Kabul Investigates Reported Militant Movement From Iran
Afghan officials have confirmed they are investigating intelligence reports about gunmen in two pickup trucks crossing into Afghanistan's western Farah Province from Iranian territory on June 18.
Increased Military Activity
Colonel Rahmatullah Safi, an Afghan border guard commander for three provinces that border Iran, told the German news agency dpa on June 19 that about 20 armed men had crossed the border from Iran.
DPA quoted Safi as saying that intelligence reports indicated the gunmen were heading to a part of Farah Province that has seen escalating militant activity in recent months.
Safi made similar comments in an interview that was broadcast by Afghanistan's Ariana TV.
But when questioned by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan shortly after the German news agency published his remarks, Safi said he could not comment while an investigation is under way.
"We had some reports that two vehicles entered our country from the border areas," he said. "There were only some reports. We have not seen them personally. We have ordered our forces to control such movements. However, we did not find any other incidents."
Safi also has told Western and Afghan journalists that remnants of Iranian ammunition were discovered on the ground in Herat Province after fierce clashes last weekend between Taliban and Afghan police. He said five antitank mines with Iranian markings were also seized at the border two weeks ago.
But Safi told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that there is no evidence proving the weaponry has been sent by the Iranian government.
"So far we don't have any evidence which would satisfy our government and the international community that our neighboring countries have been undermining our country’s [laws]," he said. "We would need evidence to prove it. We have ordered our military units to check the reports. We will see what results we are getting after the investigation and assessments in the area."
Earlier this month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected allegations that the Iranian government may be sending weapons to Taliban fighters in an attempt to destabilize his country.
"We don't have any such evidence so far of the involvement of the Iranian government in supplying the Taliban," he said. "We have a very good relationship with the Iranian government. Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today."
But U.S. officials have accused Tehran of shipping advanced weaponry to militants who are trying to bring down Karzai's government.
Earlier this month, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said Washington has "irrefutable evidence" that Iran's Revolutionary Guard is arming Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
'Difficult To Believe'
But later, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington has suspicions but no hard evidence of a direct link between the Iranian government and weapons used in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
"I haven't seen any intelligence specifically to this effect, but I would say, given the quantities we are seeing, it is difficult to believe that it is associated with smuggling or the drug business or that it is taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government," Gates said.
Tehran on June 21 categorically denied that it was sending any aid or weapons to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Iran's state news agency, IRNA, quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari as saying that the allegations are "so unfounded and irrational that independent officials" in both the United States and the United Kingdom has assessed the claims as "unsubstantiated and unreal."
Karzai Under Attack
Jean MacKenzie, the Afghanistan country director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says Karzai and his administration may be downplaying the issue in order to maintain good diplomatic relations with Tehran.
"Hamid Karzai is in a very difficult situation...at present," MacKenzie said. "He is under attack from all sides within Afghanistan -- people in the government who are not supporting him, a new political front dedicated to undermining Karzai's position and overthrowing him if possible, and then, of course, he has got the Taliban always making problems. Karzai needs all the friends he can get in the international sphere. His relationship with Pakistan is quite troubled. So I think he does not want to make any more enemies on his border and he is trying to keep the relationship with Tehran on as even a keel as possible."
MacKenzie says she is unsure if Karzai or his administration would publicly announce any "irrefutable evidence" that proves the involvement of Iran's government in weapons shipments to Taliban fighters.
"We have got reporters who are trying to run down the weapons link," she said. "There are many reports, much more than anecdotal evidence, that weapons are coming into Afghanistan from Iran. Specifically, into Herat and the other western provinces -- but mostly into Herat. It is very difficult to get people to go on the record on such a topic as weapons shipments, particularly when it involves a foreign government."
(Contributors to this report include RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Rashteem Qadiri in Herat and RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah in Prague.)
Taliban Threatens More Attacks In Kabul
The Taliban's threat to increase attacks in the Afghan capital comes just days after Kabul experienced its deadliest ever suicide bombing -- a Taliban-linked attack on a police bus that killed 35 people and injured more than 50.
The announcement of new Taliban tactics also follows months of counterterrorist operations by NATO in southern Afghanistan that have killed top Taliban commanders and prevented militants from sustaining their threatened spring offensive in that part of the country.
