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Archive for July 2007

AFGHANISTAN: Rights group, UN skeptical about reduced civilian casualties

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KABUL, 31 July 2007 (IRIN) – Afghan and international forces fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have agreed on a number of measures designed to minimise civilian casualties in their military operations, officials told IRIN.

According to various unverified reports, over 800 civilians have died in fighting between government military personnel supported by international forces and Taliban insurgents in the past few months of 2007.

“One point in our new joint strategy is to use smaller and lighter bombs in aerial strikes,” Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), said in Kabul on 30 July.

After strong criticism from different parts of Afghanistan over scores of civilian deaths – allegedly in NATO and US aerial bombardments – the MoD set out plans for better coordination between Afghan and international forces and ways to reduce unwanted deaths.

The new strategy has been discussed, agreed upon and will be announced in the near future, the MoD said.

The Afghan government and its international partners, including the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the US military-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), have expressed willingness to address growing concerns about the situation of non-combatants in their military operations.

“Civilian casualties are a very serious matter. They need to be avoided,” said a NATO-ISAF spokeswoman in Kabul, who requested anonymity.

Change of NATO tactics

In an interview with the Financial Times, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer confirmed that ISAF will start using smaller bombs in its air strikes in Afghanistan “as part of a change in tactics aimed at stemming a rise in civilian casualties that threatens to undermine support in the fight against the Taliban”.

However, it is still unclear whether NATO’s decision to use smaller bombs will also apply to thousands of US forces operating in Afghanistan outside the NATO command structure.

Asked whether the US military would also go along with NATO’s decision, an OEF spokesperson at Bagram airbase declined to comment.

Doubts

While the government of Afghanistan welcomes NATO use of lighter bombs in aerial bombings of combat zones, the country’s human rights commission (AIHRC) and the UN have doubted the hype about smaller bombs not harming civilians.

“We cannot say whether a small or a big bomb is good,” said Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the UN in Kabul. “Any civilian casualty is unacceptable,” he added.

Meanwhile, the AIHRC said if insurgents continued to shield civilians in their armed conflicts the smaller bombs used would still harm civilians.

Some Afghans fear that a reduction in the size of aerial bombs might be balanced by an increase in the number of aerial strikes – already higher than the number of aerial attacks in Iraq.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, an AIHRC spokesperson, said: “International forces should increase their ground presence and stop reliance on aerial strikes which mostly affect non-combatants.”

Currently there are over 33,000 international forces from 37 countries, led by NATO, and over 10,000 extra US troops operating under OEF command in Afghanistan.

More civilian deaths

On 29 July, 12 passengers of a civilian convoy were killed and eight wounded by gunmen allegedly associated with Taliban insurgents in Zabul Province, southern Afghanistan, said a press release issued by NATO forces in Kabul.

It is still not yet known why insurgents killed and injured the passengers.

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior said those killed in Zabul were employees of a private security company.

Over 20 civilians, meanwhile, died recently as a result of NATO bombings of two districts in insurgency-torn Helmand Province in the south of Afghanistan, provincial officials said.

In the last week of July, clashes between Taliban rebels and Afghan forces, backed by international forces, resulted in the death of scores of Taliban guerrillas, officials said.

Unverifiable owing to limited access to the volatile regions, reports of civilian casualties have turned into a controversial propaganda tool for parties to the conflict, specialists in Kabul said.

The UN has urged local media not to disseminate the propaganda of the parties to the conflict and ensure impartial coverage of events in Afghanistan.

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July 31, 2007 at 10:15 pm

Afghanistan: Attacks on schools on the rise

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Kabul, 31 July (AKI) – Security incidents in schools and threats against students and teachers in Afghanistan have spiked in recent months, disrupting education in the country, which this year has seen some of the worst violence since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, according to the United Nations mission there.

“Over 30 attacks against schools, many involving the torching or blowing up of school premises have been reported in all parts of the country from January until June” Nilab Mobarez, Information Officer with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said at a press conference in Kabul .

Deliberate attacks on girls and female teachers have resulted in at least four deaths and six injuries so far this year, he told reporters.

