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Afghanistan Report: February 6, 2007

Mass Media Law Comes Under Scrutiny

By Amin Tarzi
February 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The prospects for advancement and freedom in Afghanistan's media sector are perhaps closer now than at any other time in the country's history. The difference is even more marked if one compares the situation to that under the Taliban regime.

Since the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001, the dissemination of information has gotten steadily easier and its purveyors more professional. But signs have recently emerged of efforts within both the executive branch and the legislature, the National Assembly, to curtail the activities of the media under the pretexts of national security or religion and culture.

Much discussion is emanating from the National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council), which is due to review the Mass Media Law that President Hamid Karzai decreed shortly before the legislature came into existence in 2005.

Constitutional Context

In January 2004, a Constitutional Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) approved a new constitution for Afghanistan. It declares that "freedom of expression is inviolable...[and] every Afghan has the right to express his thought through speech, writing, or illustration or other means, by observing the provisions" of the constitution. The same article (Article 34) further gives every Afghan the "right to print or publish topics without prior submission to the state authorities in accordance with the law." The constitution also stipulates that directives related to the media "will be regulated by the law."

Freedom of expression is further strengthened by Article 7, which obliges the state to "abide" by international conventions to which Afghanistan is a signatory, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Lawmakers are faced with a historic responsibility. They can increase the country's vulnerability to the arbitrary exercise of power. Or they can pave the way toward a more inclusive, tolerant, and democratic society that is mindful of the country's religious and cultural values.

But the freedoms enshrined in Afghanistan's Islamic constitution are also guided by Article 3, which stipulates that "in Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."

The 2004 constitution calls for the mass media to be governed through legislation. Consecutive administrations -- first the Interim Authority in February 2002 and then the Transitional Administration in March 2004 -- approved temporary media guidelines before President Karzai decreed a new media law just days before the Afghan National Assembly was inaugurated in December 2005.

The draft media law already contains problematic clauses, and there are indications that the Wolesi Jirga could try to make the law more restrictive.

Viewed in that light -- assuming that the executive branch believes in freedom of the media and that the judiciary is not bent on curtailing freedoms to make political statements -- the current law already looks like a positive first step, allowing Afghanistan to become a democratic state.

Wolesi Jirga And Media Law

The Wolesi Jirga is essentially reviewing the 2005 media law in order to change it from a presidential decree to a law. Within the lower house, matters related to the media fall under the Wolesi Jirga's Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission.

Virtually all of that commission's proposed modifications of the existing media law are of a restrictive nature.

A radio-repair stand in Kabul (AFP file photo)

The proposed preamble emphasizes the role of religion by recalling Article 3 of the constitution, which stipulates that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."

In a seemingly redundant statement, the proposed preamble then states that the media law should be in accordance with the Afghan Constitution and the "international covenants" that the country has signed.

While the 2005 media law was intended to cover all mass media, the proposed amended law states that the media law "is the first legislative step related to Radio and Television and supporting independent media in the reconstruction process of Afghanistan...but it does not cover all related matters." It adds that other areas -- such as electronic commerce, intellectual property (copyright), and "access to information held by the public authorities" require "separate laws to be construed in harmony with the [media law]."

The proposed Article 11 would call for the formation of a High Council of Media to "keep track" of income and expenditure of mass media, ensuring that they are "overt and transparent." The Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission's recommendation on the composition of the High Council of Media is still in flux, but so far the names include members of the Wolesi Jirga, a representative of the Ministry of Justice, a mullah from the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, and the head of the Journalism Faculty at Kabul University. There are no recommendations for the inclusion of members of civil society; nor is there any suggestion to include a representative of the media industry itself. If Afghanistan's media sector is to develop in a democratic direction -- while respecting the country's constitution -- media professionals and media lawyers should be included on the High Council of Media.

The Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission's proposed Article 33, on the "Dissemination of Prohibited Material" -- which in the original MML included four categories: "matters contrary to Islam or insulting to other religions," "insulting or accusative matters concerning individuals," matters contrary to the Afghan Constitution or Afghan criminal codes, and the exposure of the identities of victims of violence -- is modified to include four additional restrictions: "material jeopardizing stability, national security and territorial integrity of Afghanistan," "material providing false information which might disrupt public opinion," "publicity and promotion of any other religion other than Islam," and "material which might damage physical well-being, psychological and moral security of people, especially children and the youth."

