Accessibility links

Breaking News

Afghanistan Report: February 22, 2007

Symposium Looks At Spring Security Challenges

By Jan Jun

Across town, President Karzai (left) was meeting with Prime Minister Blair on February 14

February 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Taliban say their spring offensive started in southern Afghanistan when they seized the town of Musa Qala in early February. Since then, there has been a series of battles around the nearby Kajaki Dam -- the main focus of international reconstruction efforts for Afghanistan's volatile south. The former British commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan spoke at a London symposium on the strategic challenges facing Afghanistan this spring.

Although snow still blocks Afghanistan's high mountain passes, warmer temperatures have already thawed the northeastern part of Helmand Province.

That's the location of the Kajaki Dam -- the key reconstruction project in southern Afghanistan. If engineers can rebuild the hydroelectric generators -- and restore 110 kilometers of power lines to Kandahar -- some 1.8 million Afghans will have access to a reliable source of energy for the first time in decades. Thousands of jobs could be created.

Taliban fighters have held the town of Musa Qala -- about 25 kilometers from the dam -- since seizing it on February 2. The governor of Helmand Province says hundreds of Taliban fighters -- bolstered by Pakistani, Chechen, and Uzbek militants -- crossed the border from Pakistan this week in an attempt to derail the dam's reconstruction. NATO confirms that Taliban fighters have been firing rockets from a distance but causing no serious damage.

From Kajaki, "London Times" correspondent Anthony Loyd reports that the past six weeks have been "filled with fighting" for hundreds of British Royal Marines.

Targeting Kajaki Dam

But Britain's Lieutenant General David Richards -- commander of NATO-led ISAF troops in Afghanistan until the day Musa Qala was seized -- says NATO is in control of the area around the dam.

Richards told RFE/RL at the London symposium, which was organized by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, that he would not call the recent fighting a "Taliban offensive."

"It's actually the result of ISAF forces clearing the Taliban out of that area to allow the Kajaki Dam Project to take place," Richards said. "The Taliban don't want [the project] to take place, because they see that as a big propaganda coup for the government and the international community. So it's ISAF going into areas [that the Taliban] don't want to see us in."

Richards said support for the Taliban has fallen dramatically in southern Afghanistan in the past year, since militants failed to achieve their stated goal of capturing Kandahar. He said the latest Taliban violence is an attempt by militants to show that they are not defeated.

With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Chinese engineers plan to restart work on the Kajaki Dam's power station soon. Work was halted in 2006 because of almost daily mortar attacks on the project's base camp. But the Chinese subcontractors will not restart their work until a 6-kilometer security zone is created around the dam.

Cautious Outlook

Richards declared early in 2007 that the security zone has already been established.

In London, he said recent fighting is the result of NATO efforts to keep Taliban fighters from returning to the area around the dam.

"Well, that's why the fighting is taking place -- because we've got to provide room to allow the development to take place," Richards said. "It is a hugely important project for the people of the whole southern region."

Many experts speaking at the London symposium agreed that the Taliban appears to be losing momentum.

David Kilcullen, chief strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism at the U.S. State Department, said fighting already under way this spring does not signal Taliban success.

"There is a seasonal character to the war in Afghanistan, and there always has been," Kilcullen said. "You know, we call it a 'spring offensive.' They call it 'spring.' Every spring, someone is launching an offensive. So I think we don't want to overstate necessarily the strength of the Taliban in the south. And certainly NATO and the Afghan government are in a much stronger position as well in the south. So I think we can anticipate an increased Taliban effort. But that doesn't necessarily translate into Taliban success."

Killkullen claimed Taliban activities have been limited to several provinces, with nearly 90 percent of the population "living in areas not affected by them." But he warned that the Taliban is now comprised of a "third generation" of more sophisticated fighters -- a tough adversary that is far from defeat.

And he said regular reinforcements continue to cross the border from Pakistan.

'Comprehensive Approach Needed'

The London symposium was attended by 300 defense and security specialists, NATO and British Commonwealth military attaches, and British parliamentarians.

Former Afghan ministers and opposition figures, academics, and specialists were also in attendance.

