Afghanistan: What Unites The New 'United Front'?
By Amin Tarzi
May 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In Afghanistan, more than 30 people announced in Kabul on March 13 the formation of a political grouping called the United Front of Afghanistan.
The initial membership list includes representatives of about 15 political parties, as well as independents that include former communists and a grandson of the last Afghan monarch. Members have since talked about the group's agenda and intentions in general terms, but much of the coverage so far has ignored what unites the front -- beyond the well-worn slogans of "national unity."
The new United Front calls for amending Afghanistan's Islamic constitution to transform the political system from a presidential to a parliamentary model. It also wants provincial governors elected rather than selected by the president.
The United Front proposes changing the country's electoral system from the current system (a so-called single nontransferable voting system, or SNTV) to a proportional system, which would arguably strengthen the role of political parties. It has also outlined a series of social services that it vows to implement to improve the lives of the Afghan public.
In the area of foreign relations, the front seeks coordination of the activities of foreign forces present in Afghanistan, and official recognition of the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- known in Kabul as the Durand Line.
Critical Of 'Government-Building' Effort
A member of the Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) and spokesman for the United Front, Sayyed Mustafa Kazemi, spoke at a roundtable in Kabul organized by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in early April. Kazemi argued that there has been some progress in the state building -- or as he called it, "government building" -- that is envisaged in the Bonn agreement of late 2001, which served as a blueprint for post-Taliban Afghanistan. But he said no serious work has been done in second area -- that of nation building. Kazemi said the United Front essentially wants to redirect Afghanistan toward the ideals set forth in Bonn.
Kazemi dismissed suggestions that a campaign to transform the presidential system to a parliamentary one amounts to an effort to dismantle the constitution. He said that, in due time, the United Front hopes to test constitutional Articles 149 and 150, which allow amendments proposed by the president or legislative majority based on "new experiences and requirements of the time."
Once the proposal is forwarded, a presidential appointed commission would implement the proposal. It would then have to be approved by a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly), after which a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly would be required. The change would be finalized after signature by the presidential.
Karzai vehemently opposes any effort to impose a parliamentary system on the country, and is unlikely to endorse any move to change the current presidential system.
Does the United Front represent an effort to resurrect the United National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan -- popularly known as the Northern Alliance?
Responding to fears that the United Front's proposal to elect provincial governors is a step toward federalism in Afghanistan, Kazemi said the group is not endorsing federalism. Instead, he said, it is advocating a strengthening of provincial government. He pointed to the current Provincial Councils, which are elected, and asked why governors should not undergo similar public scrutiny. Kazemi pointed to the U.S. model, in which state governors are directly elected, although he made no mention of the federal nature of the U.S. system.
Many Afghans, especially Pashtuns, view federalism -- an idea proposed in the past by some members of the United Front -- as tantamount to a de facto partition of the country. Or, at least, an imposition of Pashtun power in non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.
Kazemi briefly addressed the issue of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Some have suggested that the United Front would seek to legalize the status of foreign forces in Afghanistan. He said only that the United Front would desire a "partnership," but provided no further details.
At the RFE/RL roundtable, the United Front's membership list came under particular scrutiny for two reasons.
First, a number of the members of the United Front hold senior government positions; if they are criticizing the performance of the Karzai administration, then they presumably share some of the blame. Similarly, despite claims by members of the United Front that they are not an "opposition" grouping, their stated policies reflect opposition and they arguably should resign from the current government. Members of the United Front include Afghan First Vice President Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, Energy and Water Minister Mohammad Ismail Khan, Deputy Chief of Staff of the High Command of the Armed Forces of Afghanistan General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who currently serves as a senior adviser.
On this government-cum-opposition issue, Kazemi asserted that the United Front aims to work under the Afghan Constitution and within the Karzai administration to bring about gradual reform. Kazemi insisted that the United Front is no opposition bloc, adding that its critical evaluation of the Karzai administration is an "exercise in democracy."
The second reason that the membership list came under fire relates to the inclusion within the United Front of former high-level officials involved in the security and military apparatus under the communist regimes of Afghanistan -- such as Sayyed Mohammad Gulabzoi and Nur al-Haq Olumi. Those individuals served within the command structure of a system that left more than 1 million Afghans dead, through military actions or their treatment in detention centers.
