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Afghanistan Report: March 8, 2008

Afghanistan: Mobile-Phone Towers Are Taliban's New Target

Telecom towers on a hilltop in Kabul

Local officials in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province said gunmen destroyed a mobile-phone tower in the Sangin district on March 2.

It follows two attacks on telecommunication towers in neighboring Kandahar Province on February 29 and March 1 after a Taliban demand that all telephone signals be turned off during the evening and overnight.

Taliban militants ordered mobile-phone operators last week to switch off their networks from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day. The insurgents say U.S. and NATO forces track the Taliban through their phone signals and then launch attacks on their hiding places.

Many military operations against Taliban leaders have been conducted by the U.S.-led forces at night.

But many Afghans, including politicians, dismiss the Taliban's justification for attacking the mobile phone sector as "meaningless."

Legislator Shurkiya Barekzai says that by attacking the towers the Taliban wants to damage Afghanistan's economy. She says the Taliban claims that coalition and Afghan forces tracking their forces via mobile signals "does not make any sense."

"I don't think [tracking the militants via signals] is the main reason, because if Afghan and international forces want to attack they could attack during the day, too," Barekzai says. "But we should remember that these mobile networks are crucially important for ordinary Afghans. People need and use them."

The mobile towers that came under attack belonged to the Roshan and Areeba companies.

The People Need Them

As almost the only means of communications in Afghanistan, cell phones have become increasingly popular all over the country. They were widely introduced in Afghanistan after the Western-backed government took power following the defeating of the Taliban in 2001.

The telecommunications industry is considered one of the fastest-growing and most profitable sectors of the Afghan economy. Four main telecom operators provide coverage to even the most remote corners of Afghanistan.

Destruction of the telecommunication towers will affect thousands of phone users in southern Afghanistan, including the Taliban fighters themselves, who rely on mobile phones for communications.

But communications experts say the demolition of the towers will not have a significant impact on the U.S.-led military forces, since they can use satellites and other means to pick up phone signals without depending on the phone companies.

Mobile users in Kandahar's many districts have complained that they did not have phone signals over the past two days.

Barekzai tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that depriving people of their principal means of communication would only further alienate the militants from the general Afghan population.

Many regions in Afghanistan do not even have access to regular mail service, landline phones, or the Internet, and therefore almost entirely depend on cell phones to communicate.

Police sources in Kandahar Province said security was tightened near the mobile towers after the Taliban attacks.

Some influential local tribal leaders have also offered to help protect such areas.

Abdul Ahad-Khan Masum, a tribal leader in Kandahar's Kajaki district, where a mobile tower was torched by militants, says that his people can protect the towers "if we are given the authority.

But he adds that "during the past 30 years, different powers have only been playing with the tribal leaders -- instead of benefiting from our influence. If the government and relevant authorities give us a chance, I think this issue [of protecting the mobile towers] would be solved, too."

It is not the first time the Taliban has challenged cell-phone companies in Afghanistan. In the past, the militants have accused mobile-phone operators of closely cooperating with U.S. and NATO troops. However, they did not carry out any of their threats until now.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Norias Nori contributed to this report

'A Tale Of Two Afghan Students' Tells Nation’s Fate

By Farangis Najibullah

A primary school in Spin Boldak, which was targeted in a bomb attack

Marjan and Malalai have a lot in common. Both are Afghan. Both are girls. Both are 17 years old. But for all the rest, the teens might as well inhabit different planets.

Marjan’s biggest worry is deciding about her future career. The high-school student from the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif is having a hard time choosing whether to become a lawyer or teacher. Marjan attends Hashem-e Barat girls school in the relatively prosperous and peaceful northern province of Balkh.

In an interview ahead of the start of the new academic year in most Afghan areas, Marjan tells RFE/RL that she loves going to school, studying, and socializing with friends and playing sports like volleyball.

"I really like it when our teachers give us homework. I enjoy doing my homework. And I like reading books. We have a library at school. We read books there," Marjan says.

Malalai, by contrast, is living a life-or-death drama.

Malalai would love to go to university and study to become a professional. Yet she’s unsure whether she will even be able to finish high school in southern Helmand Province.

Unlike Balkh, Helmand is one of the least secure areas in Afghanistan. The province is known as a hotbed of Taliban violence and is the biggest drug-producing province in the war-torn country.

