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Afghanistan Report: April 27, 2007

Afghanistan: Ex-Minister Sees Growing Gap Between Public, State

Abdullah Abdullah (file photo)

April 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah spoke with RFE/RL's Tajik Service during a trip to Almaty for an annual meeting of the Eurasian Media Forum on April 22. Abdullah, who was the country's top diplomat until a March 2006 cabinet reshuffle, talks about the state of affairs in Afghanistan, the Taliban threat, and Kabul's relations with the world. What follows are excerpts from correspondent Nasibjon Amoni's interview with Dr. Abdullah.

RFE/RL: What is your evaluation of Afghanistan's current situation?

Abdullah Abdullah: On one hand, Afghanistan is facing many problems and, on the other hand, fortunately, there are still opportunities for Afghanistan -- meaning that in recent years when Afghan people had the opportunity to get together and the international community also helped Afghanistan, there was much progress in various respects.

But there are still major questions: Is the security situation improving? Has the process of creating a healthy government been successful?

And there are also...issues like people's economic situations, reconstruction, and others. So the picture cannot be very bright, unfortunately, but we are hoping that good use will be made of opportunities that still lie ahead of Afghanistan.

New Political Bloc

RFE/RL: You said that there are problems. Is this one of the reasons for the creation of the United National Front of Afghanistan [political bloc]?

Abdullah: There should be political movements in Afghanistan. They should grow and become part of [Afghan society]; they should have a role in creating political stability. [The creation of the United National Front] was a necessity; the existence of political movements is necessary in a democracy.

RFE/RL: What forces are involved in the United National Front?

Abdullah: The composition of the [United] National Front has been announced, and prominent figures from all over Afghanistan are part of it. The agenda has also been announced. Former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani is the head of this front. They are trying to get public support regarding their agendas and programs, and also to strengthen ties with people and the international community. This is considered a positive step and a major political move that has taken place recently.

Taliban Threat

RFE/RL: Let's return to the situation in Afghanistan. What are the factors that have contributed to the Taliban's increased activities?

Abdullah: The fact that the Taliban have had the opportunity to be strengthened, trained, and armed outside Afghanistan and then sent to the country has been a major factor. At the same time, I believe that more attention should be paid to places that are being attacked by the Taliban, and areas where residents are facing the Taliban threat. There should be more [action] regarding the economic situation, as well as development.

RFE/RL: If you compare Afghanistan's current situation with two or three years ago, do you see progress or failure?

Abdullah: When you look at the security situation, two or three years ago there were no districts under the control of the Taliban. But today, unfortunately, in some parts of Afghanistan, there is such a thing.

I also think that the gap between the people and the government is growing. And this should be prevented, because the Afghan people can ensure the success of Afghanistan. People should support the political process. Maybe people have high expectations, but attention is needed.

Regarding Afghanistan's international relations, there has been progress in ties with Pakistan in all areas except in the security area because of the presence of Taliban leaders there and Taliban activities from inside Pakistan with the aim of creating unrest in Afghanistan. All of these are major issues that need to be dealt with.

Boy-Executioner Video Outrages Afghans, World

By Farangis Najibullah

A still from the video showing the boy shortly before the execution

April 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A disturbing video of a young boy beheading a Pakistani hostage has shocked and angered the Afghan public and international observers since it began circulating several days ago. Rights activists condemned the use of a child in the execution as "new low" -- even for an extremist group like the Taliban. In Afghanistan, it is unclear what effect the grisly video might have on militants' efforts to recruit sympathizers.

Many Afghans have expressed rage over news of the widely circulated images of the brutal killing of a man by an adolescent executioner. Some have questioned the decision of television stations to broadcast even excerpts of the video -- including Afghan popular channels Aryana and Tolo.

But after seeing the clips, one man who spoke with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan said he was appalled by both the broadcast and the barbarity of the crime. "It really is a barbaric act," he said. "I watched it on TV. It was a little boy who was beheading a young man. It is horrifying. What will become of this little boy when he gets older?"

'Very Bad Effect On Our Minds'

The video shows a young boy in a camouflage uniform standing over a man who is accused of being a Pakistani militant. Jihadi songs are playing in the background. The boy accuses the man of spying for the United States before the slaying.

"I [ask] the Afghan press not to publish such things," a Kabul man told Radio Free Afghanistan. "Well, they can report it on the radio. But please, not on the television or in news programs. Because it has a very bad effect on our minds."

The video has been broadcast on television in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

While masked men hold the terrified captive by his beard, the boy says the man will be executed as a lesson to other "traitors." Then the film shows him slitting the victim's throat as the other men hold their captive down and chant, "God is great!" The boy then uses the knife to saw the victim's head off.

The victim is identified as Ghulam Nabi, a onetime Taliban who his former comrades accused of helping U.S. forces to kill a senior Taliban commander in an air strike in southern Afghanistan.

News agencies quoted the murdered man's father, Ghulam Sakhi, confirming that his son was the man shown on the video. He said his son had been loyal to the Taliban.

A Major Departure?

While pro-Taliban militants have released many propaganda tapes in the past, this latest film stands out mostly for its use of a juvenile as an executioner.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) condemned the killers' use of a young boy to carry out the killing as a crime under international law. They called it a "terrible example of how children can be used by adults to commit heinous crimes in times of conflict."

