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Afghanistan Report: October 19, 2007

Fallout From Karachi Bombing Felt In Afghanistan

By Ron Synovitz

A casualty of the Karachi blasts is carried off

October 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Between Karachi and Kabul stand the vast deserts and mountains of Balochistan. But news of the double blast that killed more than 130 people in the Pakistani port city -- an attack aimed at former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- was heard loud and clear 1,000 kilometers away in the Afghan capital.

With the governments in both Islamabad and Kabul battling the resurgent Taliban movement on both sides of their border -- and Al-Qaeda using their frontier regions as a safe haven -- dramatic events like the bloody suicide attack on October 18 invariably have an impact on Afghanistan.

Likewise, the spiraling of events in Afghanistan has a spillover effect in Pakistan.

In Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, himself a constant target of Islamist militants, condemned the attack. “This proves, once again, that Afghanistan and Pakistan and our international friends must focus the strongest attention in the war against terrorism," Karzai said.

In recent months, the Taliban, with significant support from militants in tribal areas across the border in Pakistan, has been intensifying its insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The result has been a rising number of suicide bombings and guerilla attacks, with casualties among civilians, Afghan government forces and NATO troops rising as the Taliban bids to reassert its Islamist agenda over the territory and to topple the U.S.-backed government of President Karzai.

Intensifying Battle

Pakistan, meanwhile, has been waging its own military campaign in tribal regions such as North and South Waziristan and along other border areas of the Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan. For tribal and cultural reasons, those areas have significant links to the Taliban. It is also there that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding.

“It's a global conflict, of course, but it is also a regional conflict. And within that region, Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasingly functioning as a single, highly-closely linked political system.” -- Barnett Rubin

“It's a global conflict, of course, but it is also a regional conflict,” Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University, said shortly after news of the attack against Bhutto in Karachi, which came just hours after she had returned to the country after eight years of self-imposed exile. “And within that region, Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasingly functioning as a single, highly-closely linked political system.”

The blasts targeted Bhutto's motorcade just as the former prime minister, greeted by hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic supporters, was launching her political comeback with pledges to end military rule and fight extremism. Bhutto herself was not hurt, but members of her Pakistan People's Party reportedly were killed.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, the country's army chief who seized power in a bloodless coup eight years ago, condemned the attack as a "conspiracy against democracy." Musharraf had helped pave the way for Bhutto’s return by agreeing to an amnesty for her on corruption charges and a reported power-sharing deal following elections due in January.

Islamist militants in Pakistan, who share not just an ideology but also arms and supplies with their Taliban brethren across the Afghan border, had threatened to kill Bhutto on her return.

Bhutto, in an interview with the French magazine "Paris-Match" just hours after the attack, blamed members of the former military regime of Pakistani General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. She said those forces “stand behind extremism and fanaticism” and that Islamabad must “purge these elements that are still present" in Pakistan's security services.

Zia overthrew Bhutto's father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1977 and had him hanged two years later. Zia himself died in a plane crash in 1988.

Pakistani Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan denied any involvement by government security or intelligence officials. Instead, Pakistan's government has blamed the attack on Islamic militants.

Of course, it’s no secret that elements of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have long played a role in supporting Islamic fundamentalists, including the Taliban, as part of their foreign-policy agenda. That support is alleged to be continuing as the Taliban intensify their campaign in Afghanistan.

To others, however, such links have become more complicated. Briton Michael Griffon, author of “Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan,” says the Islamic movement has undergone key changes in recent years.

“It's not a centrally commanded Taliban with [Mullah] Mohammad Omar at the top,” Griffin told RFE/RL. “It is not even, as it was before, kind of universally supplied by agents or elements within the ISI or Pakistan military. Some bits are better supplied than other bits. Some bits have more backup from Pakistan than other bits. I think probably the southern insurrection based upon Quetta gets better support [from Pakistan] than the one that's fighting Americans in the eastern mountains, the Spingar Mountains."

Rubin says what emerges is a less controlled, more chaotic movement where the destabilization in Afghanistan is now starting to blow back across the border into Pakistan.

