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Afghanistan Report: December 28, 2007

Afghan Friend Recalls Benazir Bhutto

Fatima Gailani (undated)

A decades-long friend of Benazir Bhutto who has long been a powerful force in her own right in neighboring Afghanistan has recalled her relationship with the slain Pakistani politician and their shared view that debate and democracy were essential to help heal both their turbulent countries.

"Whatever happens in [either of] these two countries affects the people [of both]," Fatima Gailani, Red Crescent of Afghanistan's secretary-general and a scion of one of Afghanistan's most influential religious families, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "If it happens in Pakistan it affects us, if it happens in Afghanistan it affects them."

Gailani says that when they last met, in Dubai just days before Bhutto's triumphant return to Pakistan in October, her children feared for their mother's safety. "She was with her daughter and told me that her children were becoming more worried about her security because they knew how dangerous it could be for her," Gailani says. "Specifically, she told me that her older daughter was complaining about her continuing political activities."

Gailani notes Bhutto's firmly held view that Pakistan and its people "need her, and she has a role to play and she has to play this role." She points out the sacrifices of Benazir Bhutto and her ex-prime minister father and brothers, all of whom were killed before her in connection with their political activities. "The future of Afghanistan and the whole region was very important to her," Gailani says. "Pakistan's history will not forget a strong and brave woman who really loved Pakistan and its people."

She calls Bhutto "a source of pride for all women of the world, let alone Muslim women or women in our area" and a "source of aspiration for most of us."

Like Bhutto, Gailani hails from a powerful family that has played a major role in her country's recent history. Gailani's father, Pir Sayyed Ahmed Gailani, is a cleric who fled Afghanistan after the communist revolution and co-founded the Pakistani-based National Islamic Front to repel the Soviet occupation.

Fatima Gailani attended the UN-backed Bonn Conference to chart a course for postwar Afghanistan in late 2001, and previous studies of the Koran allowed her to become one of just a few women on Constitutional Loya Jirga that drafted the basic law passed in early 2004. She has been a strident advocate of women's rights, but quit active politics in 2004 to head the Red Crescent.

"In our part of the world, if you want to be in politics, if you think about 'is it safe or is it not safe?' you might as well not get involved -- because of course it's not safe," says Gailani, whose own political pedigree, Western education, and outspokenness in the face of hostility invite further comparisons to Bhutto. "It has become a dangerous part of the world. And our hope is that this will be an end to this violence, because we need an end to this violence."

'Our Politics Are Interlinked'

Gailani first met Bhutto 26 years ago, when they appeared together on a television program -- the spokeswoman for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation sitting alongside Pakistan's future prime minister shortly after her political career got into full swing.

Gailani tells Radio Free Afghanistan that they quickly found common interests. "I was in politics in my country, and she was in politics in her country, and Afghanistan and Pakistan, you know, the politics are really very much involved with each other," she says.

That affinity grew in the ensuing decades, which included Gailani's role as emissary for the mujahedin and two interrupted stints as prime minister for Bhutto, as both remained fixated on politics. "We actually laughed about this matter," she says of her last meeting with Bhutto to buy new clothes ahead of Eid al-Fidr, "that we were standing in a boutique in Dubai -- our daughters with us -- and we weren't discussing which dress to buy but we were discussing politics."

Bhutto's recent tough talk about the common cause between Islamabad and Kabul in countering extremism and terrorism was arguably one of the most appealing features of her return to active politics in the eyes of the West and her Afghan counterparts.

But Bhutto was also emphatic in her pursuit of political processes to break out of the vicious cycles of violence that afflict the region.

"The politics of Afghanistan and Pakistan are very much interlinked -- we all know that," Gailani says of conversations with Bhutto when they represented the vanguard in their respective countries' politics. "She always insisted that all of us -- at that time we were the young generation of the Afghan and Pakistani politics -- that the only way to get any bright future is really democracy."

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Freshta Jalalzai contributed to this story)

UN, EU Envoys Comply With Afghan Expulsion Orders

A UN and an EU diplomat have left Afghanistan after they were expelled by the government in Kabul, which accused them of meeting with insurgents in the southern Helmand Province.

The expulsions come amid a disagreement on whether to include Taliban officials in talks aimed at getting them to put down their arms.

The senior UN diplomat, who works for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and the acting head of the EU mission in Afghanistan were complying with an order to leave within 48 hours after the government said their actions posed a threat to Afghanistan's national security.

