Kabul Denies Reports Of Taliban Prisoner Swap
International media reported that Taliban kidnappers freed German engineer Rudolf Blechschmidt and four of his Afghan colleagues in exchange for the release of five Taliban prisoners by the government in Kabul.
The source of those reports was Mohammed Naeem, a local administrative chief in the Jaghato district of Wardak Province.
Some media referred to Naeem only as "an Afghan official." And rather than identifying Naeem as a local administrator from a remote area to the southwest of Kabul, others wrongly portrayed his comments as a statement by the Afghan central government.
Neither Confirm Nor Deny
On October 10, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan asked the spokesman of the Afghan Interior Ministry, Zmarai Bashari, to clarify whether there had been a swap for Taliban prisoners. Bashari told Radio Free Afghanistan that he had no information and was unable to either confirm or deny the reports.
Later, after officials in Kabul were inundated with questions from journalists about the reported prisoner exchange, Naeem retracted his earlier comments. He said no Taliban had been released, but he said five imprisoned criminals had been freed -- including the father of the Taliban commander who had abducted the German and Afghans.
Today, Bashari faced a swarm of reporters at a Kabul press conference asking what kind of deal -- if any -- had been reached to obtain the release of the hostages.
"The release occurred as a result of cooperation of elders and efforts of security forces," Bashari said. "I reject reports about any deals in this case, and we do not have any information about a deal that led to their freedom."
Afghan Government Criticized
Blechschmidt was one of two German engineers abducted along with six Afghan colleagues in July while visiting a construction site. One of the Afghan captives apparently escaped, while the other German hostage, a 44-year-old, reportedly was shot by his abductors a few days after being kidnapped.
The Italian and Afghan governments were heavily criticized in March when five imprisoned Taliban were freed in exchange for a kidnapped Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo. At the time, Afghan President Hamid Karzai vowed to never again trade Taliban prisoners for hostages.
Since then, there has been a series of high-profile abductions by Taliban militants and criminal gangs in Afghanistan. Unconfirmed reports of ransom payments and prisoner releases appear to have encouraged more kidnappings in recent months despite official denials. Kabul has insisted that no ransom was paid and no prisoners were exchanged for a group of South Korean hostages seized by the Taliban in July.
Afghanistan: Reconstruction, Security Coming Slowly To Violent Helmand
But international efforts continue to transform this troubled Afghan province from a war zone to a place of peace and development.
With a large number of British troops and smaller contingents of Estonian, Danish, and Czech soldiers, Helmand has had the largest concentration of NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) troops over the past year -- some 7,000.
As part of the "war on terror," a small number of U.S. forces also operate separately against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents who use the province as one of their main bases for fighting against international forces.
And Helmand residents are upset about the level of fighting in their daily lives.
Foreign Troops Blamed For Civilian Deaths
Haji Shah Wali, a resident of Helmand's relatively peaceful Nawa-i-Barakzai district, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that foreigners -- both those in Al-Qaeda and their Taliban allies as well as the international forces -- are responsible for causing the insecurity in society. The troops kill civilians "without reason," he says. "They also do random aerial bombings and [the international troops] force people to leave their houses and to take up guns."
International media estimates of more than 5,000 deaths would make the current year the most violent in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Much of that violence has been concentrated in Helmand, where ISAF troops have fought fierce battles against Taliban insurgents.
While originally mandated to provide security assistance to the Afghan government and thereby bring reconstruction and development to Helmand, the international troops increasingly find themselves mired in a violent insurgency.
For many Helmand residents, the indifference by ISAF forces to local customs and traditions and their unwillingness at times to listen to tribal elders has contributed to the problems in Helmand.
Mullah Haji Habibullah, a Helmand tribal elder, says international forces frequently depend on unreliable local informants who sometimes lead ISAF troops to bomb or arrest the informants' enemies, who are often innocent civilians.
"They hardly listen to our tribal elders, district administrator, or police chief. They often rely on their own unreliable people [or informants]," Habibullah says. "For the past 25 years, we have been at war and we have a lot of rivalries and enemies here. And [the foreign troops] became part of it by relying only on one source. If these Americans had acted on the advice of our district administrator, the police chief, or the tribal elders, then they would have rebuilt Afghanistan by now."
Government Demands Progress
Civilian deaths in NATO's military operations targeting Taliban militants often lead to tensions between the international forces and their Afghan allies, and they contribute to a general hostility toward foreign troops. Westerners are also accused of ignoring the tribal, linguistic, and regional complexities of Afghanistan.