“What is happening now as it shows is that the situation in Afghanistan is now fundamentally undermining the political transition in Pakistan,” Rubin said during a New York conference called “Shadow Conflict: Afghanistan and Pakistan” just hours after the attack. “It is delegitimazing and destabilizing the central government in Pakistan. That means in Pakistan we now have a government which, while it has a lot more resources and capabilities than the Afghan government, nonetheless is very unstable at the moment. A political transition that has just been attacked very decisively, we don’t know what the result of that will be, nuclear weapons and the headquarters of Al-Qaeda are in Pakistan.”

No Love Lost

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, a foremost authority on the issue, told RFE/RL that he agrees that elements of the security forces were either negligent or could have been involved. Rashid says Pakistan's army has “no lost love” for Bhutto, particularly after she made a series of recent controversial comments.

"A number of things that [Bhutto] has said have annoyed [Pakistan's] army considerably,” Rashid said. “She has made comments about allowing Dr. A.Q. Khan to be investigated by the [International Atomic Energy Agency]. And she has talked about American troops being allowed to become active in Waziristan. These are issues which probably the army feels today she has no right to be talking about or interfering in."

Bhutto, whose return reportedly was facilitated by the United States, had billed her political comeback as a step toward restoring Pakistani democracy and strengthening its fight against homegrown Islamic extremism.

Both moves, if successful, were seen by many as an obvious boost to the political and security efforts to achieve peace and democracy in Afghanistan. But if it hasn’t dashed those aspirations, the bombing has at least shown them to be overly optimistic, if not mere Western wish fulfillment, says British author Griffin.

In Griffin's opinion, Musharraf has already taken, by Pakistani standards, bold moves to accommodate U.S. antiterrorism policies. He said he wonders how any future democratically elected government headed by Bhutto would be able to persuade the Pakistani military, parts of which have always been reluctant to tackle the militants, to take even stronger steps against the Taliban and other militants, particularly as Musharraf has pledged to leave his post as army chief while serving another term as president.

“I don't see how the military, trying its hardest, if you like, under Musharraf to impose its will in Waziristan, is going to do any better under Bhutto," Griffin said.

For now, Rashid says the attack’s immediate impact could be a delay in January’s parliamentary polls, allowing Islamists to retain the influence they have in politics -- and behind the scenes in the military and elsewhere.

(Contributors to this story include RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in Kabul and RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev in New York.)

Pakistan: Can Bhutto's Return Boost Afghan Security?

By Abubakar Siddique

Benazir Bhutto In Karachi today

October 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Defying threats from Taliban militants, former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has returned home after eight years of exile, vowing to help push Pakistan in a democratic direction -- and win the war on terrorism.

Bhutto, a two-time government leader, was greeted by hundreds of thousands of supporters in the southern port city of Karachi today, after a deal with President Pervez Musharraf that cleared the way for her homecoming.

During a stopover in Dubai on October 17, Bhutto vowed her return would be a breakthrough for democracy, saying it would help close a sad chapter that began when she was sacked as prime minister in 1996. But how will her return affect the counterterrorism effort in Pakistan, which is regarded by officials in neighboring Afghanistan and Washington as a central front against the Tailban and international terrorism?

Bhutto's liberal-leaning Pakistan People's Party, which opposes religious extremism, is considered a bulwark against Islamist forces threatening the government, which is battling Taliban militants who control large swaths of Pakistan’s lawless western borderlands with Afghanistan.

That’s where Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader, is thought to be hiding out. And Bhutto has recently hinted at willingness -- if she were voted into power in January's national elections -- to allow the United States to track down the Saudi-born terrorist.

Pakistan's War

''If, in a short-sighted way, people think that this is not Pakistan's war, and that this is America's war, then we will end up with 'warlordism,' “ she said in the days before her return. “We will end up with disintegration, with fragmentation, with ethnic cleansing, with refugees. I hope not, I do not want to point [to] a nightmare scenario. But at some point, we have to learn the lessons of history."

From her exile in London, Bhutto supported a controversial raid in July on Islamic militants holed up in Islamabad's Red Mosque complex, a battle that left hundreds dead.