The Taliban has managed to briefly seize several district centers in remote parts of some. But it has not been able to hold those districts for long.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan interviewed Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed today by telephone from an undisclosed location near the Afghan-Pakistan border.
"We are considering the impact of our operations to determine which have been the most effective," he said. "We are now bringing pressure on Kabul because [our] enemy is concentrated there."
A spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, Zemery Bashary, told RFE/RL today that Afghan security forces are preparing to meet the Taliban threat of increased attacks in Kabul.
"We are focusing much more on different places, especially on the routes that lead into Kabul, places inside of Kabul city itself, and other places that are vulnerable to attack," he said. "We are working on new plans that consider the possible threats and we are launching operations with that in mind. We hope we will have fruitful results -- and better results in Kabul city, especially in preventing suicide bombings, which have had a very negative impact on the minds of the people of Kabul."
Lieutenant Colonel Maria Carl, a spokeswoman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, told RFE/RL today that NATO will further increase its cooperation with Afghan security forces to meet the threat.
But Carl says Taliban statements will not change NATO's overall military strategy.
Carl says Afghanistan is in the midst of its "so-called fighting season" and that what is now taking place is exactly what NATO had predicted early this year -- an increase in suicide bombings and more "desperate attempts" by the Taliban to "present the illusion that they are stronger than they really are."
The main focus of NATO's strategy this year has been in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban had threatened to launch a spring offensive using thousands of militants.
The Taliban has managed to briefly seize several district centers in remote parts of the Helmand, Farah, and Kandahar provinces.
But it has not been able to hold those districts for long. And the cost to the Taliban for those attacks has been high, with NATO and U.S.-led coalition air strikes killing dozens of militants whenever they concentrate their forces.
Several senior Taliban military commanders -- including the infamous, one-legged Mullah Dadullah -- also have been killed while trying to carry out attacks near the strategic Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province.
NATO has said that its own offensives in Helmand and Kandahar provinces this year have been aimed at pushing militants out of mortar and rocket range from the Kajaki Dam.
Important Energy Source
The dam is the largest reconstruction project in Afghanistan. When its electricity-generating turbines and power lines are repaired, it is expected to provide electricity to some 2 million Afghans as far away as the city of Kandahar.
Construction engineers originally had planned to start repairs on the main turbine last summer. But they are still waiting for the fighting in Helmand Province to subside enough to move into a workers' camp near the dam.
Still, with NATO recently declaring success against the Taliban around Kajaki, workers are now preparing to build a 40-kilometer access road that links the dam to the town of Gereshk on Afghanistan's main ring road.
Nevertheless, fierce fighting continues in other parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan with the Taliban continuing its tactic of seizing remote districts in areas where there are few foreign troops or Afghan security forces.
In the northern part of Kandahar Province overnight, Afghan police lost control of the remote Ghorak district to militants -- just hours after authorities had retaken the neighboring district of Miya Mishin from militants.
There also have been fierce clashes in neighboring Oruzgan Province, with fighting since June 16, killing more than 100 people.
(Contributors to this report include RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Hamid Mohmand and Fahima Hosa in Kabul and Mustafa Sarwar in Kabul).
Afghanistan: NATO Focuses On Reducing Civilian Casualties
De Hoop Scheffer says talks in Brussels today between NATO defense ministers and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak are aimed largely at ways to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
In recent days, de Hoop Scheffer has said that without concrete action to reduce civilian casualties, NATO's mission in Afghanistan is at risk of losing support from the Afghan people, the parliament, and even Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.
"The Afghan people and government, with the active help of the international community, have made immense progress," de Hoop Scheffer said. "What is now needed is to help create the circumstances where progress can be sustained and reinforced."
The International Committee of the Red Cross says NATO-led forces have killed dozens of Afghan civilians this year with air strikes against armed groups that were sometimes carried out without enough precaution for nearby civilians. It also says Taliban guerrillas and their Al-Qaeda allies are responsible for many civilian deaths -- and have a responsibility not to put civilians at risk or to target them.
