Vocal 'Warlord' Critic Seeks To Reverse Her Expulsion From Legislature
By Farangis Najibullah
Malalai Joya shortly after her election to parliament in late 2005
She's been called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan" for her criticism of warlords, and even compared to Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar's democracy movement. Now, Malalai Joya's courage is again being put to the test.
After being expelled from parliament in May for allegedly insulting her fellow deputies, Joya has launched a bid to regain her seat. Joya told reporters on April 5 that she has always been determined to get the expulsion overturned, and that she is finally ready to take her battle all the way to Afghanistan's highest legal body, the Supreme Court.
She says her suspension from parliament violated her freedom of speech, democratic values as well as the Afghan Constitution. "The reason it took me so long to appeal against my expulsion was mostly due to security issues," the 29-year-old says. "There was also a financial reason. Defense lawyers asked for an amount of money that I couldn't afford."
Joya became a lightning rod for controversy through her harsh criticism of former warlords, whom she says hold key positions in the government and parliament. "Instead of getting influential positions in the government and dominating the parliament, the former warlords should be tried and punished for their actions," Joya has said.
Afghanistan's parliament passed an amnesty law in March 2007 that prevents the state from independently prosecuting people for war crimes committed during conflicts in recent decades. Supporters say the law will help bring national reconciliation, but critics say alleged war criminals in the parliament were simply shielding themselves from prosecution.
Following a television interview she gave two months after passage of the amnesty, Afghan lawmakers voted to suspend Joya for three years -- although their authority to take such a step was immediately questioned. But the move effectively expelled Joya from the current parliament, whose five-year mandate is scheduled to end in 2010, although it could end sooner.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking at a news conference in Kabul on April 6, suggested that the parliamentary polls could be moved up by one year to run in conjunction with presidential elections set for 2009 and therefore save money. Karzai also indicated that he intends to run for reelection.
In her interview in May 2007 to Tolo television, Joya compared the parliament to a stable full of animals.
Joya has steadfastly refused to apologize for the comment. On April 5, she reiterated her criticism of legislators, saying she could count the number of honest ones on her fingers. The others, she said, were organized crime figures, drug dealers, and other criminal elements.
Joya, a women's rights worker from Farah Province, first gained international prominence in December 2003, when she harshly criticized the dominance of warlords during the Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, which had convened to ratify the new Afghan Constitution.
Her remarks sparked outraged among many prominent figures, including the chief of the Loya Jirga, Sibghatullah Mojaddadi, who called Joya an "infidel" and a "communist."
Since then, Joya has reportedly survived four assassination attempts. However, she has said that she is not afraid of death threats, and vowed to continue her mission to fight for women's rights.
Joya, the daughter of a former medical student, spent most of her childhood in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. She returned to Afghanistan in 1998, during the Taliban's reign, and established an orphanage and health clinic. She later became the head of the Organization of Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities, an NGO that operates in the provinces of Farah and Herat.
Joya's supporters compare her to Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the symbol of Burma's democratic movement. But her critics allege that during her trips to the West, Joya merely promotes herself and does not try to attract aid or investment to impoverished Farah, the province that elected her to parliament.
Joya supporters took to the streets after her expulsion by the upper house in May (AFP)
Joya's lawyer, Mohammad Zaman, says he believes Joya will win her parliamentary seat back. However, others are less optimistic.
Nasrullah Stanakzai, a law professor at Kabul University, says that while the decision to suspend Joya was a violation of the law, lawmakers would find a way to keep Joya out of the legislature.
"Although it is too early to say how the court would decide on this case, I think the court will come under political pressure from parliament," Stanakzai says. "Parliament or the Afghan government can start a political game against Malalai, if they want to do so. For instance, they would drag the court procedure out for very long time -- until the end of this parliament's term -- and Malalai Joya will be deprived of her right to reenter the parliament."
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ahmad Takal contributed to this report
Analysis: Who 'Won' The NATO Summit?
By Brian Whitmore
U.S. President George W. Bush, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left to right) chat at the summit on April 3
BUCHAREST -- The initial post mortems on this week's NATO's summit in Bucharest are reminiscent of the old fable about a group of blindfolded men trying to identify the elephant in their midst. Touching just the tusks leads to one conclusion, the trunk another, and the tail yet another.
As the various delegations issued their final assessments before packing up to leave the Romanian capital on April 4, everybody was claiming victory. And in a way, everybody was right -- it just depended on which issue each side chose to highlight.
