Afghanistan: UN Hosting Reconstruction MeetingSeptember 23, 2007 -- An international meeting is taking place in New York to review the progress of reconstruction in Afghanistan, six years after the fall of the Taliban regime.
Officials from 18 countries are expected to attend, as are representatives of international organizations.
The meeting comes at a time when the country is plagued by a resurgent Taliban guerrilla resistance and soaring opium output.
Organizers say the talks are to focus on ways the international community and the United Nations can help the Afghan government tackle issues of security, good governance, regional cooperation, and drug trafficking.
The meeting is co-hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is due to address the UN General Assembly on September 24.
Joining them at the talks are representatives from the UN Security Council's five permanent member-- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- as well as Canada, Germany, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Turkey.
Also invited are the Asian Development Bank, the European Union, the European Commission, NATO, and the World Bank.
Participants will review progress toward implementing the Afghanistan Compact, a five-year development blueprint launched in January 2006 by Kabul and some 70 foreign partners.
Under the deal, Afghanistan promised to take specific steps in the areas of security, governance, rule of law and human rights, and economic and social development in return for military and economic support.
Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Beheen told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in New York today that discussions on peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are not on the agenda.
But he said, "President [Hamid] Karzai will highlight some key points about security, fight against terrorism, and drug trafficking. Peace negotiations are very important for us. President Karzai will hold separate meetings with President [George W.] Bush, Canadian Prime Minister [Stephen Harper], German Chancellor [Angela Merkel], and French President [Nicolas Sarkozy]."
U.S.-led forces in October 2001 toppled the Taliban for refusing to hand over Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this month, Carla Haddad from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) voiced concern about increased violence in Afghanistan.
"The armed conflict in Afghanistan has in fact continued to intensify throughout 2007, especially in the southern and eastern regions. It is also spreading geographically to the west and north and getting closer to Kabul. So the ICRC is concerned about the situation and especially about the humanitarian impact of the armed conflict on the Afghan people," Haddad said.
Opium production meanwhile reached a record high in Afghanistan this year.
Christy McCampbell, the head of the U.S. State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, said earlier this month that increased poppy cultivation has a dramatic impact on the country's economy and security.
"Opium accounts for one-third of their [the Afghan] economy, according to UN statistics. This contributes of course to the widespread public corruption, to the damages of economic growth -- of illicit economic growth, and it definitely strengthens the insurgency problems there," McCampbell said.
The UN Security Council on September 19 voted to extend for one year the mandate of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
The UN-mandated ISAF force comprises 39,000 military personnel from more than 30 nations. It operates alongside a U.S.-led coalition of about 15,000 troops and alongside Afghan security forces.
More than 160 foreign soldiers were reported killed in Afghanistan this year.
Afghan National Army Short Of Everything But SpiritThe Afghan National Army (ANA) has a long way to go before it can stamp its authority on Afghanistan's southern provinces, where the Taliban insurgency is strong. Although the ANA's morale appears to be high, it lacks everything from weapons to basic literacy skills. RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas files this report from the southern provinces of Afghanistan.
KANDAHAR, September 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It is symptomatic of some of the woes of Afghanistan that the higher the rank of the person you talk to, the more optimistic they are.
Drawing on seemingly inexhaustible reserves of pride, the Afghan National Army's top officers are anxious to drum up respect for the institution they represent -- and talk down the prowess of their enemy.
The soldiers on the ground, however, appear a good deal more guarded in their assessments, and their accounts are more in keeping with the slow progress of the ANA and its Western backers in Afghanistan's deep south.
Brigadier General Gul Aqa Nahib commands about 10,000 soldiers who make up the ANA's southern 205th Corps, which has headquarters at the Kandahar Airfield, side by side with the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF) Regional Command South.
In an interview on September 9, Nahib initially brimmed with optimism, saying the Taliban are no longer capable of defeating ANA units in combat.
"The enemy knows our abilities," Nahib said. "Before, they came to fight face-to-face with the ANA, but now they have lost that ability; they cannot come face-to-face in combat. They just have ambushes, terrorist attacks like suicide attacks, bombings, road bombings. They cannot stand up to us as fighters."
General Nahib says the ANA has beaten Taliban insurgents many times, taking their weapons and equipment. He says the four southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, and Uruzgan -- each home to an ANA brigade -- are now secure. He said he is now "very happy with the security situation."
But this account does not match the news of continued fighting southwest of Kandahar -- and constant Taliban attacks in Helmand, Zabul, and Uruzgan -- which dominated the headlines in Afghanistan in mid-September.
When challenged, General Nahib concedes that "some areas" remain where the Taliban is still active, but says they will be "freed soon." He declines to predict when.
Still Dependent On ISAF
The core of the ANA's problem, Western officials say, is that it cannot hold on to the territory won for it by ISAF. It lacks the manpower, equipment, and experience necessary.
Asked if the ANA still needs ISAF, General Nahib conceded. "I can tell you that the ANA cannot stand on its own feet yet, but it will do so in the future," he said. "We are not fully equipped yet and we do not have enough men. When we have enough men and we are fully equipped then we can beat all of them." He noted that the ANA recently conducted two operations without the support of coalition forces.
