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Afghanistan Report: November 7, 2007

Suspicion High After Deadly Attack On Afghan Lawmakers

By Ron Synovitz

Victims of the blast in a Baghlan hospital

November 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Speculation is rife in Kabul about who carried out a bomb attack in northern Afghanistan that killed six members of the Afghan parliament and at least 35 other people.

The Taliban -- usually quick to take responsibility for suicide attacks in the south and east of the country -- has not only denied involvement but also has condemned the November 6 bombing in Baghlan Province.

The details of the attack remain unclear, including a final death toll. But there are fears that violence could escalate and widen rifts between rival factional militia groups in the north.

"We are investigating this whole incident -- unfortunate incident," Afghan President Hamid Karzai told journalists today. "We will take account of all the factors in it. And then we will let you know. A team has already gone for forensic studies of the scene, and another team will go to investigate fully."

Afghans today began three days of national mourning for those killed by the blast. In addition to the six lawmakers, the explosion also killed tribal elders and many schoolchildren.

Security Fears

The blast has once again shaken public confidence in the ability of the Afghan government and some 50,000 foreign troops in the country to provide security.

Many Afghans have told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that they see the attack -- initially reported as a suicide bombing -- as an assassination targeting Sayed Mustafa Kazemi, an influential opposition lawmaker and a former commerce minister.

Kazemi was heading a group of lawmakers from parliament's National Economic Committee on a visit to a new sugar factory in Baghlan when he and the other victims were killed by the bomb.

Kazemi was one of the highest-ranking ethnic Hazara and Shi'ite members of the Afghan parliament. He also was the spokesman for the United Afghan National Front -- an opposition political group that was formed last year by northern Afghan militia commanders who had once fought together against the Taliban regime.

Jean MacKenzie, the Kabul-based Afghanistan country director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), says it was unusual for a Shi'a to be such a strong figure of unity in Afghanistan.

"This is bad news for the north, which has been quite peaceable and where development has been going on at quite a rapid pace," MacKenzie says. "It is also very bad news for the central government."

"There is a lot of mistrust around the versions [of the story] coming out about this," MacKenzie says. "People in Kabul are talking about conspiracies. They are talking about plots to assassinate Kazemi, who was in opposition to the government. Other people are talking about Hizb-e Islami. But at this point, there is a very high level of distrust and tension throughout the country about the possible ramifications of this."

Weapons Buildup

Baghlan Province is a stronghold for illegal armed militia fighters from Hizb-e Islami -- an Islamist mujahedin movement headed by the renegade warlord and former Afghan prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

NATO and UN officials say they have received numerous complaints in recent months that militia fighters in the north have been hoarding weapons to avoid UN-backed disarmament programs.

"Jane's Foreign Report" -- a publication of the London-based Jane's Defense Group -- says Hekmatyar recently has taken a leading role in spreading antigovernment and anti-Western sentiments in northern Afghanistan.

Currently thought to be hiding in the mountainous northeastern regions of Afghanistan that border Pakistan, Hekmatyar reportedly has been sending messages to influential commanders in northern Afghanistan -- inviting them to join him in battle against Western forces.

But parliamentarian Amin Wiqad, a former deputy chairman of Hizb-e Islami and a member of Kazemi's opposition United Afghan National Front, told RFE/RL that he rules out the possibility of a Hizb-e Islami militant carrying out a suicide attack. He says that's because suicide attacks are against the group's ideology.

But Najia Iamaq, a member of parliament from Baghlan Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that she had repeatedly complained to Afghanistan's central government about the growing security threat posed by armed local militia fighters:

"Security has been getting worse and worse every day," Iamaq said. "We, as witnesses, have complained several times and raised the security issue with government officials. Residents of Baghlan, tribal leaders, and elders have been complaining all the time. Unfortunately, the government never seemed to take those complaints seriously."

Meanwhile, an interview conducted by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan with Safia Siddiqi, a female member of parliament from Nangarhar Province, has fueled further speculation in Afghanistan about the bomb attack.

Siddiqi was meant to be with Kazemi's parliamentary delegation when the explosion occurred. But she says she arrived late at the event because of mechanical problems with her car -- and that she watched from a distance as the lawmakers entered the sugar factory and the bomb went off.