The gathering came as visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai met the same day with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Ali Jalali, a professor of the Near East/South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington and a former Afghan interior minister, concluded that the current strategy needs broadening.

"Insufficient investment in Afghanistan and also failure to address strategic issues regarding the situation inside Afghanistan and in the region led to deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan," Jalali said. "So what is needed now is a comprehensive approach: troops, money, and a regional approach."
Some speakers at the symposium argued that the Taliban could have been defeated long ago, if there had been greater cooperation with Pakistan on security, more investment in reconstruction, and more troops from the 37 countries in the antiterrorism coalition.

EU Aid Targets Afghan Justice System

By Ahto Lobjakas

EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner (file photo)

BRUSSELS, February 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Foreign ministers from the European Union have approved a new mission to help train Afghan police. EU foreign ministers agreed to send about 150 police officers, plus other experts, to Afghanistan to help train that country's national police force.

The 27 ministers said in a statement today that the mission is aimed at furthering respect for human rights and the rule of law and driving police reform at the "central, regional, and provincial" levels.

EU officials say it could also pave the way for more ambitious EU efforts in Afghanistan -- including assistance revamping key legal institutions.

Before today's meeting, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner described Afghanistan's current legal architecture as inadequate in most respects.

Ferrero-Waldner said ahead of today's meeting that the police mission is a harbinger of bigger things to come. She said the EU will provide 600 million euros ($777 million) over the next four years to help fund Afghanistan's public administration, with a particular focus on the legal system.

"We intend to put a very special focus now on strengthening public administration, and also in particular the reform of the key legal institutions," Ferrero-Waldner said.

Focus On Justice

Ferrero-Waldner said about 40 percent of the funds will be earmarked for reforms in the justice sector.

The EU has contributed roughly 135 million euros to police reform in Afghanistan since 2002. Most of that money has helped pay salaries and train Afghan National Police officers.

EU aid to the police will continue. But Ferrero-Waldner suggested that police reforms are well entrenched, so Brussels wants to more actively support the judiciary and prosecutorial processes.

Ferrero-Waldner said Afghanistan's justice sector is in urgent need of reform.

"All three justice institutions -- that is, the supreme court on the one hand, it's the attorney general's office on the other hand, [and] the Ministry of Justice -- they are absolutely in urgent need of reform," Ferrero-Waldner said. "And I must say -- let me be blunt -- the system is operating with staff who are insufficiently trained or educated -- recruited through a system that is not at all transparent -- and who do not operate under very credible mechanisms for [ensuring] accountability and discipline."

'Key Challenge' Lies Outside Kabul

Ferrero-Waldner said that, in the future, the EU will place experts in key Afghan legal institutions to help draft a blueprint for what she said will be "major reforms." She said the EU wants to improve the quality of the justice system, provide a better recruitment and career structure for judges and public prosecutors, and develop a "code of ethics."

There will be an accompanying effort to ensure that judges and public prosecutors are better paid and to streamline their career structure.

Ferrero-Waldner said the EU believes the "key challenge" in resolving Afghanistan's problems is extending the central government's authority outside Kabul -- that and stamping out the illegal-drugs trade.

But she said EU assistance will be limited to working directly with Kabul and the central government will remain responsible for "spreading out" the rule of law into the provinces.

Ferrero-Waldner said this strategy is already bearing fruit in northern and northeastern Afghanistan. She cited "good success" in eradicating poppy fields in the northeastern province of Nangahar.

Officials in Brussels conceded privately that the security situation southern Afghanistan remains too dangerous to station EU officials there.

NATO Struggles With Security, Rebuilding In Helmand

By Ahto Lobjakas

British soldiers playing football with children in Lashkar Gah in May

LASHKAR GAH, AFGHANISTAN; February 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Once referred to as Afghanistan's "breadbasket," this is among Afghanistan's the most developed regions. Some of Helmand Province's infrastructure -- including irrigation networks and roads donated a half-century ago by the United States and the Soviet Union -- could be returned to use with a minimum of effort.

But Helmand is also home to Taliban militants, opium production, and tribal tensions.

