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Afghanistan Report: March 20, 2008

Radio Free Afghanistan Names 'Person Of The Year'

By Sonia Winter

Gul Agha Sherzai

An Afghan governor has been named Radio Free Afghanistan's "Person Of The Year" for his role in keeping the peace and reconstructing his war-torn province.

Listeners of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan (RFA) voted for Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of the eastern Nangarhar Province, in the first-ever nationwide "Person Of The Year" contest.

The award is given for advancing the cause of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and reconstruction.

Sherzai, a former governor of the Kandahar Province and former adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was credited with establishing the rule of law in the province, keeping the peace, eradicating poppy fields, and building an important highway between the capital Jalalabad and Torkham, on the border with Pakistan.

The announcement was made on air by RFA Director Akbar Ayazi to mark the beginning of the Afghan new year.

Sherzai, a blackbearded heavyset man with a commanding presence, is the son of a poor restaurant owner and ethnic Pashtun from the Kandahar Province.

He began calling himself Gul Agha as a mujahedin fighting the Soviet military in the 1970s. He later added Sherzai ("son of lion" in the Pashto language). Sherzai helped President Karzai drive the Taliban out of his native province and served as governor of Kandahar from 1992 to 1994.

After becoming governor of Nangarhar in 2004, Sherzai became known as "The Bulldozer," after he completed in record time daunting projects, including a network of roads, solar-powered street lights in the cities, and a historically accurate reconstruction of the presidential palace in Jalalabad.

In a 2007 interview to "The Sunday Times," Sherzai spoke about a project to turn the Tora Bora caves in Nangarhar, once Osama bin Laden's hideout, into a holiday resort. "Tora Bora is already a world-famous name but we want it to be known for tourism, not terrorism," Sherzai said.

Listener Votes

RFA Director Ayazi said that the 10 finalists were announced at the beginning of March and, in a two-week voting period, RFA received more than 400 calls a day from listeners.

"There was tremendous excitement about this among our listeners," Ayazi said, adding: "We were amazed by the response to our contest, our listeners participated in huge numbers. This is the first time Afghans could choose their own person of the year. Governor Sherzai was the clear choice of the people."

Ramazan Bashardost, an independent parliamentary deputy praised for his uncompromising stance against corruption, was awarded second place in the contest. A well-known women's rights activist and deputy Shokria Barikzai was also in the final running.

Told by RFE/RL that he was in line for the award, Sherzai said: "No matter what, I will continue to serve my people and help make Afghanistan a lawful and law-abiding country."

Cheney Meets Karzai In Kabul To Discuss Strategy

Cheney (left) with Karzai in Kabul

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has made an unannounced visit to Kabul for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in the middle of what was an announced nine-day tour of the Middle East and Turkey.

Cheney was taken from Kabul International Airport by a U.S. military helicopter to the presidential palace in Kabul where he met with Karzai.

Speaking with Karzai at a press conference after their talks, Cheney said the meeting focused on the existing U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership. He said the two also discussed how their countries will continue to work together in the future to fight terrorism and rebuild Afghanistan.

"I'm here to reaffirm the bonds of friendship and cooperation that define relations between our two countries," Cheney said. "Having led a coalition to remove the former [Taliban] regime, the United States continues to lead the effort to rebuild Afghanistan and to help its people consolidate the gains of democracy."

Cheney emphasized that international forces will remain in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to build the Afghan military and police forces so that they can secure the country on their own.

"The United States and the other members of the coalition need to have a sufficient force here to be able to ensure security to deal with the threat that has been represented by continuing activities by radicals and extremists of the likes of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda," he said. "But ultimately, security in Afghanistan will depend upon the ability of the Afghan people to provide adequate forces that are well trained and well equipped."

President Karzai described Cheney's remarks as "encouraging." But he also said it would take "a long time" before Afghan security institutions are able to do the job without international support.

"We would like an effective continuation of the two missions that we have here," Karzai said. "One is the fight against terrorism. The other is the rebuilding of Afghanistan -- and especially the rebuilding of the security institutions, the army. As it is a gradual improvement on our side, it is also a gradual reduction of responsibility on the shoulders of the international community. But that is not going to be any time soon. Afghanistan will need, for a long time, support from the international community in the rebuilding exercise here in Afghanistan and in the strengthening of the Afghan security institutions."