Many obstacles stand in Malalai’s way. The Taliban, which forbid girls from studying during its severe rule, has burned down several local schools and attacked students and teachers. Those are fairly significant disincentives in an area where some conservative parents do not want daughters attending schools anyway.

"The situation is not good, but I still go to school. We appreciate our teachers helping us here at the school. We are very afraid of going to school because of insecurity, but they try to calm us down. We try hard and our teachers also want us to be teachers and doctors in the future," Malalai says.

Record Number Of Students

The contrasting fates of Marjan and Malalai starkly illustrate the different pace of progress across Afghanistan today. They also highlight the ups and downs of Afghanistan’s education system as students and teachers in 9,000 schools in 29 provinces prepare for the new academic year’s start on March 23.

The Education Ministry expects some 6.5 million children -- some 35 percent of them girls -- to attend schools across the country. Historically, that’s a record number of students, ministry spokesman Zuhur Afghan told RFE/RL.

Many Afghans believe that restoring and expanding the county’s education system has been one of Afghanistan’s success stories after the fall of the hard-line Taliban in 2001.

The Education Ministry says it intends to start construction on 30 new schools in each province. In addition, at least one teacher-training school is being set up in every province. More than 50 million new textbooks will also be distributed at schools during the first day of the new academic year.

By any measure, this is massive success in a country where a few years ago girls couldn’t even attend school and nonreligious subjects were barely taught. But success has come with a price.

Zuhur Afghan, the Education Ministry spokesman, says the lack of security remains the major concern for education workers.

As the Taliban has become more active over the past two years, they have increasingly aimed attacks at soft targets such as aid workers and other civilians. Officials say more than 230 people in the education sector have been killed. More than 220 others, including teachers and students, have been wounded in Taliban attacks. Many schools have also been torched, leaving 300,000 children temporarily out of school.

The Education Ministry acknowledges the international community’s financial support to Afghanistan’s education system. Most recently, the United Nations Children’s Fund has appealed to donors to provide an additional $15 million for Afghan schools.

That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $3 billion that the Education Ministry says is needed to rebuild its educational system over the next five years. Nonetheless, Zuhur Afghan says the funds are needed now to build new schools and provide textbooks and other school materials.

"Sixty percent of our schools do not have a building; lessons take place in mosques, tents or simply under trees. Many schools lack desks, blackboards, and chalk. Many of our schools do not have water and sanitation facilities, such as bathrooms," Afghan says.

Nafisa Ghiyasi, the head of the Hashem-e Barat school in Mazar-e Sharif, tells RFE/RL that a key issue for her school was a shortage of classrooms. She says the school was waiting for funds from the government and donors to pay for new building and other key expenses, but the money never came.

Building...Brick By Brick

So teachers and students took the matter into their own hands. "Everybody made a contribution," she says. "Some people brought bricks, others provided construction materials, while others offered their labor. And in a few weeks, parents and teachers built six additional classrooms."

Ghiyasi says such initiatives demonstrate that Afghans want their children to get an education. It’s an opportunity that many parents never had.

Yet Ghiyasi says it’s not enough and that her school, with some 4,000 students and more than 110 teachers, still faces shortages of just about everything.

"Teachers say, ‘I don’t want to go far, give me a job in the city center.’ But there are too many teachers in city centers -- more than schools need. Other places lack teachers. For instance, my school faces a shortage of teachers of physics, math and English," Ghiyasi says.

Most teachers, especially female tutors, are reluctant to take jobs in remote villages. Zuhur Afghan says that the lack of female teachers in villages "is a huge issue" because most parents in villages refuse to send their daughter to school if the teacher is not a woman.

To attract more female teachers to village schools, the ministry has offered to pay them three times more than their regular salary. The ministry also offers jobs to the husband or a male relative of the female teacher to enable them to travel to and stay in rural areas.

Still, it’s not easy drawing talent from big cities, and the Education Ministry has asked the government to provide additional funds to increase teachers’ wages over the next three years.

"We have far too many challenges facing schools and teachers," Ghiyasi says. "Nevertheless, we should try to rebuild the education system both through our own power and donors’ assistance. We owe it to future generations."

U.S. Intelligence Chief Assesses Security Threats From Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan

McConnell testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee

It has been more than six years since U.S. forces entered Afghanistan to battle the Taliban and help establish a stable central government.