There are no official figures on civilian deaths in Afghanistan. But a study by the Afghan government, its key foreign backers, and the United Nations suggests that more than 3,700 people were killed by fighting in Afghanistan in 2006. The majority appear to be insurgents. But it is estimated that some 1,000 civilians were killed last year by both Taliban attacks and NATO air strikes.
NATO Assistant Secretary-General John Colston says the alliance is concentrating on four issues related to civilian casualties. Two key areas would help prevent civilian casualties. The other issues focus on how Afghan and NATO officials work together to investigate civilian casualties and compensate survivors.
"Firstly, to ensure that indeed our rules of engagement provide for a proportionate use of force which minimizes the risk of collateral damage -- of civilian casualties. Secondly, that we take this forward in a coordinated way so the Afghan national security forces, [the International Security Assistance Force], and [Operation] Enduring Freedom are operating in a coherent and coordinated fashion to minimize the risks of any misunderstanding," Colston says.
"Thirdly, if incidents do happen, that we are able to investigate them properly in close cooperation with the Afghan authorities. And fourthly, that when incidents tragically do happen, that we are able to address the consequences of such action through our humanitarian relief efforts," he adds.
Many Funds, Few Funders
In Washington, a nongovernmental organization is calling on NATO ministers to back up their public statements about humanitarian relief efforts with real funding that will help Afghans harmed by NATO combat operations.
The group, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), notes that two programs already exist to help Afghan civilians who are accidentally harmed by U.S. and NATO attacks: that is, if they are injured, killed, or suffer property damage.
In late 2006, after NATO took command of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, countries in the alliance created the Post-Operations Humanitarian Relief Fund to compensate people immediately after they have suffered harm.
But only five of NATO's 26 member countries reportedly have donated to that fund.
The United States also established and funds the Afghan Civilian Assistance Program to rebuild victims' lives. But the United States remains the only donor to that project.
Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of CIVIC, says NATO ministers will miss a golden opportunity to defeat the Taliban's public-relations machine if they leave Brussels without pledging compensation and aid to ordinary Afghans caught up in the fighting.
Holewinski also says the best way to help innocent Afghan civilians is for NATO countries to contribute to a single, unified NATO trust fund -- rather than for each country to operate its own compensation scheme.
"What we don't want to see is each country taking it upon themselves to compensate and aid civilians," Holewinski says. If that happened you are "going to have it done differently all across the country. Some families will get more than others. Some families won't get anything at all, depending on where they are located. So what we need is one unified program. That means collective funding and uniform guidelines to make sure that everyone who is harmed gets the help that they need."
Improving Accuracy Of Attacks
Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan and director of New York University's Center on International Cooperation, says NATO's first priority should be on how to avoid civilian casualties in the first place.
That means taking steps to ensure that NATO forces don't launch air strikes on the basis of inaccurate information provided by Afghan factions trying to settle long-running feuds that are unrelated to the war on terrorism.
It also means improved communication between Afghan government forces and NATO to prevent attacks on targets where Afghan troops are aware that innocent civilians reside.
Rubin agrees with Holewinski's warning about too many compensation funds being run by different NATO countries.
"There should be a single unified system because otherwise it will be very confusing," he says. "Even for illiterate Afghans to have access to a single unified system would be difficult enough. If you expect them to have to figure out the different procedures for different national systems, then it is hopeless. That will just make the situation worse."
De Hoop Scheffer and NATO defense ministers say civilian deaths caused by NATO operations are in a "separate moral category" than deaths caused by Taliban suicide attacks and roadside bombs.
De Hoop Scheffer says that is because Taliban attacks are "indiscriminate" while he says NATO does everything it can to avoid civilian casualties.
Still, there is agreement within the alliance that the growing number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan is causing anger toward NATO forces in the country -- and against Karzai's government.
Afghanistan: NATO Focuses On Training, Minimizing Civilian Casualties
NATO is increasingly faced with a dilemma in Afghanistan.
On the one hand, NATO's backing is crucial to extending the authority of President Hamid Karzai's government beyond Kabul and containing the Taliban insurgents in the south and east of the country.
A Battle For Popular Support
On the other hand, NATO has been unable to subdue the insurgency by military force alone, and leaders of the alliance now fear it may start losing popular support in the country as a result of mounting civilian casualties.