The governments of ISAF allies are currently supplying the ANA with weapons and equipment, but that process has -- by all accounts -- not reached an advanced stage. Some NATO officials complain that the Afghan Defense Ministry has yet to make the basic policy decision of whether to adopt NATO standards or not.
The ANA soldiers interviewed all said that their worst deficiency was the lack of heavy weapons and air power. This, they said, is the main factor which makes the ANA dependent on ISAF.
In Zabul Province, at Forward Operations Base Massud -- which is operated by Romanian troops -- ANA Sergeant Rahimullah Abdullah said that "if it weren't for ISAF, no one would prevent the Taliban" from overrunning the province. He said the ANA needs "rockets, PKMs [machine guns], hand guns, vehicles, RPGs, all kinds of weapons."
In neighboring Uruzgan, at the Dutch outpost of Chora, hemmed in by mountains on all sides, the relatively well-equipped elite ANA soldiers said their biggest ambition is to acquire the ability to project their own air power.
Training is another problem. There are currently 26 ISAF "Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams" (OMLTs, or "omelettes" as they are known in ISAF jargon) training ANA units across the country.
However, the number barely meets the needs of the 30,000-35,000 current ANA soldiers. The ANA is projected to grow to 70,000 men by the end of 2008, requiring 100 of the 20- to 30-person OMLTs, not an easy task for Western governments struggling to find troops for Afghanistan.
But there are some problems that are even more elementary. ISAF Brigadier General Ryszard Wisniewski, in charge of coordinating some Western training efforts, said in a video interview from Kabul on September 17 that a flagship project to attach 65 ANA officers to ISAF central and regional headquarters is in danger of foundering because many of these hand-picked officers cannot read or write.
"The biggest problem that we met is language skills," Wisniewski said. "Sometimes we have some examples of people who are not able to even read or write in Dari or Pashto." That leaves ISAF with the challenge of running training efforts when it cannot even recruit suitable candidates, he said.
If there is one commodity with which the ANA appears to be well-supplied, it is spirit. The ANA soldiers' morale appears to be high, and Dutch, Australian, and Canadian officers had only praise for the troops.
Some western officials sound a note of caution, however.
One leading ISAF figure pointed out that the ANA troops in the south overwhelmingly consist of non-locals -- mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, with a greater motivation to fight an almost exclusively Pashtun insurgency.
Brigadier General Nahib, a Dari speaker from the country's north, confirms that although the ANA is "a symbol of national unity," its policy is to send Pashtuns away from the country's south to serve elsewhere.
Should NATO Rethink Its Strategy In Fighting The Taliban?
KANDAHAR, September 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- To a man with a hammer all problems look like nails, the old saying goes. Faced with a determined foe in Afghanistan, NATO, the world's preeminent security organization, has done what it does best -- bringing overwhelming force to bear against its opponent.
But NATO has also formed a picture of its enemy which may owe more to its own preconceptions than the reality on the ground.
NATO officials like to portray insurgents in Afghanistan -- grouped under the name of the Taliban -- as a straightforward hierarchy in which Islamist zealots preside over opportunistic foot soldiers that they recruit using money, intimidation, or other means.
The "Tier One" zealots -- as they are known in NATO terminology -- provide the plan, the "Tier Two" foot soldiers carry it out.
In an interview conducted at the Kandahar Airfield on September 12, the deputy commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Canadian Brigadier General Marquis Hainse, reiterated the traditional view: the Taliban can only be beaten by force.
"We are fully cognizant of the fact that the way the Taliban are recruiting some of their personnel, it's in some ways through terror and in some other ways it's trying to get them by giving them money -- quick money, so that they can survive" in the short term, Hainse said. "Our way to counter that is to confront the Taliban firmly at every occasion, to make those young people realize that regardless of how [much] money they give them, there is no future for them with that. The Taliban will not offer them a future; the Taliban, in the end, might just offer them more and more casualties."
Undercurrent Of Resentment
But there is evidence that the "Taliban" insurgency is a more complex phenomenon that needs a more nuanced approach. Its backbone appears to be a "Tier Three" type of fighter -- a local Pashtun with local grievances, ignorant of ISAF's true purpose. He has a two-way relationship with the higher ranks of the insurgents, who provide the money, equipment, and weapons, allowing the fighter to take out the resentment caused by an invasive and misunderstood Western military presence.
This is the view expressed by Hajji Gul, an elder in the Taliban-infested Dand district in Kandahar Province, in an interview on September 10.
Hajji Gul argues that the Taliban is essentially a flip side of the fiercely independent-minded Pashtun society. He says using force against it spawns resentment, and will lead to new recruits going to the Taliban.
"If you work with us, if you work with the government, if you work with the district and local people, [Taliban fighters] should never come to these districts, they should never destroy security here," he said. But "if you just bombard us, if you just fight the Taliban, the Taliban is going to increase in numbers. You should talk to the Taliban and make them happy."