On this second criticism, Kazemi explained that many former communists entered the new Afghan political system only after the first postcommunist government under President Sebghatullah Mojaddedi in 1992 issued a general amnesty (to former communists). Kazemi said that Gulabzoi and Olumi, for instance, have been granted legitimacy by the people, since both won election to the Wolesi Jirga. He added that Afghanistan must "close steel doors" in its effort to break decisively with its past.
The main elements of the United Front's platform -- particularly the transformation to a parliamentary system and eliminating the voting system (SNTV) -- were addressed by the current speaker of the lower house (Wolesi Jirga) in conversations with RFE/RL in 2005. Mohammad Yunos Qanuni -- as leader of the now-defunct umbrella group, the National Understanding Front -- vowed at the time that his group would behave as a "loyal opposition" that accepted the legitimacy of the Karzai administration. Qanuni, who has joined but has remained largely behind the scenes, in 2005 spoke about "rationalization and legalization of the struggle" -- words echoed by Kazemi two years later.
Not Looking Back
Does the United Front represent an effort to resurrect the United National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan -- popularly known as the Northern Alliance -- which united against the Taliban regime? Despite the inclusion of many prominent figures from the Northern Alliance -- including Qanuni, Fahim, Dostum, and Mas'ud -- United Front spokesman Kazemi insisted that the new grouping bears no relation to the Northern Alliance.
He emphasized that the name of the new grouping is not the "United National Front" -- as has been reported -- because the new grouping wants to avoid being confused with the United National Front, or Northern Alliance.
So what unites such a diverse grouping?
The United Front seems united in opposing Karzai, despite the diplomatic niceties suggesting that it is not an opposition coalition. The strategy appears focused on gaining legitimacy by working within the Karzai administration while trying to weaken the political forces that President Karzai is trying to muster on his side. On one hand, it marks a success for Afghanistan that the United Front talks of the "rationalization" of its political struggle rather than resorting to violence -- which had been the story of Afghanistan since the 1978 communist putsch. But some might also consider it unfortunate that the president's second in command and others within his ruling circle unite in opposing the head of state, rather than work with him to address the problems facing the current administration.
Unfortunately for its supporters, if the Karzai factor was removed from the equation today, the United Front might not stay very united. Nor would the rational heads among its members be able to stop those who still command private militias.
Repatriations Spark Debate On Tehran's Aims
By Ron Synovitz
Afghans protest Iran's mass refugee expulsions in front of Tehran's embassy in Kabul on May 1
May 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's forcible repatriation of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees has raised suspicions that Tehran is trying to destabilize Afghanistan, and prompted complaints from the Afghan Foreign Ministry.
Afghan politicians, media, and even some repatriated refugees say they think the mass evictions since mid-April are an attempt by Tehran to destabilize western Afghanistan.
With tension heightened between Washington and Tehran over Iran's controversial nuclear program, analysts say such fears are understandable.
The discovery of Iranian-made weapons that NATO says were bound for Taliban fighters has fueled further concern.
But while experts on South Asia interviewed by RFE/RL said they thought Tehran would like to prevent the U.S. military from building up a strategic airfield near Afghanistan's western border with Iran, they expressed doubt the Iranian government was using mass repatriations and weapons smuggling to try to achieve that goal.
Since 2003, the U.S. military has been developing the strategic Shindand airfield near Iran, in the western Afghan province of Herat.
Ian Kemp, an independent defense analyst in London, said the presence of U.S. forces at Shindand is seen by Tehran as a threat because Shindand could serve as a launching point if the United States decided to attack Iran's nuclear facilities from the air.
"The Iranians have a significant military capability," Kemp said. "They are likely to offer far greater resistance [on the ground] than the Iraqi forces did. And with the U.S. and its allies being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan at the moment, any form of conventional military action on the ground [against Iran] can be ruled out of the question. I think if the United States was to decide upon military action, a combination of missile strikes using sea and air-launched cruise missiles and air strikes would probably be the preferred option."
Making Things Difficult
Peter Lehr, an expert on South Asia at St. Andrews University in Scotland, said the Iranian government might be trying to complicate the situation for U.S. forces in western Afghanistan by sending thousands of Afghan refugees there.