The answer to this dilemma, reiterated today by NATO's defense ministers in Brussels, is to try to get the Afghan National Army and other security forces on their own feet as quickly as possible.
Speaking after the meeting, the NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance needs to redouble its efforts in training and equipping the Afghan security forces.
"We have, together, I think, come a long way, but we need to do more," he said. "More to train and equip the Afghan National Army (ANA) so [that] the Afghan National Army can do what all armies do -- be responsible itself [for its country's security]."
De Hoop Scheffer said that troop levels in the NATO-led International Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF) are now at more than 40,000 men, up 10,000 since the beginning of the year.
More Troops Needed
But NATO is now increasingly more concerned about securing sufficient training for the ANA. The alliance is asking member states to contribute Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs), each comprising between 16-20 men, to help train ANA units. NATO officials say they expect to have more than 40 OMLTs in operation by early 2008. Currently there are said to be fewer than 20 OMLTs, and these have been overwhelmingly U.S.-contributed.
A "force contribution" conference in Belgium last week saw additional offers from five to six countries, but de Hoop Scheffer today said he still is "not satisfied."
It would take more than 100 OMLTs to adequately cover the entire Afghan army.
NATO's increasingly intensive focus on training was today welcomed by Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who attended a portion of the Brussels meeting.
"The only sustainable way to provide security in Afghanistan is to enable Afghans themselves to defend the nation as we have done for thousands of years," he said.
After talks with the 37 ISAF ministers, Wardak said the ANA will "in the near future" become responsible for physical security in Afghanistan and NATO will limit itself strictly to a training and mentoring role.
Winning The War?
Wardak gave an upbeat assessment of the current security situation, saying the Taliban has suffered heavy casualties and lost key commanders. He said there has been no expansion of Taliban influence in the country and that the insurgents have been unable to isolate Kabul. He also said there has been "no spring offensive" by insurgents.
However, NATO officials said a number of ministers today and on June 14 spoke of the need to bolster public support for ISAF both within Afghanistan and the troop contributors themselves.
In recent months, Afghan civilian casualties have become a particularly worrying headache for NATO.
'Different Moral Categories'
De Hoop Scheffer today blamed Taliban tactics for this.
"[The Taliban] are -- of course -- trying to achieve that we [lose] the hearts and minds of the Afghan people," he said. "We're still supported by a large majority -- I find out every time I get there. But, of course, they're waging this indirect war against us by exploiting civilians, by using them as human shields."
De Hoop Scheffer said the "bar is high" for NATO in terms of making sure it avoids collateral damage, but noted that NATO and the Taliban operate in "different moral categories."
ISAF [and] NATO [do] not indiscriminately kill people," he said. "That's what the Taliban does -- roadside bombs, suicide bombers. They [account for] by far the most innocent civilian casualties in Afghanistan."
De Hoop Scheffer said NATO defense ministers today agreed to a number of measures designed to minimize the impact of military operations on the local population. The measures include taking greater care in planning and carrying out operations; more effective coordination between NATO, the U.S.-led coalition, and the ANA; ensuring timely investigations of any incidents that occur; and greater allied contributions to humanitarian relief funds.
Afghanistan: Workers Still Await Security Clearance To Repair Kajaki Dam
The international troops are trying to keep the area around the Kajaki Dam safe enough for workers to complete repairs so the hydroelectric facility can provide electricity to some 2 million people.
British and U.S. forces are promising millions of dollars in aid for the volatile Sangin district of Afghanistan's southern province of Helmand. But they say the aid will only be delivered if tribal elders help prevent Taliban fighters from returning to the area after NATO's spring offensive there.
About 100 district elders were told by U.S. and British military officers on June 7 that construction workers will not come to Sangin to build hospitals and roads -- or to repair the nearby Kajaki Dam -- as long as locals continue to support Taliban fighters.
In December, Britain's top commander in Afghanistan announced that the Taliban had been "cleared" from the Kajaki area so that construction workers could return in the spring. But that claim proved premature when Taliban fighters in February seized nearby towns and continued to launch mortar and rocket attacks on the dam.
Since then, the mountain valley to the north of Sangin has been seen as a key -- both tactically and symbolically -- to controlling southern Afghanistan.