Hajji Gul also criticizes the civilian fatalities that have sometimes accompanied ISAF operations. He extends his criticism to NATO's aggressive methods, its daily high-speed forays in armored convoys through local neighborhoods, which scare the locals and put their lives at risk. NATO says its cautionary measures are necessary for force protection.
Hajji Gul argues that NATO's aggressive methods "steer our people to go and connect with the Taliban." He says it is difficult to convince people under such circumstances that the foreigners in their country are here to rebuild, not to fight to "get the country in their hands."
My many conversations with Afghan National Army soldiers in the south reinforce the view that an overwhelming majority of the Taliban insurgents are not itinerant mercenaries, but members of local communities which, for some reason, resent the ISAF presence.
A Multilayered Conflict
In Oruzgan Province, which has seen heavy fighting in recent years, Dutch officer Captain Tjip "Chip" Prins told me there is no such thing as a single, uniform "Taliban."
"You cannot describe the Taliban as [just] 'the Taliban'" Prins said. "There is one form of Taliban being a local farmer wanting to settle a score with his neighbor; and on the other side of the entire spectrum is the Taliban commander actually believing in what he is doing and controlling a group of several other people."
Prins argues these "multiple layers" need to be addressed differently. He said more than half of the fighters are locals who believe they are defending their livelihoods, or are following guidance they receive from their mullahs and elders, reacting against corruption among local officials, or seeking redress for other local or personal grievances. He says ISAF must not use a "one size fits all" policy for all local problems.
Prins also says that whenever possible the Dutch contingent tries to talk to the locals and avoid resorting to violence.
In Helmand in February 2007, Estonian soldiers also said that their enemy "farms by day and fights by night."
Hajji Gul, the Dand elder, says that while foreign sources provide the resources, the motivation for much of the insurgency is wholly local -- and fuelled by NATO itself.
"The supplies, the equipment, the money, the vehicles are all coming from foreign countries -- I don't know which countries...[but] it might be Pakistan," he said. But at the same time, he continued, "NATO is also helping and assisting the Taliban because the Taliban are all from this area, all from Afghanistan, especially here in Dand district. The people who are destroying the security situation, they are all from Dand district."
There are people within ISAF who tend to take a sympathetic view of the sentiments expressed by local elders such as Hajji Gul. One is Nicholas Lunt, a spokesman for NATO's Senior Civilian Representative to Afghanistan, Ambassador Daan Everts.
In an interview in Kabul on September 8, Lunt indicated that ISAF should adopt a more discriminating approach to the security situation in the south of Afghanistan, and argued for a switch of focus from military means to a more effective police presence that would be more closely integrated with local communities.
"I think there's widespread recognition that while military force is important, security in the domestic sense is the critical issue facing Afghanistan at the moment. And that security is almost certainly going to be best delivered by police and nonmilitary security forces like border police," Lunt said.
However, the problem with relying on the police is that the service is both extremely underfunded and corrupt. Officials say corruption has permeated Afghanistan's entire Interior Ministry, implicating even the minister.
Lunt also agrees that Afghanistan will not be stable before all its major stakeholders feel their interests are represented. Like Hajji Gul, Lunt advocates direct negotiations with any insurgent leaders prepared to join the political process, within the constraints set by the Afghan Constitution.
Much will hinge on the outcome of the local elections, if and when they are held. Currently, the government in Kabul receives little if any feedback from the regions. The provincial governors are appointed directly by President Hamid Karzai, and their administrations remain weak and underfunded, contributing to a disconnect between the central government and district-level authorities in the restive southern provinces.
U.S. Worried Iran Sending Chinese Weapons To Taliban
Negroponte confirmed the U.S. concerns over China's weapons deals with Tehran after a 10-ton weapons cache was discovered in the western Afghan province of Herat.
The cache found in Ghurian district, near the border with Iran, included artillery shells, land mines, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers with Chinese, Russian, and Persian markings on them.
Britain's Foreign Office has also confirmed that it has complained to Beijing about Chinese-made HN-5 antiaircraft missiles confiscated from Taliban fighters who were captured or killed by British Royal Marines in Helmand Province. Beijing has said that it would investigate allegations that the weapons were forwarded to the Taliban through Iran.
When asked in Kabul on September 11 about the Taliban's use of sophisticated new Chinese weapons, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte also suggested that Iran has been a transit point for Chinese arms deliveries to the Taliban.
"A subject that I have discussed with the Chinese in the past is the fact of their weapons sales to the country of Iran and our concern," Negroponte said. "We have tried to discourage the Chinese from signing any new weapons contracts with Iran. We are concerned by reports -- which we consider to be reliable -- of explosively formed projectiles and other kinds of military equipment coming from Iran across the border and coming into the hands of the Taliban."
In June, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Washington had no evidence proving a direct role by the Iranian government in smuggling weapons to the Taliban. But Gates said Washington suspects Tehran is involved.
"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.
Not Without Tehran's Knowledge?