During that time, international forces have been working under a UN mandate to help expand the authority of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government beyond the capital of Kabul.

U.S. National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell now says Karzai's government has control over only about 30 percent of the country, while the Taliban controls about 10 percent of Afghan territory.

McConnell told the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee on February 27 that the remainder of Afghanistan is mostly under local tribal control -- a reference to factional leaders and regional power brokers who have maintained their own private militia forces.

Some media that covered McConnell's testimony paraphrased his remarks in a way that suggests that 70 percent of Afghan territory remains beyond the control of Karzai's government.

But Sebghatullah Sanjar, a policy adviser for Karzai, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that those reports are irresponsible because they fail to recognize that many local tribal leaders and commanders support and cooperate with Karzai's central government.

"The state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, in accordance with the laws of the country, has complete sovereignty throughout Afghanistan with the exception of two or three districts in southern Afghanistan where we have security problems," Sanjar says.

"The commanders in Afghanistan -- be it at district level or higher and in the furthest provinces and districts [from Kabul] -- completely respect the rule of law and abide by Afghan laws," he continues. "They obey governors, district chiefs, and all those who are appointed by the state of Afghanistan and are responsible for tending to the daily affairs of the state of Afghanistan in villages and districts."

McConnell's report to the Senate says that although international forces and the Afghan National Army continue to score tactical victories over the Taliban, the security situation deteriorated in some parts of the south during the past year -- with Taliban forces also expanding their operations into previously peaceful areas of western Afghanistan and near Kabul.

It says that the death or capture of three senior Taliban leaders last year -- the Taliban's first high-level losses -- does not yet appear to have significantly disrupted Taliban operations.

McConnell's report concludes that Kabul must work closely with the Afghan parliament -- as well as provincial and tribal leaders -- to establish and extend the capacity of the central government. It also says that although the buildup of the Afghan National Police and the judicial system has improved in the past year, the police and court system remains constrained in its ability to deploy programs at the provincial and local levels.

It also says Afghanistan faces a chronic shortage of resources and of qualified and motivated government officials at both the national and local level.

Nuclear Concerns

A large part of McConnell's security assessment focused on the threat of nuclear proliferation or the possibility that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist organizations.

It says Pakistan's political crisis does not appear to have seriously threatened the security and control that Pakistan's army has over Islamabad's nuclear arsenal. But it says there are some vulnerabilities.

Meanwhile, several pages of the 45-page report focus on concerns about Iran's nuclear intentions.

Expanding on a U.S. intelligence report last year that said Tehran appeared to have halted design work on nuclear weapons in 2003, McConnell said the latest intelligence suggests Tehran may have restarted work on nuclear weapons since mid-2007.

More importantly, McConnell stressed in his testimony that Iran has continued to work in two areas related to producing nuclear weapons -- the enrichment of uranium into weapons-grade material and the development of long-range, ballistic-missile systems capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

McConnell concluded that Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon as soon as late 2009 -- though he said it is "very unlikely" that Iran could succeed so soon. More likely, he said, Iran probably will be technically capable of producing enough enriched uranium for a weapon sometime between 2010 and 2015 -- though it could take longer.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report from Kabul and Prague.)

Afghan Journalist On Death Row Gives First Interview

A journalist protests for Kambakhsh's release

A 23-year-old Afghan journalism student -- sentenced to death for printing and handing out an Internet article that questioned interpretations of the role of women in Islam -- says he was not allowed to have a lawyer nor to speak in his own defense during his four-minute trial.

Sayed Pervez Kambakhsh made the remarks from prison in Mazar-e Sharif in an interview with the British daily "The Independent" on February 25 -- his first interview since being jailed four months ago.

Kambakhsh told the newspaper that local judges in the northern province of Balkh had already decided the case before the trial had begun.

Kambakhsh told "The Independent: "The way [the judges] talked to me, looked at me, was the way they look at a condemned man. I wanted to say: 'This is wrong. Please listen to me.' But I was not given a chance to explain."

Balk Province Attorney-General Qazi Hafizullah Khaliqyar denies the claims by Kambakhsh that he did not receive a fair trial, saying Afghan law is being followed and that the journalism student had chosen not to have an attorney represent him in court.