For Albania and Croatia, who received membership invitations, the summit was a clear triumph.
Russia pointed to the fact that Georgia and Ukraine were not granted their coveted Membership Action Plans (MAP), a key step before full membership, as evidence that the Kremlin had averted the alliance's further expansion into the post-Soviet space.
Washington, meanwhile, touted NATO's endorsement of a U.S.-backed missile-defense system in Europe, which Moscow staunchly opposes, as one key U.S. diplomatic victory.
Speaking to reporters prior to a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council on April 4, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer acknowledged that the summit had illuminated the growing complexity of Moscow's relations with the trans-Atlantic alliance.
"Today our relations are truly multifaceted, influenced both by political realities and issues on which we differ, as well as by practical and very pragmatic common interests," de Hoop Scheffer said. "At our meeting here this morning, we'll take stock of our commonalities but also seek ways to intensify the process of finding political common denominators on the issues on which we do not agree."
Beyond A 'Shimmer Of A Doubt'
Spin aside, a close look at the summit's results shows that Washington and its allies in former-Communist "new Europe" actually walked away with a lot more than most had expected.
Take the issue of enlargement, for example -- an issue that initially looked like an embarrassing diplomatic blow to the United States. Washington -- backed by Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States -- pushed hard for the NATO allies to give Georgia and Ukraine their MAPs in Bucharest. Germany and France, reluctant to provoke Russia, prevented that from happening.
But Tbilisi and Kyiv didn't walk away empty handed. In fact, they got something that both the Georgian and Ukrainian presidents claim is even better than a MAP: a firm commitment from NATO that they would eventually become full members.
In case there was any doubt about that seriousness of that commitment, de Hoop Scheffer meticulously spelled it out for everyone at a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on April 4. "If the sentence, 'We agreed today that these countries...' in the text -- read Ukraine and Georgia -- '...will become members of NATO' leaves a shimmer of a doubt," he posited, "not in my opinion."
Robin Shepherd, head of the Europe Program at the London-based Chatham House think tank, described the result as a face-saving compromise whereby no side got everything it wanted, but no one was completely disappointed.
"This was the inevitable compromise that had to happen," Shepherd said. "Everybody, therefore, can walk away with something from this. The Americans have saved face because they've got a strong commitment to bring these countries into NATO, and the Europeans can save face because it didn't actually happen at this summit."
To hear Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, tell it, both walked away with smashing victories.
Saakashvili was reportedly furious on the evening of April 2, when it became clear that no MAPs would be granted. But by the afternoon of April 3, when the compromise solution emerged, Saakashvili could barely contain his delight in remarks to reporters.
"I think we should be very happy. We were pleasantly surprised because this morning I still thought we wouldn't get anything," Saakashvili said. "What we were offered before was an action plan for membership...guidelines how to get to MAP -- so it was all something like a preceding technical stage for eventual, possible, theoretic membership. And suddenly we jumped over the technical stage and they decided to accept Georgia and Ukraine as members."
Speaking the same day, Yushchenko also said the NATO commitment to full membership was better than he dared hope.
"This can only be seen as a victory, and I will explain why. It is because in today's document, for the first time, the 26 NATO members states formulated the basic principle that these countries (Ukraine and Georgia) will become members of NATO. I would say this even exceeded our expectations regarding this document."
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg told RFE/RL in an interview that the former Communist countries of "new Europe" -- most notaby Poland -- were instrumental in getting the reluctant French and Germans to agree to a firm commitment for eventual Georgian and Ukrainian membership.
Washington Wish List
While enlargement dominated much of the summit, the United States could also claim victory on several other fronts.
In addition to winning a NATO endorsement for its controversial European missile-defense project -- which would place a radar station in the Czech Republic and a missile inteceptor base in Poland -- the United States also got key concessions from Russia and France that will help the Western alliance's troubled mission in Afghanistan.
France agreed to send a battalion to Afghanistan to relieve overstretched U.S. and Canadian forces.
Speaking at a press conference with Romanian President Traian Basescu on April 2, Bush expressed gratitude to his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy.
"I was very pleased to listen to the comments of President Sarkozy, where he indicated his willingness to increase troop presence," Bush said. "Other nations have agreed to step up, including Romania, and so we'll see how it goes. That's what summits are for. Summits are opportunities for people to make clear their intentions about how they intend to support this very important mission."
