause were just.

But Allard says Americans would never accept casualties in a just war that was being fought inappropriately. He says that includes using aircraft to carry out missions that are better handled by ground troops. "It is actually a violation of common sense and good battle tactics to try and do things from the air that are better done on the ground. As we saw in Kosovo, you unnecessarily expose civilians to risk when you fail to put the instruments of power in place to do that job," Allard said.

Fear of casualties aside, Allard says the administration appears to be too reliant with the technology of air warfare, which he concedes may be impressive, but not effective enough to win a war on its own. "I really don't think that the administration has fully come to terms with the fact that the kind of war that they have to fight you cannot fight exclusively through the air. [Air power] can do a lot for you, but it absolutely will not win for you. The ultimate form of political power is the man on the ground with a gun," Allard said.

In fact, Allard says high technology also appears to have influenced the administration in intelligence gathering. He says the U.S. military is spending far too much energy on unmanned spy planes and other electronic equipment and too little energy -- and time -- on old-fashioned spies trained to infiltrate the enemy. "When you're talking about human intelligence, you have to start digging the well [long] before you become thirsty. And in human intelligence, you've got to begin to train for that, begin to position yourself for that, years before you think you're actually going to need it. In that respect, we've put far too much emphasis on technology. Whether you're talking about a peacekeeping operation in Bosnia or Kosovo, or if you're talking about in Iraq, it's been a consistent weak point for us," Allard said.

Perhaps the newly announced ground operation to fight insurgents in Afghanistan will lessen the likelihood of more civilian casualties. But it will probably be a long time before Afghanis forgive the Americans for what appears to be the unnecessary deaths of nine of their children. (Andrew F. Tully)

U.S. soldiers killed six Afghan fighters in Jalalabad in an attempt to arrest a local military commander, Reuters reported 11 December. Witnesses who saw U.S. troops clash with Afghan fighters at a Jalalabad maternity ward said four of a commander identified as Esmatullah's bodyguards were killed along with two soldiers from the local Jalalabad militia. A Reuters correspondent reported seeing five bodies, three of them in military uniforms and two in civilian clothes, on the floor in a hospital where another Afghan apparently involved in the gunfight was being treated for wounds. Jalalabad police chief Haji Ajab Shah said some of Esmatullah's bodyguards died in the fight but could offer no details about possible deaths or injuries on the U.S. side. Shah said the incident erupted when U.S. forces tried to arrest Esmatullah, who leads forces in nearby Laghman Province. U.S. soldiers in Jalalabad refused to discuss the encounter, and the U.S. military headquarters outside Kabul offered no immediate comment. (Marc Ricks)

Afghan police and members of the international stabilization force in Kabul say they have arrested at least two suspected terrorists, RFE/RL reported on 4 December. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement that two of the suspects arrested on 3 December are believed to be members of former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami, which the statement described as "a terrorist group with a history of terrorist atrocities." No details were given about the third suspect. The statement said the arrests occurred north of Kabul on a road heading toward Bagram, which houses the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

Suspected neo-Taliban militants ambushed a UN convoy carrying census workers in Farah Province on 4 December, killing one Afghan UN worker and wounding 11 others, Reuters reported. (Amin Tarzi)

A neo-Taliban commander has said neo-Taliban militants killed a Pakistani engineer in southern Afghanistan this week, Reuters reporter on 9 December. The neo-Taliban commander for southern Afghanistan, Mullah Sabir Momin, said his fighters gunned down engineer Anwar Shah in an ambush on Shah's car on 8 December that also wounded another Pakistani national. "We have repeatedly said that no work should be done in Afghanistan in the presence of Americans," Momin said, speaking to Reuters by phone on 8 December. "It does not matter whether those involved in such works are engineers, drivers, doctors, or others," the commander added. "Anyone who assists America or the Afghan government is liable to [be killed]. American agents will not be spared even if they are Muslims. They will be killed at an appropriate time." (Marc Ricks)

Suspected neo-Taliban members on 6 December abducted two Indian contractors in Shah Joy district of Zabul Province, Reuters reported on 7 December. The men, who were working on a U.S.-funded project to rebuild an Afghan highway, were abducted in the afternoon while shopping, said Zabul Province police chief Mohammad Ayyub. "They were picked up by suspected Taliban along with three Afghan colleagues who were released and informed the authorities about the kidnapping," Ayyub said. "Efforts are under way to trace the Indians and their captors." The Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) news agency, based in Pakistan, said a man identifying himself as a Taliban member called to claim responsibility for the kidnapping. According to AIP, the caller said guerillas abducted the two Indians on the border between Zabul and Ghazni provinces, but he offered no other details. An official at the Indian Embassy in Kabul refused to divulge the names of the abducted men, but said they both worked for an Indian firm contracted to Louis Berger Group Inc., the U.S. company heading the highway reconstruction project. (Marc Ricks)

The neo-Taliban commander for southern Afghanistan, Mullah Sabir Momin warned that two Indian nationals kidnapped on 6 December while working on an Afghan road project will likely be killed, according to Reuters. He accused them of being intelligence agents spying on neo-Taliban forces. "I think there is a great possibility that they will be killed," Momin told the news agency, adding that a final decision will be made by neo-Taliban leaders. (Marc Ricks)