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) similarly describes it as a war crime.

Hangomah Anwari, a member of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, told RFE/RL that she is gravely concerned over the use of children to commit war crimes.

"I have not seen the video myself, but using children in any conflict or war is against all Islamic and international laws and regulations," Anwari said. "A child cannot make informed decisions and act upon them. And moreover, using children in war and conflict has a very negative effect on the mental health of the child."

Fahim Dashti, an independent journalist based in Kabul, said that by showing video of a child killing a purported "enemy," he thought the Taliban appeared to be playing to certain elements in remote areas.

"I think this issue provide encouragement for those who have a very low education [levels] and have [mixed] Islamic and tribal issues in their culture," Dashti said. "The Taliban use such strategies because they know that they will encourage more people and that they can gain supporters."

Dashti also criticized Afghan television stations that broadcast the video. He argues that, by showing the film, the media have actually served the aims of publicity-hungry terrorists.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)

Rights Groups Say Taliban Increasingly Target Civilians

By Ron Synovitz

Shopkeepers outside their businesses at the scene of a car bomb attack in Kandahar in August 2006

April 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Two international human rights groups have issued reports this week warning that Afghan civilians are increasingly bearing the brunt of conflict in their country.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International say Taliban militants are intentionally attacking civilians.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is warning about a tactic increasingly used by Taliban to abduct and terrorize Afghan civilians -- impersonating Afghan police.

The U.S. military says it has received numerous reports in the past two weeks of Taliban fighters impersonating Afghan police. A U.S. military statement today says the Taliban use the tactic to set up illegal checkpoints and kidnap local Afghans.

HRW has called on the Taliban and associated groups to stop all intentional attacks on civilians and civilian targets. It also is calling on insurgents to refrain from using brutal attacks aimed at instilling terror among Afghan civilians.

The statement says three Taliban fighters in fake Afghan National Police uniforms opened fire on a coalition patrol on April 18.

The incident occurred near the strategic Shindand air field in the western province of Herat. All three militants were killed in the ensuing firefight.

Meanwhile, in the past two days, U.S.-led coalition forces in Herat Province have confiscated more than 100 fake Afghan police uniforms and recovered more than a dozen false personnel identification documents.

Broader Taliban Strategy

Amnesty International spokeswoman Saria Rees-Roberts told RFE/RL that the tactic is part of a wider strategy that her group reported about today -- the systematic targeting of Afghan civilians by the Taliban.

"These reports [of police impersonations] are very concerning, and they link up with what we have observed," Rees-Robers said. "The Taliban is using practices like abductions and killings in order to exert fear and exert control over the local population. It abducts people that it considers spies or collaborators. It tries them in a shadow court system and often carries out death sentences on them. And it carries out quite gruesome and brutal means of executions -- beheadings and slitting people's throats. This does seem to be designed in order to make other Afghan civilians in the locality fear for themselves and not want to go against the Taliban."

On April 16, HRW issued a report with findings similar to those of Amnesty International. The report says civilian deaths from insurgent attacks in Afghanistan have increased dramatically in the past 15 months, and it concludes that many of those civilian deaths are the result of the failure of militants to respect the internatioanl laws of war.

The 116-page HRW report documents how Taliban and Hizb-e Islami fighters have sharply escalated suicide bombings and other attacks against civilians since early 2006.

The Neglected South?

John Sifton, an HRW researcher on Afghanistan, told RFE/RL that there are several reasons for the escalation of civilian casualties by enemies of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his allies.

"The Karzai government has not made any real effort to establish security and good governance in the south," Sifton said. "And that, in turn, has left a kind of vacuum that the Taliban could exploit. The other reason is that [militants] are simply more active than they used to be. They are not only increasing their activities. They are increasingly using methods of warfare that violate the [international] laws of war. And that's why you are seeing so many civilians dead."

HRW has called on the Taliban and associated groups to stop all intentional attacks on civilians and civilian targets. It also is calling on insurgents to refrain from using brutal attacks aimed at instilling terror among Afghan civilians.

"We think that the Taliban and other insurgent groups are sensitive to these criticisms," Sifton said. "They are trying to gain legitimacy with local populations. Our arguments to them are that their actions are undermining whatever claims to legitimacy they might have."

Both reports criticize the U.S. military, NATO-led combat troops in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and Afghan government troops for conducting operations carelessly or too closely to heavily populated areas.

But both groups agree that those operations have not intentionally targeted civilians, as they claim the Taliban is now doing.

(RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Irina Lagunina contributed to this story.)

Leading NATO In Afghanistan
General John Craddock, the supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, spoke to RFE/RL in March about the challenges in Afghanistan. more
Assessing The Taliban
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid spoke with RFE/RL about the Taliban's tactics and strategy in southern Afghanistan. more

Afghanistan: U.S. Says Iranian-Made Weapons Found

By Breffni O'Rourke

Suspected Taliban fighters in custody in northern Afghanistan (file photo)

April 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials are expressing concern at the possibility that Iran might be moving to support the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The comments, on April 17 and today, mark the first U.S. suggestions that the Iranian government might be helping antigovernment fighters opposing Kabul's and NATO's efforts to bring security to Afghanistan.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said in Brussels today that Washington has seen what he called "a series of indicators that Iran is maybe getting more involved in an unhealthy way in Afghanistan."