"That's a kind of war by proxy," Lehr said. "If you take a look at other borders between Pakistan and India -- especially the Kashmir problem -- you see that Pakistan is busily exporting many of these former Afghani fighters into Kashmir so that it can raise some troubles there and keep the Indians busy. With the same logic, you can say that Iran is trying to get as much mileage out of the refugee crisis as they can get just to annoy the Americans. That's the way to fight back against the Americans. [Iran] can't come out with [naval war ships]. They can't come out with sophisticated [war planes]. What they can do is things like hostage taking, sending out some agents. What they can do is send a deluge of refugees across the border. That's possible."
Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid said he thinks the repatriation of thousands of Afghan refugees by Tehran could destabilize the Afghan government and cause problems for U.S. forces at Shindand.
"That's a possibility," Rashid said, "but I don't think [Iranian officials] need to do that, because they have long-running relations with many of the commanders and small-time warlords in western Afghanistan -- both Pashtun and non-Pashtun."
Still, regardless of whether Afghan refugees are being used as pawns in a geopolitical struggle, Rashid said he is convinced that Tehran wants to make life more difficult for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"I have no doubt that Iran has been involved in channeling money and arms to various elements in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, for the last few years," Rashid said. "I think Iran is playing all sides in the Afghan conflict. There are Pashtuns and non-Pahstuns who are being funded by Iran who are active in western Afghanistan. If the Iranians are convinced that the Americans are undermining them through western Afghanistan, then it is very likely that these agents of theirs have been activated."
'Confrontation By Proxy'
British Defense Secretary Des Browne has suggested that Iran might be helping Taliban forces that are fighting NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Browne told the House of Commons Defense Committee in London on May 8 that Iran has "sought confrontation by proxy" with Britain and the United States, as well as other NATO members, in the Middle East. Without elaborating, Browne said there is "some indication" that Iran is doing the same in Afghanistan.
But Lehr said he is suspicious of claims that Iranian agents slipped into Afghanistan alongside the thousands of repatriated refugees in order to instigate recent violence near the Shindand airfield.
Lehr said he also doubts suggestions by U.S. and British officials that the Iranian government has been directly involved in supplying weapons to the Taliban.
"I see a connection to this nuclear issue," Lehr said. "The United States are desperately looking for a casus belli, in my opinion. Of course, it is tempting for [Iran] to instigate even more hatred against the Americans around this very air base. They are deniable effects; if some of these people get caught, well, they can always deny that they are working for the Iranian government. But if you take a look at the context -- at this nuclear issue -- and if you take a look at the fact that the Americans tried to link up a weapons shipment from Iranian territory into Afghanistan with the politics of the Iranian government, then it starts to get a bit smelly."
One of Lehr's areas of expertise is the organized criminal groups that smuggle illegal drugs from Afghanistan to Western markets. He says drug payments made by those groups are much more likely to be the reason that Iranian weapons are being found by NATO soldiers in western Afghanistan.
"If you take a look at the weapons smuggling, well that's been going on for decades," Lehr said. "That is part of this drug route where heroin is shipped from Afghanistan via Iran and other countries and Russia to Europe. The best way of paying for drugs is either, of course, with money -- or with weapons. And there is not even circumstantial evidence that the Iranian state, itself, is involved with that. That is organized-crime groups."
Afghan media and politicians speculate that one reason for Iran's expulsion of refugees probably is to show that it can indirectly pressure the United States by contributing to an economic crisis in Afghanistan.
They said another reason could be the internal economic difficulties now facing Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration. Sanctions against Iran have contributed to inflation and unemployment there. The expulsion of 1 million Afghan refugees could be seen by Tehran as a way to increase employment opportunities for Iranian citizens.
Expelled Afghans Face Difficult Conditions On Return
Afghans demonstrated over deportations at the Iranian Embassy in Kabul
May 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tehran has expelled some 30,000 Afghans from Iran since mid-April in an attempt to repatriate 1 million unregistered Afghan refugees by March 2008. Radio Free Afghanistan's correspondent in Helmand Province, Salih Mohammad Salih, traveled to Nimroz Province on Afghanistan's border with Iran to investigate the crisis. Salih spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari.
RFE/RL: Could you please describe the situation and the conditions for refugees in the border region you visited?
"Some refugees told me they were born in Iran, they grew up there, and had a life there."