Alex Vatanka is the Washington-based Iran analyst for Jane's Information Group, which publishes "Jane's Defence Weekly" and other journals about the weapons industry and global security issues. Vatanka says it will remain unclear whether the Ghurian weapons cache is linked to the Taliban until Afghan or U.S. authorities announce details of their joint investigation.
But the presence of Chinese weapons so close to the Iranian border is the strongest evidence to date suggesting Tehran has had at least an indirect role in arms shipments to Afghanistan.
"Whether the government or somebody in Iran could be buying arms from China and, without Tehran's knowledge, ship it over to Afghanistan -- on that volume of weapons -- I find that extremely unlikely," Vatanka says.
"I can only see that happening if somebody pretty senior and in an influential political position in Iran decided to facilitate that without letting everybody in the system know about it," he continues. "But they still had to be involved somewhere in the state machinery. We're not talking about rogue elements [in Iran]. Baluchi drug traffickers can't pull that kind of thing off."
Many analysts have noted that Shi'ite Iran and the Sunni Taliban had been firm enemies since 1998, when the Taliban regime controlled most of Afghanistan and executed nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif.
But Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Islamic militancy in the region and author of the book "Taliban," says that times appear to have changed. Now, with U.S. forces deployed some 60 kilometers from the Iranian border at Shindad Airfield in Herat Province, Rashid says Tehran and the Taliban have a common enemy.
"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. They have long-running relations with many of the commanders and small-time warlords in western Afghanistan," Rashid says. "I think Iran is playing all sides in the Afghan conflict. And there are Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns 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."
Still, Vatanka says it would be "almost irrational behavior" for Tehran to supply the Taliban with weapons. He says such a move would almost certainly lead to a negative domestic political backlash for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government.
For that reason, Vatanka says he is eagerly awaiting the assessment of Afghan and U.S. investigators about whether the arms in the Ghurian cache were stashed away by the Taliban or by one of several rival militia factions in Herat Province.
"The question is, what would get even a faction within Iran to make that type of a decision? Maybe you have excellent business ties between the Iranians and the Afghans on the other side -- not necesarily the central government in Kabul -- but local leaders in Herat who turn around saying, 'You Iranians are building roads and infrastructure here. You are setting up shops and factories. But for us to be able to guarantee that we can protect your business interests, we'll need to receive some arms.' That's an argument that one could put out: that the Iranians are essentially supplying not the Taliban, but Afghan partners to secure Iranian businesses and interests in western Afghanistan," Vatanka says.
To date, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to publicly support allegations of a direct link between Tehran and weapons shipments to the Taliban. "We don't have any such evidence so far of the involvement of the Iranian government in supplying the Taliban. We have a very good relationship with the Iranian government. Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today," Karzai has said.
Vatanka says that as long as Karzai maintains that position, skeptics around the world will dismiss suggestions from Washington that Tehran is supplying Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
"From a U.S. point of view, if the insurgency in Afghanistan is essentially escalating based on Iranian assistance, then what Washington really needs to do is to provide far more evidence that points to that -- and get Mr. Hamid Karzai in Kabul and the regional governments in Afghanistan to back the U.S. up when it makes these claims against Iran," Vatanka says.
After the U.S. military failed to find the weapons of mass destruction allegedly being stockpiled in Iraq, Vatanka says, "the skeptics out there are saying, 'These [new allegations] are being made up by the U.S. to justify another war with Iran' -- which might not actually be the case. Iran might be involved. But because of the lack of evidence, the Iranians are saying, 'Who else is backing up the U.S. allegations?'"
Afghanistan: 'Bush Bazaar' Offers A Taste Of Western Life
Like other sellers there, Ajmal stores his goods during the night at a warehouse that is watched over by armed security guards. In the morning, he moves it to his stall.
Before the sun has time to warm the ground, dozens of similar traders have transformed the area into what Kabul residents call "Bush Bazaar."
Named after the U.S. president, the market is where Afghans can buy cheaply priced supplies that apparently have been gleaned from foreign military bases.
It is an unplanned economic effect of the foreign military presence in Afghanistan.
The Bush Bazaar is in central Kabul on a road leading to the military bases for most countries in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
Ajmal explains that the bazaar was named spontaneously and unofficially.
"It was ordinary people who gave this name to our bazaar," he says. "When Soviet forces were in Afghanistan, it was called 'Brezhnev Bazaar.' Most everything sold here at that time was made in Russia. Now we sell mostly American-made goods. So people are calling this place 'Bush Bazaar.'"
Wearing blue jeans and an Afghan military jacket, Ajmal says the Bush Bazaar has become the lifeblood for dozens of traders who set it up after the collapse of the Taliban regime:
"It was a very dirty place before," he says. "We didn't have a job so we came here. We cleaned this place up and we set up this market. In the beginning, there were only about 20 of us."
From Toiletries To Beer
Karim-ul Allah is a tall, 50-year-old seller at the Bush Bazaar who wears a turban and has strands of white hair in his long beard. He says much of what he sells comes from Afghans who work at Bagram Airfield north of Kabul or at other foreign military bases to the east of Kabul.