He said these included reports of arms supplies to the Taliban and involvement in what he called "political areas."

No 'Clarity' On Who Is Involved

Boucher's remarks follow a similar assertion on April 17 by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace. Pace said that Iranian-made mortars and explosives had been intercepted in the Afghan province of Kandahar, on their way to the Taliban.

Washington has seen "a series of indicators that Iran is maybe getting more involved in an unhealthy way in Afghanistan."

Pace and Boucher avoided linking the arms directly to the Iranian government.

Pace said all that is known is that the material was made in Iran and was captured on its way to the Taliban. Pace acknowledged that the United States does not know "with the same clarity [that] we know in Iraq who is delivering those weapons, who is involved."

U.S. officials have frequently accused Iran's Shi'ite Islamic regime of supporting Shi'ite insurgents in neighboring Iraq with sophisticated explosive devices and training. Five Iranian nationals whom the U.S. suspects of being agents are currently being held in Iraq.

But this is the first hint from Washington that Iran could be supporting elements now waging a fierce campaign against NATO and Afghan government forces.

Change Of Tack?

Peter Lehr, an expert in Afghan-Iranian relations at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said today that such a major policy shift is unlikely on the part of the Taliban.

"There was always a big distrust, or rather hatred, [by the Taliban] of the Shi'ites in their midst," Lehr told RFE/RL. "The Taliban is very Sunnite, and Pashtun, which means it is a very fundamental form of Islam, and they treat Shi'ites as heretics. So I don't see any warming up [of Iranian-Taliban relations] so far."

Lehr said there is the possibility that either the Iranians or the Taliban have decided that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Such thinking could prompt them to join in common cause against Western forces in Afghanistan. But he finds this scenario pushed "a bit far."

But Lehr also said weapons can be moved around and traded without the knowledge of the government.

'The enemy of my enemy is my friend'? (Fars file photo)

"There is organized crime, there are the usual smuggling routes, trucks are going from Afghanistan to Iran [with their cargoes] to be exported via Russia to Europe, so why not arms the other way, as a means of paying for the trucks?" Lehr said. "But that does not necessarily mean that the [Iranian] government is behind it."

Iranian Denial

In Tehran, the Iranian ILNA news agency quotes an unnamed official with Iran's Foreign Ministry as calling Pace's remarks baseless and aimed at obscuring U.S. and British failures in Afghanistan.

For Iran to support the Taliban would also represent a considerable change in policy. When the Taliban were in power in Kabul, Shi'ite Iran threw its weight behind Taliban opponents, such as the warlords of the Northern Alliance, who were the key to ousting the Taliban after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Iran came close at one point to itself invading Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, because of the pressure being exerted on the Shi'ite Afghan minority by the militia.

Tehran's role in helping to establish a UN-backed government in Kabul following the removal of the Taliban regime was also widely praised.

The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in March banning all Iranian arms exports. However, the British paper "Daily Telegraph" reported today that the Iranian Defense Industries Organization (DIO) nevertheless has an exhibit of weapons at an international arms fair starting today in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Kabul Mulls Relations With Iran
Afghanistan has recently been preoccupied with its relations with Pakistan. But increasingly, ties with Tehran are coming to the fore. more
Between Washington And Tehran
Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta told RFE/RL in May 2006 that his country could help improve relations between Iran and the United States. more

Police Raid On TV Station Sparks Protest

By Ron Synovitz
KABUL, April 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- More than 100 journalists, supported by some members of the Afghan parliament, protested in Kabul today against a police raid on a private television station that was ordered by Afghanistan's attorney-general.

The April 17 raid has fueled new concerns about harassment of Afghan media by the government.

Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabet today defended the raid on Kabul's private Tolo Television, which he ordered, saying reporter Hamid Haidari had inaccurately paraphrased his remarks in a way that could provoke unrest.

Sabet said he telephoned Haidari to ask for an explanation and a correction. He says he only ordered the raid after Haidari ignored a request to come to the attorney-general's office.

"My purpose was to ask this gentleman to correct the report that he has [issued] so that we would not have to purse legal charges against him, because we do not want to have conflict with the press," Sabet said.

Sabet said he was talking about difficulties of implementing Afghan law in remote and insecure areas. He complained that his remarks were taken out of context in a report that quoted him as saying merely that "Afghan law is weak."

Station Stands By Report

Tolo's management has stood by Haidari and his report, saying it was accurate and truthfully represented statements made by Sabet at a press conference.

Since the raid, the station has repeatedly aired edited video of Sabet's original remarks.

A statement issued by Tolo alleges that the raid was illegal because none of the 50 police presented a written court order or arrest warrant.

It says that when asked to present such a document, a deputy district police commander simply scribbled a note on a piece of paper.

"The enemy of freedom of expression is not just those who are against the government."

That note was rejected by Tolo's legal advisers, who said it was not valid under Afghan law. They cited Article 38 of the Afghan Constitution, which states that "no one, including the state, shall have the right to enter a residence or search it without the owner's permission, or by order of an authoritative court, except in situations and methods delineated by law."

The Tolo statement says police physically abused three staff members who refused to allow authorities to enter the building without a written legal order. Those employees were held by police for about 40 minutes before being released without charge.

Haidari was not among those detained, but colleague Siddiq Ahmadzada was.