Salih Mohammad Salih: Most of the refugees, who have been forced to return to Afghanistan, are people who had gone to Iran to work and earn a living; many of them are people who were born in Iran and had lived and worked there for years. Since [late April] the return of the refugees has begun and, according to figures [from Afghan authorities], up to more than 30,000 have now been repatriated from Iran -- there are about 1,700 families. Among them are women whose husbands worked in Iran, and police had come to their houses and taken them by force to their cars and then transferred them to the border. Some were detained by police and deported and they didn't even give them time to get their daily wages from their employers. Some have been separated from their families, half of their families are in Iran and the other half were returned to Afghanistan. There are women who are pregnant and have health problems. There's one woman here who was forcibly returned with other Afghans she didn't know; she gave birth here in the house of a resident of this area.
RFE/RL: Iran says those Afghans who are in Iran illegally will be sent back, but from what you're telling us it seems that among the returnee are also Afghans who had documents and permission to stay in Iran?
Salih: Some of them had residency permits but they had expired and were no longer valid; some other refugees had permits that were still valid and they could have stayed in Iran, but security forces did not pay any attention to that, and that is a huge problem.
RFE/RL: Afghan authorities have said they do not have enough resources to accommodate the refugees. Where are the refugees staying upon their return to Afghanistan? Are there any camps and other facilities in Nimroz for refugees?
Salih: For refugees who return to Nimroz, a camp has been set up by residents of this area though government officials have not cooperated with them. Clerics and [religious leaders] have called on people in mosques to help the refugees, so people have gathered food and other items and taken them to the camp for the refugees. They don't have clean water and there is a lack of proper medical care. So far the Red Crescent has set up some 15 tents for the refugees.
RFE/RL: So what happens to the refugees who are now living in this camp? How long do they stay there before they manage to find a place to stay or join their relatives in other parts of Afghanistan?
Salih: Some of the refugees have stayed in the camp for 20 days -- it is really difficult to live there in the heat. I saw for myself what a difficult life they have in the camp. But there are also people who have relatives inside Afghanistan and they come and help them. Some refugees told me they were born in Iran, they grew up there and had a life there; these people don't even know where is the north or south of Afghanistan, they don't know [the country], they don't know where to go, they don't have a house, and they don't know what to do here.
RFE/RL: Iran has also deported illegal Afghan refugees in the past, but it seems that the current forced repatriation is being applied in a tougher manner than before. What are the reasons for this?
Salih: I haven't been able to contact Iranian officials, but those who have been forced to return say that Iranian officials launched a propaganda campaign through state radio and television and they told [Iranians] that if [Afghan] refugees are expelled, then [the] economic situation [for Iranians] will improve; they will have the jobs that are currently occupied by Afghans and they will be able to [more fully] use Iran's natural and economic resources. Some of the refugees said that maybe Iran is opposed to Afghanistan's government, as Iran says Americans troops are in Afghanistan. Also, NATO forces have a presence in Afghanistan and the refugees say maybe Iran wants -- through the expulsion of refugees -- to cause a problem for the Afghan government and [international] forces that are on a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: In the past there were reports that some of the refugees who had been expelled to Iran were able to return there. Is it the same now? Have you received any reports about expelled refugees trying to return to Iran?
Salih: Some of the refugees try to enter Iran in order to bring members of their families who have stayed in Iran back to Afghanistan. Most of them do not want to go to Iran and continue their lives as before, because they have understood that Iran is serious in its drive against Afghans. Therefore, they say that it is possible that Iran will do the same in the future and the living conditions for Afghans will be tougher than before; because of that the majority of those who have been forced to return [to Afghanistan] they will do their best to create favorable conditions to work and live in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan: Effort To Change Media Law Puts Journalists On Guard
By Farangis Najibullah
Protests and counterprotests followed the Afghan attorney general's order of a raid on a private TV station in mid-April
May 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Some Afghan journalists have expressed fears that media are facing new restrictions and increased government control. The Afghan parliament is currently debating an amended media law that critics warn could signal authorities' desire to tighten their grip on news outlets.
Backers of the draft changes dismiss the criticism, arguing that limits are in place to prevent official encroachments on an independent press.
Afghanistan's media law, which was decreed by President Hamid Karzai before the country's first directly elected legislature came into existence, is widely regarded as one of the most tolerant in the region.
Many local journalists and press unions have expressed concern as lawmakers attempt to refashion it.
Hampering Journalists' Work?
Said Agha Fazil Sanjaraki, the head of Afghanistan's National Journalists Union, is among those campaigning against the media amendments. He tells RFE/RL that his group is lobbying against several specific changes to the law, which -- in his view -- would hamstring journalists.