"This is foreign product," he says. "It comes from those Afghans who work with foreign troops as interpreters or workers. They bring all this food and other things here to sell. Sometimes Afghans receive food as gifts from Americans and they don't eat it. They sell it to us. Sometimes foreigners distribute food as aid in provinces where the people are not used to eating such things. So they sell it back to us."
Employees of foreign nongovernmental organizations have complained to RFE/RL about seeing food aid they've brought to the country appearing for sale within 24 hours -- suggesting some who sell western products may have ties to Afghanistan's nascent black market.But in many instances, packages of food sold at the Bush Bazaar are close to their expiration date -- suggesting they may have, indeed, been thrown out or given away by foreign troops.
Karim-ul Allah says Afghan officials now monitor the market to ensure that Afghans who are unable to read the expiration dates are not buying outdated products.
"In the past, we used to sell some expired goods. But not now," he says. "Every thing you see around here contains the correct expiration date. Supervisors from Afghanistan's Ministry of Public Health come here quite frequently to check the food and drinks."
Afghan law forbids Muslims from buying alcohol. But cases of beer -- somehow, apparently, taken out of foreign military bases or shops for foreigners -- also can be found at the Bush Bazaar.
Whatever the supply sources may be, one thing is certain. The Bush Bazaar is a place where ordinary Kabul residents can buy authentic Western products that are more expensive or unavailable elsewhere.
Zelgai, a young Afghan man, says that is why he regularly shops here.
"I am here at Bush Bazaar to buy food and other things," he says. "I regularly come here, twice or three times a week. I buy meat. You can find very good food here, full of protein and energy. It is not beyond the expiration date and the quality is good."
Some Afghan athletes from as far away as Herat and Kandahar say they find protein supplements at the Bush Bazaar which, in combination with their training routines, help to build muscle mass.
Soaps, shaving cream, and even over-the counter medicated shampoos also are sold there.
One example of a food that has become popular at the Bush Bazaar is a Louisiana Creole dish called 'jambalaya.' It is sold in tin cans as well as packages from U.S. military rations known as "Meals Ready To Eat," or MREs.
The canned jambalaya is a rich soup stock created from vegetables, meat, seafood, and hot spices. Rice is added to the broth and the flavor is absorbed by the grains as the rice cooks.
But jambalaya was never intended to be sold or distributed to Afghans. Unknown to many locals who have been buying it, one of the meats in jambalaya is pork sausage -- a food that the Koran forbids Muslims from knowingly eating.
Karim-ul Allah says he tries to warn Afghans about eating food that contains pig meat. But he says that doesn't stop him from selling it:
"Yes. Why not?" he says. "Here we sell many kinds of food that Muslims don't buy. Our costumers sometimes buy food for their dogs -- for example pork, but not for themselves. And [non-Muslim] foreigners buy these kind things because it is not forbidden for them."
But most of the items sold at Bush Bazaar are not forbidden for Muslims -- and that brings back many Afghans and foreigners looking to experience tastes of the West.
Afghanistan: Man Felt 'Duty' To Deliver Korean Hostages To FreedomAugust 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Haji Zahir Kharoti is an Afghan tribal elder from Ghazni Province who served as a mediator between the Taliban and the Afghan government during the six-week South Korean hostage crisis.
Kharoti played a key role in establishing the face-to-face talks
between South Korean negotiators and the Taliban -- talks that led to
the release of the last 19 hostages on August 30. Moreover, with the
exception of the two South Korean men killed by the Taliban, Kharoti
personally drove all of the hostages to freedom in his own car --
transporting them in small groups from the hands of their captors to
officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Asmatullah Sarwar interviewed Kharoti about the experience immediately after he had delivered the last group of hostages to freedom.
RFE/RL: As a result of your efforts, the Korean hostages have been transported to freedom. How do you feel about this now that they are free?
Haji Zahir Kharoti: I'm very happy. In fact, my goal was to do work that benefits the Afghan people, the government, and all Afghans. I have heard in recent days that some Afghans doing business in South Korea -- and even some Muslims praying in the mosques there -- have been confronted by Koreans asking how Afghan Muslims can take hostages. And I've heard that Afghan Muslims in Korea have had shoes thrown at them because of this.
That is why I felt pain about what was happening and felt I had to do something to help them. We did this for the sake of those Afghans who have been confronted in South Korea. I felt this was my duty -- to do my best to solve this problem.
RFE/RL: You knew from the start that this was a dangerous task because you have had to have the trust of both sides -- the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. Were you afraid of being accused by one side or the other of having a bias?
Kharoti: I was in contact with the government of Afghanistan -- especially Afghanistan's National Security Department. And they gave me permission to do this job. That's why I was involved with this. The first time I was going into Taliban controlled territory, I had the support of Afghan tribal leaders. And through these tribal leaders and elders, I could contact the Taliban and talk to them directly.