Russian President Vladimir Putin himself handed the United States a diplomatic victory by agreeing to allow for the transport of nonlethal military equipment across its territory to Afghanistan.
There are still some diplomatic conflicts on the horizon, both among NATO members and between the Western alliance and Russia.
NATO foreign ministers will revisit Ukraine and Georgia's bid for MAPs in December, and the two countries bids will certainly be on the table when the allies meet for NATO's 60th anniversary summit next spring.
Despite Putin's generally conciliatory tone in his press conference on April 4, the Russian leader also issued a stern warning to the trans-Atlantic alliance.
"The appearance on our borders of a powerful military bloc, whose members' actions are regulated, among other [documents], by Article 5 of the Washington [North Atlantic] Treaty, will be taken in Russia as a direct threat to the security of our country," Putin said. "And we cannot be satisfied with statements that this process is not aimed against Russia."
Pakistan: New Government Announces Major Reforms In Tribal Areas
By Abubakar Siddique
A market in western Pakistan
Pakistan's new coalition government has announced plans to abolish the century-old Frontier Crimes Regulations in the troubled tribal areas along the Afghan border as one of its major reform inititiatives.
The century-old legal regime has long been seen as violating basic human rights while secluding these underdeveloped regions from modernity and progress.
In his inaugural speech, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani announced that his government will abolish what he called the "obsolete" Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). He also vowed to bring "economic, social, and political reforms" to the tribal areas, where illiteracy and poverty have helped spread terrorism.
On April 1, his new government announced the formation of a four-member parliamentary committee to look into replacing the FCR in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Ismail Khan, a journalist and analyst from the western Pakistani city of Peshawar, says political and administrative reforms are a must in these regions. But so far, the new government has not made it clear whether it wants to merely tweak the prevailing order or introduce a sweeping new governance system in the tribal areas.
Khan, who has covered the region for nearly two decades, says people in the tribal areas have mixed views about reforms in their homeland.
"Many people want the FCR to be completely abolished, but they have divergent views about what should replace it," Khan says. "Some people want [Islamic] Shari'a laws, while others want to be integrated into Pakistan so that all Pakistani laws can be extended to it [the tribal areas] -- so it can become like any other province or district."
Many locals consider the new initiative to be a make-or-break opportunity for their homeland.
Covering some 27,000 square kilometers and abutting the Afghan border, some of the FATA's current problems are rooted in centuries of history. To undermine the fierce Pashtun opposition to the British Indian empire in the late 19th century, the British engineered an ingenious legal regime to administer those regions. Although it promised internal autonomy, the system kept isolated the Pashtun border tribes, which in recent years have become a central front in the U.S.-declared war on terror.
The current form of the FCR was implemented in 1901. Besides giving enormous authority to a local administrator called the Political Agent, the FCR prevents local residents from participating in politics. It also established collective responsibility, whereby an entire community is deemed responsible for the actions of an individual. Over six decades, Pakistani governments have done little to change that colonial order.
Latif Afridi, a Pashtun nationalist politician and tribal elder from the Khyber region, tells RFE/RL that the FATA already exists as a lawless space because Taliban and Al-Qaeda efforts have already eroded most governance structures.
He adds that Pakistan should have replaced the draconian legal regime a long time ago, but the powerful bureaucracy has prevented reforms -- partly to continue to profit from corruption in the secluded region.
"Today there is insecurity and a war is raging across the tribal areas," Afridi says. "Our tribal leaders are being killed, our homes are being burned and the people of FATA are impoverished while they continue to face an uncertain life. In these conditions, abolishing this [system of] law is much needed and the right step."
No Quick Fixes
Experts agree that the FCR and the governance mechanism it perpetuates have resulted in the current chronic underdevelopment of the region. With 60 percent poverty levels, only 17 percent of the region's estimated 7 million Pashtun residents are literate. Electricity and basic health care are denied to most of the population, and high unemployment rates push the region's youth toward extremism.
Afridi suggests that apart form large-scale development efforts, Pashtuns in the tribal areas would like to see major political reforms.
"People in the tribal areas want basic human rights," Afridi says. "They want representation in the provincial assembly of the [Northwest Frontier Province]. They also want municipal bodies and elections to choose their representatives for those bodies."
Afridi adds that all the regular laws of Pakistan should be extended to FATA, but says the judiciary in the region should also have the power to allow locals to settle their disputes in traditional tribal councils or in accordance with Islamic law.