A man sells newspapers in Kabul (AFP file photo)

Most of these restrictions -- including those listed in the original media law -- contravene provisions of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, given the supremacy of Afghanistan's religious beliefs over other laws -- as clearly stated in that country's constitution -- an argument can be made that restrictions in the media law should either be limited to constitutional limitation or, if listed separately, clarified further to prevent abuse in the future. As listed in the media law -- particularly in the additional restriction proposed by the Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission -- there are also vague terms such as "insult" and clauses open to interpretation, such as "information which might disrupt public opinion," that beg clarification or deletion from the law.

There are also proposals for the creation of "independent" commissions to oversee complaints against Afghanistan's state-owned radio and television stations and against the official news agency (Bakhtar). But ensuring the independence of these commissions arguably demands that they not be included in the media law. Their creation and funding belongs in the arena of open and public debate within the National Assembly, and commission members deserve to be allowed to vote on their commissions' internal hierarchies.

Forward-Looking Law

Afghanistan has taken strides forward in the past four-plus years in the realm of media freedom. The current challenge is to avoid basking under slogans touting what has been achieved -- and instead to enact laws and regulations that protect the safeguards enshrined in the Afghan Constitution. At the same time, there is an obligation to list clearly the constitutional restrictions on the media.

To demonstrate real progress, the media law that the Wolesi Jirga's Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission proposes should do more than simply protect existing freedoms and create space for a professional and self-regulating media. It should also protect basic media freedoms against unwarranted encroachment by any future executive.

The Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission -- and in fact all of their colleagues in the lower house -- are faced with a historic responsibility.

They can increase the country's vulnerability to the arbitrary exercise of power. Or they can pave the way toward a more inclusive, tolerant, and democratic society that is mindful of the country's religious and cultural values -- which are fully protected within the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan's constitution.

Amnesty Bill Could Threaten Faith In Democracy

By Ron Synovitz

Legacies of more than two decades of war

February 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The lower chamber of Afghanistan's parliament passed a bill on January 31 that would grant immunity to all Afghans involved in war crimes during the last quarter century. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) warns that the legislation -- if approved by the upper chamber of parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai -- could mean failure for the process of national reconciliation.

The legislation comes despite calls by human rights groups for trials against alleged war criminals -- including some members of parliament and the government.

Some observers argue that the legislation could make ordinary Afghans lose faith in democracy.

By Politicians, For Politicians

The bill passed by Afghanistan's Wolesi Jirga grants immunity to all Afghans involved in war crimes during the last 25 years.

RFE/RL Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi predicts that the upper chamber of parliament will quickly pass the bill in its current form. Tarzi also thinks President Karzai will support the legislation.

"I do not believe that President Karzai will veto this law passed by the lower house," Tarzi says. "Karzai's plan is to offer an olive branch to the Taliban. When you look at the wording of this, it is not only [about] the alleged crimes of the people who are in parliament or the jihadi leaders. This is actually part of a broader effort to bring in the Taliban or anybody who is an opponent of the government. It actually is forward-looking. But short-term forward-looking, at the expense of human rights and democracy."

Mohammad Mohaqeq is a former mujahedin leader who has himself been accused of war crimes and is one of the key legislators behind the amnesty declaration. He disagrees with critics who say the law means the end of any hope for reconciliation.

Mohaqeq, who placed third in the 2004 presidential race, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the legislation was designed to bring peace and reconciliation to Afghan society.

"It mainly says that all of those who were involved in the 2 1/2 decades of war should be united together and join in the process of national reconciliation," Mohaqeq says.

Forgotten Victims

Adrian Edwards, the chief spokesman for UNAMA, tells RFE/RL that the law could have the opposite effect -- because it does not allow for a truthful debate that includes the voice of war crime victims.

"It's crucially important that the victims are not forgotten in this debate," Edwards says. "It really is up to the individual to decide whether they can forgive or not. And in that sense, for the [Afghan] National Assembly or any other body to suggest that there should be some blanket forgiveness -- we don't think that's the right way to go. We need to hear the voices of the victims, too. And if this process [of national reconciliation] is going to be successful, their voices will have to be equally heard."

Tarzi agrees that the bill could stifle any truthful debate.

"What is being forgotten right now is the vast majority of people on all sides who suffered. Afghans wanted some sort of a closure, saying, 'Mistakes were made. We are apologizing,'" Tarzi says. "And for the people who [committed such crimes], at least, to not be in positions of power. This legislation, in effect, basically exonerates -- and it disallows even criticism or discussion of anything that happened in the past 25 years. This is a broad mandate [lawmakers have] given to themselves, basically, because a lot of the parliamentarians are people who, at least in the view of the Afghans, are guilty of war crimes."