"Of course we didn't intend to violate any rights of journalists. The media law clearly prohibits insulting religious values and beliefs. [Journalists] can't violate the values of Islam and they have to keep that in mind," Khaliqyar says. Kambakhsh "has been referred to an Islamic court and would be dealt with according to Shari'a law. He has been asked if he wanted any lawyer, but he rejected the opportunity and preferred to defend himself."

Local judges in the case ruled that the article published by Kambakhsh was blasphemous because it questioned some basic tenets of Islam -- including those related to the role of women in an Islamic society.

Kambakhsh says he did not write the article that led to the charges. Rather, he says he printed it out from the Internet and distributed it among his fellow students in order to stimulate debate about women's rights in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL has confirmed that the author of the article is an Iranian expatriate who lives in Germany.

The court informed Kambakhsh during his trial that other Afghan journalism students had accused him of writing the article. Kambakhsh says he was never told the names of those accusers nor given an opportunity to cross-examine them.

One chief judge from northern Afghanistan also has said that Kambakhsh had confessed, and that only President Hamid Karzai can pardon him.

Legal Debate

Meanwhile, legal experts continue to debate the merits of the case.

Abdullah Attaei, an Afghan expert in Shari'a law, says the question of whether Kambakhsh penned the article himself is a vital issue.

"If the convicted person doesn't admit that he wrote the article, and if he denies being quoted, then no court can judge his faith [according to Islamic Shari'a law]. When he denies that he wrote the article, then no one has the right to arrest or investigate him or even to try to prove him guilty," Attaei says.

Kambakhsh says he was entitled under the Afghan Constitution to have a laywer and to speak in his own defense. He says that if he is allowed to put over his point of view to an appeals court, the judges will see that he has done nothing wrong.

He told "The Independent" that he was "totally shocked" by the death sentence. He also said he hopes his appeal will be heard by a court in Kabul because he thinks he has a better chance to get a fair trial in the Afghan capital.

Kambakhsh says he has heard that President Karzai has taken an interest in the case. He says that even if the conviction is upheld, he hopes Karzai will issue a reprieve. But he says he does not know what kind of political pressure Karzai faces over the case.


The death sentence has raised an outcry from international and Afghan media rights groups as well as the United Nations and several foreign governments.

Karzai has suggested that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband are among the foreign officials who have raised the issue of a possible presidential reprieve.

"Both the [U.S.] secretary of state and the [British] foreign secretary spoke to me about this. This is an issue that our judicial system is handling. But I can assure you that [in the end], justice will be done in the right way," Karzai says.

But Kambakhsh's fate remains an issue of heated debate within Afghanistan, where some fundamentalists are still calling for his execution.

A key ally of Karzai and head of the Afghan Senate, Sibghatullkah Mojeddeid, issued a statement supporting the death sentence against Kambakhsh. But that statement was withdrawn after domestic and international protests.

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

Pakistan: Victorious Opposition Looks To Shift Strategy Toward Militants

By Abubakar Siddique

Asif Ali Zardari (left) of the Pakistan People Party and Asfandyar Wali the Awami National Party talk to journalists in Islamabad

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, on the United States, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been a key ally in the U.S. war on terror. But with Musharraf's political life now on the line following the opposition's triumph in parliamentary elections this week, where Pakistani counterterrorism policy goes from here is the million-dollar question.

In Islamabad, representatives of the Pakistani People's Party (PPP) -- previously headed by slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- met on February 21 with their counterparts from the other major force to emerge victorious from the polls, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz faction of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The parties say they will form a coalition government in which the secular and pacifist Awami National Party (ANP), an ethnic-Pashtun party from the Northwest Frontier Region (NWFP), is also expected to play a role.

Pakistani media reports suggest that PPP Deputy Chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim is the most likely candidate for prime minister.

But as they chart their future course, the winning parties face two pressing issues: what to do about a decidedly weakened Musharraf, and how to change the deeply unpopular president's domestic counterterrorism policies, which are widely seen in Pakistan as being heavy-handed.

Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, has urged all political parties to unite against what he called dictatorship. "The people have given their verdict," he said on February 20. "Musharraf never understood this decision of the people. He closed his eyes. And he used to say, 'I will go when the public wants me to go.' Now the public has voiced what it wants."

Musharraf, for his part, says he looks forward to working with the new government and will serve out his full term as president. The United States has also expressed hope that the new Pakistani government can find a way to work with Musharraf.