"The media commission, which monitors complaints, has been a great support for journalists in the past," Sanjaraki says. "Unfortunately, the new law abolishes this commission. Also, the Afghan Radio and Television [broadcaster] was a public service company. Now, National Radio and Television will work under the auspices of the Ministry of Information of Culture."
Sanjaraki says the draft changes include numerous clauses on Islamic principles that are "vague and need to be clarified."
Fahim Dashti, who is editor in chief of the "Kabul" weekly, tells RFE/RL that as an independent journalist, he would be directly affected by the changes.
"The new law will provide conditions for the authorities to control the media," Dashti says. "Also, it could create ways to pressure the media and media workers. It also opens the way to possible misinterpretation of what is published in the media."
'Even If There Were...'
Government sources have dismissed journalists' deepest concerns.
The current law came into effect in 2004, when the Afghan government updated media legislation that had initially been approved in 1960s. Since Afghanistan had no parliament at the time, Hamid Karzai issued the media law in the form of a decree.
Najib Manalai is a media adviser to the Information and Culture Ministry. He tells RFE/RL that the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the parliament, has merely been discussing insignificant changes to the existing legislation. He also notes that Karzai's media decree was never debated or approved by the parliament.
Manalai rejects accusations that the government is trying to control the media.
"What the Afghan government wants or doesn't want is one thing, and what the Afghan government can or cannot do is another," Manalai says. "According to our media law, the government has no such right [to control the media]. So, even if there were someone in the Afghan government who wanted to take control of the media, they would not legally be able to do so."
Both supporters and opponents of the draft amendments agree on one point -- that the Afghan media is young and inexperienced, and thus vulnerable to errors and inaccuracy.
Shukriya Barekzai, a member of the Afghan parliament and a former journalist, tells RFE/RL Afghan journalists have a long way to go to fulfill their duties in a professional and objective manner.
"The Afghan media are not yet competent nor proficient," Barekzai says. "They are facing a lack of strategy and a lack of qualified people. Unfortunately, the media are involved in internal fighting among various political groups. Perhaps [the media] have taken that route involuntarily."
Barekzai and other critics of these draft amendments argue that any changes should create an environment to protect the journalists, not restrict them.
Afghanistan: World Bank Country Director Sees 'Staggering' Changes
World Bank's director for Afghanistan, Alastair McKechnie (World Bank photo)
May 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The World Bank's director for Afghanistan, Alastair McKechnie, says he expects the Afghan economy to continue its rapid growth -- leading to considerable improvements in people's lives. McKechnie spoke with Radio Free Afghanistan broadcaster Mustafa Sarwar on May 4 about South Asia's fastest-growing economy, and about challenges stemming from threats to public security. What follows are excerpts of that interview.
RFE/RL: You've said you expect Afghanistan's economy to continue to grow rapidly. In which sector has Afghanistan seen this economic growth?
Alastair McKechnie: The Afghan economy has grown at rates greater than 10 percent, on average, during the past five years. And this growth has come in several sectors. First of all, construction -- as the infrastructure is rebuilt and as there are high rates of investment in the future. The second area is trade -- trade with the rest of the world, with the region. And a lot of this [trade] is fueled by investment, reconstruction, and also rising incomes. And the third major source of growth is in agriculture -- partly due to the recovery from draught, but also due to a lot of small-scale investment by farmers in irrigation, in improved seeds, in looking after improving the health of livestocks, and also restoring horticulture, such as grapes. In fact, several tens of thousands of grapes were exported from Afghanistan last year.
RFE/RL: To which sector is this growth related? Is it related to the government economy or the private sector?
McKechnie: I think it's both. Part of it has been government -- or should we say public -- investment, because a lot of foreign aid is provided outside the government budget. That is essentially for public goods, such as education, sanitation, and so on. Some of it is private-sector driven, particularly oriented towards trade and consumer goods. And also it's probably true to say that there is some spillover from the illegal narcotics economy into the legal economy -- as people who have made fortunes from drugs invest in real estate, new houses, and so on.
"For those of us who have been visiting Afghanistan for the past five years, the differences between early 2002 and today are quite staggering."
RFE/RL: You were quoted as saying that soon this economy will reach double-digit growth, what does this double-digit economic growth mean?