According to estimates by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 262 of the total 740 schools in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul are currently unable to provide education to their students.

“UNAMA appeals to all parties concerned for the resumption of normal education activities across the country, particularly in the south, so that boys and girls can exercise their right to education in a peaceful and secure environment,” Mr. Mobarez said.

Speaking out recently against continued attacks against schools and schoolchildren, Catherine Mbengue, UNICEF’s Representative in Afghanistan, expressed the agency’s concern at the incidents and intimidation in some communities aimed at stopping families from sending children to school.

“Schools of course are a visible sign of reconstruction and progress, and there are those who perhaps fear such progress,” she stated.

UNICEF continues to be in discussion with local leaders, village elders and religious leaders to identify ways in which education can be continued, she said, adding that the agency stands ready to support any initiative “that will keep children learning in safety.”

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July 31, 2007 at 10:15 pm

Posted in Education, Security

Nato mulls ‘smaller Afghan bombs’

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BBC News / Monday, 30 July 2007

Nato is considering the use of smaller bombs in Afghanistan to try to curb the rising number of civilians killed during operations against the Taleban.

Commanders have also ordered troops to hold off attacking militants in some situations where civilians are at risk.

Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer acknowledged civilian casualties had hurt the alliance politically, in an interview with the Financial Times.

Aid agencies say Western forces have killed 230 civilians so far this year.

Between 700 and 1,000 civilians were killed by both sides during 2006, according to the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR).

Casualties ‘inevitable’

Mr de Hoop Scheffer said Nato commanders were “working with weapon loads on aircraft to reduce collateral damage”.

However, he insisted it was impossible to eliminate non-combatant deaths entirely.

Mr de Hoop Scheffer said Gen Dan McNeill, the commander of the Nato force in Afghanistan, Isaf, had also instructed troops to delay attacks on Taleban fighters if civilians are at risk.

“We realise that, if we cannot neutralise our enemy today without harming civilians, our enemy will give us the opportunity tomorrow,” he added,

“If that means going after a Taleban not on Wednesday but on Thursday, we will get him then.”

A spokesman for the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) told the BBC’s correspondent in Kabul, Alastair Leithead, that the secretary-general’s comments were part of a move to revise procedures to take Afghan sensitivities into account.

Mr de Hoop Scheffer’s comments come a week after Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema said civilian casualties were “not acceptable on a moral level” and “disastrous on a political level”.

Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, also recently warned Western troops against treating Afghan lives cheaply.

He is scheduled to visit the US at the weekend for talks with top US officials.

Our correspondent says US forces operating outside Nato have come in for even heavier criticism over Afghan civilian casualties.

He says there is a feeling in the international community that the relationship with the Afghan people will continue to deteriorate unless US forces adopt a policy similar to Nato’s.

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July 30, 2007 at 10:17 pm

Posted in Security

Environmental crisis looms as conflict goes on

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KABUL, 30 July 2007 (IRIN) – Afghanistan will face a serious environmental crisis, which will have grave consequences for millions of its estimated 27 million population, if the government and international aid organisations continue ignoring the country’s degrading environment, experts warn.

“More than 80 percent of [Afghanistan’s] land could be subject to soil erosion… soil fertility is declining, salinisation is on the increase, water tables have dramatically fallen, de-vegetation is extensive and soil erosion by water and wind is widespread,” said a recent report – called Sustainable Land Management 2007 – by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food (MoAF).

Abdul Rahman Hotaky, chairman of the Afghan Organisation for Human Rights and Environmental Protection (AOHREP), said there many reasons why the future of the country’s environment was grim: more than 26 years of armed conflict, population displacement and extended drought; the misuse of natural resources; the lack of a law enforcement authority; and the lack of appropriate policies for the environment.

Deforestation

“In the last two decades, we have lost over 70 percent of our forests throughout the country,” Hotaky told IRIN on 29 July in the capital, Kabul.

Extensive deforestation has has multiple social, environmental and economic implications for million of Afghans, Hotaky added.

One of the immediately visible humanitarian implications of deforestation is the country’s increasingly vulnerability to various natural disasters, specialists say.