Foreign Experience

In a statement, UNAMA says international experience shows that "truth is vital to reconciliation." It notes that Karzai's government has fully endorsed an "Action Plan on Peace, Reconciliation and Justice" required under the internationally backed "Afghan Compact" of 2006. UNAMA also notes that the Afghan Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of expression -- and that people from all parts of Afghan society should be encouraged to join the debate about dealing with war crimes in the country's past.

Tarzi says that instead of blanket immunity for all war criminals, the best historical example for Afghan reconciliation is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in South Africa to deal with the abuses of the Apartheid era.

"For any country that goes through a prolonged war, there is always a healing process needed," Tarzi says. "We have examples of international courts of justice. In the case of Afghanistan, the example that would have been best to be followed was the example of South Africa -- and basically, that was truth and reconciliation. The main issue was not to kill people and not to put more people in jail, but to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and have the people who [committed crimes] -- and least the ones who were [in positions of power] -- take responsibility. And try to do good things in society. But not [for such people to] be in the leadership role."

Critics and supporters alike say the bill could lead to an amnesty for fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- who now heads his own militant group.

That could complicate Kabul's relations with the international community.

The Wolesi Jirga bill also dismisses allegations of war crimes published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) against some lawmakers. The bill rejects documentation by HRW researchers as "inaccurate reports" that are "based on malicious intentions."

Brad Adams, the Asia director of HRW, tells RFE/RL that the group's reports compile accurate facts known by all Afghans.

"Our reports have been based on the stories of Afghans," Adams says. "They've told us what happened to them. And they've told us who did it to them. And they named these people. So these are the facts. It's up to the government to make sure that people who were responsible for these crimes are held accountable. This is not something that one makes political deals about. Everybody in Afghanistan knows what happened -- things that had more or less been put to one side. And [the war criminals] were more or less hoping that everybody would forget. We've recorded people's stories and have made sure that the world didn't forget."

Adams and Tarzi warn that ordinary Afghans could become cynical about democracy if alleged war criminals in the parliament are able to declare a blanket immunity for themselves.

Foreign Minister Discusses Relations With Iran, Pakistan

Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta (file photo)

February 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta has dismissed recent reports suggesting that Iran is interfering in Afghan affairs. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Salehe Eshaghzay Khaleghi, Spanta also insisted that Kabul is eager to resolve differences with Pakistan through dialogue.

RFE/RL: There have been recent reports alleging increased Iranian efforts to influence events in western Afghanistan, in addition to other Iranian activities there. You have in the past very positively assessed Afghanistan's ties with Iran. Are concerns about Iranian interference in Afghanistan baseless?

Rangin Dadfar Spanta: I first have to say in this regard that the president [Hamid Karzai], as the head of the Afghan government, and I, as the minister of foreign affairs, are in total agreement over relations with Iran. The main lines of these policies have been decided jointly. We believe that Afghanistan should not do anything that could threaten [our] national interests. We are thankful to Iran for its help in creating security in Afghanistan and also for strengthening government bodies. And they are continuing their help. We'd like to strengthen our relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

MORE: In November 2006, RFE/RL spoke at length with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

RFE/RL: In a recent interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, a [former] senior official from one of Afghanistan's southwestern areas claimed Iranian interference in Afghanistan. He even said a number of displaced person who live in the Shamsabad region of Farah Province [in Afghanistan] are being goaded by the Iranian government against Afghanistan. A senior government official presumably can't make such accusations about a neighboring country without proof. What is your reaction to this?

Spanta: I [articulate] the foreign policy of Afghanistan, and I think I am competent to speak about this. The national interests of Afghanistan are important for us, and in this regard the Islamic Republic of Iran has supported the government of Afghanistan in order to strengthen it; we don't have any documents or reasons that prove the contrary. Moreover, let's not forget that Iran benefited enormously from the fall of the Taliban [in 2001] because one of its main enemies, the Taliban, was ousted from Afghanistan. In Afghanistan's multilateral policy, strengthening ties with Iran is a primary aim, regardless of the two countries' different political structures or ideology.

RFE/RL: The Afghan government has accused Pakistan of interfering in Afghan affairs and has also accused some groups in Pakistan of supporting terrorist groups. At the same time, Pakistan has come under pressure lately from the United States and NATO. Do you think this pressure will have a positive result and Pakistan will give up its [alleged] support for militants?