The men -- identified by news agencies as Briton Michael Semple and Irishman Mervin Patterson -- had been declared persona non grata.

The diplomatic row begun when the pair was detained on December 24 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan's main opium-producing region and the heartland of the insurgency.

Asadullah Wafa, the governor of the volatile province, said in Helmand that the men were detained along with at least two Afghans. "According to our information, among the people [Semple] met there are some people who support the government, but he met those who currently lead the groups of suicide bombers and they are the source of all the conflict in Helmand," Wafa said. "I, as the representative of the government, will not allow any foreigner to interfere in our political affairs."

Both the United Nations and the European Union have denied the accusation and insisted that they hope the misunderstanding behind the expulsions "will be resolved soon."

Neelab Mubarez, a spokeswoman for the UN office in Kabul, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the men went to the Musa Qala district of Helmand to assess the humanitarian situation. Musa Qala was recaptured by Afghan and international forces from Taliban control that had been imposed since February. Neelab said the diplomats had spoken to local people and tribal leaders.

"When the military operation finished in Musa Qala, the diplomats went there to perform our main duties -- which are helping to strengthen peace and stability, and providing humanitarian assistance," Mubarez said. "They wanted to talk to people. The Afghan officials were aware of the diplomats' trip before they traveled to the area."

The Afghan central government has in the past tended to avoid official references to the Taliban when reporting violence, preferring to use the term "enemies of Afghanistan." What most observers describe as the Taliban comprises many different people and groups, and in a tribal area such as Helmand it can be difficult to distinguish between the various insurgent forces.

Attempts to negotiate in such conditions are complicated by the serious disagreement within Afghanistan and between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and western leaders over whether such talks with Taliban-like insurgents are desirable.

The government is predominantly made up of former members from the United Front (aka Northern Alliance), the former armed opposition to the Taliban regime before it was overthrown in 2001. Those former United Front members refuse to give Taliban insurgents a share of power and are against even talking to them.

One Western source said the incident showed there are "divisions within the government itself as to who we should and shouldn't be talking to."

The UN's Neelab said the organization hopes its diplomat will be able to return to Afghanistan once the "misunderstanding" is resolved.

Both Semple and Patterson are known as experienced experts on Afghanistan with broad knowledge of the tribal culture and local languages. The two men have reportedly lived in Afghanistan for more than 10 years, even during Taliban rule.

But Afghan officials have stood by the expulsions. Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Beheen said that while the government needs and appreciates the international community's assistance, it must require foreign nationals in Afghanistan to obey the country's laws. "In every action the Afghan government has taken so far or is going to take [in regard to the diplomats], it was acting on the basis of Afghanistan's national and security interests," Beheen said.

Both the Afghan government and its international allies publicly insist that they do not negotiate with the Taliban. However, some Afghan officials have reportedly voiced increasing interest in meeting with the militant group's leaders to try to persuade them to end the insurgency.

President Hamid Karzai has publicly stated his willingness to negotiate with Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the radical Islamist warlord.

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

Bhutto's Death Felt Keenly In Kabul

Aftermath of the blast that struck Bhutto's car in Rawalpindi

The death of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in an apparent suicide attack outside the capital, Islamabad, has shaken the country's political landscape and underscored the threat that politically motivated violence poses in Pakistan and the region.

The 54-year-old Bhutto returned from eight years of exile in October following a deal to drop corruption charges stemming from a previous stint as prime minister, and had announced her candidacy for Pakistan's parliamentary elections.

The attack, after an outdoor rally in Rawalpindi, killed at least 16 other people and left her popular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in disarray ahead of the scheduled voting.

But Bhutto's absence will also be felt outside Pakistan's borders, given South and Central Asia's political history and the threat that extremists pose to stability.

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ayaz Khan says the charismatic Bhutto "was not only a liberal Pakistani politician but also a symbol of liberal politics in a region that's been increasingly haunted by extremism, terrorism, and fundamentalism."

He also says Bhutto's tough stance against militants echoed a prevalent view in Kabul that regards terrorist threats in both Pakistan and Afghanistan as inextricably linked.

Ayaz Khan notes that "just hours before her death she met with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai to reiterate her support for the fight against extremism and terrorism that has afflicted the region and, more recently, the Pakistani government, the Pakistani street, and the Pakistani people."