“Recently, we witnessed increasing numbers of floods, avalanches and landslides as a result of deforestation,” said Hazrat Hussain Khaurin, the director of the forests and rangeland department in the food and agriculture ministry.

According to government statistics, until the early 1980s, about 19,000sqkm of Afghanistan’s 652,225sqkm territory was covered by forests, which were a sustainable source of income for the government and its citizens.

Because of the many years of war since then, Afghanistan now faces the complete eradication of its forests, Khaurin said.

Desertification

While agriculture and animal husbandry constitute the backbone of Afghanistan’s underdeveloped economy, up to 50 percent of its farmlands have not been cultivated for the last two decades due to various natural and human factors, indicated the Sustainable Land Management 2007 report.

Afghanistan’s geomorphology has historically comprised highlands, rugged terrains and flatlands, and partly arid deserts. However, the deserts have been rapidly expanding in southern, eastern and northern regions of the country.

“Neither the government nor impoverished Afghan farmers have the basic technology or required resources to resist widening desertification,” said Khaurin. “Thousands of hectares of agricultural land have been covered by moving sands in seven southern and southwestern provinces,” he added.

Bushes and other plants that once created natural buffers against sand movement and flash floods flows have been used as fuel by local residents for many years.

Many Afghans refugees who return to their rural communities from neighbouring countries find it impossible to cultivate infertile and arid land with very little irrigation and farming facilities.

“Desertification has exacerbated already widespread poverty among many Afghan farmers who seem hapless to tackle problems created by this natural crisis,” said Hotaky of the human rights and environment protection body.

Against a rapidly increasing population, which requires food, fuel and shelter, among other things, the volume of Afghanistan’s agricultural produce has decreased by 50 percent decrease over the past few years, the food and agriculture ministry said.

Lack of attention

For decades, Afghan governments who have came to power have concentrated on winning wars, ensuring stability and solving political dilemmas while paying little attention to a degrading environment, specialists say.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in a study found that Afghanistan’s long-term environmental degradation is caused, in part, by a complete collapse of local and national forms of governance.

Should Afghanistan fail to address its environmental problems within its reconstruction period, it will face “a future without water, forests, wildlife and clean air”, according to UNEP’s Post Conflict Assessment for Afghanistan.

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July 30, 2007 at 10:16 pm

Training Afghans will take ‘a long while’

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PAUL KORING AND ERIN ANDERSSEN

Globe and Mail  / July 30, 2007

KANDAHAR, OTTAWA — Top Canadian military commanders voiced doubts Sunday about how rapidly the Afghan National Army can shoulder the fighting load – raising the possibility of NATO pressure to extend Canada’s Afghanistan mission past the current commitment that expires in February, 2009.

In Ottawa, General Rick Hillier seemed to contradict Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor’s optimistic predication that the Afghans would be taking on most of the front-line combat by next spring in Kandahar province, where Canada’s powerful battle group is waging a tough counter-insurgency war against the Taliban.

“It’s going to take a long while,” Gen. Hillier told CTV’s Question Period, referring to the training of the Afghan National Army. “We’ve just started the process.” He also said it would be a “significant challenge” for the ANA to be ready in the time frame proposed by Mr. O’Connor only a week ago on the same program.

Ujjal Dosanjh, the Liberal foreign affairs critic, said inconsistent statements between the Defence Minister and the country’s top soldier create confusion for the international community and at home, where Canada’s position on its mission in Afghanistan needs to be clear.

“Canadians need to know who’s in charge here,” he said in a telephone interview from Vancouver Sunday.

Meanwhile, in Kandahar, the general running all of Canada’s overseas deployments said defeating the Taliban and rebuilding Afghanistan won’t be done by February, 2009, adding that if Canadians don’t remain to complete the job, then some other nation will have to do it. Already, NATO is struggling to find nations willing to contribute to the mission – especially if it involves sending troops to the war-torn southern half of the country.

“Whether we accomplish it ourselves or it’s accomplished by others doesn’t matter a whole lot in the greater scheme of things,” Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, commander of all Canadian expeditionary forces overseas, said Sunday.