Spanta: We hope that Pakistani leaders -- and especially the ISI [Inter-Service Intelligence agency] will know that Afghanistan wants friendship with Pakistan. We are ready to resolve any differences with Pakistan through talks. We'd like to give Pakistan the opportunity to invest in Afghanistan, to use Afghanistan's roads. Central Asian energy could be transported through Afghanistan and Pakistan -- our economic exchanges could increase. We are ready for all of this, but the precondition for this deep friendship with Pakistan is that they should stop using terrorism as a tool of foreign policy.

RFE/RL: Pakistan has always rejected those allegations. But another issue is being brought forward now -- the issue of a regional security jirga [council meeting]. Afghanistan has taken some steps in this regard, but Pakistan does not appear to have made any concrete steps -- or maybe it's more correct to say that Pakistan has moved slowly. In your opinion, why hasn't Pakistan taken serious steps in this regard?

Spanta: We want to demonstrate our good will. The president is always ready to organize regional-security jirgas by Afghanistan. He has named a commission to organize jirgas. We believe the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan have a right to sit and talk to each other about the reasons for terrorism and its sources. So far, the efforts between [our] governments haven't produced any results. We will continue this work. The results of the meeting are not important; what is important is that the representatives of two nations will have the opportunity to talk to each other.

Facing The Taliban Threat In The Coming Months

The Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province is the site of a battle between Taliban and NATO-led forces

February 6, 2007 -- NATO forces in Afghanistan are preparing for an anticipated spring offensive by the Taliban. On February 2, hundreds of Taliban fighters attacked and seize the town of Musa Qala in a remote district of Helmand Province. The battle has been closely monitored by Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book "Taliban." RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke to Rashid today about the events at Musa Qala and what fighting there suggests about Taliban tactics in the months ahead.

RFE/RL: The thaw at the end of the winter already has begun in southern Afghanistan. Does this mean that a Taliban spring offensive is imminent?

"The construction of new Afghan National Army divisions is going to be [accelerated]. They want to try to complete the 70,000 figure by the end of 2008 rather than in 2010, as was originally planned."

Ahmed Rashid: There are two parts of an offensive going on right now. One is the battle for control of the area around the Kajaki Dam, which the Dutch and the British are trying to clear so that the rebuilding of the dam and the power network of the dam can start. The Taliban are not letting up on that. And the second part [of the Taliban offensive] is the retaking of this town -- Musa Qala.

RFE/RL: Do you consider the Taliban's seizure of Musa Qala in Helmand Province -- and their continued hold on administrative buildings there -- as the beginning of this year's Taliban spring offensive?

Rashid: We still have to see whether the Taliban are going to defend it, whether they are going to reinforce it, in fact, with more Taliban troops coming in. But certainly, there has been no letup in the war through the winter. We've seen a spate of suicide bombings. And I think the danger is that a major NATO attack on Musa Qala could prompt a Taliban reaction in other provinces in the south -- which could lead to an early spring offensive.

RFE/RL: The organizer of last week's attack on Musa Qala -- a Taliban commander named Abdul Ghafour who was killed by a NATO air strike on February 4 -- appears to have been at least partially motivated by the killing of his brother by an earlier NATO air strike. Does this suggest that the seizure of Musa Qala may have been carried out by a Taliban commander who was more interested in revenge than any coordinated Taliban campaign? What does this tell us about the kind of fight that the Taliban is likely to wage in the months ahead?

Rashid: It certainly does play a role. [Abdul Ghafour's] brother was killed and he did react to his brother's death. But at the same time, I think the fact that he mobilized 200 or 300 Taliban to retake the town -- scuttling the peace accord which had been in place with the British troops for about three or four months -- I think is very significant. And clearly, I don't think he would have done this without some kind of authority from the higher Taliban leadership -- from the Taliban Shura and Mullah Omar. What we have to see is whether the Taliban force in Musa Qala is going to be reinforced [with more Taliban.] If it is, then we will be seeing wider attacks by the Taliban [across other parts of Afghanistan in the months ahead.]

RFE/RL: Why do you think the Taliban have been able this year to continue with offensive operations during the winter months when the weather has hampered their activities in previous years?