Alleged Beatings, Detentions

Ahmadzada also was one of about 100 Afghan and foreign journalists at a street protest in Kabul today objecting to the raid.

"The police beat us with the butts of Kalashnikovs and with the barrels of Kalashnikovs. And they punched us and kicked us," Ahmadzada said. "And...they took us and the other journalists to the attorney general's office."

AP has confirmed that four of its staff members also were detained while observing the raid from outside the Tolo building. AP reporters said they saw some detainees being kicked or punched by police.

Shukria Barakzai, a member of the Afghan parliament, joined journalists protesting today against the police actions.

"They really [violated] the law," Barakzai said. "That's the reality, unfortunately. It's a small example for the journalists in Afghanistan. We have lots of violence. The enemy of freedom of expression is not just those who are against the government. Somehow, our government is also against [free speech] because they are afraid [of the] reality which the media is broadcasting."

"Without taking note of the media law and the Constitution of Afghanistan, they sent the police to attack Tolo TV and arrest some journalists and members of Tolo TV," said Mir Ahmad Joyenda, another lawmaker supporting today's demonstration. "For that, the journalists union and all journalists of Afghanistan, together with members of parliament, have gathered here to condemn this work of the [attorney-general] and the police for attacking Tolo TV and beating the Tolo TV staff."

Sabet accuses Tolo of exaggerating the scale of the raid. But he has apologized for the alleged beating of journalists by police officers. Sabet says he is launching an investigation into those allegations.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan and correspondent Hamid Pazhman contributed to this report.)

Government Pledges End To Hostage Deals

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta (right, in file photo)

April 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's government says it will no longer exchange captured Taliban fighters for kidnapping victims.

The announcement, on April 15, came several weeks after Kabul freed five Taliban fighters in exchange for an Italian journalist kidnapped in early March. Two Afghans kidnapped along with the Italian journalist were executed by the Taliban.

Kabul is meanwhile still trying to win the release of two French aid workers and three Afghan colleagues seized by the Taliban.

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said on April 15 that kidnapping could become an "industry" for Taliban fighters if authorities in Kabul continue to swap Taliban prisoners for hostages.

The United States, Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands all have denounced hostage exchanges for Taliban prisoners. They say such deals reward kidnappers and put NATO soldiers in greater danger.

"We have to do our best to prevent the use of kidnapping as a commercial sector used by the terrorists to fight against the Afghan government," Spanta said. "If you do this once or twice or more times, it becomes an industry. It wouldn't have an end."

International Pressure

The Afghan government has faced international criticism since Kabul made a deal in March for the release of kidnapped Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo.

In that exchange, Kabul freed five Taliban prisoners -- including three high-ranking Taliban commanders. But Mastrogiacomo's Afghan translator was beheaded by the Taliban when Kabul refused to free two other Taliban prisoners. Mastrogiacomo's driver also was executed by his captors.

As a result, many Afghans now accuse President Hamid Karzai of valuing the lives of foreigners more than those of Afghans.

Independent security analysts say the deal has merely encouraged more abductions.

The United States, Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands all have denounced hostage exchanges for Taliban prisoners. They say such deals reward kidnappers and put NATO soldiers in greater danger.

Some NATO officials, disturbed by reports about the Italian government's role in the hostage deal, have called for an alliance-wide pact that bans deals with kidnappers.

Aid Workers Held Hostage

Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about two French aid workers and three Afghan colleagues abducted by the Taliban in Nimroz Province on April 3.

French President Jacques Chirac has telephoned Karzai to demand support for efforts to free the workers of the nongovernmental organization Terre d'Enfance (A World for Our Children).

Terre d'Enfance describes itself as an apolitical group that promotes the rights of children and socio-cultural tolerance.

Spanta says Kabul is still using all "legitimate and possible" means to win the release of the French and Afghan aid workers.

"The Republic of Afghanistan will try our best -- and I emphasize 'our best' -- for the release of these hostages within the framework of legal possibilities," Spanta said.

Purported Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi says a "proposal" has been sent to the Taliban's "leadership council" about the French and Afghan hostages. Ahmadi says the Taliban leadership will decide the hostages' fate.

...Fearing For Their Lives

During the weekend, the Taliban released brief black-and-white video footage showing the French hostages. One man says his name is Eric, while a woman hostage identifies herself only as Celine.

"My name is Celine," she says. "I am French. I am working for a French NGO called TDE -- Terre d'Enfance. I have been kidnapped and I am now in the hands of the Taliban with Eric, Hashim, Hazrat, and Rasoul."

The video shows the French woman breaking into tears as she describes the threats made against herself and the other hostages.

"I ask the government of France, the president of France, the prime minister and the parliament to help -- to release me, Eric, and the three Afghans that are with me," she says. "Please do what they want. Do what they request because they told us that they would kill us -- they will cut our heads off and send them back to France. Please do what you can. Help us."

Spanta's pledge to refrain from hostage deals also came on the day of a theoretical deadline set by the Taliban to kill one of a five-member team of Afghan medical workers abducted in Kandahar Province on March 27.

A purported Taliban spokesman had said the doctor would be killed if the government failed to start negotiations before April 15. The Taliban says the doctor is a cousin of the governor of Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan.

Italian NGO Under Fire For Taliban Talks

By Jeffrey Donovan

Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema in parliament today

April 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Italian parliament today is holding an open hearing into developments related to the kidnapping and release in Afghanistan of Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo.