In Dubai this week, Bhutto again reaffirmed her pledge to confront extremism in Pakistan. The ongoing violence in the western tribal areas has seen hundreds of militants, civilians, and soldiers killed in a recent spate of fighting. The spread of violence and its underlying extremism appear to be the main challenge confronting President Musharraf, as well as Pakistan's 160 million people.

Officials in neighboring Afghanistan have stridently warned of the danger to their country from cross-border activities aimed at destabilizing the young government in Kabul. A recent U.S. intelligence estimate stressed the danger of allowing Pakistan to remain a safe haven for international terrorists like Al-Qaeda.

Pakistani author and regional expert Zahid Hussain told Radio Free Afghanistan that Bhutto's return and her reported deal to forge a post-election alliance with Musharraf is likely to broaden the support base for the president. Hussain said it is also likely to boost Musharraf's military efforts to eradicate the growing threat from Islamic extremism in Pakistan.

"So far, her position on certain issues is very, very clear -- particularly on Afghanistan and India,” Hussain said. “She wants to normalize relations with India and she supports this [ongoing] peace process with India and also wants to cooperate with the Afghan government. So from the outset, this [Bhutto's return] will have a positive effect on the region."

Military's Role

Hussain predicts that much depends on the military agreeing to surrender some of the initiative in political affairs, which they have dominated through much of Pakistan's six-decade existence. "The army cannot take a back seat, but it will not be [so] high-profile,” he said. “It will like to certainly see Musharraf stay as a civilian president. The parliament will be much stronger, and the prime minister will have much greater powers than [the prime minister] has at this point."

The fate of such a political arrangement could hinge on two cases that are currently before Pakistan's increasingly assertive Supreme Court. That court is expected to rule soon on the legitimacy of the October 6 landslide vote -- boycotted by many lawmakers -- that handed General Musharraf a new term.

The other court challenge seeks to overturn the amnesty that paved the way for Bhutto's return by guaranteeing that she would not have to face long-standing corruption charges.

Bhutto divided her eight years of exile between London and Dubai, but months of negotiations recently culminated in a presidential amnesty that pardoned her and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, in the face of pending allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Afghanistan Hosts International Economic Conference

By Ron Synovitz
October 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan this week is hosting an international governmental conference for the first time in decades.

Officials from the 10 member countries of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) are gathering in the western Afghan city of Herat today for the five-day conference continuing through October 20. The organization brings together Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

The Council of Ministers meeting of the ECO takes place each year. But for Afghanistan, hosting the conference represents a step toward normalcy after decades of war: a gathering of senior governmental officials from across the region who will discuss how they can work together for the prosperity of their people.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan spoke to Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Beheen today in Herat as he and other Afghan officials were finalizing preparations for the event. Beheen explained that deputy foreign ministers and other high ranking officials will meet during the first days of the conference, to be followed by the foreign ministers' meeting on October 20. “That is when the deputy foreign ministers will present their conclusions to the foreign ministers for approval. At this meeting, economic issues, trade, transportation, and other issues of regional cooperation will be discussed,” Beheen said.

Beheen says he hopes the ministers also will discuss an international donors' fund that has been opened to promote the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

For Kabul's part, Beheen says officials will be promoting Afghanistan's potential as a future regional hub for trade and transportation between the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia.

“The policy that we have been following is to promote regional cooperation. We want Afghanistan to be a bridge between the Asian countries. If you look at the map, in principle, we have already achieved this goal," Beheen said. "Just in the area of transit and transportation -- and if we also consider energy transit -- all of this can go through Afghanistan. And all of this is important -- not only from an economic point of view, but also from the point of view of security and social development. This is a golden opportunity for Afghanistan.”

U.S. government officials specializing in agriculture are expected to attend the event as observers. Also attending are representatives of international organizations like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, and several UN organizations.

Beheen said security has been bolstered in Herat ahead of the event to prevent possible attacks by Taliban militants. He added that more than 2,500 additional police from the Afghan National Police force have been deployed in Herat.