In March, NATO launched a major offensive to force the Taliban away from the dam.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer explained that the reconstruction of Kajaki's main turbine would show millions of people in Helmand and Kandahar provinces that foreign forces are in Afghanistan to help improve their security and living conditions.
"When the turbine in that dam is [installed], it will give power to 2 million people and their businesses," de Hoop Scheffer said. "It will provide irrigation for hundreds of farmers. And it will create jobs for 2,000 people. The Taliban, the spoilers, are attacking this project every day to [try to] stop it from going forward."
Sangin has been largely quiet since the start of June when NATO cleared the Kajaki valley with a combined U.S.-British assault -- Operation Axe Handle.
The operation's British commander, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Carver, told the elders at Sangin last week that forcing the Taliban back was the easy part. He said the more difficult part is to make sure the Taliban do not return.
Still On Hold
Amid those concerns, NATO has not yet given clearance for civilian workers to move in and start repairs at the Kajaki Dam.
Carl Abdou Rahmaan is the acting mission director in Afghanistan at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) -- the organization that is funding Kajaki's reconstruction.
Rahmaan told RFE/RL today that although fighting has prevented workers from setting up their base camp, some aspects of the project are moving forward.
"In light of the military activities there, we have adjusted our schedules and we have moved forward with the project," Abdou Rahmaan said. "We have identified those aspects of the project where we could begin and continue work, and we are moving forward with them. The schedule that we are working with now does not impact negatively on the overall schedule because we will be moving forward with putting in place routine capabilities to deliver materials and supplies to the campsite. We will be moving forward with the road construction. And the plan is to move forward with the transmission line."
When completed, the transmission line would stretch some 190 kilometers from the dam to the city of Kandahar. But Rahmaan said workers must first complete the roads needed by construction workers and security forces to link the dam to the country's main highway -- the so-called ring road that links Kabul with Kandahar and Herat.
"The plan now is to build a construction access road from the ring road up to Sangin to enable us to move materials up toward the dam," Abdou Rahmaan said. "We have a major program, our provincial-roads program, that is planned to link the ring road to the provincial capitals. And then we have a secondary roads program that will be moving down to the district level. This [construction] road is primarily linked to the Kajaki dam project. It is being financed with the resources that would normally be associated with the provincial roads project."
USAID officials hope that residents of Kandahar will start receiving electricity from Kajaki's repaired turbine by early 2008. But to reach that goal, work on the turbines would have to start during the next two months.
Iran: Poker-Faced Amid Allegations Of Interference In Afghanistan
Tehran has not been shy about the fact that it can make life difficult for the United States in Iraq, and elsewhere, when the occasion arises.
Iran seems to be playing a familiar game of creating quagmires and then offering its adversary a way out as a bargaining chip.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said recently that "Iran does not intend to provide circumstances whereby the occupiers can end their occupation gracefully, nor do we approve of what the Americans did in Iraq."
Tehran sounds as though it is trying to strengthen its hand -- and conversely weaken Washington's -- in the context of its discussions with the United States.
The Islamic republic has sought advantage in its dealings with the United States by demonstrating that it can destabilize Afghanistan with ease and on multiple fronts.
Until very recently, most Afghan government officials and the Afghan public would have pointed to Pakistan as the neighbor meddling in their country's affairs and supporting the insurgency. But early this year, reports began to surface of alleged Iranian intrusions into western Afghan airspace and of suspected camps inside Iran where opponents of Afghanistan's central government were allegedly being trained. Kabul, its hands full with Pakistan, initially tried to downplay suggestions of Iranian interference. The signs became harder to ignore when U.S. and NATO military sources claimed to have discovered weapons of Iranian origin inside Afghanistan. Questions about Iran's motives began circulating. Why would Tehran support Afghan clients with weapons that are traceable back to Iran? If it could easily send anonymous weapons, why wouldn't Iran do so?
The forced expulsion of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees from Iran also sent shock waves through western Afghanistan, and sparked a humanitarian crisis. Some 85,000 Afghans were forced to return to a land that could hardly absorb them. The expulsions also sent a message to Kabul. Without breaking international law, Iran flexed its muscles and demonstrated its influence over Kabul's ability to govern and the inadequacy of Western reconstruction efforts.