The case has sparked political turmoil in Rome and Kabul, where authorities have accused the Italian NGO Emergency, which negotiated the reporter's release, of collusion with the Taliban. The NGO runs hospitals and first-aid points across Afghanistan, but is now threatening to leave.

Emergency, which says it has cared for more than 1.4 million Afghans since 1999, claims the Afghan government has now declared war on it.

Foreign Minister D'Alema called Emergency's work in Afghanistan vital and said Afghan authorities had given their full support to efforts to free Mastrogiacomo through negotiations with the Taliban.

'Declaration Of War'

Emergency Vice President Carlo Garbagnati spoke to Italian reporters on April 11 following reports that Amrullah Saleh, the head of the Afghan secret services, had accused the Milan-based organization of collusion with the Taliban.

"The [spokesman] of the head of the Afghan secret services, Amrullah Saleh, has called us a terrorist organization, or para-terrorist organization," Garbagnati said. "If that were just an insult, we would simply ignore it. Instead, it's a declaration of war from the head of the secret services. It's a frightening situation for us to be put it."

As a result, Emergency decided to pull its 40 foreign staffers out of the country that same day.

The group says its Afghan staff for now will continue to run its network of three surgical hospitals, a maternity center, 25 first-aid points, and six prison hospitals and clinics.

But Emergency, which is opposed to the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan, says it could review its entire operations there following Saleh's reported comments and the arrest of the head of its hospital in the southern town of Lashkar Gah.

Reports say the Afghan authorities accuse hospital director Rahmatullah Hanefi, who was arrested shortly after helping negotiate the release of Daniele Mastrogiacomo, of colluding with the Taliban in the Italian reporter's abduction. The reporter was freed in exchange for five Taliban prisoners.

Earlier this week, Mastrogiacomo's interpreter, still held by the Taliban, was killed by the militant group, which had earlier beheaded his driver.

A Political Agenda?

The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai was embarrassed by the hostage-exchange deal, with some in the country accusing Karzai of valuing the life of a foreign hostage more than those of Afghans.

After Mastrogiacomo's release, Karzai vowed no more prisoner swaps with the Taliban.

Emergency's Garbagnati says that in his opinion, Afghan authorities are punishing Hanefi and his organization because their hospitals treat all Afghans, regardless of political persuasion.

Journalist Mastrogiacomo (left) with Emergency head Strada shortly after the former's release on March 19 (epa)

"I guess we are 'colluders with terrorists' in this sense: that we give medical treatment to anyone who needs it, regardless of their uniform, their ideas, their background, their projects, their thoughts," he said. "I believe this is the kind of behavior that any reasonable person on Earth would praise."

But some independent observers, while lauding Emergency's humanitarian role, question its neutrality in Afghanistan's political playing field.

Giovanni Gasparini, a defense and security analyst with Rome's Institute of Foreign Affairs, says Emergency, which started operating in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, "definitely speaks with the devil" in order to survive there.

Moreover, Gasparini tells RFE/RL that Emergency has a clear leftist political agenda, which includes using its prestige to push for a withdrawal of Italian NATO troops from Afghanistan.

"What they are doing [in their hospitals] is very nice, I'm not arguing against that in any way," Gasparini said. "But the fact is that they are using the image power that they receive from that to pursue an ideological agenda. They are not saying: 'Listen, our job is just to stay here and save people. Our mission is to save people and say that the war is bad, and the Americans are bad, and the [Italian] soldiers should leave, and so on.' So you see, this is not the Red Cross."

'Vital' Humanitarian Work

Today, Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema opened a session of parliament with an address that sought to clarify Italy's role in negotiating Mastrogiacomo's release, which has been criticized by the United States and other NATO allies.

D'Alema called Emergency's humanitarian work in Afghanistan vital. He also said Afghan authorities had given their full support to Italian efforts to free Mastrogiacomo through negotiations with the Taliban conducted by Emergency's Hanefi.

In a separate interview, D'Alema has also suggested that Rome, which has 2,000 peacekeepers in Afghanistan, has done all it can to persuade Kabul to free Hanefi.

Opposition View

However, center-right opposition leader Gianfranco Fini took issue with D'Alema's portrayal of events.

Fini accused Prime Minister Romano Prodi's government of threatening to pull Italy's troops from Afghanistan unless the Karzai government agreed to swap Taliban prisoners for Mastrogiacomo.

Fini said that, according to his information, Karzai never wanted to make a prisoner swap, but that his hand was forced by Prodi's alleged threat. The former Italian foreign minister also cast doubt on Hanefi's role.

"If, as we believe, Karzai gave in only because Prodi floated the possibility of a withdrawal, then one can't complain that immediately after [Mastrogiacomo's release], Karzai took a hard line," Fini said. "That 'hard line' is the arrest of Hanefi who, according to everyone who knows Afghanistan, is the liaison between Emergency and the Taliban."

Italian troops near Kabul last autumn (epa)

Emergency founder Gino Strada has repeatedly defended Hanefi from such accusations, calling him a "man of peace."

Strada says his group could shut down its entire Afghan operation unless Hanefi is freed.

With civilian casualties mounting by the day in the war-torn south, it remains unclear whether Kabul is ready to pay that price. Strada, for his part, has insisted that Emergency does not want to leave Afghanistan.