Siddiqi also said the explosion sounded like an incoming missile attack rather than a blast caused by a suicide bomber or an improvised explosive device.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)

Democracy In Pakistan Would Help Afghan Stability

Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman

PRAGUE, November 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Washington is strongly urging President Pervez Musharraf to restore the democratic process in Pakistan following his declaration of emergency rule. U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman told RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel on November 6 that one reason is Washington's conviction that building democracy in Pakistan would also contribute to stability in Afghanistan, where NATO-led troops continue to battle Taliban insurgents.

RFE/RL: Washington has registered its displeasure with Musharraf's government for declaring emergency rule and effectively putting on hold plans for general elections. You, yourself, had originally planned to visit Pakistan during your current foreign tour, but that stop has been cancelled as part of the negative U.S. response. What would Washington have preferred to see happen in Pakistan?

Eric Edelman:
We are deeply disturbed as a government, as are others, by the issuance of the so-called provisional constitutional order. I think it would have been our preference that Pakistan stay on the course that it was on of having elections and moving towards a more firmly rooted constitutional form of government, rooted in the voice of the people as registered at the polls. And I think what we would like to see now is, as quickly as possible, for Pakistan to get back on that course, to hold the elections that were meant to be held in January, for President Musharraf to give some indication about his intentions in terms of taking off his uniform and returning Pakistan to civilian rule and making sure that this provisional constitutional order is an event of very short duration. Our preference would have been, quite frankly, that he not issue it at all.

Is Washington confident that if we go through elections in Pakistan that the result will be as strong an ally in the war on terror as President Musharraf has been?

Edelman: Well, this is obviously one of those difficult problems in the world, where you have to balance a lot of competing interests. We have many in Pakistan. One interest, of course, is to continue the close work we have done together with Pakistan in fighting terrorism. I was in London yesterday [November 5] and both Britons and Americans face a common challenge, there is a lot of plotting against our respective homelands that is going on in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and parts of the Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan, so that's a matter of great concern because of the Al-Qaeda presence there.

We have a great concern as well, we and the U.K., but also the other NATO allies who are represented in [the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force] ISAF because of the Taliban presence in the same area which comes across the border and ends up killing NATO troops and Afghan civilians.

And of course Pakistan has nuclear weapons, it is a nuclear-weapons state, so its stability is a matter of great concern not just to us but to its neighbors and the rest of the world. So it is a very important part of the world, a very important country. We think the long-term stability of the country is best guaranteed by a political process that is moving it in the direction of accountable government and constitutional rule and that is what we hope will happen.

RFE/RL: As you mentioned, there is a lot of cross-border movement and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are active on both sides. Often we look at this as principally an Afghan problem, because the fighting is in Afghanistan. But more recently we also are seeing fighting inside Pakistan's tribal areas. Is there a danger that the fight with the Taliban, with Al-Qaeda, could escalate into a larger regional problem?

Edelman: There is clearly an insurgent group in the area, it operates both across the border and inside Pakistan and I think it is not in anybody's interest for the situation to go on in the way that it has. It is something that we have been concerned about and have had ongoing discussions with our Pakistani colleagues about, and our hope is that we can help provide them with the kind of successful counterinsurgent strategy that they are going to need, which is going to involve a lot more than just military activity. It is going to require a lot of economic, social, and political development.

We, in the Department of State as well as in the Department of Defense, have been looking to provide Pakistan over a period of years in the future with funding in order to be able to help them put together that kind of strategy and we want to go forward with that but, of course, the [U.S.] Congress provides oversight for us and we will have to answer questions that are already being raised in Congress [about Musharraf's emergency rule], and we have some legal issues that we will have to work our way through because of various legal prohibitions that might come into effect as a result of the situation there. It's one reason why we think it's best to get back onto a path of elections and constitutional rule as quickly as possible.

Afghan Lawmakers Killed In Suicide Attack On Delegation

Sayed Mustafa Kazemi was among the lawmakers killed in the attack (file photo)

November 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Police in Afghanistan say a suicide bomber attacked a group of lawmakers and tribal elders who were touring a sugar factory north of Kabul today, killing and wounding scores of people.

The 13 dead reportedly include six members of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of Afghanistan's parliament.

The lawmakers were members of the Wolesi Jirga's National Economy Commission, a group tasked with monitoring reconstruction efforts in the country.

Afghan Health Minister Sayed Mohammad Amin Fatemi told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the six lawmakers killed in the attack included Sayed Mustafa Kazemi, the head of National Economy Commission of the lower house of parliament. He named the other slain lawmakers as Matin, Nazukmir Sarferaz, Saif u-Rahman, Sebghatullah Zaki, and Haji Sayed Zarif. Three children and four of the legislators' bodyguards were also killed.