Mehmood Shah, the former head of security affairs in the tribal areas, warns that reforms in the restive regions should be undertaken at a slow pace.
"If the government wants to implement a new law, they will need [administrative] machinery to implement that law; so first we will need to have a new administration," Shah says. "Second, we will need a new judicial system. A [robust] system of revenue is also necessary for governance. Similarly, we will also need a system of looking after the finances."
He says the best scenario for the tribal areas is to have a system of governance in line with Pakistani laws while reflecting local traditions and customs.
"This new system should combine the judiciary with the traditional jirgas [tribal councils]," Shah says. "It will also be necessary to ask them [the tribal people] if they want such a system."
Previous Pakistani governments have also announced reform plans, but few were ever implemented. Since 2002, these regions have transformed into the central front in the war on terror. The big challenge facing the new government is how to move these regions from war and conflict toward peace and development.
France Offers Troops To Bolster ISAF Mission In Afghanistan
By Ron Synovitz
French ISAF troop numbers will grow
France says it will send an additional battalion of troops to eastern Afghanistan in a move that will allow the United States to shift forces from the east to the south and meet Canada's demand for help in the fight against the Taliban in the volatile southern provinces.
The arrangement was announced in Bucharest, where NATO heads of state are discussing how to revamp and bolster the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
NATO leaders were meeting behind closed doors today to discuss details of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to send additional French troops to Afghanistan.
France already has about 1,500 soldiers in Afghanistan. Since 2006, most have been deployed in or around Kabul, where the threat of Taliban violence is significantly lower than in southern provinces like Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan, and Zabul.
Sarkozy, under pressure from the United States and Canada, confirmed that France will send an additional battalion to eastern Afghanistan. (A battalion typically numbers about 700 or 800 soldiers.) French officials have mentioned various numbers as to the exact quantity of reinforcements they would send.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters late on April 2 that France will send "a substantial military contribution" to Afghanistan.
"I can confirm that the French government has offered a substantial military contribution to the operation in Afghanistan; they have made that offer for the east of the country," Appathurai said. "The United States has, building on that offer, agreed to offer troops to the south. These troops will meet Canada's requirement for a partner in the south that will allow Canada, with the necessary contributions also in terms of equipment -- to extend its mission in Afghanistan until 2011."
Canada currently has about 2,500 soldiers in the southern province of Kandahar -- the scene of some of the fiercest fighting against Taliban militants during the past two years. But Canada's parliament has threatened to withdraw those troops next year unless other NATO countries send at least 1,000 additional combat troops to help with the fight in Kandahar.
The Pentagon has sent 3,500 U.S. Marines for a seven-month deployment to Kandahar in an attempt to placate those demands. But the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, says those troops are not scheduled to be replaced when their tour expires. Mullen also has suggested that the United States will be hard-pressed to maintain surge operations in Iraq while it also increases troop commitments in Afghanistan.
U.S. President George W. Bush has been urging leaders of other countries at NATO's Bucharest summit to contribute more combat forces to keep pressure on the Taliban.
"Afghanistan still faces many challenges. The enemy has been driven from its strongholds and no longer controls a single Afghan city," Bush said. "But as this enemy has been defeated on the battlefield, they have turned increasingly to terrorist tactics such as suicide attacks and roadside bombs. And if we were to let up the pressure the extremists would reestablish safe havens across the country and use them to terrorize the people of Afghanistan and threaten our own. And that is why we'll stay on the offense."
With about 15,000 soldiers on the ground, mostly in eastern Afghanistan, the United States is the largest troop contributor to the 47,000-strong NATO-led ISAF mission. The United Kingdom follows with about 7,800 combat troops that are deployed mostly in Helmand Province.
Bush said other NATO countries need to share the burden of deploying troops capable of engaging in combat against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
"Clearly, some nations are more capable than others in sending troops into combat -- into harm's way," Bush said. "We fully understand the politics that prohibit some nations from contributing. But nations need to take this mission seriously because it is in our mutual interests."
Indeed, Sarkozy's offer is highly controversial in France. Opinion polls suggest 68 percent of French voters oppose the idea of sending any additional troops to Afghanistan.
That mood has been seized upon by legislators from France's opposition Socialist Party, such as Pierre Moscovici, who criticizes the move as an attempt to please the Bush administration.