Helmand's soaring drug production, a roaring Taliban insurgency, and civilian casualties from NATO's aerial bombing have led to fissures between President Hamid Karzai's administration and NATO.
Many Helmand districts have changed hands between ISAF and the Taliban in the past year.
In a late-August speech, Karzai blasted the international community for its actions in Helmand.
"The international community should assist Afghanistan in strengthening its institutions," Karzai said. "This should be done in a way to empower an Afghan governor or a police chief and other institutions. Helmand's governor cannot improve things [on his own] because [the international community] took matters into their own hands in Helmand. And they gave it back to the Taliban. Now the [militants] are sitting there and Al-Qaeda roams around freely. Our friends [in the international community] need to listen to us. We are partners and our strategic vision is one and we share our successes and failures. But we can only be successful if we coordinate and if the Afghan view is listened to. If we are not listened to we will have more setbacks similar to Helmand."
ISAF soldiers in Helmand are adamant that they are making a difference.
Lieutenant John Larma, an ISAF officer in Helmand, says that ISAF deeply regrets all civilian casualties, but he insists that with its Afghan allies they are making steady progress. He cites the example of the northern Helmand district of Sangin, which last year changed hands between the Taliban and NATO but is now stabilizing and added that families who were displaced from Sangin are now returning home. "This all takes time, and things can't be changed overnight," Larma says.
Massive Aid, But What Impact?
The international community is pouring in aid dollars in an effort to help stabilize Afghanistan's restive south. Helmand is the fifth-largest aid recipient from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The most ambitious reconstruction project is the renovation of the Kajaki Dam in northern Helmand. Currently under threat by increased Taliban activity around the dam site, the project is estimated to cost some $500 million and might employ 4,000 Afghans. Once fully operational, Kajaki Dam should provide electricity to some 1.7 million Afghans.
Lieutenant Colonel Richard Eaton, ISAF's spokesman in Helmand, maintains that NATO has a long-term commitment to reconstruct and develop Helmand Province. In the short term, they are undertaking several "quick-impact projects" -- such as building bridges and helping to restore irrigation channels for farmers -- although they say they are also keeping an eye on events in the long term.
"We try to do things that will have an immediate impact and make the quality of life of people better," Eaton says. "But, at the same time it is important to understand that the longer-term projects -- schooling, education, health care, the rule of law, a really capable military force, and a police force that has the people's trust and respect -- is going to take time to develop."
Eaton maintains that Helmand's main problem -- the insecurity created by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency -- will need something more. It will need a political settlement involving all sides.
"The important thing is for the democracy to prevail and these are decisions for the Afghan people," Eaton says. "ISAF is here on a UN-mandated mission to help build the circumstances in parallel to the political process. This is a process that is going to unfold in time and it's a process of inclusion of all of those who are involved. But it can't be resolved in a day."
Afghanistan: Poor Helmand Farmers Find Themselves In Eye Of Drug Storm
Awash in some places in red poppy flowers as far as the eye can see, Helmand is thought to have produced half of Afghanistan's 9,000 tons of opium this year.
For most poor Afghan farmers and sharecroppers, poppy cultivation is a desperate survival strategy. Highly resilient to drought and disease, opium poppy is also 10 times more profitable than any other cash crop.
One Helmand farmer tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he grows opium poppies out of economic necessity. "I am 20,000 rupees [$350] in debt and I cannot earn even 50 rupees [$1] a day, so I have to plant poppies -- because I am anxious," he explains. "I know that it is a bad thing and the Holy Prophet Muhammad says that 'all intoxicants are forbidden.' But we need it [to survive] and so it is fine to plant it in a situation like ours."
Farmers Caught In Vicious Circle
The anxiety of Afghan farmers and the greed and ambitions of Afghan and international drug traffickers have turned Afghanistan into what some officials call a "narcostate." The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says this year's 9,000-ton Afghan opium crop is unprecedented in the past century and can be only compared to China in the 19th century. This year's Afghan crop alone surpasses estimated global demand by 3,300 tons.
With Helmand and the surrounding southwestern Afghan provinces in the lead, opium production shot up this year despite an increase in the number of poppy-free Afghan provinces from six to 13.
Abdul Ahad Masumi, a Helmand tribal leader, says that Helmand farmers are not part of any organized drug cartel. He says they seldom engage in smuggling, but must plant poppies out of desperation. "Over the past five years, the Afghan regime and the international community have done little to solve the problems of the people of Helmand," he says. "That left our people with little choice, and they have to plant poppies to survive."