International Support 'A Must'

Karzai also stressed that Afghanistan needs continued help on security not just from the United States, but also from other countries in the NATO alliance.

"In my meetings with the Afghan people, I find out that the army is more and more seen as a force that brings stability," he said. "As the Afghan army gets stronger and stronger, so the pressure will lessen on the international security forces. Until then, the cooperation between Afghanistan and the rest of the international community is a must -- both for the war against terrorism and stability in Afghanistan."

The United States, Canada, and Britain have been calling for other NATO countries to increase their contributions of troops and equipment to Afghanistan. In particular, they want NATO's European allies to deploy combat troops to southern Afghanistan to battle Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.

Cheney said Afghanistan is better off by virtue of NATO's presence in the country. But he said the NATO commitment needs to be reinforced.

"When the [U.S.] President [George W. Bush] goes to Bucharest in a couple of weeks to participate in the NATO summit, one of the most important items on the agenda will be the NATO role and mission here in Afghanistan," he said. "I would expect that we will see a reaffirmation and a resumption, if you will -- a renewal -- of the commitment that we have made collectively as an alliance to the independence and freedom of the people of Afghanistan. I'm quite confident, in fact, that NATO will continue to play a major role and hopefully even expand their efforts beyond those that they've already undertaken."

Cheney also said that Pakistan's tribal regions near the border with Afghanistan must be controlled by the country's new government, which is emerging as a result of parliamentary elections there last month.

"We look forward to working with the new government of Pakistan once it is finalized as a result of the elections," Cheney said. "We believe that a government has an obligation to control its sovereign territory to make certain that that territory doesn't become a safe haven or sanctuary for special terrorist groups intending to do harm to others. I would expect that Pakistan will certainly fulfill that obligation in the years ahead. That's important not only to the people of Pakistan but also to others who might be threatened by developments in that area if they are not properly controlled by the sovereign government of Pakistan."

Cheney has already visited Iraq and Oman on his current tour. According to his planned schedule he also plans to visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Turkey.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Ahmad Djakfar and Jawad Mujahed contributed to this report from Kabul.

Al-Qaeda Bloggers' Sparring With Taliban Could Signal Key Differences

By Ron Synovitz

Mullah Omar (center, in 1996 photo) purportedly heads the Taliban leadership council

An Internet-fueled squabble between Taliban leaders and influential Al-Qaeda sympathizers over nonviolent tactics and foreign influence in Afghanistan hints at deep disagreements that could alter counterinsurgency efforts in that country.

Islamic extremists who regularly post messages to a pro-Al-Qaeda website in Egypt are accusing Afghanistan's Taliban of straying from the path of global jihad. Prominent Taliban have responded by lashing back with criticism of their own.

The development suggests a rift is emerging between the Taliban leadership and religious extremists in the Arab world -- including the Al-Qaeda network that the Taliban had hosted in Afghanistan while it planned the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

Such a break could affect Afghan government efforts to convince Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons and peacefully resolve their differences with officials, which could in turn influence whether non-Afghan Al-Qaeda fighters continue to be welcomed among the Taliban.

Internet criticisms of the Taliban follow a February statement from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar announcing that his movement wants to maintain positive and "legitimate" relations with countries neighboring Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar, who heads a Taliban leadership council that was purportedly formed in 2003, also has said that the Taliban is exploring the possibility of holding peace negotiations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.

"We want to have legitimate relations with all countries of the world," Mullah Omar's statement said. "We are not a threat to anyone. America believes that the Taliban is a threat to the whole world. And with this propaganda, America wants to use all other countries to advance their own interests."

Pro-Al-Qaeda bloggers who were angered by Mullah Omar's statement were further outraged in early March when the Taliban expressed solidarity with Iran by condemning the latest round of sanctions imposed on Tehran by the UN Security Council over its nuclear activities.

'Nationalist Trend'

Anyone with a password can post messages to the Al-Qaeda linked website. But some of the harshest remarks about the Taliban leadership have come from writers who are labeled as among the most influential on the website.