Taliban fighters' brazen takeover of a town in southern Afghanistan this month marked a major setback for NATO and its Afghan allies. Just days before that seizure, British officers were touting the power-sharing deal that kept Taliban fighters out the town of Musa Qala as a possible blueprint for other parts of Helmand Province.

These problems are hampering NATO's British-led efforts to rebuild the province.

Improving Lives

Winning Afghan "hearts and minds" is the overriding ambition of nearly every NATO official or soldier here. Military and other officials acknowledge that the Taliban-led insurgency cannot be defeated without improving the lives of ordinary Afghans.

But they also express a frustrating sense that locals are simply willing to side with whichever side offers better terms.

NATO officials say they try to hire local contractors for their projects. In Lashkar Gah, the PRT has distributed nearly $3 million in cash to Afghan contractors in since July.

The provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Helmand's Lashkar Gah is part of NATO's effort to win public trust.

Tens of millions of dollars are pouring into the province. Much of that money is provided by Britain, but junior partners Denmark and Estonia play a part in Lashkar Gah, too.

"Those projects vary enormously, but there are small infrastructure-type projects, such as providing covered stalls at the Friday market, and some work to prevent [the Helmand River] from eroding the bridge, the Bolan bridge, and also rehabilitating some of the police checkpoints, and that sort of thing," says British diplomat Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, acting head of the Helmand PRT. "But also we've worked with a women's center in that regard. I think we've done a children's play area."

A NATO source says the market and the bridge were not necessarily among NATO's top priorities, but they were essential to securing the good will of the provincial leadership.

Cochrane-Dyet says Britain is investing $38 million into longer-term projects, mostly focused on rural infrastructure. He says the money will translate into 1,000 wells and 49 kilometers of roads that are crucial for local economic development.

A recurring theme at NATO briefings is the contribution that roads can make to opening markets for alternatives to Helmand's opium poppies -- the source of more than half of Europe's heroin.

Promoting The Kabul Government

Ian Huntley, deputy commander of the military component of the PRT in Lashkar Gah, stresses that NATO wants its aid to be regarded as an Afghan achievement -- for a variety of reasons.

A British soldier stands guard in Lashkar Gah (AFP file photo)

"The other point about it is, of course, that we're trying to win hearts and minds not for ourselves, but for the Afghan government," Huntley says. "So the fact that there's a Union Jack on something wouldn't help; [it] would probably just make something a target...associated with outsiders, with foreigners. But what you want is for the locals to see that their standard of living is going up and [to] associate that with the government of Afghanistan -- not with outsiders."

NATO officials say they try to hire local contractors for their projects. In Lashkar Gah, the PRT has distributed nearly $3 million in cash to Afghan contractors in since July.

The Security Problem

But security remains a major obstacle. For example, Estonia is providing equipment to a local hospital, in that country's first-ever development-aid experience.

The city of Lashkar Gah provides the backdrop for that Baltic state's first-ever experience providing development aid.

"Estonia has decided to spend $125,000 out of its 2006 budget to provide medical equipment for the children's ward of the main hospital of Helmand Province [in Lashkar Gah]," explains Estonian diplomat Toomas Kahur. "In more precise terms, we're talking here oxygen-generators and related equipment."

However, Kahur's recent visit to the hospital was cut short after just 15 minutes when his security team decides that an altercation with locals at the gates of the hospital -- coupled with intelligence that there are as many as six suicide bombers at large in Lashkar Gah -- represents an intolerable security risk.

Danger All Around

Outside Lashkar Gah, things are much worse.

NATO's mobile operations groups (MOGs) draw insurgent fire on a daily basis. There are very few permanent bases.

NATO officers say the heavily populated Sangin Valley to the north of Lashkar Gah is effectively controlled by the Taliban.

In the south, NATO's soldiers do not venture beyond Garmsir, where well-entrenched Taliban troops have been challenging them for months.

In the north, the limits of NATO's presence end where the mountains begin. These limits are best exemplified by standoffs around the district capitals of Now Zad and -- since its storming by Taliban in last week -- Musa Qala.

Now that the deal that ostensibly kept militants out of Musa Qala has fallen apart -- and locals are fleeing in anticipation of violence -- NATO will try and reclaim the district through other means.