McKechnie: Well, firstly, the Afghan economy has already achieved double-digit economic growth. It's been the fastest-growing economy in South Asia, if you look at the last five years. There's been some year-to-year fluctuation, particularly caused by agriculture as rainfall varies from year to year. But what these high rates of growth mean is that there is increasing prosperity, there is a recovery of the economy, recovery of normal business activity. And for those of us who have been visiting Afghanistan for the past five years, the differences between early 2002 and today are quite staggering -- whether it's the number of shops that are trading, whether it's the condition of buildings that have been rehabilitated, whether it's the capacity of government to implement programs, [or] whether it's the amount of traffic on the road, which to some extent is a negative aspect as well. All of these things indicate that this is an economy that's moving.
RFE/RL: In your opinion, to what extent is insecurity in Afghanistan a challenge to economic growth?
McKechnie: Well, I think it's firstly important to have an accurate view of what the security problems are and how widespread the insecurity is within Afghanistan. For example, two-thirds of the country are reasonably safe -- certainly as safe as other low-income countries. But it's also true to say that there is an insurrection in parts of the south and parts of the east, and that's a fact of life. However, what this means -- particularly the perception of insecurity -- is it is a constraint to private investment, particularly large-scale or foreign investment. There are other factors as well, such as the shortage of land, the shortage of electricity, the business environment. But when it comes to investment, perceptions count -- especially as Afghanistan is really competing with perhaps a hundred other countries for foreign investment.
RFE/RL: You talked about rapid economic growth in the Afghan economy, although we are experiencing an increasing level of unemployment and skyrocketing price hikes in the country. Why do we still have this high rate of unemployment?
McKechnie: Firstly, there is very little data available on unemployment -- or employment, for that matter -- in Afghanistan. Nevertheless there are perceptions that there is...underemployment. And I think that part of the problem is that, for many people, they don't have the security of a regular job. I think there is part-time work around. But it's essentially daily work, which is inherently insecure, particularly if people have families to support and other commitments. So we need to recognize this real problem there. Nevertheless I think that it's probably true to say that employment overall has increased substantially since the end of the Taliban regime. People even in rural areas look more prosperous, and I think [they] are generally much better off. Nevertheless there are acute problems of poverty, and also there are some problems in the labor market -- particularly because due to the collapse of the education system in 20 years of war, many Afghans do not have the skills that are needed in the recovering economy. And that is a real problem. Another problem is that several million refugees have returned from Pakistan and Iran, so that the labor supply has increased quite substantially; maybe as many as 5 million refugees have returned.
RFE/RL: And how can we provide people with employment in Afghanistan?
McKechnie: Well, I think the first thing is to ensure that public investment is directed towards investments that are labor-intensive -- that require Afghan skills. And that means may small-scale reconstruction activities -- small construction projects, rather than large megaprojects that require very highly skilled labor to implement. That's number one. Number two is to deal with the problems of skills, and this has several aspects: One is at the level of basic education, literacy; and there has been a tremendous increase in access to education. More girls, more children overall, are at schools that at any time in Afghanistan's history.
Afghan Refugees Allege Abuse From Iran Repatriation
By Ron Synovitz
Afghan refugee children in Herat, in western Afghanistan (file photo)
May 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tehran has expelled tens of thousands of Afghans from Iran since mid-April in a move Iranian authorities say is aimed at repatriating 1 million unregistered Afghan refugees by March 2008.
But Afghans affected by the campaign claim that even legally registered refugees are being forced to leave. They say those who remain in Iran face pressure that makes it difficult for them to survive.
Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta says Iran should immediately stop repatriating large numbers of Afghan refugees because Afghanistan does not have sufficient resources to help them resettle.
Spanta told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the reported expulsion of 50,000 Afghan refugees from Iran during the past two weeks is contributing to instability in Afghanistan.
"The massive expulsion of Afghan refugees [from Iran] is against the friendly and neighborly principles between our two countries," Spanta said. "It's very unfortunate that, on one hand, Iran is helping Afghanistan with reconstruction in order to build stability but, on the other hand, is expelling the Afghans en mass. This causes instability for Afghanistan. We are not able to provide the thousands of returning refugees with a place inside Afghanistan."
Authorities in Tehran say they are only expelling those Afghans who are living illegally in Iran and have failed to register their presence.