Gen. Gauthier, who knows Afghanistan well, is soldiering on in the full knowledge that a political debate is raging over whether Canada’s commitment to Afghanistan should be extended beyond February, 2009. Mounting casualties, rising disquiet at home and sagging public support for Canada’s first sustained combat in half a century hangs like a cloud over the mission’s future.

Last week, Mr. O’Connor seemed to be putting a positive political gloss – and a hurry-up timetable – on shifting the combat burden to the Afghan National Army.

“We will continue to withdraw, train them, put more emphasis on training, and at, some stage, basically be in reserve,” he said.

It’s a stand that’s seen as an attempt to soften opposition to the war in Afghanistan, which is particularly strong in Quebec.

But Gen. Hillier made it clear that Canada’s soldiers will remain in the thick of the fighting. “We are in the fight. There are direct combat actions required to keep the Taliban from stopping the progress in southern Afghanistan and tearing the country further apart,” he said.

In Kandahar, as one battle group heads home and another – based on Quebec’s famed Vandoos, the Royal 22nd Regiment – is arriving, Gen. Gauthier rejected the notion that Afghanistan in general, and Kandahar province, the Taliban’s original heartland, would be safe, secure and thriving by the end of the Harper government’s commitment.

“I don’t think anybody believes the job is going to be done by February, ’09,” Gen. Gauthier said.

“From an international community perspective, no one is under any illusions that Afghanistan will be self-sustaining and self-sufficient by February, ’09,” he said from the Canadian headquarters at the sprawling NATO base at Kandahar Airfield.

But nor is Gen. Gauthier planning for a Canadian role in Kandahar beyond the troops who will arrive next summer and leave at about the time the current commitment ends.

The high command is working on plans “for the group that will be deploying in August, ’08 – we have no plans beyond that right now,” he said.

“Trying to anticipate where we might be in February, ’09, would be a waste of time,” he said, adding that in the international community there’s no specific expectation that Canadians will do “everything that needs to be done,” to achieve the long-term objectives of security and rebuilding in Kandahar.

US PRT grants $3.5m for reconstruction of Salang Highway

CHARIKAR, July 29 (Pajhwok Afghan News): A US Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) based in Bagram has allocated $3.5 million for the reconstruction of the Salang Highway, linking Kabul to 11 northern provinces.

Parwan Governor Abdul Jabar Taqwa told Pajhwok Afghan News on Sunday the reconstruction of the key road – damaged by flash floods and torrential rains in April – would begin in three weeks from now. He promised the project would be completed in three month before the commencement of snowfall.

Sayed Muhammad Younus Zajafizada, provincial public work departments head, said a stretch of the road – from Qalatak to Tajikan area of Salang district – would be asphalted. Supportive walls would also be established along the road to keep it from being washed away by floods in the future.

The director added the Public Work Ministry had listed as a top priority the rebuilding of the Salang Highway, a vital north-south link that had to be fixed before the onset of the winter.

In Kabul, construction work was launched on a womens mosque next to the Hazrat Muhammad Mustafa Masjid in Macro Ryan neighbourhood. The project has a three-month timescale.

Qari Muhammad Ihsan Saqil, prayer leader at the Hazrat Muhammad Mustafa Masjid, said the under-construction worship place was being co-financed by the Haj Ministry and local residents. The mosque, with capacity for about 200 females, is being erected over 200 square metres of land.

Kandahar musclemen qualify for Mr. Afghanistan contest

KANDAHAR CITY, July 29 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Two bodybuilders from the southern Kandahar province – the birthplace of the Taliban movement – have qualified for the Mr. Afghanistan contest, a sports director said on Sunday.

Nine provincial clubs participated in the bodybuilding event, with Syed Ahmad emerging at the top of the table in the senior class and Wais Ahmad in the junior category, the official said.

Provincial head of Olympic Committee Muhammadullah Gulalay, in a brief chat with Pajhwok Afghan News, said the victorious pair of musclemen – each earning the title of Mr. Kandahar – would go on to vie for the Mr. Afghanistan title in Kabul.