So far, the Afghan government has yet to comment, though one official, quoted today by Italian news agency ANSA, expressed "dismay" with Emergency's decision to pull out its international staff.

New Political Bloc Unites Old Adversaries

By Ron Synovitz

Ex-President Burhanuddin Rabbani will lead the grouping

April 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A political bloc has been formed in Afghanistan that brings together members of the current government, opposition parliamentarians, former communists, anti-communist mujahedin fighters, and even the grandson of Afghanistan's former king Zahir Shah.

Called the United National Front of Afghanistan, the group has selected conservative Islamist and former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani as its first leader.

Founders say the alliance is not meant to be a political opposition group. But the bloc has selected the key opposition figure Rabbani as its leader. Rabbani was the president of Afghanistan until 1996, when the Taliban seized Kabul. He also is the leader of Jamiat-e Islami, an Islamist faction from northern Afghanistan that had fought on the side of U.S. forces against the Taliban after the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001.

Rabbani tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the United National Front was formed to fight corruption and address other threats to Afghanistan's security.

"The weakness of the government in resolving crises and the emergence of corruption are serious threats to state security," Rabbani says. "Watching this situation, a group of parties and politicians decided not to remain on the sidelines regarding solutions to national problems anymore. So they decided to create a means of cooperation by forming the United National Front and starting joint work."

Finding Common Cause

Other members of the United National Front also have said that they want to change Afghanistan's internationally backed constitution. They argue that the powers of parliament should be strengthened and the powers of the presidency reduced. They have proposed a parliamentary system of government in which the legislature elects a powerful prime minister. And they want the powers of President Hamid Karzai to be reduced to mostly a ceremonial role.

Among those who have joined the bloc are some of Karzai's own aides and leading members of his cabinet. They include Water and Energy Minister Ismail Khan, Army Chief of Staff General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and First Vice President Zia Mas'ud, who is the brother of the late mujahedin leader Ahmad Shah Mas'ud.

A leading opposition figure in the Afghan legislature -- parliamentary speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni -- has declared his membership of the new bloc.

Former Afghan Defense Minister Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim also is a member.

Another bloc member, Sayed Mohammad Gulabzoi, had been an enemy of the former mujahedin commanders when he was the interior minister of Afghanistan during Afghanistan's communist era.

Also joining the bloc is the head of the country's environmental commission Mustafa Zahir. He is the grandson of Afghanistan's former king, the ailing Zahir Shah.

Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former interior minister in Karzai's administration, tells RFE/RL that Kabul has failed to form a unified bloc to enact the plans of Karzai's administration. Jalali says different groups are coming together in a bid to gain more power in upcoming elections.

"This coalition remaining united is impossible."

"At the moment, people are a bit disappointed in Afghanistan," Jalali says. "Taking that disappointment into consideration, this group has gathered together to introduce themselves as a political front that will address the desires and wishes of the people in the future."

What Time Frame?

But political analysts and other observers predict the United National Front will not last long.

Sardar Mohammad Rahmanoaghly is a member of the Afghan parliament who has not joined the bloc. He says the bloc's members have competing political agendas and no common ideology. He says he thinks the group's dissolution is inevitable because its aims are for short-term political gain.

That view is shared by some ordinary Afghans interviewed by RFE/RL. Yusifi, a middle-aged man who lives in Kabul Province, says he does not expect the United National Front to stay together for long. "I think...this coalition remaining united is impossible," he says. "They already have deep conflicts with each other. And the interests of their parties are mostly in contradiction with each other."

Jalalabad resident Gul Rahim Sher also says the aims of the bloc appear to be short-term political gains.

"This is a combination of groups with contradictory agendas," he says. "It is not clear whether they will remain united. There are indications that they are controlling power right now.... From the time of the interim administration and the transitional government up to now, they have been ruling the country. I don't know what they are trying to achieve now -- whether they want to keep their powers or if they have another purpose. But I think nothing will come out of this in the end."

Zia Urahman, a resident of the eastern Nangahar Province, says he thinks there is no reason to strip the Afghan presidency of its powers. But he says the idea of a united political bloc could have prevented much death and suffering in the country if it had been implemented immediately after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989.

"If this coalition between mujahedin and communists had been formed 20 years ago, Afghanistan would not have experienced the bloodshed and so much misery in the last [several] decades," he says.

The United National Front says Rabbani will lead the group for six months. Other members of the bloc will take on the leadership role in rotating shifts.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghansitan contributed to this report.)

Afghanistan Joins World's Largest Regional Grouping

By Breffni O'Rourke

Afghan President Karzai (left) along with the Pakistani and South Korean foreign ministers today in New Delhi

April 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has opened its annual summit in New Delhi, where, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in attendance, Afghanistan became its eighth member.

Karzai and Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta are in the Indian capital for the two-day summit on April 3-4.

Spanta addressed foreign ministers of the group at a meeting on April 2.

RFE/RL's bureau chief in Kabul, Amin Mudaqiq, said Spanta laid out Afghanistan's expectations from the organization.

"The Afghan foreign minister, speaking to this forum, said that Afghanistan will seek foreign investment in the country, that Afghanistan will offer transit facilities between the South and Central Asian countries and, most importantly, that Afghanistan will seek help from the SAARC member countries to join counterterrorism circles," Mudaqiq reported.