That places the alliance -- and its desire to play a supporting role to the Afghan government -- in a delicate situation, particularly as NATO battles for the "hearts and minds" of area residents.

U.S. Program Seeks To Reform Madrasahs In Pakistan

By Andrew Tully
WASHINGTON, February 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A major irritant in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been the charge that many of Pakistan's Muslim religious schools, madrasahs, teach intolerance and help recruit young men to the Taliban, which has become a resurgent threat in Afghanistan.

Madrasahs also have been blamed for making Al-Qaeda attractive to young Pakistanis. A U.S. think tank has been involved in an initiative to foster understanding between these schools and the West. On February 5, Douglas Johnston, the president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), brought two Pakistani Muslim leaders to Washington to take part in a panel discussion of madrasah reform.

Johnston said he and his colleagues decided nearly four years ago that it was time to address the issue of the Pakistani madrasahs.

Beyond Rote Learning

The ICRD is working to persuade the madrasahs to expand their curriculums beyond religious subjects to include disciplines such as mathematics and social studies and to move beyond rote learning of the Koran to exercises in critical thinking. Another goal is to promote conflict resolution through religious tolerance.

"We appealed to their own heritage, pointing out how many pioneering breakthroughs in the arts and sciences -- even religious tolerance -- took place under Islam 1,000 years ago," Johnston said. "And when they start listening to that and thinking about it -- you hear it enough times, all of a sudden you walk a little taller and think, 'Hey, maybe we can do better.'"

Johnston says starting the program was difficult because the administrators of many madrasahs felt changing curriculums might mean compromising their religious principles. But he said he and his colleagues took vital steps to win their trust.

First, Johnson said, the madrasah administrators themselves were given responsibility for making the changes. That way they didn't feel as if anything was being imposed on them or their students. He says the second step was to make the changes in a historical context.

"We appealed to their own heritage, pointing out how many pioneering breakthroughs in the arts and sciences -- even religious tolerance -- took place under Islam 1,000 years ago," Johnston said. "And when they start listening to that and thinking about it -- you hear it enough times, all of a sudden you walk a little taller and think, 'Hey, maybe we can do better.'"

'Winning Hearts And Minds'

Johnson said his group soon attracted madrasah leaders even from the Wahhabi and Deobandi movements, two conservative movements in Islam. Eventually, he said, not only was the ICRD team teaching madrasah leaders, but some madrasah leaders were beginning to teach their colleagues.

"What I would call all of this is the 'winning the hearts and minds' phase," Johnston said. "And once we get a critical mass on that, which won't be very long from now, we're going to have to come up with the kind of resources that are needed -- significant resources -- to provide textbooks in the new disciplines in Urdu, and to provide teachers in those disciplines as well."

Two of the Pakistani Muslim leaders in the ICRD program -- Hafiz Khalil Ahmed of a Deobandi school in Quetta and Qazi Abdul Qadir Khamush, a Wahabbi leader -- accompanied Johnston to the presentation.

Ahmed said it was important for him to speak out to make sure the world understands that Pakistani madrasahs aren't schools of hatred. According to Ahmed, the students at these institutions are too isolated from international politics to harbor a worldview intolerant of different religions and cultures.

From what little they know of politics, Ahmed said, they believe that if anyone is promoting militancy, it is the government of Pakistan itself.

Khamush agreed. He said there was no talk of jihad, or holy war, until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. He said most people in Pakistan supported resistance to the Soviets.

But Khamush said that when the Soviets withdrew 10 years later, thought of war ended for most people in the region -- except for those who knew nothing but fighting. He said these men created new groups to protect what they saw as a threatened Islam.

Broader Implications

Khamush said the reforms advocated by Johnston and the ICRD are working well at madrasahs in Pakistan. And Johnston said the initiative could reap benefits far beyond Pakistan.

"Why this is important is not just because it's going to provide a better future for the children of Pakistan, which it is," he said. "But I think all of our children have a stake in this, just because if sort of gets right at the perceived heart of the global war on terrorism."

But Johnston said the initiative can't work in a vacuum. He called for the cooperation of the governments of both Pakistan and the United States to help its chances of success.