Stronger Hand Than In Iraq
Iran arguably holds a stronger hand in Afghanistan than in Iraq. In the 1980s, even as the Iran-Iraq War raged, Iran was playing host to more than 1 million Afghan refugees and cultivating strong political and military alliances with several fronts inside Afghanistan. Some of Iran's closest allies in the Afghan power structure are now in positions of considerable authority in Kabul. Unlike in Iraq, the Iranians also can infiltrate Afghanistan with relative ease, since inhabitants of eastern Iran share many common traits -- not limited to language -- with their western Afghan neighbors.
If Iran's past behavior is any indication, the actions in Afghanistan are not coincidental. Traceable weapons and airspace violations might serve as reminders that Iran is watching -- ready, able, and willing to engage if necessary. Should Washington and its NATO allies maintain their pressure on Iran -- on its nuclear program, for instance, support for terrorism, or human rights -- Iran might prompt some difficult moments for them. Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta described Iran's refugee expulsions as part of Tehran's pressure on Kabul to resist attempts by NATO to formalize its military presence in Afghanistan, to align with Tehran over "Iran's nuclear issue," and to ensure Iran's access to water.
The refugee crisis has become a legal pressure point, and the political ramifications have been severe for President Hamid Karzai's administration. The impeachment of Foreign Minister Spanta, one of Karzai's principal supporters, has sparked a constitutional crisis. Iranian supporters within the Afghan parliament led the impeachment call on the grounds of Spanta's failure to prevent Iran from its intended course. While Spanta remains at his post pending a Constitutional Court decision, the legal and political battle between the Karzai administration and the Afghan parliament is far from over.
Iran clearly has no intention of holding back when it sits across the table from the United States in Baghdad. Instead, it appears to want to up the ante.
Afghanistan is an easy bet on Iran's part, but it is keeping its cards hidden. Tehran can point to its cooperation with Washington since the Taliban were ousted. But it has also shown that it can contribute to Afghanistan's difficulties. Which card will it play?
U.S. Claims Iranian Weapons Found
The United States has stepped up accusations that Iranian-made weapons are increasingly making their way into Afghanistan. more
Refugee Returns Spark Humanitarian Crisis
Iran has sent tens of thousands of Afghan refugees back to a country ill-prepared to accept them. more
U.S.: Afghan Jews Keep Traditions Alive Far From Home
The focal point for Afghan Jews in New York is the congregation Anshei Shalom, which is also a spiritual home to Jews from Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Russia, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.
Binyamin Pinchasi, a jeweler by trade, was born and raised in Israel. He has never been to Afghanistan, but both of his parents grew up in Kabul. They still have fond memories of growing up in the Afghan capital more than 50 years ago.
Pinchasi, who appears to be in his early 30s and speaks a little Dari -- which along with Pashto is one of Afghanistan's two main languages -- says he feels a spiritual connection to the country, though only a faint one.
"Some connection yes, a little bit," he said. "I think if we go to visit there, we're going to feel some more."
Like most congregants at Anshei Shalom, Pinchasi helps support Simanto, the last Jew in Kabul. This year -- like every year -- they sent Simanto a package for Passover on April 1 that was nearly 27 kilograms of grape juice, matzo and oil -- all kosher -- that cost $650 to ship to Kabul.
Pinchasi, who came to New York as a teenager, has lived in New York for about 13 years. Anshei Shalom, he says, is the place where he finds comfort and spiritual guidance.
"We're coming here almost every Sabbath, every Saturday," he said. "During the week we're coming here at least three or four times...sometimes it's every day. You feel it like you see all the people, all the [Afghans], you feel the tradition by the praying, and it's different."
Jonathan Abraham is also a member of the Anshei Shalom Synagogue. His parents left Afghanistan in the late 1940s. He was born in Italy and raised in Israel. Abraham speaks neither Dari nor Pashto, but he comes to the synagogue every week. Sermons here are conducted in Hebrew, which he speaks fluently.