[The Taliban] spoke with us and listened very well to what we were saying. They were really cooperating with us. They are human. They are Muslims. They didn't create barriers to communication. And [the Taliban] also gave me permission to resolve this problem in the best way. And I told them that I am doing this for the sake of the people of Afghanistan. I told them I was in contact with the government of Afghanistan. And they said I had permission to talk with the government as well.
RFE/RL: In the beginning, the Taliban was demanding the release of Taliban prisoners. But the Afghan government refused. The government refused to even talk directly with the hostage takers. What was the reaction of the Taliban at that time, and how did they eventually agree to release [21 of the 23] South Korean hostages?
Kharoti: [At the end of the crisis] I was talking to the South Korean negotiators in person and then speaking with the Taliban by telephone. The Taliban finally understood that the South Korean government had no influence over the Afghan government about the release of Taliban prisoners. Therefore, they came to the realization that there was no reason to pressure the Korean negotiators on this issue. They also realized in the end that it was not good that they had abducted women. It is against Islam. Therefore, they decided in respect of Islam to accept another deal with the Korean government negotiators.
RFE/RL: When you were speaking to the Korean negotiators, which language did you use? Which language did the Koreans use when they spoke with the Taliban? Were they talking through a translator?
Kharoti: The representative of the government of [South] Korea in these negotiations was speaking to us and to the Taliban in Persian. Sometimes he was speaking to the Taliban in English as well.
RFE/RL: Who was supervising the negotiations?
Kharoti: We sometimes spoke outside of the headquarters of the provincial reconstruction team [PRT] headquarters [in Ghazni Province]. The Koreans were staying there. [At first] they were coming out to my car [outside the compound]. We would sit in my car and talk. And sometimes I was going inside the PRT to speak with them. Once the Koreans were speaking directly with the Taliban [at the local headquarters of the Afghan Red Crescent Society], nobody was inside the room except those two sides. I sat outside of that room while those talks were going on. Red Cross and Red Cresent officials and I were not involved in [the face-to-face] talks [between the Taliban and the South Koreans].
RFE/RL: What was the behavior of the Taliban like when you were involved in the earlier negotiations -- especially in mid-August, when they released two South Korean women who were ill?
Kharoti: They were behaving very well when they released the ill South Korean women. They had very good manners. They were very polite. In the last group of Korean women to be freed, there was one woman who had been given a Muslim name by the Taliban -- Halema. She was speaking in Persian. She had spent two years in Afghanistan with time in Mazar-e Sharif, so she spoke Persian. At the moment that this last group of women was being released, these women and the Taliban were saying goodbye to each other as if they were members of the same family. It was very good.
RFE/RL: When they were going to be released, we saw that all of these ladies were carrying similar handbags. Was it a gift to them from the Taliban?
Kharoti: No. But the Taliban did give each of them a colorful veil made of silk. And one of the Korean hostages -- a man -- was using his mobile phone to film the moment when the Taliban gave these silk veils to the women.
RFE/RL: How did you get the idea to serve as a mediator in this hostage crisis?
Kharoti: My family was feeling very sad for these hostages. This is our family history. We are always trying to be mediators and to help resolve tribal problems, family problems, and the release of prisoners -- problems like this. I always help people. I am a businessman. I have a trading company. We are doing reconstruction work. And I am also buying and selling real estate. I have given people rides in my own car when they were in need without asking for money. I do this for God's sake. And that's why I had the idea to help resolve this crisis.
RFE/RL: When these hostages were released, you drove them in your car in small groups to the Red Cross headquarters in Ghazni Province, what was that experience like?
Kharoti: The first two ladies, when they were freed and we told them they would be handed over to the [South] Korean government, they were happy and they were laughing. And when they faced the journalists and the officials from the Red Cross, they just started crying. They cried very much. They were very happy. The second, third, and fourth group -- when they were released -- they also were happy. But they weren't as ecstatic as the first two ladies.
Massive Afghan Opium Production Hits Neighbors
The country's surging drug output appears not to be destined for the markets of Europe and North America, but instead for Afghanistan's neighbors. Observers warn that the trend threatens to pull neighboring states into the vicious cycle of drug dependence.
Most of the illegal opiates comes from southern and eastern Afghanistan, particularly Helmand Province, where the Taliban militia insurgency is at its worst.
UNODC director Antonio Maria Costa notes that the Taliban has reversed its religious edict of July 2000, which banned poppy cultivation, and is now profiting from the drug trade.
The level of opiate use in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan is about twice the global average. But the hardest-hit country is Russia.
Presenting the agency's report on the Afghan drug industry, Costa said in Kabul on August 27 that "what used to be considered a sin is now being encouraged."
"When there is violence, guerrillas, insurgency -- all of that creates a climate of lawlessness. The rule of law breaks down and criminal activity -- in the case of Afghanistan, opium cultivation...tends to flourish," Costa said.
Drugs Destined For Central Asia
Afghanistan is now the source of some 95 percent of the opiates reaching the big world markets, meaning mainly North America and Europe.
But UNODC researcher Tomas Pietschmann told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the rise in production has not been matched by a parallel increase in demand on the major world markets.