Citing security concerns, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ruled out an immediate return to work in areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, AP reported 11 December. The agency pulled out 30 international staff and shuttered four of its border offices set up to aid refugees returning from Pakistan following the November slaying of a French UNHCR staffer in Ghazni city south of Kabul. UNHCR spokeswoman Maki Shinohara said the agency will resume operations only if the security situation improves and the agency is able to work in remote areas. "This is not foreseen in the near future unless measures are taken concretely to improve security at the border region," Shinohara said. Eleven aid workers have been killed in Afghanistan since March, with neo-Taliban forces and renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar issuing repeated threats that their forces will kill anyone caught working with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. (Marc Ricks)

Senior U.S. and other Western officials have been meeting with leaders of an Afghan faction that has been waging guerrilla attacks on U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, trying to persuade them to disarm and join political talks, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 9 December. The most recent talks involved four senior commanders under renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and took place in Western embassies and the presidential palace in Kabul during the last week of November, the paper reported. The latest talks marked the fourth time that Hekmatyar's fighters have met with Western diplomats, it added. Officials of Chairman Hamid Karzai's Afghan Transitional Administration have engaged in discussion with some Taliban and other militant leaders whom Karzai views as moderate enough for involvement in the fledgling political process in Afghanistan. Many remain skeptical that Hekmatyar or his forces would ever abandon guerrilla warfare for political participation, however. "There are no moderates in Hekmatyar's party," said Major General Sher Karimi, chief of military operations in the Afghan Defense Ministry. (Marc Ricks)

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has aired a videotape message calling on Afghans to wage a holy war, or jihad, against military forces led by the United States, AP reported on 10 December. The 22-minute message, delivered to reporters on a compact disc on 10 December, showed Hekmatyar sitting in front of a gray backdrop and wearing a wool hat and black jacket. He said U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan cannot secure the capital or other areas of the country, which has seen an increase in guerrilla activity in recent weeks. "The resistance has reached a stage where it is not possible to be crushed," Hekmatyar said. "We will agree to talks for solving the crisis if the American forces leave Afghanistan and Afghans are given the opportunity to decide their destiny," he added, denouncing what he described as "the Americans' war against Islam and Muslims." "Do not put your arms to the ground and give up resistance," Hekmatyar said, urging Afghans to attack coalition forces. U.S. officials have accused Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister, of engaging in terrorist attacks by neo-Taliban militants. (Marc Ricks)

Al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden has told neo-Taliban leaders that he is diverting guerrilla fighters and funds from Afghanistan to Iraq, the 15 December issue of "Newsweek" reported. According to the weekly, bin Laden's emissaries met with men close to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in mid-November in Khost Province to deliver the message. Citing Taliban sources, the weekly said bin Laden planned to halve the $3 million in guerilla aid he reportedly gives monthly to the Taliban in order to further the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq. A spokesman for Omar, Hamid Agha, denied that neo-Taliban forces are suffering from lack of manpower or funds. "We have enough money to fund our resistance," Agha said. The bin Laden aides who met with Omar's representatives urged Taliban forces to align with other guerilla resistance figures, such as warlords Sayyed Akbar Agha and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who are opposed to the Afghan Transitional Administration. (Marc Ricks)

General Abdul Majid Rozi, an aide to Junbish-e Melli party leader and warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, said his side is reluctant to hand over its heavy weapons to the central government, the BBC's Dari service reported on 2 December. General Rozi said that since the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are still active, "there is no guarantee" that they will not again massacre people in northern Afghanistan, implying that his side should therefore retain its weapons. According to Rozi, Dostum is still standing behind his promise to hand over his party's heavy weapons. But he asked why when "there are more than 10 military corps across the country, [and] there are more than 20 or 30 divisions,... the [disarmament] program [is being] implemented just in the northern zone's five divisions?" Karzai has been unable to extend the authority of the central government to northern Afghanistan or bring an end to factional fighting between Generals Dostum and Ata Mohammad (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 May, 5 June, 13 November, and 4 December 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Ankara has offered three helicopters for use by the NATO-led ISAF in Afghanistan, Reuters reported on 4 December. NATO, which is expanding its stabilization force beyond Kabul, is reportedly facing shortages in helicopters and other equipment. An unidentified diplomat said that with Turkey agreeing to provide three Blackhawks, the "helicopter problem" has been solved. Supreme Allied Commander General James Jones said in October that the political enthusiasm to expand the NATO-led ISAF in Afghanistan is not matched by available resources, adding that NATO does not have complete resources for ISAF in Kabul itself. Afghanistan represents NATO's first direct involvement in the Greater Middle East; while there has been political agreement on allowing the alliance to take command of ISAF, members are less unanimous in their political will to contribute increased forces and equipment for expanding rapidly throughout the country (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 October and 6 November 2003). (Amin Tarzi)