"The idea is to carry on the tradition that for many-many years our parents and their parents tried to preserve and keep in Afghanistan where they were kind of isolated between a lot of Muslim countries and Russian [Soviet] countries that didn't always encouraged them to keep their tradition," he said.
Abraham says that when living in a free country where you can openly practice your religion it is even more important to keep traditions alive to ensure that the hardships one's ancestors experienced were not in vain.
Abraham says that he would like to visit Afghanistan one day when the country is not so troubled. But he says that Afghanistan was only a stop in the Jews' travels around the world.
"Afghanistan was just a station for the Jews who were exiled from Israel thousands of years ago," he said. "So, we weren't really Afghans by definition, we just lived over there. We respected the rules of the country and leaders and the king, and whoever was in charge. We are very grateful for the time we had over there but right now we're in a different place."
Jack Abraham, who was born in Afghanistan and lived there until the age of 11, is the president of Anshei Shalom. He claims that it is not the only Afghan synagogue in the United States. Abraham says that each Sunday between 30 and 40 people attend the service.
'Winds Of Change'
Approximately that many -- all men -- were present during the service on June 17. There are separate compartments for women on both sides of the spacious and well air-conditioned prayer room but women, Abraham says, usually do not attend Sunday services, they come for prayers separately.
"They don't have to pray with us, they can pray at home, they don't even need to pray," he said. "In our religion the women have gotten a higher, much higher level of spirituality than men because they give birth. As such, they're not required to pray like men."
Anshei Shalom is in a lush, almost suburban area of Queens. But they've moved three times, Abraham says, since initially establishing the first synagogue in a basement in 1976. The current one-story building has housed the synagogue since 1983.
Afghanistan's Jews, Abraham says, began moving out of the country long before the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.
"There was a wind of change; we felt the wind of change before the Soviets came in," he said. "We were feeling the wind of change in the 1960s. The changes were that the government was sending their students to schools in Russia [Soviet Union]. My mother is Bukharian, we ran away from the Russian Revolution to Baku [Azerbaijan], to Turkmenistan, to Bukhara [Uzbekistan], and then they passed the Amu Darya River back to Afghanistan. My father is Afghan; my mother is Bukharian. So, when we saw in the 1950s and 60s [that] Afghan students from a Muslim country [were] going to Russia [Soviet Union], we knew that the wind of change was going to come. Those kids were going to be somehow or another infused with socialism and communism and repression. So, our people started leaving already."
Abraham, who came to the United States to study in 1962 and decided to stay, says that he is very proud of his Afghan heritage. Abraham speaks fluent Dari and has a special place in his heart for the only remaining synagogue in Kabul -- it was built by his father in 1964.
Feeling At Home
"We never had persecution in Afghanistan," he said. "And the government was very helpful to us. If there was any kind of a thing happening out on the street, they would inform the Jews 'Take it easy, don't go to work' on these particular days because people were talking negative, and they would put police outside of our doors for protection. So, I'm looking at it as being fortunate, I'm grateful, I'm proud, I've never, ever hid the fact that I was born in Afghanistan. Never."
Abraham's father relocated to the United States in 1969, before the synagogue in Queens was established. After the Taliban government fell in Afghanistan in 2001, Abraham paid for the partial renovation of the Kabul synagogue, which by then had fallen into poor condition.
He says that the caretaker of the synagogue, Simanto, does not want to relocate to the United States but would rather carry on as the last member of his religion in Afghanistan.
"I talk to him but [Kabul is the] place [where] he feels at home," he said. "He's by himself, all by himself in a compound over there and he lives a life, breathes the air, he is totally alone, all by himself in that land."
Abraham says that he talks to Simanto several times a year and that they will continue to support him as long as he needs help. After the repairs were done three years ago Simanto no longer had to climb into the synagogue through a window.
Afghan Child Laborers Miss School, Face Spiral Of Poverty
I'm fixing this bicycle, so I've just unscrewed these handlebars," Hasib tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "I've been working here for the past three years. I had to learn how to do this work. My hands would get hurt very badly at first, until I learned how to do it. I got burned until I learned how. I had to work a lot to learn and become someone."
Like many Afghan children who must work to help their families survive, Hasib says he hopes he will be able to go to school in the future.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says economic difficulties in Afghanistan force one in three school-age children to work in order to help their families survive. As a result, many are missing out on a basic education.