Fatemi said that two other lawmakers, Sayed Hashem Fullad and Shukria Isakhaid, were injured. Of the total of 81 injured, the minister said that 42 were children who were present to greet the delegation.

Kazemi had served as minister of commerce in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's transitional administration. After his election to parliament in 2005, Kazemi founded the first opposition parliamentary group in post-Taliban Afghanistan -- Estiqlal-e Milli, or the National Independence Group.

Kazemi also was the spokesman of the United Afghan National Front, a political alliance mostly comprising individuals who had fought together against the Taliban regime as the former United Front, also known as the Northern Alliance.

Afghanistan: Armed Northern Militias Complicate Security

By Ron Synovitz

Abdul Rashid Dostum

November 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the world's attention on Afghanistan is now focused on the country’s Pashtun-dominated south and east, where Taliban fighters are battling NATO troops and U.S.-led coalition forces. But there is a different kind of tension in northern Afghanistan.

Illegal ethnic-Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara militias in the north appear to be using the threat of a resurgent Taliban as an excuse to hoard weapons and more forcefully protect their interests, such as ruling over land they have controlled since the Taliban’s collapse or defending drug export routes that are a major source of income.

Experts say the entrenchment of the militias, who once fought together against the Taliban, reflects divisions and mistrust among regional commanders of different ethnicities which -- if left unchecked -- could exacerbate tensions in the country at a time when its security situation is already on a razor’s edge.

"Obviously, what is happening in the north is really the growing Balkanization of the country," said Sam Zia-Zarifi, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch and field researcher in Afghanistan who has monitored programs by the United Nations and Afghan government to disarm the militias.

"It's been an ongoing trend in Afghanistan for warlords who are ostensibly allied with the government to entrench themselves even more fully," Zia-Zarifi told RFE/RL. "A lot of them are now swollen with the narcotics trade -- profits from the sale of poppy and heroin. They have a lot of political clout because many of them have allies in the parliament, if they are not directly members of the parliament. And the next step is to openly flex their military muscle.”

Disarmament Falls Short

Attempts to demobilize the patchwork of rival militias across Afghanistan were once trumpeted as a necessary step toward peace and the creation of a functioning democracy. But UN officials have acknowledged that their initial voluntary disarmament program failed to reach its targets.

Militia leaders in the north still command the loyalty of thousands of fighters who can be mobilized quickly in the event of a local dispute or crisis.

Brigadier General Abdulmanan Abed, an Afghan Defense Ministry official involved the country's ongoing disarmament program, says there is an "environment of mistrust" in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif about the Kabul government's ability to prevent Taliban infiltrations.

The commander who holds sway in Mazar-e Sharif is Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful general whom Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed as chief of staff for the Afghan National Army.

Dostum is enormously popular among his fellow ethnic Uzbeks in the north. According to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Dostum also is one of several regional commanders who appear to be exploiting Kabul's preoccupation with the violence-ridden south and east in order to stake claims on their old fiefdoms.

In May, when Dostum's supporters staged protests against a controversial governor of the northern province of Jowzjan, the demonstrations turned violent -- leaving at least 10 people dead and more than 40 injured.

Armed supporters of Dostum also clashed with authorities in Faryab Province in May, forcing Kabul to send in troops to quell the violence.

Provincial authorities in Jowzjan accuse Dostum's political faction, Junbish-e Melli, of rearming its supporters in the north. But Junbish representatives have repeatedly denied those accusations, telling RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that they are only a political group and have no weapons.

Another powerful commander accused not fully disarming and demobilizing his factional militia fighters is Mohammad Qasim Fahim.

Fahim commanded ethnic-Tajik fighters from the Panjshir Valley in the former United Front -- also known as the former Northern Alliance. The U.S.-backed alliance also had included Dostum's fighters. But the former United Front disintegrated as the rival militias raced to stake out territory after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

It was Fahim's fighters who, against the pleas of the international community, seized control of Kabul when the Taliban fled Kabul in late 2001. And Fahim's Islamist political faction -- Jam'iat-e Islami-yi -- used its de facto control of Kabul as a negotiating position at the Bonn Conference in December of 2001.