For Washington, Pakistan represents a key front in the war on terror. The country's volatile tribal regions are home to Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants, including possibly Osama bin Laden. Areas near the Afghan border have for months been the scene of suicide bombings and violent clashes with security forces. The situation represents a constant threat to the Afghan government, which is battling a Taliban insurgency across the border with key assistance from the U.S. military.

With violence in Pakistan surging in recent months, many Pakistanis now say they are fed up and want their new government to restore security to the country.

Rejecting Islamist Militancy

Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who now heads the PPP, says his party will talk with Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan as well as with the nationalist insurgents in the southwestern Baluchistan Province. But just as Bhutto had vowed, Zardari has made clear that there would also be a military side to the government's strategy.

"It is a war of terror against Pakistan and we have to fight it as our war," he told reporters in Islamabad on February 19.

Pakistani voters' response to the militancy, and the Islamist parties it supports, was overwhelming. In the NWFP, the Islamist parties lost badly, while the secular ANP emerged as the single largest party in the provincial assembly.

Afrasiab Khattak, the ANP's provincial head in Peshawar, tells RFE/RL that the results showed that the Pashtuns yearn for peace and security in their homeland. "Our party has always said that we will not allow anybody to bring alien wars to our home," Khattak says. "We will try to cooperate with the central government and will try to convince them to adopt a foreign policy that will result in regional peace. The fire that is engulfing the Pashtun homeland now has its roots in regional and international conflicts. But unfortunately, the Pashtuns have been suffering because of it for the past 30 years."

In Islamabad, Sheikh Mansur Ahmed, a key PPP leader, agreed. He tells RFE/RL that the former Islamist-led NWFP government and certain elements in the central government had helped the militants. But he says the new government is likely to frown on such practices.

"I believe that we will see a decline in suicide-bomb attacks," Ahmed says. "By electing progressive forces, the people of the [NWFP] have rejected what Musharraf and his allies and the [alliance of Islamist parties] have been doing over the past eight years. These [elections] have weakened the murderers."

But just how the new government will change domestic security policies remains unclear. Key questions center around Sharif's influence on policy and the role of the military and intelligence services. Sharif, as prime minister, was known to have pursued policies in support of Islamist militants, while elements of both the military and intelligence services are believed to still back militants.

The United States has thrown its weight behind Musharraf. Washington may appreciate that the former general, despite pursuing what some see as a "two-faced" policy toward the militants, has also taken strong military action against them near the Afghan border, as has his successor as chief army commander, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

In Africa this week, President George W. Bush reiterated his support for the new government but indicated that the United States is still interested in seeing Musharraf in power.

"I appreciate the fact that President Musharraf has done exactly that which he said he was going to do," Bush said. "He said he'd hold elections, he said he would get rid of his emergency law, and so, it is now time for the newly elected folks to show up and form their government. And the question then is, 'Will they be friends of the United States?' I certainly hope so. We need Pakistan as an important ally."

Exactly what kind of ally, it seems, is the million-dollar question.

Afghanistan: New Party To Focus On Women's Rights

By Farangis Najibullah

Afghanistan's parliament already has some women representatives

For nearly three decades, Afghans have endured war and foreign occupation, extreme poverty, and the Taliban. Yet some suffer more than others. Not all Afghans are created equal. Fatima Nazari wants to change that.

Nazari, an Afghan parliamentarian, is the driving force behind the country's first political party dedicated to women's rights and issues. She launched National Need on February 19 at a ceremony in Kabul, saying the party hopes to put women's rights at the forefront of the national political debate. It intends to run in the next parliamentary elections, likely in three years' time.

"I believe women understand their own problems better than men would," she says, adding that National Need will seek to increase women's participation in politics and business. "We want to campaign for democracy, not only talk about democracy. In this way, we want to work with our brothers and the rest of Afghan society."

Some of Nazari's fellow deputies and officials in Kabul welcomed the creation of the country's first-ever women's political party. Some called it a step forward toward greater democracy and recognition of women's rights.

Because of quotas stipulated in the internationally backed Afghan Constitution, the Afghan parliament has a relatively high representation of women -- 23 of the 100 members of the upper house and 68 of the 249 deputies in the lower house are women.

But in a deeply conservative Islamic country devastated by decades of war, poverty, and a lack of education, that's not enough. "I have already dealt with women's issues as a deputy," Nazari tells RFE/RL. "But I eventually felt that we Afghans needed a special party entirely focused on women to raise their profile."