School enrollments are up dramatically in Afghanistan since the fundamentalist Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001, but Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission warns that the prevalence of child labor is creating a generation of illiterate Afghans and that many will be trapped in a spiral of poverty.
Roshan Khadivi, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in Afghanistan, tells RFE/RL that Hasib's story is not unusual. She says many Afghan children are being caught in an inescapable spiral of poverty because they are missing out on an education. Khadivi says the issue of child labor in Afghanistan is a complicated one that cannot be separated from the country's economic and security challenges.
"Afghanistan has one of the highest proportions of school-age children -- age seven to 12 -- in the world," Khadivi says. "So despite successes, you obviously have a lot of remote areas in Afghanistan where children do not have access to school. A lot of them have to work to support their families. Also, a lot of these children who go to school face another challenge of staying in school. Because of the economic hardships facing them and their families, some of them are forced to drop out."
Back To School
UNICEF is trying to help impoverished Afghan children get an education. Khadivi says that for children who are forced by poverty to become laborers, the first step is simply to get into a school where they can learn to read and write.
"We are still dealing with a large number of children who are not going to school," Khadivi says. "A lot of them do not have any sort of skills. Some of them obviously were involved in the conflict; they were child soldiers. And now we are trying to reintegrate them. So the problem is huge. But steps are being taken forward. Some of these kids who are former child soldiers are being reintegrated into society through learning how to read and write, through classes where they are learning to do some carpentry work, or also learning other skills. So their drive is there. But the security [conditions] -- and also the economic hardships -- make it difficult for all families to really be involved."
Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission agrees. It calls the situation for child laborers in Afghanistan a grave concern.
The commission says a large number of Afghan children are subjected to the worst forms of labor -- and that the high number of children employed in vehicle repairs and metal workshops represents Afghanistan's harsh reality.
The commission says Afghanistan's next generation is seriously threatened by the trend, which is manifesting itself through an increasing number of street children, groups of children used by adults for begging, and an "inconceivable" number of children exploited in activities ranging from carpet-weaving to the narcotics trade.
"Thirteen-year-old Wahidullah says the hours he spends making teapots and water containers at a metal shop in Kabul only leave him time for a few hours of school each day.
"I am working in this metal shop," Wahidullah says. "I get a monthly wage of 1,000 afghanis [about $20]. I come to the shop early in the morning and work here until 9:00 a.m., then I go to school. After having lunch at home, I return to the shop. My father is ill. He can't work, and I have to work. My older brother also is ill. My uncle, who was living with us, used to help us a bit; but not anymore because he has moved to another place. There are 11 people in my family. I am 13 years old."
The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), an independent research group, says its research shows that most Afghan parents want an education for both their sons and daughters. But it concludes that Afghan families often are constrained by poverty. And in provincial regions, it says social pressures frequently prevent parents from sending young daughters to school. Instead, many children are sent on the streets to help their families survive.
Ten-year-old Amanullah is among them. He spends his days collecting small pieces of wood and blackish seeds that he burns inside a tin can. Walking the streets as an "espandi," Amanullah waves the tin can at passersby in the belief that the smoke will protect them from curses and bring them good luck. In return, some people give Amanullah small amounts of money.
"I make 50 afghanis a day [about $1] and take some bread home," Amanullah says. "I live under a tent along with my father, mother, five sisters, and five brothers. As the eldest son, I do the routine. My father does not have a job. He is capable of doing work. But when he goes to the city seeking a job, people tell him that he is too old to be employed."
Amanullah's younger brothers also work in the streets, begging and selling bottled water, rather than going to school. All say their dream is to someday be able to go to school.
In November, the London-based Oxfam International charity reported that some 7 million Afghan children -- more than half of the country's young people -- do not go to school.
In the same report, titled "Free, Quality Education For Every Afghan Child," Oxfam notes a fivefold increase in school enrollments across Afghanistan since 2001. That means about 5 million Afghan children are now getting an education. But Oxfam warns that "poverty, crippling fees, and huge distances to the nearest schools" prevent many parents from sending their children to get an education.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Safia Hasass contributed to this story from Kabul)