Pietschmann points out that the market for opiates in Western Europe is stable, or even declining, and is similarly stagnant in North America. So where is this massive new supply of opium going?
Experts don't rule out that growers, distributors, and dealers are stockpiling some of the surplus for future sale. After all, opium can be stored for 20 or 30 years without losing its potency.
But that wouldn't account for all the drug supplies. Pietschmann says Afghanistan's neighbors may account for increasing consumption, partly because the large-scale transit of drugs across their territories has already brought increased levels of local addiction:
In Uzbekistan, Pietschmann says, about 0.8 percent of the population aged between 15 and 64 use opiates -- about twice the global average, which is 0.4 percent. Kyrgyzstan's level of opiate use is the same, and Kazakhstan's stands at 1 percent.
Opiate usage is also seen to be rising in Iran and China, and lately there are indications that the same is true of India. But hardest-hit of all is Russia, where the UNODC estimates that up to 2 percent of the population uses opiates.
Pietschmann estimates that the real increase in consumption this year lies to the south, toward Pakistan and Iran. The increase is less dramatic "in the countries north of Afghanistan, simply because production has declined in northern Afghanistan," he said.
Farid Tukhbatullin, head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, described the increased opiate production as "bad news" for everyone -- particularly for Turkmenistan, because it has a very long border with Afghanistan.
In remarks to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Tukhbatullin noted that Turkmenistan is one of the transit states for Afghan drugs, both to the CIS countries and onward to Europe.
(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Farruh Yusupov and Guvanch Gervaev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)
Tajikistan/Afghanistan: Road Bridge Opens With Aim Of Strengthening TradeNIZHNY PYANJ, Tajikistan; August 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The presidents of Afghanistan and Tajikistan inaugurated today a new bridge linking the two countries.
Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon and Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai said the new structure over the Pyanj River, which was financed by the United States, will strengthen trade in the region.
The 700-meter structure straddles the Pyanj River between the ports of Nizhny Pyanj on the Tajik side and Shir Khan Bandar in Afghanistan.
The Tajik head of state, Emomali Rahmon, told those gathered for the ceremony in Nizhny Pyanj that the "bridge of friendship" will first of all "strengthen the old and vital relations of two countries and two peoples."
But he also expressed concern that Tajik and Afghan authorities need to prevent the bridge from facilitating "all kinds of inadmissible activities, such as human, drug, and weapons trafficking."
Karzai said the bridge will not only link "brothers and sisters." He said if proper regulations are established, "without any doubt that bridge will serve for the prosperity of our people."
Afghanistan and Tajikistan have agreed to create free economic zones on both sides of the bridge and ease customs and visa regimes to promote trade, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported.
The ceremony was also attended by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, who said the bridge will become the "widest connection" between Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and the rest of the world.
Gutierrez welcomed the opening of the bridge, saying, "it will be opened 24 hours a day with customs and border facilities on both sides, and the capacity to handle 1,000 vehicles every day."
There was only an intermittent ferry service across the river previously.
The United States provided most of the funding and know-how for the $37 million project. Other contributors include Norway, Japan, and the European Union.
Customs infrastructure is expected to become operational later this year.
Afghanistan: Women's Soccer Wins Support In First Games Abroad
The Afghan women play in the final of a tournament in Pakistan today and then have three games next week against Pakistan's national team.
Playing as guests this week in the Women's National Soccer League tournament in Pakistan, the Afghan national women's team advanced to today's final in Islamabad by winning three out of five qualifying games.
The team includes schoolgirls in their early teens who would be eligible to play in youth leagues in many countries.
Women's sports competitions are frowned upon by conservative Islamists in the region that spawned the Taliban, but that hasn't dampened the spirits of the Afghan players or their supporters.
Hundreds of Afghan refugees who live in Pakistan turned out this week to cheer for the Afghan girls -- some of whom wear head scarves along with their red jerseys and full-length trousers.
When the Afghan women scored their go-ahead goal against Balochistan to qualify for today's final in Islamabad, the Afghan fans jumped to their feet and chanted "Long live Afghanistan!"
The coach of the Afghan team, Abdul Saboor Walizadah, is responsible for organizing women's soccer after the fall of the Taliban regime. He says he is thrilled about the performance of a team whose players had no previous international soccer experience.
The Big Time
In fact, Walizadah tells RFE/RL that most of the Afghan team had never played on a regulation-sized soccer field before the tournament in Pakistan.
"These games are important for the Afghan women's soccer team because it is the first time these women are playing a game outside of the country and in Pakistan," Walizadah says. "On one hand, our team didn't have any international experience. On the other hand, most of the games we play in Afghanistan have either been indoors or were not played on a full-sized pitch."
Walizadah says the lack of experience for the Afghan women is not a result of security concerns for female athletes. Rather, he says, war-torn Afghanistan simply doesn't have the sports infrastructure to support the women's game.