That initially gave Jam'iat-e Islami-yi commanders control of some of the most powerful posts in Karzai's post-Taliban transitional administration -- heading the ministries of Defense, the Interior, and Foreign Affairs as well as the Afghan intelligence services.

Fahim himself was defense minister from late 2001 thru most of 2004. But he was removed from the post in December 2004 after being accused of illegally occupying land in Kabul.

Commanders of other factional militia also have accused Fahim of hoarding weapons for his own militia fighters at a time when, as defense minister, he was in charge of the government demobilization efforts.

Unilateral Hoarding of Weapons

Christopher Langton, an expert on conflict and defense diplomacy at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says that amid a perceived spread of the Taliban-led insurgency during the last two years, as well as disturbances further north and heavy fighting in the south, some former United Front commanders have decided unilaterally that they may need weapons in the future.

"Some are quite senior, some close to the government and in politics," Langton says. "And they don't see why they should have to disarm whereas groups in the south remain armed -- and some of the groups in the south have actually been armed by international forces in order to fight on the side of the [Afghan] government."

Other independent experts say the lack of detailed information about local militia command structures has compromised the effectiveness of disarmament efforts.

The International Crisis Group says it is not formal militia structures, but rather, the informal structures that must be understood in order to identify commanders at the village level responsible for calling into action the militia fighters who have stashed away their weapons.

After decades of war, Langton describes Afghanistan as "a country based around armed groups." He says it is naive for anybody to think such a situation could be changed by a voluntary program to disarm and disband militia.

"If, at the beginning, there wasn't the threat of Taliban coming back [to the north], there were other reasons for retaining weapons," Langton says. "Self-protection in a place like Afghanistan is one reason. The possibility of having to guard opium convoys or heroin consignments going abroad is another reason. And the other reason is commercial -- selling armed guards to local authorities to guard their properties. What I think the so-called resurgent Taliban does is to give some perceived legitimacy to" the hoarding of weapons.

Kabul's Overtures To Taliban

Langton says fears among non-Pashtun commanders in the north have been heightened by recent overtures in Kabul about bringing moderate Taliban into the government -- an issue he says is closer to reality now than ever before.

"It does strengthen the belief amongst the former Northern [Alliance] groups that they may have to be prepared to stand up to some kind of Pashtun-dominated government," Langton says. "The United Afghan National Front opposition group, which was given birth last year, came together as a political opposition to the government largely because the people in the party feared that there might be a need to be united once again. And, of course, these are the former Northern Alliance commanders.

"The formation of this political group is an indication that there is a retention of weapons because there is a fear of increasing Taliban involvement both, possibly, in legitimate government and as a force which is encroaching further north illegally," Langton says.

Still, Langton and other experts conclude that the Afghan government is not about to face an armed insurrection by commanders from the former United Front. They say such a development would require a degree of unity among northern militia that doesn't appear to exist. And they say the political coalition formed last year by northern commanders does not translate into an armed alliance -- except at local levels where militia commanders are trying to protect their personal and vested interests.

Afghan Governor Says District Retaken From Taliban

U.S. troops in Farah Province, where Afghan and NATO forces are battling Taliban militants

ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan; November 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan and NATO-led troops have recaptured a district near Kandahar city recently seized by Taliban fighters, as a separate battle to retake a Taliban-controlled area near the Iran border entered its third day, RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan (RFA) reported today.

Assadullah Khaled, the governor of Afghanistan's southern Kandahar Province, told RFA that Taliban fighters, who had overtaken Arghandab district earlier this week, have been driven out during three days of fighting with Afghan and NATO troops. Khaled said some 50 Taliban fighters had been killed in the operation, which is now focused on tracking down more than 200 Taliban militants who fled the area.

RFA correspondent Javed Ahmad Wafa, who traveled with Khaled to Arghandab, the district's administrative center, and to two nearby villages, said that civilians who had fled the area earlier this week had begun to return home. Wafa added that there have been no reports of fighting in Arghandab since late on October 31.

In the western province of Farah, Afghan police said today that 50 Taliban militants had been killed during a battle close to the border with Iran.

Provincial police spokesman Mohammad Gul Sarjang said an operation by Afghan and NATO-led troops to retake Farah's western-most Ghulistan district is now in its third day. Up to 40 militants reportedly were killed earlier this week when some 300 Taliban fighters launched a coordinated attack on Ghulistan.

Meanwhile, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said today that U.S. and Afghan troops clashed with suspected militants overnight, sparking a gun battle that left three people dead, including two children.