One of those bloggers -- who calls himself "Miskeen" or "The Wretched" -- responded to the Taliban declaration on Iran by writing: "This is the worst statement I have ever read.... [T]he disaster of defending the [Iranian] regime is on par with the Crusaders in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Mullah Salam Zaief has been a prominent spokesman for the Taliban since the 2001 ouster

"Miskeen" also wrote that a "nationalist trend" appears to be penetrating the Taliban. Other pro Al-Qaeda bloggers have called for Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri to censure the Taliban over their recent statements.

But the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan -- Mullah Salam Zaief -- tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the bloggers have no understanding of the topic.

"Somebody who is speaking from Egypt really doesn't have knowledge of the exact situation on the ground in Afghanistan," Zaief says. "He doesn't even convey the policies of the whole organization [of Al-Qaeda]."

"The conflict in Afghanistan doesn't mean [the Taliban] has to confront the world," Zaief continues. "Afghans are very tired of war. They want their homeland. They want peace in their country. They want independence. Whether they are Taliban or other Afghans, I don't think either wants to confront the entire international community. The Taliban doesn't want to rule the world."

A Path To Talks?

Independent analysts link the Taliban's quest for international legitimacy to the possibility of future negotiations with Karzai's government.

Karzai said in September that he was ready to negotiate with the Taliban, including Mullah Omar himself, in order to put an end to the Afghan insurgency. In December, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood said he would support reconciliation talks -- with some conditions.

One of the main sticking points for negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban appears to be the fate of Al-Qaeda. Formal negotiations could lead to the expulsion of Al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan if they did not commit themselves to supporting Karzai's government.

When asked what the Taliban thinks about Al-Qaeda extremists trying to dictate Taliban policies in Afghanistan, Zaief said foreign extremists are more interested in their own benefit than what is good for Afghans.

"I think every Afghan now has the experience that with intolerance toward each other -- if people do not live in peace and harmony with each other -- the bloodshed and devastation will continue for a long time," Zaief said. "Nobody has the right to ignore the importance of stability in Afghanistan. They should at least not be making such irresponsible comments. [The Al-Qaeda bloggers] were raising the question of the foreign-troop presence in Afghanistan. But now, I think Afghans have to tolerate the presence of foreign troops in the country because they have no other option."

Although Zaief lives in Kabul and his location is known by Karzai's government, he is still considered a prominent member of the Taliban whose views reflect those of the Taliban leadership. But his remarks about the need for Afghans to tolerate the presence of foreign troops were not supported by a Taliban statement on the issue released on March 11.

That statement says the Taliban's fight is aimed only at driving U.S.-led coalition forces from Afghanistan. It calls on U.S. allies to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. It also calls on Afghanistan's former mujahedin factions to help the Taliban drive U.S. troops from the country.

Leaders of some of those mujahedin factions helped U.S. forces drive the Taliban regime from Kabul in late 2001 and now hold positions within Karzai's cabinet or are prominent members of the Afghan parliament.

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

Pakistani Appointee Vows To Do Good By Afghanistan

By Abubakar Siddique

Pro-Taliban militants line a road in the Swat Valley in October

The Pakistani government's selection to serve as chief minister for restive western tribal areas has stressed the need to "restore peace and security" in the Pashtun-dominated area and foster good relations with neighboring Afghanistan.

Amir Haider Khan Hoti, who heads Pakistan's secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), also warned in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan of a growing Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency.

"We need stable, friendly, and cordial relations with Afghanistan," Hoti said. "Pakistan needs peace and stability in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan needs a stable and friendly Pakistan."

The U.S. intelligence community and Afghan central government have repeatedly asserted that Islamist radicals are exporting terror from hiding places in lawless regions of western Pakistan, particularly the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) where Hoti's responsibilities will lie.

Embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has acknowledged that Islamic extremists pose a threat and has led sporadic efforts to root out militants and firebrand clerics who foment violence.

"Our priorities are clear. We first want to move toward peace through negotiations, jirgas (tribal councils), and dialogues," Hoti said. "God willing, we will learn from [failed talks and jirgas in the past] and will try not to repeat the same mistakes. We will try to take into confidence our people, our tribal elders, and our [clerics] -- and, together with them, we will try to move toward peace through negotiations."