Rashid: The Taliban have been very well equipped this winter for cold weather. Some of the Taliban that have been killed in the last six to eight weeks have got very good boots, fleece jackets, warm trousers. They seem to have been very well equipped for possible fighting -- even winter fighting. There is little doubt that much of the logistics of the Taliban comes from Pakistan.

RFE/RL: What are NATO's strategic concerns about Taliban tactics in the spring and summer of 2007?

Rashid: The Taliban last year fought positional warfare -- trying to hold ground, hold territory -- in three provinces. Oruzgan, Helmand, and Kandahar. The danger this year is that they may try to launch heavy guerrilla attacks with perhaps 200 men at a time, not just in three provinces but perhaps in six or seven provinces, even in western Afghanistan. If they do that, NATO is going to be very stretched because there are a very limited number of troops and there are only a certain number who will actually fight. They will defend themselves, but [troops from countries like Spain and Italy, for example,] will not go on the offensive. That restricts NATO's maneuverability and ability to counter a widespread Taliban offensive.

RFE/RL: The buildup of the forces of the Afghan National Army is a key part of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. It is seen as a way of allowing the Afghan central government to exert its authority in provincial regions and, eventually, to allow for the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan. But there have been problems that have slowed the process of building up the Afghan army. The force now reportedly numbers about 40,000 troops with a target of expanding it to 70,000. How do you see this build up progressing in the months and years ahead?

Rashid: Much of the recent money given by the Americans -- about $10 billion for the next two years -- is going to go to the Afghan National Army. The construction of new Afghan National Army divisions is going to be [accelerated]. They want to try to complete the 70,000 figure by the end of 2008 rather than in 2010, as was originally planned.

But the biggest shortfall is in equipment. The Afghan National Army is entirely dependent on the Americans for transport, for helicopters, for evacuation, for everything. What some of this American money is going to do, I think, is to try and equip the Afghan National Army much better so that it does become a more self-contained force.

At the same time, we should remember that there [are] something like 600 Americans embedded with the Afghan National Army at the moment. If the Afghan army expands rapidly in the next two years, there is going to be an even larger number of Americans embedded with it.

RFE/RL: In the past week, the command of NATO forces in Afghanistan has been passed from British General David Richards to U.S. General Dan McNeill. How do you expect General McNeill's appointment to impact NATO's campaign in Afghanistan?

Rashid: I know General McNeill. He is a very thoughtful person. He is a very strategically minded person. He doesn't minimize the issues of development and reconstruction. And we should remember that he is the man who started the PRTs -- the Provincial Reconstruction Teams -- back in 2002, which was a way to expand ISAF outside of Kabul when McNeill did not have the necessary troops to do it. Personally, I think, he will be very careful.

RFE/RL: How does General McNeill's perspective about the challenges in Afghanistan differ from his predecessor, General Richards?

Rashid: General Richards had tried very hard to create a separate identity for NATO from the American forces. The kind of image of the Americans kicking down doors was something he wanted to avoid. And he wanted to create a softer, more pro-development image for NATO. We have to see whether McNeill is going to be able to maintain this given the American attitudes to warfare -- which are quite different from the European concepts.

RFE/RL: So will the fact that General McNeill is an American have any impact?

Rashid: The issue is what the American leadership of NATO forces [in Afghanistan] is going to do to other European countries. We have a series of problems in many European countries -- opposition parties wanting to pull out their troops, opposition parties demanding that European governments don't provide more troops. The danger is that with an American commander, more and more, the NATO force will not be seen as a kind of multinational, pan-European American force. But it will be seen under American leadership as a much more Americanized force. And I think that impact is going to be negative for the Afghans also.

NATO Seeks To Preempt Taliban Offensive In Helmand

By Ahto Lobjakas

British troops on patrol in Lashkar Gah, in Helmand Province (file photo)

LASHKAR GAH, January 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- With daytime temperatures creeping higher in Helmand, the threat of a spring campaign by insurgents in Afghanistan's restive south draws nearer.

Or not -- if the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has its way in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

NATO troops in southern Afghanistan are harrying Taliban-led insurgents in the hope of preempting such a spring offensive.

NATO officials in Kabul and Kandahar have discounted the Taliban's ability to mount large-scale attacks this spring following ISAF operations against insurgents massed in Kandahar Province in September and December. More than 1,500 insurgents were reported killed in those operations.

Officers who face the threat on a daily basis concur. But they also stress that the situation remains complex and the enemy elusive.

Colonel Ian Huntley is the deputy British commander with the ISAF provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

"There is talk of an uprising; I personally don't think that's likely."