"We don't have any particular [security] problems with playing outdoors," Walizadah says. "But in Kabul, we don't have a lot of full-sized pitches. The National Stadium in Kabul is busy with the [men's] soccer league. And sometimes the [men's] national team is practicing there. We didn't want to suddenly put the women there on a full-sized pitch. So we let them start playing soccer games on smaller pitches."
Walizadah says some conservative Afghan government officials have tried to prevent the women's team from playing or traveling abroad.
"In Afghanistan, there have been problems for women's soccer," Walizadah says. "Before we came to Pakistan, there were some people who were creating barriers for the women's team. There even have been some sports officials in Afghanistan who were not interested in allowing the women to play games abroad."
After the tournament final, sports officials in Islamabad will select the best Pakistani players from the league to create Pakistan's first all-women's national soccer team. That team will play three games against the Afghan women on August 26, 27, and 29.
Observers from soccer's international governing body, FIFA, are to attend those games and give both the Afghan and Pakistani teams a ranking among women's teams from around the world.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Omid Marzban contributed to this story from Prague)
Afghanistan: In Hostage Talks, NGOs Walk Tightrope
Terrorists or militants take a civilian hostage. But the government won't negotiate, saying that giving in to their demands would only encourage further abductions. So the life of the hostage is left hanging in the balance.
Enter the NGO.
In times of war, such as in Afghanistan, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been used to fill the vacuum left by reluctant governments and talk to hostage takers, such as the Taliban.
The results have been mixed, at best. But then again, nobody ever said hostage negotiation is an easy business.
"Getting involved in such things can be very tricky," says Carlo Garbagnati, vice president of Emergency, an Italian NGO that runs hospitals and first-aid points across Afghanistan, including in the violent southern regions that have witnessed a dramatic resurgence of the Taliban insurgency.
"It's never clear. Nobody ever wants the same thing, even among the kidnappers. So, getting involved in such a complicated thing is tough, and it's not even what we do for a living," Garbagnati says.
Because of its unique presence and contacts in those areas, the NGO was asked by the Italian government in the spring to help secure the release of Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a well-known Italian journalist whom the Taliban had taken hostage.
Garbagnati says Emergency gladly accepted, since the NGOs raison d'etre is about saving lives.
No 'Rewarding' Terrorists
But he acknowledges that an NGOs outlook is not always the same as a government's. As former White House spokesman Scott McClellan put it last year in discussing U.S. policy on talking to terrorists: "We put them [terrorists] out of business. The terrorists started this war, and the president made it clear that we will end it at a time and place of our choosing."
So it came as little surprise that the United States denounced the deal that Emergency brokered to secure Mastrogiacomo's release. Under the deal, five jailed Taliban militants -- three of them high-level -- were freed in exchange for the reporter.
The United States, Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands all complained that the deal put NATO troops in danger and rewarded kidnappers.
It also was seen as a blow to the prestige of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who reportedly signed off on the deal, but later vowed publicly that there would be no more deals with terrorists.
Indeed, Garbagnati says that in the talks, the Taliban seemed more interested in sullying Karzai's reputation than in securing the release of its own prisoners or receiving ransom money.
"They didn't want to know anything about money. It irritated them to talk about it," he says. "They exclusively sought the release of their prisoners. But did they really care what or how many prisoners were released? Or was it really more about winning some political game with the Karzai government? The latter point was probably it."
Carry-Over Effect On Korean Negotiations
In recent days, it's seemed that the Mastrogiacomo affair has hung over the talks South Korean officials have conducted with the Taliban in a bid to win the release of 19 civilian aid workers.
Afghan officials have spoken little about the talks. Ghazni Province Governor Merajuddin Pattan told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan this week that officials had allowed the Koreans to meet with the militants.
"We haven't met with [the Taliban] face-to-face. On the request of the Korean delegation, to secure the release of the Korean hostages, we have given the Taliban the chance of face-to-face talks with the Korean delegation," Pattan said. "Otherwise, they are always hiding in holes."
Apparently, that's all the government has been willing to concede so far.
Indeed, on August 18, the Taliban said the talks had failed and that they are now deciding the fate of the 19 Koreans. A Taliban spokesman said the Korean negotiators apparently did not have the power to persuade Kabul to meet demands for the release of its members from prison.
Kabul, this time, appears unwilling to give in to the Taliban's demands.
Garbagnati acknowledges that governments, especially in times of war, have a different set of priorities than NGOs:
The NGOs' "approach values life differently than does, say, a government. It's understandable," he says. "Governments have armies. They make war. They have a horizon of values that is different, even if they want the same thing. I believe the Afghan government would be quite happy if the Korean hostage situation were resolved favorably. But while it's willing to do some things, it's not willing to do many other things."
The Taliban, who originally abducted 23 Koreans, have killed two of them and released two others. Now they are threatening that their final price will be very high if their demands aren't met.
Garbagnati knows what he would do. "The idea [is] to try and obtain salvation -- which means that a person, or in this case, about 20 people, rather than dying, live," he said. "Well, it's in the DNA of an NGO to try do what it believes in."
It seems that in such situations, there are two choices, and both are unacceptable.