Tradition Of Exclusion, Abuse

Not everyone is so optimistic. Nazari says the party already boasts 22,500 registered members, men and women, not only in Kabul but also conservative areas such as Paktika, Maidan Wardak, and Helmand. Yet can a neophyte political party hope to change traditional views about the role of women in a place like Afghanistan?

Maryam Panjsheri has her doubts. A female activist in the northern Panjsher Valley, she says she is "highly skeptical" about National Need's potential to forge change beyond the capital and a few bigger cities, such as Mazar-e Sharif or Herat.

"It's all for show," Panjsheri tells RFE/RL. "The party leaders will give speeches, interviews, set up seminars -- and that's all they'll do. I don't think women's organizations play a significant role in Afghan women's lives. I don't believe there is such a group that fights for their economic well-being, rights, or health care. I'm just being realistic."

Besides all the war and poverty, Afghan women are also systematically excluded from social, political, and public life, and are often victims of domestic violence. Even Afghan officials admit that while women have improved job and educational opportunities since the fall of the Taliban, domestic violence against women is unchanged. It might be even more common than before. According to the Ministry of Women's Affairs, over the last year more than 2,000 cases of violence against women have been registered. Yet most abuse goes unreported.

Often, very young Afghan girls are also victims of fixed marriages. Some parents force their daughters -- sometimes as young as 8-years-old -- into marriage to settle debts or family feuds.

Moreover, women usually cannot leave their families or seek a divorce, because in many parts of Afghanistan divorce is considered dishonorable. A divorced woman cannot return to her parents' family and, in an impoverished country with widespread unemployment, she cannot rebuild her life on her own, either.

Some women seek escape by self-immolation, resulting in death or disfigurement. Last year, at least 30 women committed suicide in the western Farah Province alone, most of them by setting themselves on fire, according to Afghan media reports.

One Step At a Time

Panjsheri acknowledges her hopes may seem unrealistic. "We know our goals won't be easy to implement, but they are realistic," she says. "We know it won't happen overnight. It may take many years." Panjsheri adds that the biggest challenge will be to reach the women in the most conservative families.

For now, that's a tall order. "Parents who deny education for their daughters, force their young girls into marriage, or a husband who abuses his wife, definitely would not allow rights activists to meet their daughters and wives to educate them about their rights and invite them into politics and business," she says.

But you've got to start somewhere, says Malolai Rushandil Osmani, a women's rights activist in the northern Balkh Province. Speaking to RFE/RL, Osmani acknowledges the challenges facing both women and women's rights activists. "It's a difficult task, especially in the conservative southern and eastern provinces. But one way or another, you have to try."

Osmani, who runs the women's NGO Foundation to Defend Afghan Women's Rights, has her own tactics for promoting women's rights in sensitive areas. "When we go to a village, first of all we talk to the local elderly and the local religious leader," she says. "With their approval, we can then meet with their families. Everybody accepts the fact that it would be better if women dealt with women's issues."

Since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, millions of Afghan girls have returned to school all over the country. Many women now have access to jobs and medical care. In the past five years, in the southern city of Kandahar alone, some 5,000 women have graduated from special literacy courses where they were taught to read and write as well as skills such as dressmaking or computer knowledge. And recently, the government announced a strategy to give nearly one-third of state jobs to women by 2012.

"Let's just hope the new party's leaders really seek to improve Afghan women's lives, and that they include every woman everywhere -- from Kabul to the most remote villages," Osmani says.

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

Afghanistan: Analysts Mixed On Pakistani Elections' Impact On Regional Security

By Abubakar Siddique

Demonstrators in Islamabad demanding free elections

There are no signs of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency abating along the Afghan-Pakistani border. If anything, the run-up to Pakistan's parliamentary vote has seen rising violence in the tribal regions, with scores killed in attacks in the last week alone.

That's a big concern across the border in Afghanistan, where some worry that flawed elections in Pakistan on February 18 might exacerbate a security situation already on razor's edge.

Publicly, the Taliban in Pakistan has announced a preelection cease-fire with the military. Yet a roadside bombing on February 13 killed two people and injured many more in the restive Swat district in northwest Pakistan. In the last week alone, at least 24 people have been killed in attacks.

But will the parliamentary elections make security better or worse?