"What we have done is to keep up the pressure on the Taliban over the winter," Huntley says. "There are signs that they are in trouble. How much they can regenerate in the spring I think is difficult to say. There is talk of an uprising; I personally don't think that's likely."

Huntley concedes that the country will never be "utterly safe" from violence. But he thinks violence can be minimized through reconstruction work -- reducing discontent among the local population.

Threats Remain

An NATO officer at Kandahar air base says the main Taliban threat in southern Afghanistan is to major highways -- where attacks on NATO convoys are frequent -- and a number of longstanding flashpoints.

Those vulnerable places include the Sangin Valley in northern Helmand, Lashkar Gah, Kandahar City, Zabul Province in the north, Gorak, Maywand in Kandahar, the southern Oruzgan Province, and border-crossing points into Pakistan like Spin Baldak and Baram Cha.

Military planners see two main Taliban infiltration routes into Afghanistan from Pakistan. One arches across mountainous areas in the provinces of Zabul and Oruzgan, reaching the northern part of Helmand. The other cuts across desert wastelands in southern Helmand and Kandahar.

A NATO source says ISAF is able to marshal about 1,000 troops in each of the southern provinces, while the Afghan National Army can field another 1,000 soldiers.

But the source warns that there appears to be growing sophistication among insurgents, citing an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in the fall of 2006. He says a 107-millimeter Chinese rocket was planted atop an antitank mine, and both were sunken into a road. The device ruptured the base of a specially adapted RG31 armored vehicle, killing its gunner. The NATO officer says insurgents are also adept at firing rockets from primitive launch pads -- often limited to a small number of strategically positioned rocks.

A British squadron leader in Helmand, Kevin Parker, suggests that Taliban fighters are becoming "more technologically aware" in their attacks.

'Constant Attrition'

Huntley says that NATO troops in Helmand -- from Britain, Denmark, and Estonia -- are engaged in what he calls "constant attrition" against Taliban fighters. NATO's focus in the province is on the Sangin Valley -- through which the Helmand River runs, between the northern Kajaki Dam and Lashkar Gah. The United States is in the process of rebuilding a hydroelectric power plant at Kajaki that could provide electricity for nearly 2 million people. The government in Kabul is expected to declare the area between Kajaki and Lashkar Gah an "Afghan Development Zone."

NATO has set up several permanent "forward operations bases" in the north of Helmand Province, and also operates "mobile operations groups" that travel constantly in search of insurgents.

Commanders in the area warn that the Taliban remain elusive enemies. Most -- like one of the leaders of the Danish contingent in Helmand, Major Hans Lundsgaard -- think that genuine Taliban devotees are few in number.

"There's only a few of them who are hard-core Taliban," Lundsgaard says. "And the other [fighters], a lot of insurgents are just insurgents because the Taliban are paying them and there are no other things [for them] to do. If we gave them an alternative, they'd just change over and [tend] to support the strongest [side]. If we were stronger than the Taliban, [local insurgents] would support us instead."

Colonel Huntley suggests that some Afghans might be watching to "see who's winning" before they commit to either side.

Most of the commanders interviewed by RFE/RL in Helmand and Kandahar argue that NATO should aggressively pursue insurgents, rather than respond to militants' attacks.

Test Bed

NATO appears to have opted to place some of its trust in local elders.

British squadron leader Parker notes that a deal between local elders and the government in Kabul helped break a prolonged standoff between British forces and Taliban fighters in mid-2006.

"The idea was that it would be the elders that would try to negotiate, if you like, with the Taliban and say, 'No, we're in charge here, we're in control, we will run the district of Musa Qala ourselves,' without [ISAF] influence," Parker says. "Now if you think of the future for Afghanistan, you know [that] at some time in the future, we will leave. And it will be, 'Afganistan is for the Afghan people.' So, if you like, you can think of this as a sort of test bed."

Under the Musa Qala deal, NATO troops monitor the surrounding area but do not enter the district.

Critics call the Musa Qala deal a concession to insurgents to extricate British troops. But British commanders insist it was a purely Afghan arrangement. And they say Helmand's new governor wants to strike similar deals for the rest of the province -- nine districts in all.

A NATO source notes that the rebuilding effort so far in Musa Qala has been limited to the rebuilding of four mosques.

British military sources in Helmand say that plans are being drawn up for a new school there. In the words of one official, the British presence is content to provide "what the Afghan people want."