Parliament voted 78 to zero with 12 abstentions on 11 December to prolong the participation of Latvian armed forces in the UN International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan's German contingent, LETA reported. The Latvian vote was a response to a UN Security Council resolution, passed on 13 October, that prolonged the ISAF's mission in Afghanistan by 12 months. The cost, roughly 260,000 lats ($480,000) for each six-month rotation, is paid from the Defense Ministry budget and thus does not require additional funding from parliament. (Saulius Girnius)

UN Secretary-General Annan backed emerging plans for a second international conference on Afghanistan to be held in Bonn, Germany, DPA reported on 8 December. In an annual report on Afghanistan to the UN General Assembly, Annan said a follow-up Bonn meeting would underscore Afghanistan's continued need for financial support from donor countries. "The conference should therefore serve to regenerate the political and financial support necessary for a full political and economic transition, as envisaged by the Bonn agreement," Annan said, referring to the initial meeting in December 2001 that shaped Afghanistan's sitting interim government. Annan's report reviewed progress toward the Bonn agreement in 2003. It said security in Afghanistan is still a "major concern" in light of terrorist activities conducted by neo-Taliban forces, remnants of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, and followers of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The report also called for increased security measures to protect reconstruction efforts. (Marc Ricks)

Some 1.5 million girls in Afghanistan still have no access to school despite an increase in the number of girls attending classes nationwide, Xinhua news agency reported on 11 December, citing UN officials. "Since March 2002 when the Back to School program started, the number of girl students has increased to 1.2 million, but 1.5 million others still have no access to school," said Wahid Hassan, an official with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). Hassan addressed reporters in Kabul as UNICEF unveiled its an annual report on education access for children worldwide. "Far distance from school, lack of sanitation, shortage of woman teachers, and community attitude towards girl education are among potential barriers in the way of enrolling more girls to school," Hassan said. "Though the problems are still immense, the achievements in Afghanistan over the last two years have been remarkable," said the UNICEF report, titled "Girls, Education and Development." The report said 4.2 million Afghan children attend school today, 1.2 million of them girls. (Marc Ricks)

Oil ministers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan continued talks on 8 December concerning a planned gas pipeline that would stretch through those three countries, Xinhua news agency reported the same day. The meetings in Islamabad, Pakistan, marked the seventh session of the steering committee for the initiative, called the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) project (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 27 February 2003). Pakistani Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Nouraiz Shakoor opened the two-day meeting by renewing Pakistan's commitment to the project, which is expected to break ground in the early months of 2004. Representatives from the Asian Development Bank were also on hand for the Islamabad talks. The bank has already granted $1 million in funds for a technical feasibility study and remains a leading partner in the venture. The project calls for 1,600 kilometers of gas pipeline at a cost of roughly $2.5 billion. As planned, the pipeline would stretch from the Daulatabad gas fields in southeastern Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and into Pakistan, carrying up to 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually. (Marc Ricks)

Pakistan Railways has developed plans for a rail line through Central Asia that would link key cities in Afghanistan, Xinhua news agency reported on 14 December, citing a report in the Pakistani newspaper "The Nation." In the first of three development stages for the project, a 150-kilometer rail line would link Pakistan's western border city Chaman with the southeastern Afghan city of Kandahar. Phase 2 of the plan calls for a rail link connecting Kandahar with Herat, in western Afghanistan, and the last phase would extend the rail route into Turkmenistan. Pakistan Railways General Manager Aurangzeb Khan said a team from his company is on its second visit to Afghanistan to discuss plans for the Chaman-to-Kandahar rail line. "The team will hold preliminary meetings with Afghan officials to discuss provision of laborers for track, security of Pakistani engineers and the route of track in Afghanistan," Aurangzeb said. Aurangzeb said work on the project is expected to begin next year, after a final feasibility study is concluded in May. (Marc Ricks)

ATA Chairman Karzai attended a ceremony southwest of Kabul on 15 December to mark completion of the first phase of the reconstruction of the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Once the reconstruction project is completed, his country at the "heart of Asia should be the unifying center among other countries," Karzai told attendees in the Durrani District of Wardak Province. Karzai expressed his gratitude to President Bush for fulfilling his promise to rebuild the highway. Bush had pledged to complete the entire project by the end of this year. Some 289 kilometers of the 480-kilometer highway have been reconstructed so far, with work on the second phase beginning within a month's time and expected to take 10 months to complete, Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Reconstruction work began in November 2002 with funding and other aid from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and India (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 November 2002). While work completed so far has cut travel time between Kabul and Kandahar from 24 hours to five hours, security remains a major problem along the route. (Amin Tarzi)

13 December 1985 -- The U.S. State Department notifies the UN that the United States is ready to act as guarantor of a peace settlement in Afghanistan that would involve a Soviet troop withdrawal and an end to U.S. aid to mujahedin parties.

16 December 1997 -- A UN spokesman confirms that hundreds of Taliban fighters were massacred in September by General Abdul Malik's forces and their bodies thrown into well pits.

14 December 1999-- The United States let it be known that it would make the Taliban regime in Afghanistan responsible for attacks organized by Osama bin Laden.

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