He said such consultations had already begun in the district of Swat, a hotbed of tension and violence near the Afghan border where reports have stoked fears of increased Taliban influence.

Hoti outlined a need for reforms amid long-standing disappointment among NWFP residents, who have historically kept central authorities at arm's length and suffered economically.

"We definitely need change in that region, because these regions have been run under a [draconian] legal regime since the British [colonial rule in the 19th century]," Hoti said. "That system has alienated and disappointed our brothers living in those regions. We will try our best to bring economic and political reforms to those regions so that the lives of people can improve. Reforms there are a must."

Afghanistan: Beating Children Considered Normal, But Attitudes Changing

By Ron Synovitz

Are Afghan parents' attitudes on child rearing changing?

Ten-year-old Farhad is one of seven children in a family from Kabul. His mother and father have a hard time earning enough money to feed the entire family, so Farhad shares some of their burden by washing cars to earn money for the family.

With so many mouths to feed and so little income for the family, Farhad is not allowed to play with other children in the neighborhood or go outside to play in his free time. And if he disobeys the rules, Farhad says, his father disciplines him with beatings.

"Sometimes, when I come home late, my father doesn't let me have dinner. Once, he beat me so hard that he gave me a bloody nose and a cut on my head," Farhad said. "I wash cars to make money, and if I come home without much money, he beats me and asks for more money" to help feed the rest of the family.

Farhad's mother says she thinks that beating her children is not the best form of discipline -- but she does consider it to be necessary and justified in some cases.

Still, Farhad's mother says her husband sometimes goes too far. "I don't beat my children often. I love them. But sometimes they behave badly -- for example, fighting with the neighbor's children. Then I will beat them," she said. "But when their father comes home, just seeing his children behaving badly, he starts beating them. There have been times when he has beaten them until they fell unconscious. And I ask him to please stop. They are just growing up. But he still does it."

Common Parenting Tool

The family's acceptance of corporal punishment as a necessary tool of parenting is not unusual in Afghanistan. New research published in Kabul says it is common for adults in Afghanistan to discipline their children by beating them.

But the study by the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) also found that attitudes among Afghans are changing. Many Afghan parents recognize that violence causes physical and psychological harm to children.

Deborah Smith, a coauthor of the study and a senior researcher on gender and health issues at AREU, said the smallest group of those surveyed saw corporal punishment as "a good way of bringing up children." Others saw it as a last resort if milder discipline has not worked.

But another group, "a significant number of people, felt that all violence toward children was wrong," Smith said. "There was quite a high level within the communities that felt violence toward children was not acceptable -- that it is not a good way to treat children. However, alongside that, violence toward children in the community within their families was seen as accepted, widely used, and recognized."

AREU interviewed Afghan parents across the country about their views, and found that they were open to new ways of thinking.

"People were extremely willing to discuss these things with the research team...both within the private forum of an interview but also in the public space of a focus-group discussion," Smith said. "People's ideas about violence toward children in the family were not fixed. They were flexible. People changed their ideas over the course of one focus group, and people changed their ideas over the time of the research. We think that is very important for change."

Smith says the remarks by Farhad's mother reflect a widespread view among Afghan parents about disciplining their children.

"People talked a lot about how violence is wrong. But they would say, 'What else can I do?' They would say, 'It makes me sad when I'm violent to my children.' Or they would say, 'I regret hitting my children. But what else can we do to make them behave or to stop them from being naughty?'" Smith said.

'To Teach Them A Lesson'

When RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan asked Farhad's father about beating his children unconscious, he denied he had done anything wrong.

"When a father or a mother becomes angry and beats their child, they do it because they don't want their child to become a bad person," he said. "When they beat the children, it is not because of faults within the father or mother. It is because of something the child has done."

Farhad's father also said that beating his children is the only way he knows to teach them to be polite to others. "When I go home and I see my children playing without manners, I slap them to discipline them and to teach them to be polite. Especially when the boys are naughty. This is normal. You must slap them at least two or three times to teach them a lesson," he said.

But one six-year-old boy in Kabul -- with scars on his face from being beaten by his father -- told Radio Free Afghanistan that his father gets out of control when he becomes angry. The boy, who asked not to be named, says he has learned only fear and guilt from being beaten so severely.