A statement issued by Iran's Interior Ministry stresses that only refugees with valid documents may stay in Iran. The statement also argues that every country has sensitivities about "illegal citizens" on its territory. It says the presence of so many Afghan refugees has created "political, social, economic, and security consequences" for Iran.
Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia to escape the wars that have devastated Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of 1979.
Iran accepted several million Afghans -- mostly Shi'ite Hazara or Sunni Persian-speaking Tajiks.
Since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Iran has been working with authorities in Kabul and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on a voluntary repatriation program.
Illegals 'Not Of Concern' To UN
Vivian Tan is a spokeswoman for the UNHCR's Southwest Asia office in Islamabad -- the office responsible for UNHCR activities in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Tan told RFE/RL that the UNHCR's mandate is to help those individuals who have the legal status of refugees. Afghan refugees in both Pakistan and Iran must therefore be legally registered in their host country to qualify for UNHCR aid.
"Anyone outside of this group who was not around to register is not of concern to UNHCR. They are not refugees," Tan said. "They are not of concern. Everybody who is not registered is considered an illegal migrant. In Iran, from what we know, the recent deportations are of unregistered Afghans. So these are people who did not take part in the registration and did not get the [reintegration] cards that were issued by the Iranian government."
But some Afghan refugees tell a different story.
Several Afghans tell RFE/RL that Iranian authorities in the past two weeks confiscated and destroyed their registration cards before expelling them from the country.
Others say their money and personal property -- even extra clothing -- was confiscated by Iranian authorities before they were forced across the border back into Afghanistan.
...But Legality Is Not Everything
Haqdad, an Afghan refugee originally from Ghazni Province, is still living in Iran. But he says Tehran's repatriation campaign makes life difficult even for those who are legally registered.
"We live in a very difficult situation here because the [Iranian authorities] detain us and send us to the other side of the border," Haqdad said. "There are even some families whose wives remain here but their husbands have been sent to the other side of the border. The Iranian officials who detain us take all the money we have in our pockets."
Agha Mussa, an Afghan refugee from Herat, in western Afghanistan, who also is struggling to survive in Iran, says many Afghans he knows have been beaten by Iranian police -- alleging there is a campaign of intimidation aimed at driving out all Afghans refugees, regardless of whether they are registered or not.
Afgha Mussa told RFE/RL that many Iranian employers are taking advantage of the vulnerability of Afghan refugee laborers by refusing to pay them wages that they are owed.
"We -- refugees living in Iran -- are under a lot pressure," Afgha Mussa said. "Our jobs are left here. The employers don’t pay our money. We are being detained and sent out of the border. They harass us and they beat us."
Tan said UNHCR officials have not heard such complaints. But she said any legitimate refugee who is being intimidated in Iran or Pakistan can get help from her organization.
"Even if you are an unregistered Afghan in Pakistan or Iran, UNHCR's doors are always open," Tan said. "So if you wish to claim asylum, you are free to come in and protest. If you have the proper grounds and you are recognized as a refugee, then we will offer you the protection that you need in the host country -- in Iran or in Pakistan."
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary confirmed that Afghan refugee families are being separated by Iran's expulsion campaign.
Beshary said those being repatriated also face other serious problems when they arrive back in Afghanistan -- including a lack of food, employment, and shelter.
"These problems are a result of a lack of a system and also haste in this work," Beshary said. "I say, once more, that we are willing to have more cooperation with our friendly [neighbor], and we hope that they will provide us assistance regarding this issue."
The UNHCR has helped provide resettlement aid to millions of repatriated Afghan refugees since the start of 2002.
That includes a six-week campaign earlier this year in which Pakistan repatriated 200,000 unregistered Afghans who had been living in Pakistan.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report)
Did Ankara Declaration Mark A Genuine Breakthrough?
By Amin Tarzi
Presidents Karzai (left) and Musharraf at their September 2006 meeting in Kabul
May 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Afghan and Pakistani presidents accepted an invitation recently from their Turkish counterpart to visit Ankara in an effort to smooth rocky relations between Kabul and Islamabad.
After a tete-a-tete and a public meeting that included their Turkish host, Presidents Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf issued guidelines to improve Afghan-Pakistani relations in the so-called Ankara Declaration.