Since the ouster of the Taliban government in 2001, the Afghan government and the international community have tried several uncoordinated and largely futile policies to combat narcotics. Although the United States is now funding the counternarcotics efforts to tune of $600 million, most efforts still concentrate on poppy eradication -- and little is being done to provide poppy farmers with alternative livelihoods.
A former Helmand governor, Mohammad Daud, says the failure to combat drugs is hindering progress in all areas. He adds that poppy cultivation and the drug trade have enabled the Taliban to stage a comeback in Helmand and stalled reconstruction. "Similar to the fact that the people of Afghanistan are the worst victims of terrorism, people in Helmand are being hounded by [the cultivation] of this evil [poppy] plant," he says.
Peasants and farmers in Helmand frequently mortgage or borrow from drug smugglers against future crops. While the practice guarantees food for families, it also makes it difficult for farmers to exit a vicious cycle.
Links To Insecurity, Crime
Haji Mahuddin Khan, a tribal leader in Helmand, says that international drug rings are the main benefactors in Helmand, while poor peasants remain chained to poppy cultivation. "The farmers have never benefited from poppy cultivation," he says. "The profits are taken by those [officials] who tell farmers to engage in cultivation but then threaten their crops with eradication. The international mafia is the main benefactor, while we are being held responsible for it and portrayed as criminals."
There are indications that Afghan opium is now increasingly being processed inside the country. This year, the estimated number of laboratories processing raw opium into heroin grew from 30 to 50.
While the Taliban have always denied links to the drug trade, poppy cultivation has increased with insecurity and the spike in violence over the past three years. Enemies of the Afghan government encourage poppy cultivation and protect farmers against eradication, and they provide protection to drug smugglers in return for weapons and funding for their war effort.
Even now in the Helmand towns of Marjeh and Nade-Ali, opium bazaars operate with impunity. In the provincial capital, Lashkargah, many new villas belong to drug lords, and locals are clearly intimidated when asked to discuss these newly affluent.
More Carrot, Less Stick Needed
Tribal leader Ali Shah Mazlumyar argues that there is a simple way to rid Helmand of poppy cultivation. "If 1/100th of the antidrug aid dollars were spent on helping poor farmers [through alternative-crops schemes], the situation would be much different -- if the government could buy their crops en masse and then sell them cheaply [on the open market]," he says. "This would be an enormous help and might solve the problem [of poppy cultivation] without the use of guns, artillery, and tanks."
Some experts have expressed similar views recently, citing the example in 2002 when Afghanistan successfully shed old banknotes and replaced them despite strong reservations within the international community.
Most experts agree that transforming a largely rural Afghan economy must be one pillar of a successful policy to combat drugs. A crackdown on drug gangs -- including jailing drug lords -- must accompany economic transformation.
Thus far, the Afghan government has failed to arrest any significant drug traffickers in Helmand or elsewhere. Most arrests have been of low-level drug couriers.
Abdul Haleem Khalid, an adviser to the Afghan Interior Ministry on counternarcotics, was unable to name a single drug baron that the government has apprehended in Helmand. But he maintains that the government is trying hard. "We are in hot pursuit of the drug lords, and we have so far nabbed a few hundred people," he says. "We have plans to prepare a list of the major drug traffickers and put them into prison."
But official pronouncements might provide little solace to those in Helmand who are impatient to see their lives change for the better.
Afghanistan's Ring Road Completion Would Benefit Entire Region
The Ring Road was conceived in the 1960s as a highway that makes a giant circle within the country to link its major cities. Secondary roads are meant to link provincial capitals and smaller towns to the Ring Road -- much like the spokes of a bicycle wheel.
But despite its name, the Ring Road has never been a proper ring. War broke out in the 1970s before the northern section of the Ring Road was built. And in the decades of fighting that followed, large stretches of the existing 3,000-kilometer highway fell into disrepair or were destroyed.
A main focus of internationally backed reconstruction since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001 has been to repair the existing highway and finish building the remainder of the Ring Road.
But it wasn't until October 2 that a loan to finance the final section of unbuilt highway was announced by the Asian Development Bank -- a stretch passing though mountainous terrain in northwestern Afghanistan near the border with Turkmenistan.
"We're providing $176 million, along with the government of Afghanistan, which is also contributing $4 million," says Brian Fawcett, the Asian Development Bank's country director for Afghanistan:
"And this will be for the road from Bala Murghab to Leman, which is 143 kilometers," he adds. "This section of road will almost complete the Ring Road. The government of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Development Bank will do [the financing for the 50-kilometer section] from Leman to Amalick. And then the complete Ring Road will be finished."