The first of Bhutto's two terms as prime minister (1988-90 and 1993-96) came at a time when Pakistani intelligence was actively backing Islamic fundamentalists fighting to end the Soviet army's occupation of Afghanistan. Some of those fighters went on to form the Taliban movement that eventually provided an Afghan safe haven for Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist organization.

Since her return to Pakistan nearly three months ago, the Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent says, Bhutto had "vowed to rid the country of the extremists responsible for the violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan," a position that made her a potentially valuable ally from Kabul's point of view.

Karzai Condemns 'Immense Brutality'

Her potential for helping to overcome tensions between Islamabad and Kabul was widely recognized. President Karzai had met with Bhutto just hours before she was killed. Karzai told a hastily arranged press briefing in Kabul after news of the killing that the perpetrators were "enemies" of Pakistan and of peace. "We in Afghanistan condemn this act of cowardice and immense brutality in the strongest possible terms," Radio Free Afghanistan quoted Karzai as saying.

Bhutto and Karzai at their meeting just hours before the explosion

Correspondent Ayaz Khan says Bhutto's shared view of the common terrorist threat -- along with her public statements of "wholehearted support for the internationally backed peace process in Afghanistan and what NATO and international forces had done" -- made her a possible uniter in dealings between Islamabad and Kabul, a position that he says ultimately "made her a prime target for terrorists."

Speaking to Radio Free Afghanistan hours after the assassination, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said Bhutto "was so hopeful of winning the coming election, [and] of establishing a friendly relationship based on brotherhood with the Afghan nation and fighting against the common threat of terrorism."

Bhutto had received numerous death threats from Islamic militants. On the night of her return to Pakistan, as she paraded through the southern city of Karachi on October 18, a suicide bomber struck near her vehicle, killing 139 people. Bhutto was unhurt, but the dead included at least 50 of her security guards, who had formed a human chain around her vehicle to protect her.

At a news conference the following day, Bhutto said she would continue campaigning. She accused the authorities of failing to provide adequate security.

Sarkozy Says France Could Boost Troops In Afghanistan

Sarkozy was in Afghanistan promising a larger French commitment

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says France could boost its presence in Afghanistan to help train the Afghan army and police. Sarkozy made the comment today during a surprise one-day visit to Afghanistan.

Sarkozy said Paris would "take a number of decisions" in the coming weeks, and would likely increase the number of military forces it has here to train the Afghan army and police.

He was speaking to journalists after talks with his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, in Kabul.

Sarkozy said the international community could not afford losing the war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

That is why, the French president said, Paris is committed to help with the emergence of a "legitimate, democratic and modern" Afghan state.

Sarkozy began his visit with talks with General Dan McNeill, the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). He was also due to meet some of the 1,300 French troops based in Afghanistan.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner were accompanying Sarkozy.

In November, Sarkozy told the U.S. Congress that French soldiers would stay in Afghanistan "as long as needed" and that failure was "not an option."

Most of the French soldiers are stationed in relatively secure areas around Kabul. Some of them are in the southern province of Kandahar, where six French Mirage jets are based.

Washington and other NATO allies have repeatedly urged France to send its forces to the more dangerous southern and eastern areas.

But Sarkozy said today that Afghanistan's problems could not be solved just through military means, a likely reference to efforts to use reconstruction and reconciliation to persuade rebel fighters to lay down their arms.

Sarkozy also said Pakistan had to understand that it "must engage resolutely" in the fight against terrorism.

On December 21, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Al-Qaeda had "re-established itself" in Pakistan's remote Afghan border and begun to focus on attacking the Pakistani government.

But the Pentagon chief said "we haven't seen any significant consequence of that in Afghanistan itself."

U.S. and coalition forces have faced increased Taliban violence in the past two years.

Officials say there are more foreign fighters involved, including some linked to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Afghanistan: Taliban Stronghold Recaptured Near Strategic Dam Area

By Ron Synovitz

An Afghan policeman guards a checkpoint in Musa Qala after Taliban fighters fled the town

Afghan government troops and NATO forces are patrolling the southern town of Musa Qala today after driving out Taliban fighters who had been entrenched there for 10 months. But even as the troops searched for booby traps and stranded militants, the Afghan Defense Ministry said hundreds of Taliban fighters had launched a counterattack in the nearby district of Sangin -- an area that includes a road project linked to the reconstruction of the strategic Kajaki hydroelectric dam.