Competing Agendas?

But South Asian analyst Sukh Dev Muni added a note of caution, saying that not all of the group's members appear equally interested in combating terrorism. He did not name any specific country, but the barb could be aimed at Pakistan.

"The real problem is again political," Dev Muni said. "If some of the countries use terrorism as a means of achieving a strategic policy goal, then they would not want to suppress it."

SAARC is the most populous regional grouping in the world, with some 1.47 billion people represented. Founded in 1985 at the initiative of Bangladeshi President Ziaur Rahman, it comprises India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, and now Afghanistan.

Originally conceived as an engine of regional integration, rather like the European Union, the SAARC has become little more than a forum for annual talks among regional leaders. That is partly blamed on a rivalry between the two regional powers -- India and Pakistan -- which has prevented broad agreement on many political and economic issues.

"I think the lack of political will on the part of the countries in the grouping -- India and Pakistan -- [stems] not only from the conflict between them, but also [from the fact that] neither could be sure whether regional integration would cater to their demands," Dev Muni said.

But even at the level of a discussion forum, RFE/RL's Akbar noted, SAARC can be useful to Afghanistan and can contribute to regional stability.

"There have been complaints [by Afghanistan] about the cross-border infiltration from Pakistan," Mudaqiq said, "so, as Pakistan is a SAARC member country, Kabul will try to use the forum of SAARC to solve this problem, and at the least will seek to enlist the help of other SAARC states to start a constructive dialogue with Pakistan."

Widespread Interest

Despite its scant record of achievement, international interest in SAARC runs high. The United States, the European Union, China, Japan, and South Korea all either have observer status with the organization or have applied for it.

Iran has applied for full membership of SAARC, but it is considered unlikely to be offered to join until the international row over the Iranian nuclear program is resolved.

The European Commission says in an overview statement on its relations with SAARC that it is currently designing a broader program of cooperation with the grouping, aimed at raising awareness of the benefits of regional cooperation and promoting business networking among SAARC members.

In one concrete development, after 14 years of effort the group is implementing a free-trade zone this year, within which all member states are reducing import duties by 20 percent.

Central Asia: Has IMU Reached The End Of The Line?

By Daniel Kimmage

A Pakistani soldier near the border with Afghanistan (file photo)

March 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Recent clashes between Uzbek and other militants and tribesman in Pakistan's southernmost tribal area have left scores dead. The Uzbek militants are affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Central Asia's most infamous terrorist organization, which decamped to Afghanistan in the waning days of the Taliban regime to establish ties with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. After a U.S.-led military operation sent the Taliban and Al-Qaeda packing in 2001, the IMU fled with their hosts to the borderlands of Pakistan. But with that frontier now a battleground, has the IMU reached the end of the line?

The cause, death toll, and final outcome of the clashes involving Uzbeks and tribesmen were all unclear more than a week after the violence began. Accounts by international news agencies and Pakistani media agreed that the fighting started on March 19 near Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, the southernmost of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas; it pitted a group composed largely of IMU-affiliated Uzbek militants against local Pashtun tribesmen.

Most sources linked the outbreak of fighting to the death of an Arab affiliated with a local Pashtun leader named Mawlawi Nazir. Pakistan's "Dawn" newspaper, for example, described Nazir as the leader of "local Taliban" and painted a picture of mounting tension between pro-Taliban local tribes and Uzbek militants after Uzbeks killed an "Al-Qaeda-linked Arab" (identified as Saiful Adil). But AFP reported that clashes broke out "after ex-Taliban commander Mullah Nazir, who backs President Pervez Musharraf's moves to expel foreigners from the area, ordered followers of Uzbek militant [and IMU leader] Tahir Yuldashev to disarm."

Whatever lit the fuse, the official death toll continues to climb.

Varying Reports

Reports this week suggested a local cease-fire, but at the same time fierce fighting was reported just a few kilometers away. And reports emerged of overnight fighting in South Waziristan on March 29-30.

A tribal elder and opponent of the Uzbek presence in the region, Haji Khannan, has cautioned that "the only durable solution to the problem is to ask Uzbeks to leave the area." He claimed that Uzbeks' "continued presence would cause friction with the local tribes."

The official death toll now stands at around 170, with most of the dead ethnic Uzbeks affiliated with the IMU. Local sources told a Pakistani newspaper, "The News," that the fighting had claimed far fewer lives, with casualties split evenly between local tribes and Uzbeks.

A journalist in North Waziristan, Saylab Mas'ud, estimated to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on March 21 that "there were "about 2,000 to 2,500 Uzbek militia in the [immediate] area."

The highest estimates to have emerged are of more than 10,000 "foreign" fighters in the Tribal Areas, although there is little evidence to support such claims.

The confused chain of events makes more sense if one considers in turn the three groups of actors involved -- Pakistan's central authorities, local tribesmen in South Waziristan, and the IMU -- and the interests they are pursuing.

'Government Tribesmen Strategy'

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been pressed by the United States to do more to contain militant activity in the tribal provinces bordering Afghanistan, and he has faced hostile demonstrations after his suspension of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Against that backdrop, he is eager to claim success for his policy of encouraging tribal leaders to deal with the problem of foreign militants. A Pakistani military spokesman recently described tribal leaders in South Waziristan as "patriots" for their efforts to evict IMU fighters, Pakistan's "Daily Times" reported on March 27. As early as March 20, Pakistani military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad called the fighting "a success of the government tribesmen strategy," Reuters reported. The spokesman claimed "the tribesmen are fed up with [foreign militants] because they and their activities adversely affect their lives and business."