Still Much To Do
The bank describes the Ring Road as the "backbone" of Afghanistan's transportation network, and its completion will be a major milestone for internationally backed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
But Fawcett tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan it is unlikely the work will be finished by the proposed deadline in the Afghan National Development Plan, a strategy that was approved at a conference of international donors in London in April 2006.
"First, the [Afghan] government has to recruit the consultant for the project. And then, after the consultant finalizes the design of the road, then the contractor will be recruited," Fawcett says. "So I think that the work will start, perhaps, in the first quarter of 2008. And the work will take 2 1/2 years to complete."
Fawcett says the security of consultants and construction workers is a concern that the Asian Development Bank has raised with the Afghan government. He says the Interior Ministry has responded by sending additional police to Badghis Province and the northeastern part of Herat Province, where the work is to take place.
Regional Economic Impact
Niklas Swanstrom is a specialist on Central Asia and director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, an independent think tank in Stockholm, Sweden. He says that the completion of the Ring Road will be a major benefit not only to Afghanistan but also to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Map courtesy of Asian Development Bank. Click to enlarge. "The reason why it hasn't been completed is, first of all, financing. It's tremendously difficult to get good finances. And then, of course, the political situation has been very unstable. So even if you had financing, you would have a problem securing the actual construction of the Ring Road," Swanstrom says.
"The consequences of this have been very negative," he says. "Afghanistan has been a crucial factor in the whole economic equation of Central Asia. There have been estimates, for example, that the impact of [completing the Ring Road along with] all the regional network of trade would be 771,000 full-time jobs. It would be immense. It would be very positive."
Swanstrom sees the Afghan Ring Road within the larger scope of infrastructure and transportation projects aimed at improving trade ties in the entire region.
"Financially, it will be very important if Afghanistan can act as a link for the Central Asian states toward" a seaport like Karachi in Pakistan, he says. "Trade could increase tremendously. I don't think the impact will be that large in the initial stage.
"You have to connect Afghanistan with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and, more importantly, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- because that's really where the economy comes from. Then you have the Persian-speaking crescent [of Iran, northern Afghanistan, and Tajikistan]. For the Iranians, I don't think we should exaggerate the geopolitical impact of this network. On the contrary, I think the Iranians will struggle very hard to actually get the same benefits as many other countries."
Other Infrastructure Still Needed
Swanstrom says that with no railroad network in Afghanistan, completion of the Ring Road will aid Afghans enormously. But he says there are other benefits than simply making overland travel within the country easier.
"Afghanistan's exports will increase by 54 percent over the next five years," Swanstrom says. "Very much of that is through agriculture. And you will see quite substantial job creation -- long-term employment. It is also an increase in freight. Transit trade. Cotton going from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan and shipped all over the world. And, of course, if you can have oil and gas transit through Afghanistan, that's where the major gains will be made for Afghanistan in particular. "
But although Swanstrom says the development of transit corridors is "all good," he says there is one potentially negative aspect of completing the Ring Road and tying it into the highway networks of neighboring countries -- the possible strengthening of organized criminal groups in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
"With this new infrastructure development, it will be much easier for the Afghani drug lords to transport heroin and opium from Afghanistan to the rest of the region. That's something that needs to be dealt with because it's going to be very, very difficult to handle it," he says.
"We need to construct new institutions -- legal institutions. We have to strengthen the police, the military, the drug-enforcement agencies. We have to make sure that judges and political leaders are uncorrupt," he adds. "That's a huge commitment not only from Afghanistan and the Central Asian states, but also from the international community. And we haven't done much. We're looking at the restructuring of much of the Afghan institutions. That's fundamental."
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ayaz Barhar contributed to the story from Kabul.)
Afghanistan: Volatile Helmand Province Grapples With Insecurity
Its vast expanse of desert and arid mountains border Pakistan and stretch to within 100 kilometers of Iran.
At the heart of the battle for Afghanistan's future, Helmand also is inarguably the country's most troubled province.
Taliban fighters have waged a comeback, and now control several rural areas, despite the presence in Helmand of some 7,000 British troops under the UN-mandated ISAF mission.
This year's bumper crop has also turned Helmand into the world's largest opium-poppy-producing region.
But most Helmand residents simply yearn for security -- which tops their list of desires.
Bismillah, who like many Afghans has only one name, lives in the Musa Qala district, which has fallen sporadically under Taliban control.
In comments to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Bismillah echoes the sentiments of many Helmand residents.