"My father beats me with a belt. Several times he's beaten me so hard that he's broken my teeth. He's even whipped me with a cable," the boy said. "When he beats me, I'm frightened, so I try to hide until my mother comes and protects me. Sometimes, he also beats my mother because of me. You can see that I have scars near my eyes and on my head. That's from my father beating me with his belt."

Smith says the AREU research focused only on attitudes about violence, rather than addressing the long-term psychological impact that violence can have upon children. But Smith says additional research is under way about domestic violence in Afghanistan to try to answer those questions. She noted that Afghans share a general understanding that beatings lead to a cycle of violence in which children who are beaten growing up often treat their children the same way.

However, she said, "we certainly found evidence that it also works the other way. Some people experienced violence [when they were young and] therefore are very keen that their own children don't experience the same levels of violence. Also, a much wider study on violence in the family will be coming out over the next few months, and the same was said. Some men who'd witnessed their fathers beating their mothers didn't want to do the same to their own wives."

Smith concludes that one reason for the changing attitudes has been the return of millions of refugees to Afghanistan from abroad. She says Afghans who have lived for years in other countries have seen that there are effective, nonviolent ways to discipline children -- and they have brought those ideas back to Afghanistan with them.

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sharifa Safi contributed to this report from Kabul

Afghanistan: UN Food Agency Races To Prevent Humanitarian Crisis

WFP food rations being distributed in mid-2007 in Helmand Province

A crippling food shortage in Afghanistan exacerbated by a harsh winter and an astronomical rise in the price of wheat has led the UN's World Food Program (WFP) to begin distributing emergency food aid.

The UN food agency has begun providing emergency wheat deliveries to millions of Afghans in an attempt to prevent a humanitarian crisis. It plans to distribute aid packages this week containing wheat, beans, and cooking oil to some 650,000 people in and around Kabul, with aid shipments to remote areas to follow.

"We say that among these 6 million that we have estimated, 3.5 million are regularly in need of our food, and almost 3 million people are seasonally in need of our food," WFP spokesman Ebadullah Ebad tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "We are concerned about those people who are living in remote areas. We are concerned about the shortage of food and getting food to them in that rugged terrain. If we don't get that food there on time to those people in remote areas, we think that there will be a [humanitarian] crisis."

Ebad says recent price increases for wheat on the global market has meant that ordinary Afghans have seen wheat prices rise by 70 percent during the past year -- making it difficult for impoverished Afghans to purchase the food staple.

"The price of wheat last year per kilogram was 15 afghanis," Ebad says. "This year, one kilogram of wheat is about 27 to 28 afghanis -- which is almost 50 cents. This shows that people who have a very low income are vulnerable."

Indeed, three months ago, the UN appealed for donor countries to send $77 million in additional funds to help Afghans affected by the global surge in the price of wheat.

Ebad says the food is needed in both urban and rural areas of Afghanistan during the next three months: "We had asked for pledges to help about 2.5 million people who are vulnerable because of the increase of food prices in Afghanistan. We have asked the donor countries to help us with $77 million so we can buy about 89,000 metric tons of wheat."

So far, Ebad says, donor countries have responded by sending an additional $40 million in aid. Ebad adds that the remaining $37 million has been promised by donor countries but has not yet been sent, and stresses that it takes at least four months before contributions can make their way into the country, through warehouses, and to the people.

Ebad adds that violence and lawlessness in some parts of Afghanistan continue to hamper efforts to deliver aid to needy Afghans, in addition to adverse weather and rising costs.

"It's a mixture of man-made disasters and also natural disasters," Ebadi says. "The most vulnerable people are living in remote areas -- for example Badakhshan, Dai Kundi, Bamiyan, or Faryab. Those are the provinces mostly affected by natural disasters. Sometimes there are man-made disasters -- like in Helmand, one of the provinces where the conflict [continues] between the Taliban and coalition forces. And also, there are armed people on the way to Herat -- especially in Farah Province in the desert. They are attacking our convoys."

Rick Corsino, the World Food Program's Afghanistan director, says food distribution should be completed before the main midyear wheat harvest. Corsino says it is important that the additional food aid shipments do not discourage Afghan farmers from growing wheat for the domestic market.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Freshta Jalalzai contributed to this report from Prague