The Defense Ministry said the few remaining Taliban fighters in Musa Qala ended their resistance today after Afghan and NATO troops moved into the district administrative center on December 10.

The Taliban claimed last week that it had as many as 2,000 fighters in the area. Reports suggest many of those fighters fled from Musa Qala into the mountains further north.

In Musa Qala, residents' lives appeared to be returning to normal after most of the militants fled. Haji Abdul Karim, a shopkeeper whose business had been closed because of the fighting, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he opened his store today for the first time since last week. He added that he hadn't seen any Taliban fighters in the town today.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Saleh Mohammad Saleh reported from the town of Musa Qala today that there is no sign of fighting.

But Saleh said that the Taliban is claiming successes elsewhere in Helmand Province. "The Taliban claim that they have taken many parts of the Sangin district," to the south of Musa Qala, he said. According to Saleh, the Taliban claims that its counterattack to the south has cut off an important road that passes through the Sangin district to link the strategic Kajaki hydroelectric dam to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

The Afghan Defense Ministry acknowledged that several hundred Taliban fighters launched a counterattack against NATO and Afghan government troops in Sangin district. But ministry officials refuted the Taliban's claim that they took control of parts of the district, saying the militants were thwarted by Afghan and NATO troops who had anticipated a counterattack in Sangin.

One man from Char Bagh -- a village to the south of Musa Qala and near Sangin district -- told RFE/RL today that NATO air strikes are continuing to target Taliban militants near Sangin. "As far as the fighting in the town of Musa Qala goes, all of the armed Taliban have left that area. But the air strikes are continuing here today," he said.

Taliban Defections, Arrests

On December 9, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he made the decision to storm the town of Musa Qala following reports of brutality there by the Taliban and foreign Al-Qaeda fighters.

Karzai also said the successful attack was aided by some local Taliban leaders who had switched allegiance to his government. Ali Shah Mazloomyar, a Pashtun tribal leader in the Musa Qala district, told RFE/RL today there are reports that other powerful Taliban commanders have been captured by NATO forces.

"Abdul Rahim Akhund, a commander of the Taliban in Helmand Province, was appointed by the Taliban as the governor of this area. And another person, Abdul Matin Akhund, was also a powerful man," Mazloomyar said. "If these two people really have been arrested, and another -- Mullah Abdul Salam Akhund -- has really switched sides and joined the government, it will certainly weaken the morale of the Taliban because they cannot find such powerful people who had so much influence in this region. It will be very difficult for the Taliban to replace these people."

After coming under sustained Taliban attacks, British troops pulled out of Musa Qala in October 2006 after striking a heavily criticized truce that handed control of the town to tribal elders like Mazloomyar. But the Taliban seized Musa Qala in February and made it a base for guerrilla operations aimed at thwarting the reconstruction of the Kajaki Dam.

Of the more than 14,000 reconstruction projects under way in Afghanistan, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has described the Kajaki Dam as the project with the most strategic and psychological significance. The NATO chief says the dam will provide electricity to more than 2 million people and their businesses in southern Afghanistan once a giant power turbine is installed and power lines to the city of Kandahar are repaired. But to transport the giant turbine to Kajaki, workers must first complete work to improve the road that passes through the Sangin district on its way to the dam site.

A Key Location

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on December 10 visited a British Royal Marines base in Helmand Province just 70 kilometers from the fighting in Musa Qala. Later in Kabul, Brown insisted that the offensive against the Taliban in the area will allow reconstruction work to continue.

"This action in Musa Qala is an example of how Afghan forces -- working with British and other forces -- can make a difference," Brown said. "And there is no doubt that succeeding in Musa Qala will make a huge difference, both to how people see the weakness of the Taliban in the future and the ability of the government to build, not just militarily and politically, [but also] with social and economic progress for the people of the area."

Meanwhile, Karzai says the high-profile role of government troops in the battle shows that the Afghan National Army is becoming more sophisticated and able to provide security in provincial regions of the country. "We would like to have the international community continue to add to the building of the Afghan forces -- continue to add to the 'Afghanization' of this whole exercise -- so that Afghanistan can be ready in time to take on the responsibility of defending the Afghan country with Afghan institutions and Afghan ability," Karzai said.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Saleh Mohammad Saleh in Musa Qala and Jan Alekozai in Prague contributed to this story.)