"There is an Anglo-Saxon turn in French diplomacy and in France's approach to defense; this occurred as soon as Nicolas Sarkozy came to power," Moscovici says. "All positions that have been taken on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, returning to NATO's fold, and even [Sarkozy's] visit to London [in February] with his desire of alliance, of strong relations between the two countries while neglecting the Germans -- all this shows an Anglo-Saxon turn."
Moscovici also says France risks becoming bogged down in an endless military campaign in Afghanistan under U.S. command.
"I believe that today we are experiencing an additional step in this return to NATO's fold -- a gesture that is being made to please the Bush administration without being useful on the ground," he says. "One thousand [soldiers] can't change [anything] -- it only risks getting France stuck in the same mess in Afghanistan [as the Americans] and put us indefinitely under U.S. command. For all these reasons, I think it is a mistake."
The French Constitution allows presidents to send soldiers into combat zones without parliamentary approval, but the opposition Socialists say the move is so unpopular in France that they will submit a motion of no confidence against the government for refusing to hold a vote on the issue in the lower house of parliament.
Sarkozy's offer to send an additional battalion to Afghanistan was made during intense negotiations at the Bucharest summit.
Reports suggest Sarkozy has been seeking U.S. acquiescence on a European Union defense initiative as well as France's eventual reintegration -- perhaps within the next year -- into NATO's military command.
Those issues cut to the core of NATO's historic organizational structure. Although France was a founding member of the NATO alliance, Paris and NATO experienced a crisis in relations during the late 1950s and early 1960s when Charles de Gaulle was French president. De Gaulle objected to the strong role of the United States within NATO and what he saw as a special relationship between the United States and Britain.
De Gaulle argued that NATO should, instead, create a tripartite directorate that would put France on equal footing with the United States and the United Kingdom. When the response he received was unsatisfactory, de Gaulle began to build an independent defense for his country.
By 1966, all French armed forces were removed from NATO's integrated military command, and all non-French NATO troops were asked to leave France. That forced NATO to relocate its Supreme Headquarters for Allied Powers in Europe from Paris to Brussels in 1967.
France remained a NATO member throughout the Cold War, but it wasn't until 1995 that France rejoined NATO's Military Committee. Paris still has not rejoined NATO's integrated military command.
Germany also has come under criticism within NATO for restricting its troop contributions to relatively calm areas of northern Afghanistan.
But with more than 3,000 German soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan -- making Germany the third-largest contributor of troops to the NATO-led force -- Berlin argues that it is bearing its share of the military burden in Afghanistan.
"We may have failed in our communication process during the last couple of months when it comes to the question of what does Germany do in Afghanistan," says Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, a conservative member of the German parliament and an important voice on Berlin's foreign policies.
"We clearly have to state that Germany is already helping out in the south whenever there is an emergency or a necessity to do so," he adds. "We are sending two more airplanes to the south this year. We will help out when it comes to certain other things. We have taken over the responsibility for the [Rapid] Reaction Force mainly in the north -- but also with the possibility of going to the south."
The Czech Defense Ministry says it is ready to deploy an additional 120 elite troops to eastern Afghanistan, where they would serve in Operation Enduring Freedom -- the separate U.S.-led counterterrorism effort. Those troops would be in addition to about 400 soldiers that the Czech Republic already has offered to send to Afghanistan this year.
Poland and Romania also reportedly have made offers to send hundreds of additional troops to Afghanistan.
RFE/RL correspondents Brian Whitmore in Bucharest and Claire Bigg in Prague contributed to this report
Popular Afghan TV Channel Attacked As 'Immoral,' 'Un-Islamic'
By Farangis Najibullah
Television has become more popular again after the fall of the Taliban
A popular Afghan television channel, known for its Indian soap operas and "Pop Idol"-style talent contest, has come under pressure from Afghan officials for broadcasting what they call "immoral and un-Islamic" programs.
The Afghan Information and Culture Ministry on March 29 "strongly condemned" the broadcasting of a scene on Tolo television that showed a group of Afghan women and men dancing together at a film awards ceremony.
The ministry said that the program was "against the beliefs and traditions of the Islamic society of Afghanistan." Afghan Culture Minister Abdulkarim Khorram told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Tolo will be referred to a state media-monitoring committee to determine whether it violated the media law by showing the dance scene.
"Not only do we denounce this show, we will also try to find ways to prevent these issues from happening again," Khorram said.