Larry Robinson, a former U.S. diplomat in Islamabad, is a Washington-based South Asia analyst. He tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan a democratically elected Pakistani government could deal a major blow to the insurgency plaguing both Islamabad and neighboring Afghanistan.

"Over time, only that kind of [elected] government is going to have the broadly accepted credibility to tackle these very serious [security] problems that Pakistan and Afghanistan face," Robinson says. "But I think in the near term, the only serious impact, one way or the other, from the elections would be if the election is viewed as not having been credible and there is a widespread unrest and turmoil in Pakistan that will have a debilitating affect."

Fallout From Unfair Elections Feared

Analysts argue that Islamist militants in the short term will be the only victors should the election process prove to have been flawed. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf denies there will be irregularities in the process, but international observers say that the polls are unlikely to be free or fair.

If that's the case, Pakistan could descend into further chaos, analysts say. And instability in Pakistan would have negative repercussions for Kabul -- not only for Afghan security but for its economy, too.

The southern Pakistani seaport of Karachi is a major conduit for landlocked Afghanistan's exports and imports. While inflation and a record winter cold have already pushed many impoverished Afghans to the edge, instability in Pakistan would herald a new wave of inflation in food prices as Kabul imports essential commodities from its neighbor.

But Afghans are focused on the political fallout of the elections.

Ahmed Saidi, an Afghan analyst, says that violence and intimidation have overshadowed the Pakistani election process and that low voter turnout is expected to result in a split mandate for the various parties. That, in turn, might spell more instability in Pakistan and the region.

"After the Pakistani elections, I do not believe that any single political party will be able to form a government," he tells Radio Free Afghanistan. "These elections will not be free and fair and will in turn attract a lot of criticism [from all sides]."

But some observers are not so pessimistic. For example, they point to polls that suggest that the country's Islamist parties are expected to suffer heavy losses in the polls. That could help the government quell a Taliban insurgency long supported by Islamist parties such as Jamiat-e Ulema-e Islam (JUI).

Marvin Weinbaum, a South Asia expert at Washington's Middle East Institute, says that defeat by the Islamist parties could augur well for stability in Afghanistan because the winning parties could include the two main forces most likely to frown on the Taliban: the Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) of late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the Awami National Party, a secular Pashtun party.

"If the JUI party, if it finds itself having to give up the control of the Northwest Frontier Province -- this could conceivably, if there were, say, an alliance between the PPP and the Awami National Party, this would be a combination which would look much less favorably [and] sympathetically at the insurgency in Afghanistan," Weinbaum says. "JUI has looked really quite sympathetically at those who are challenging the Kabul government. So this could really make quite a difference."

Does Elected Government In Pakistan Matter?

But Afghans are not quite so optimistic about a major postelection breakthrough in their relations with Pakistan, which they suspect harbors and even supports Taliban militants.

Ajaml Sohail, a leader of the Afghan Liberal Democratic Party, maintains that Pakistan's elected civilian governments historically have had little influence on Islamabad's foreign policy -- especially policies toward key neighbors Afghanistan and India.

"Even when [Pakistan] had so-called elected democratic governments, they worked under military influence," Sohail says. "This was the case in [the 1990s], when we saw that Nawaz Sharif headed an elected government but his policies toward India and Afghanistan were hegemonistic. Similarly, Benazir Bhutto headed a democratic [political] system but the overall control was in the hands of the military and the intelligence [services]."

If more turmoil follows the elections, the security of both Pakistan and Afghanistan looks set to be jeopardized.

Pakistani author and journalist Zahid Hussain says that the elections are not expected to enhance popular support for the war on terror, which many Pakistanis see as an alien battle being fought on their soil. Such perceptions will add to the postelection instability.

Hussain says the insurgency in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands has turned into a single war, with Pakistan -- not Afghanistan -- becoming its prime victim.

"If you see that last year more than 50 suicide-bombing attacks [took] place and most of them had targeted the [Pakistani] military," Hussain says. "So it shows that its not only the [Northwest] Frontier [Province] and the tribal regions but Islamabad and Rawalpindi had also become the main target of terrorist attacks. So it doesn't bode well for the war on extremism."

As the campaign reaches it climax, Pakistan's political parties appear more concerned with winning power than charting strategies to tackle the gathering storm of extremism.

Afghanistan, not to mention India and the United States, will be watching carefully.