"There is no security in Afghanistan," he says. "If there were security, why would we kill each other even though we are brothers? People are killed for 10,000 or even 5,000" afghanis -- about $100. Violence takes place in a climate of impunity, Bismallah said. "If we had security in Afghanistan, we wouldn't be in such a desperate situation."
Casualties and Displacements
Such bleak descriptions are often matched by the situation on the ground. Helmand has seen more than two dozen suicide bombings since March 2006. Enemies of the central government employ brutal tactics, such as beheadings and kidnappings, to create an atmosphere of fear.
Despite numerous NATO military operations, the Taliban temporarily captured several districts in the past year. The Dishu and Garmser districts on the Pakistani border are now largely under Taliban control.
The Afghan Ministry of Refugee Affairs says fighting has displaced some 20,000 families. Three years ago, people could move freely around Helmand without fear of violence; but now even the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, is unsafe. Civilian casualties caused by NATO bombings add to local resentment.
Helmand residents accuse the Afghan government, its international allies, and the Taliban for the worsening security situation.
"We don't have peace now. On the one hand, we have the government, while on the other [we have] the Taliban," says Helmand resident Muhammad Tayyab. "If you are carrying anything, any [gunman] can snatch it from you. Civilians are always killed in the crossfire."
Many in the Pashtun heartland of southern and eastern Afghanistan believe that the insurgency is aimed at preventing development. Others take that argument further by pointing to the ambitions of the neighboring countries.
Ali Shah Mazlumyar, a tribal leader, thinks that Helmand's strategic location is being used as a springboard to spread chaos across Afghanistan.
"The root causes of insecurity in Helmand and the rest of the Pashtun belt are not here," Mazlumyar says. "Some locals might gravitate toward the enemy, but they are a well-organized and well-funded movement who have declared jihad against the Afghan government and the international community here. All of the world's terrorists are supporting them."
Such pronouncements are indirect references to Pakistan, where many Afghans believe the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have safe havens.
But Mazlumyar maintains that weak governance is part of the problem. He says the lack of reconstruction and development is contributing to insecurity.
A poorly paid, understaffed, and lightly armed Afghan police force remains the main target of Taliban insurgents. Some estimates suggest that around 400 police officers have been killed so far this year.
Police Under Fire
But for most Afghans, the police are too corrupt to be of much help.
Lal Mohammad, a Helmand farmer, shares an eyewitness account of police corruption. "People roam around freely and nobody checks them at these checkposts," Mohammad says. "Yesterday, I saw a car full of drugs passing through one of the checkposts and the policeman on duty let them go after they paid him just 10 rupees [about $0.16] to fund his hashish habit."
Others in Helmand point to the challenges the nascent police force must overcome. Tribal elder Mazlumyar tells Radio Free Afghanistan that any honest appraisal of the police force must take some tough questions into account.
"When the police are just paid 3,000 afghanis a month...[and] when they are butchered and their beheadings are recorded on CDs and sold in the bazaars, when their widows and orphans have no help, how can you expect them to be honest and function properly?" Mazlumyar asks. "Under these conditions, it will be impossible to prevent smugglers, thieves, and terrorist sympathizers from infiltrating their ranks."
Helmand's new police chief, Mohammad Hosayn Andiwall, agrees with some of the criticism leveled at the police, but says that training new officers is an ongoing process.
"In six months, we should be able to reform the police so that people can trust them," Andiwall says. "I can assure you that I will not be part of any corruption, within the police ranks or outside them."
Corruption and inefficiency are not limited to the police force; there are corruption woes across Afghanistan. But the situation in Helmand is particularly dire and contributes to the insecurity.
At present, there is little accountability within the government. Corruption sometimes drives people to seek justice from the Taliban that is often perceived to be swift and cheap. The lack of justice also pushes many unemployed young people into the rebel ranks.
Mohammad Hosayn Shariatyar is a local journalist and analyst in Helmand. He says public officials need more integrity and the administration needs to be freed of individuals who are loyal to warlords.
"I have seen many people who cannot get justice cursing this [political] system and saying that even the Soviet [Red Army] was better," Shariatyar says.
Helmand Governor Asadullah Wafa, however, remains steadfast and pledges to transform the provincial government to enable it to serve the people.
"All officials and I will be the public's servants and not their masters," Wafa says. "We will try to control bribery, nepotism, and corruption to create an honest administration."
Such pledges are being backed by large-scale aid and development projects. Helmand is the fifth-largest recipient worldwide of aid from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Taliban and Afghan government sources have recently hinted at the possibility of peace talks.
On the Afghan time scale, however, it might be some time before Helmand sees the peace that its people so strongly desire.