Tolo editors told Radio Free Afghanistan that airing the dance scene, on the night of March 28, "was an unfortunate mistake that occurred because of some technical errors."
The broadcast led to a debate in the Afghan parliament the following day, with some conservative deputies calling for the station to be shut down. On March 31, the lower house of parliament passed a resolution, which aims to ban television programs from showing dancing and other activities deemed un-Islamic.
The strongest condemnation came from Abdurrasul Sayaf, a deputy and former warlord, who accused Tolo of being an entry point for "foreign conspiracies."
However, other parliament deputies stood by the station and what they called "freedom of speech and media."
Fawzia Kufi, a female legislator from Badakhshan Province, insisted that the parliament has no right to close a television channel, and that such action by the deputies would undermine the country's constitution. And media-rights activists in Afghanistan say the government and the conservative lawmakers' stance is an attack on freedom of speech.
Rahimullah Samandar, the president of the Independent Afghan Journalists Association, told RFE/RL that "it is not only Tolo that has been targeted by some conservative and former jihadi elements inside the government and the parliament."
'Immoral' Foreign TV
According to Samandar, the Information and Culture Ministry and the Afghan Religious Council recently condemned several television broadcasters, including Tolo, Ariyana, and Noorin for broadcasting foreign TV series, which they deemed "immoral." They demanded that the television stations discontinue the series.
Samandar says most ordinary Afghans, however, enjoy such programming.
"Afghans are tired of decades of war and restrictions, and now they want light and entertaining TV programs," Samandar says. "As a young person myself, I support these shows. Most young Afghans want these programs to continue and even increase. Apart from a group of hard-liners and those who belong to jihadi or religious groups, the rest of society is in favor of such television shows."
Tolo, which was launched in October 2004, is considered by many Afghans to be the country's most popular television station. While attracting huge audiences among Afghan youth, it is often criticized by conservative clerics and politicians for its relatively liberal programming.
Earlier this month, Tolo was severely criticized by hard-liners for hosting "Afghan Star," a national music contest held among young singers -- both male and female. The final program of the six-month show was reportedly watched by more than 10 million viewers, while around 300,000 people sent text messages from their mobile phones to vote for the competition's two finalists.
Conservative government officials, however, demanded that the show be banned, saying it was designed to encourage immorality and was against Afghanistan's culture and tradition. Their main objection was to the participation of women on the show.
Lema Sahar, a 20-year-old Pashtun woman, became the first female contender on "Afghan Star" to finish so high -- placing third -- since the show was launched in 2005. Sahar is from the conservative Kandahar Province, the onetime capital of the Taliban regime, which had enforced a complete ban on music during its reign.
Sahar says she has been physically threatened several times, including by phone calls during the night. Another female contestant, Setara Hussainzada from the western Herat Province, was forced to go into hiding in February after she received death threats for taking part in the television show. In January, Afghanistan's national council of religious scholars called on President Hamid Karzai to ban several "immoral" television shows, including "Afghan Star."
More than 10 private television stations have been launched in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban administration in 2001. During its strict regime, the Taliban banned television as un-Islamic, with its supporters smashing people's television sets and beating up and arresting offenders.
NATO: Overtaxed Allies Assess Role In Afghanistan
By Ahto Lobjakas
Afghan and NATO officials want the Afghan National Army to take over security -- eventually
As NATO leaders meet in Bucharest on April 2-4, they will take stock of the situation in Afghanistan and the toll the conflict has taken on the alliance.
The patience of the countries that are bearing the brunt of the fighting against the insurgency in Afghanistan's restive south is wearing thin. More than 200 international troops were killed in the country last year in the heaviest fighting since the ousting of the Taliban government in 2001, and there is strong domestic pressure on the governments of Canada, the Netherlands, and Romania to pull their troops out.
The United States and Britain are urging other allies to join the fight in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, but no one is accepting the offer. Germany and Italy are staying in the relatively safer north and west, respectively, a situation which NATO officials say is unlikely to change.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said last week that he will send another 1,100 troops to the U.S.-controlled eastern part of Afghanistan, but this is unlikely to help the situation in the south, where the overwhelming majority of the fighting is taking place. The United States has begun deploying 3,200 marines to Helmand and Kandahar on what it insists will be a temporary mission.
With no military solution in sight, NATO is turning to other organizations for help. Alliance leaders have invited top officials of the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, and other organizations to attend a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on April 3.
In Brussels on March 27, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the meeting will be an "illustration of top-level international commitment" to Afghanistan.