The ECO Council of Ministers last met in Baku in 2006. Heads of State from member countries are scheduled to gather in Pakistan in 2008 for the ECO summit.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sharafuddin Stanakzai in Herat and Radio Free Afghanistan's Hasheem Mohmand in Prague contributed to this report.)

Afghanistan: Top NATO Official Defends ISAF's Record

By Ahto Lobjakas

German ISAF soldiers; Kasdorf is also Germany's highest-ranking military official in Afghanistan (file)

BRUSSELS, October 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- One of NATO's highest-ranking officers in Afghanistan says the alliance's International Security Assistance Force won't be able to secure the country before the Afghan National Army achieves full strength "in three to four" years' time.

Speaking this month to journalists via videolink from Kabul, ISAF Chief of Staff and German Major General Bruno Kasdorf also said most of the responsibility for stabilizing Afghanistan rested with other international organizations, like the United Nations and the European Union.

NATO appears increasingly on the defensive in attempts to stabilize Afghanistan. But Major General Kasdorf offered a spirited defense, in his video meeting with reporters on October 11, of the achievements of Western forces in that country.

He cited ISAF's military successes in fighting insurgents, as well as growing access to education, health care, and jobs for the general public. Kasdorf blamed what he called the "mainstream media" for complicating ISAF's job with its "negative" and "alarming" coverage of events in Afghanistan -- all of which, he said, served to "give a false impression of an all-out war."

'Lack Of Troops'

Kasdorf also conceded that many of the benefits of the ISAF presence were limited to about two-thirds of the country -- the relatively stable north, west, and center -- but not the Taliban-contested south and east.

He said the problem was a "desperate" lack of troops, and challenged NATO states to rectify the situation.

"With 40,000 troops, ISAF has not [what] is really required to ensure security throughout this big country, [which] is more than twice as big as Germany, for instance," he said. "So we desperately need all the contributions from the different member nations of NATO."

But with a seeming lack of resolve among contributing Western states, there is little hope that ISAF troop levels will rise. Instead, Kasdorf went on to say, ISAF and Afghanistan will continue to be hamstrung in the south and the east.

"Since we haven't got enough forces, we can ensure security only in certain areas," he said. "We do hope that we have enough forces available at the latest in three to four years for all of Afghanistan when the Afghan national security forces have been built up and trained."

Kasdorf also said NATO and allied troops would be well served by better equipment, although their adversaries in Afghanistan are generally armed with much less advanced weaponry.

While ISAF struggles to hold territory in the south in the absence of a strong Afghan military or police presence, Kasdorf said two important elements must wait: reconstruction and governance. He said ISAF's main job -- facing down the insurgency -- accounts for just "20-25 percent" of the total task in Afghanistan. Kasdorf suggested that the rest of the work must be done by international organizations like the UN and the European Union.

Kasdorf, who is also Germany's highest-ranking military official in Afghanistan, defended Berlin's reluctance to send troops to the volatile south. He described German forces as being "optimized" for service in northern Afghanistan, and said it would "make no sense" to dislocate them to the south.

Kasdorf characterized the Taliban insurgency as Pashtun-derived, with its leaders recruited mostly on the Pakistani side of the disputed border. He said Taliban foot soldiers were mostly recruited with promises of cash or through intimidation.

But Kasdorf suggested that many locals worked with insurgents out of ignorance of ISAF's goals. In an attempt to reduce popular resentment among a predominantly illiterate population, ISAF is setting up its own network of radio stations and is also handing out "wind-up radios" to reach listeners in areas with poor infrastructure.

He said ISAF was also trying to reach locals in restive areas in "traditional ways," by working through elders and other community leaders. But he said there was room for improvement in ISAF's work in that area.

"What we also do is [that] we work with the Afghan government to use, to take advantage of, the traditional ways of communicating -- to talk through the maleks, through the mullahs, and by taking also advantage of the mosques," he said. "That is the way you reach the people. But it is tough, and we [could do it] better."

Kasdorf stressed that ISAF continued to see military success as its main deterrent against Taliban recruitment in the east and south of the country.