Turkish President Ahmet Nacdet Sezer's initiative to bring together Karzai and Musharraf followed months of feuding between Kabul and Islamabad. The Afghan side had accused Pakistan of doing too little to stop cross-border infiltrations by insurgents and terrorists, or even aiding antigovernment forces in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials had countered that Afghanistan's own shortcomings have provided a foothold and allowed militants to transform their momentum into a populist movement.
According to the Ankara Declaration, the Afghan and Pakistani leaders agreed to build on a joint press statement that was issued in September 2006, when Musharraf visited Kabul. They agreed that terrorism is a "common threat" and vowed to "deny sanctuary, training, and financing to terrorists and to elements involved in subversive and anti-state activities" in either country. They also pledged to "initiate...specific intelligence exchanges in this regard."
Musharraf and Karzai committed themselves to enhancing confidence-building measures by establishing a "Joint Working Group" with high-level participation from both countries and from Turkey.
In the Ankara Declaration, Karzai and Musharraf also "expressed concern at the alarming increase in poppy cultivation in Afghanistan and underlined the connection between terrorism, drug-trafficking, and organized crime in the region."
Between The Lines
Taken at its word, the Ankara Declaration addresses Kabul's most pressing charge -- that Pakistan is providing sanctuary and training facilities for what Afghan officials describe as "enemies of Afghanistan" or "enemies of peace and security."
Notably, the text avoids Islamabad's recent insistence that Kabul put a stop to finger pointing. But the reference to the September statement indirectly highlights Pakistan's concern. At the end of his visit to Kabul at the time, Musharraf appealed to his Afghan hosts to stop blaming Pakistan for all that was taking place in Afghanistan. He said such accusations affect the Pakistani and Afghan peoples' "brotherly relations."
In the face of an increasing international awareness that some opponents of the Karzai administration and its foreign backers are supported by elements within the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, Islamabad appears to be seeking an end to the blame game as a primary strategy to quiet critics.
Pakistan's strategy is to suggest that the Taliban resurgence is not the main cause of Afghanistan's problems, but is a symptom of a lack of governance and sense of hopelessness. Musharraf angered Afghan authorities when -- less than a week after his trip to Kabul in September -- he told the European Parliament in Brussels that the "the real danger...lies in the emergence and further strengthening of the Taliban, because they have the seeds of converting and drawing the population to them and converting this into a national war by the Pashtuns against maybe all foreign forces."
In the Ankara Declaration, Pakistan was unable to include allusions to the weakness of the Afghan state as such. But it was able to link the rampant production of narcotics in Afghanistan -- a sign of a weakness on Afghanistan's part -- to terrorism.
Turkish efforts to encourage Musharraf and Karzai to resolve their differences come after more that a year of high-level mudslinging.
The mutual good will expressed in Kabul in September was short-lived. It ended promptly with Musharraf's speech in Brussels. Later, during the UN General Assembly in New York, both men pointed fingers at the other's country as the main focal point of terrorist activities. Karzai insisted that the hubs of terrorism were located outside Afghanistan's border, while Musharraf accused his counterpart of an unfamiliarity with the "environment" in which terrorism flourishes in Afghanistan.
By the end of September 2006, both presidents found themselves in Washington as guests of U.S. President George W. Bush. That meeting -- in many ways similar to the gathering in Ankara -- had all the hallmarks of peacemaking efforts involving Israeli and Palestinian leaders. In Washington, as in Ankara, while Karzai and Musharraf dined and talked, their body language reflected the ongoing war of words. It is significant that the leaders of two key states in the global counterterrorism effort neither shook hands nor spoke with each other in public.
In Ankara, Sezer lifted the Afghan and Pakistani presidents' arms in a gesture of victory. But what followed was more equivocal.
On his way home from Turkey, the Pakistani president described the Ankara Declaration as very positive. And he expressed hope that it would bring an end to the blame game.
The Afghan president's office issued a statement that borrowed directly from the Ankara Declaration but left out the section on narcotics -- Pakistan's main argument that Afghanistan should look beyond Pakistan to understand its troubles.
By viewing the Ankara Declaration through their respective prisms and leaving any discussion on the sensitive yet crucial issue of their disputed international border out of the document, both Musharraf and Karzai left the Turkish capital feeling that they had won.
But unless Karzai and Musharraf heed their own words in the Ankara Declaration as a starting point to a meaningful dialogue -- leading to genuine bilateral cooperation -- they risk allowing terrorists, drug dealers, and their allies to present themselves as the victors.