"The meeting in and of itself is a demonstration of what we call the comprehensive approach to Afghanistan," Appathurai said. "That this is not simply a military issue -- it is very much a comprehensive issue relating to the full spectrum of areas in which there needs to be international support for Afghan efforts, and that includes governance, it includes reconstruction and development, and, of course, the military aspects as well."
NATO leaders will approve two "comprehensive" strategy documents at Bucharest. One, to be made public, will amount to a restatement of NATO's commitment to Afghanistan. The main focus of the other -- a classified document -- will be on the time frame of that commitment.
Officials say that on the eve of the summit, there is no consensus among the allies. While a minority led by the United States would like NATO to vouch for Afghanistan's security for at least a generation, most allies are loath to extend that guarantee beyond five years.
NATO and Afghan officials hope the quickest route to security, and respite for Western troops, will be to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan security forces, especially a beefed-up Afghan National Army (ANA).
The Afghan government enthusiastically concurs, trying to make the most of NATO's presence. Speaking from Kabul by videolink to journalists in Brussels on March 27, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said NATO's first priority should be setting the ANA up on its own feet.
"We strongly believe that having more ANA [forces] is the best solution," Wardak said. "It is cheaper economically, it is politically less complex, and it will also save lives for our [Western] friends and allies."
But it appears the ANA -- which is expected to have 70,000 fully trained and equipped troops by May -- will need many years before it is ready to fully take over from NATO.
Wardak said that the ANA most urgently needs attack aircraft, transport planes, and heavy weaponry.
The United Arab Emirates and the Czech Republic have agreed to donate Soviet-manufactured helicopters to Afghanistan, and NATO will finance the purchase of C-27 transport planes from Italy.
Major General Robert Cone, a U.S. officer at the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan who heads ANA training, said on March 26 that Afghanistan's future air force will not be fully operational until 2013.
Cone also said that although the ANA will reach 80,000 troops in March 2009, this will not be enough to secure the country -- even when backed up by the 47,000 NATO troops currently in the country and 16,000 separate U.S. troops. He said NATO and Afghan officials are currently studying the numbers needed to make the ANA self-sufficient.
In a subtle but distinct shift of emphasis from Defense Minister Wardak, Cone said the key to securing the country lies in building up the police force. He said the "local police are the face of the government on the ground." He noted, however, that the Afghan National Police "lags by some years" behind the ANA in its development, citing as a main reason the "relatively many opportunities for corruption" that are open to police officers.
Many are also illiterate and not qualified for the job. Cone said that out of some 17,000 police who were tested recently, some 8,000 were dismissed as not being up to the required standard. There is a U.S.-led retraining effort under way in the provinces -- but that has so far covered only seven of Afghanistan's 364 districts. Cone said that while there are 1,300 mainly U.S. trainers on the ground, another 800 are needed -- plus an additional 1,500 troops to provide security for the trainers.
A 190-strong EU police-training mission is about to get off the ground one year behind schedule. However, EU personnel will confine themselves to supervising higher-level reforms in Kabul and the provincial centers.
'A Localized Issue'
NATO commanders play down the threat posed by insurgents. NATO's supreme commander in Europe, General Bantz Craddock, told RFE/RL on March 14 that the unrest is confined to a relatively small part of the country.
"If we look at the past year, we find that over 70 percent of the security problems are located in 10 percent of the districts," Craddock said." Six percent of the people live in those districts. So we can see it's a localized issue here."
"That's no solace or consolation to the people who live there," he added. "On the other hand, I think that we can see there's now opportunity for some 94 percent [of the Afghan people] to see significant progress. We've just got to push the efforts to do that, not only with the Afghan government leaders, but also with the international community."
This, however, glosses over the fact that the stronghold of the insurgency in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces is also the epicenter of Afghanistan's massive opium industry. Both provinces also border Pakistan, and NATO officials admit that the local Pashtun tribes do not recognize the highly porous border.
General Cone and Defense Minister Wardak both said the Afghan security forces must eventually be "capable of defending Afghanistan."
However, the country must be won first, and this is unlikely to happen as long as the southern insurgency continues to provide a launching pad for attacks in the west and the north -- which also contain sizeable pockets of the ethnic-Pashtun population. An increasing number of Western officials in the country believe Afghanistan cannot be won without coming to some kind of understanding with the Taliban.
RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher contributed to this report