Nevertheless, comments by the leader of a local family described by "IThe News" as supporting the eviction of Uzbek fighters from South Waziristan hardly inspired confidence that the central government's policy will do much to reduce the militancy that is fueling violence in neighboring Afghanistan. Haji Sharif vowed that his people would "continue [their] jihad [in Afghanistan] if that is against America, the Russians, British, or India as long as [they] have souls in our bodies." Sharif shrugged off the fighting with the Uzbeks as a distraction from the larger conflict in Afghanistan. He said his group's "activities across the border have been affected by [the] crisis with the Uzbeks," adding, "We have enemies in our home."

What's more, Pakistan's army may have taken sides in the recent clashes in South Waziristan, although Pakistani military spokesmen have consistently denied any involvement in the fighting. "The Asia Times Online" on March 28 quoted "independent sources" as saying that Pakistani special forces aided Pashtun leader Nazir in clashes against Uzbek forces and carried out raids in an attempt to arrest the IMU leader, Yoldosh. Reuters reported on March 22 that local residents said "some shelling aimed at Uzbek positions appeared to be coming from a military base."

According to "The Asia Times Online," the involvement of the Pakistani military "pits the 'coalition' of Nazir's Taliban and the Pakistani military against the leaders of the 'Islamic State of Waziristans.'" The latter refers to leaders in North and South Waziristan who are bitterly opposed to central government involvement in the tribal regions and support the presence of foreign militants.

As for the local tribesmen, a former British military attache in Islamabad, Brigadier Johnny Torrence-Spence, told a briefing in Washington on March 26 that Pashtuns in Pakistan's tribal regions are not a "single, homogenous group because they are divided along distinct tribal lines," the "Daily Times" reported. Reports from the region confirmed this, suggesting that some tribesmen object to the Uzbek presence in South Waziristan and are amenable to central government inducements to evict the Uzbeks, while others stand with the Uzbeks. "The News International" noted, for example, that Haji Sharif supports the eviction of the Uzbeks while his brothers, Haji Omar and Noor Islam, have been fighting alongside the Uzbeks.

Caught In The Middle

Where does this leave the IMU? Reports in Pakistan's press indicate that they have both supporters and enemies among local tribesmen. Pakistan's central authorities publicly oppose the Uzbeks' presence. Most estimates put the Uzbeks' strength at around 1,000, although some, such as the journalist quoted above, say they could number as high as 2,000, and a March 26 report in Britain's "Daily Telegraph" spoke of 10,000 Uzbek fighters led by Tohir Yoldosh.

The "Daily Telegraph" reported that Taliban leaders in Afghanistan have offered the Uzbek force a way out of its problems in South Waziristan in the form of "safe passage" to Kunar, Paktia, or Helmand in Afghanistan to take part in a spring offensive against NATO troops. In comments to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Colonel Tom Collins, dismissed the report as "Taliban propaganda" and said that there is no evidence IMU militants are headed for Afghanistan.

But experts queried by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service were less skeptical. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who has written extensively on the Taliban and IMU, told RFE/RL that the ongoing events are difficult to interpret. But Rashid noted that "in order to deal with a difficult situation in Waziristan, foreign fighters may go to the south, to Afghanistan." The editor in chief of Pakistan's "Daily Mail," Makhdoom Babar, told RFE/RL that with conditions in Pakistan becoming less and less hospitable, he thinks the Uzbek force "will leave for Afghanistan." But Robert Birsel, a Reuters correspondent in Pakistan, suggested that Uzbek militants might be able to hammer out a truce with the local tribesmen in whose midst they have now lived for years.

Interestingly, the fighting in South Waziristan also drew comment from the global jihadist media apparatus. One group that regularly posts statements from jihadist insurgent groups in Iraq to pro-Al-Qaeda Internet forums, Al-Fajr Media Center, put out a press release in Arabic on March 21 on "what is happening in Waziristan." It claimed dismissively that "the Pakistani Army, its crusader overlords, and their apostate allies over the past five years have been unable to stand up to the holy warriors, whether in North or South Waziristan." Charging that the recent clashes were inspired by Pakistani intelligence agents, the Al-Fajr Media Center claimed that "the fighting is taking place between exiled holy warriors and their allies and some pro-government tribes, or the Pakistani army and intelligence services dressed as tribes." It argued that the combat does not pit Uzbeks against "tribes," as some are saying.

In sum, reports from Pakistan's tribal areas indicate that while the IMU retains some fighting strength, it is now a bit player in a complex game far removed from the organization's origins in Uzbekistan and its onetime goal of unseating Uzbek President Islam Karimov and establishing an Islamist state in Central Asia's most populous country. Trapped for now in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the IMU is caught up in the shadowboxing between Pakistan's central authorities and the leaders of Waziristan's various Pashtun tribes-- and in the larger efforts of global jihadists to continue their fight in and around Afghanistan.

It may not be the end of the road for the IMU, but it is a road that has led far from home, with few prospects for a return in the foreseeable future.