If they triumphed in the all-Afghanistan competition, to be held in Kabul, the duo would be entitled to take part in the Asian Bodybuilding Championship, Gulalay added.

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July 30, 2007 at 10:15 pm

Posted in Security

Talks on S Korean hostages resume

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BBC News / Saturday, 28 July 2007
Negotiations have resumed in Afghanistan between tribal elders and Taleban leaders in an effort to release 22 South Korean hostages.
Their leader was killed on Wednesday by the Taleban and negotiations reportedly involve discussions over ransom money and possible prisoner exchanges.
The group were kidnapped nine days ago on a road between Kandahar and Kabul.
A BBC correspondent in Kabul says there is confusion about the progress of the talks and the health of the hostages.
Afghan officials have said they remain “hopeful” of securing the release of the hostages.
“We believe in the talks and if dialogue fails then we will resort to other means,” Munir Mangal, Afghanistan’s deputy interior minister told Reuters news agency. When asked if that meant use of force, he replied: “Certainly.”
He also ruled out bowing to the Taleban demand to free captives held by Kabul.
Deadline passes
The Taleban have demanded the release of eight prisoners in return for the aid workers release.
They are also demanding that Seoul withdraw its 200 troops serving with US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, a South Korean presidential envoy has arrived in Afghanistan and the Afghan government has sent higher level representatives, including an MP who used to be a member of the Taleban, to Ghazni province, where it is thought the hostages are being held.
The negotiations come after another deadline imposed by the Taleban over the hostages passed without incident.
The captives, mostly women, are aid workers for a Christian group.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pledged not to swap prisoners for hostages.
He was criticised for releasing five Taleban members from jail in March in exchange for an Italian reporter.
There has been an increase in kidnappings, roadside bombings and suicide attacks in recent months in Afghanistan.

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July 28, 2007 at 10:14 pm

Posted in Security

Afghanistan: ICRC steps up support for health-care services

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Source: International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Geneva / Kabul (ICRC) – The Afghan government and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have reached an agreement under which the ICRC will significantly increase its support for Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, one of the most important medical facilities in the conflict-ridden southern part of the country. The 390-bed regional referral hospital provides essential care for thousands of patients, including men, women and children wounded in hostilities in the neighbouring provinces of Zabul, Helmand and Uruzgan. The memorandum of understanding signed by the Ministry of Public Health and the ICRC covers the next two years.

“Because of mounting security problems and the remoteness of many areas, there are a lot of people in Afghanistan who don’t have access to quality medical care,” said Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC delegation in Kabul. “Especially in the south, the intensification of the armed conflict over the past year and a half has resulted in an increase in the number of war-wounded patients. By strengthening its support for Mirwais Hospital, the ICRC aims to help meet some of the most urgent medical needs in the area.”

Under the new agreement, the ICRC will support the Ministry of Public Health in implementing its “Essential Package of Hospital Services,” a national policy for provincial and regional hospitals designed to improve the overall quality of health care and the performance of hospital staff.

The ICRC will not only help the hospital’s surgery unit respond to emergencies such as sudden influxes of war-wounded and trauma patients, but also extend its support to the entire hospital to better cater to the needs of ordinary patients and improve general health-care services. Since 1996, the ICRC has been providing the hospital with essential drugs, laboratory and X-ray supplies, and other surgical and medical items, in addition to training personnel. The organization has also contributed to the maintenance of the hospital’s premises and equipment and supplied generator fuel.

Last year, the ICRC aided 14 medical facilities across Afghanistan which treated nearly 35,000 patients, of whom more than 1,700 had suffered wounds inflicted by weapons – including 240 men, 252 women and 322 children injured by mines or other explosive remnants of war. In addition to its support for Mirwais Hospital, the ICRC has been providing supplies and capacity-building assistance and training staff for hospitals in Jalalabad and Sheberghan.

For further information, please contact:

Jean-Pascal Moret, ICRC Kabul, tel. +93 700 282 719 or +93 700 276 465
Carla Haddad, ICRC Geneva, tel. +41 22 730 24 05 or +41 79 217 32 26
or visit our website: http://www.icrc.org

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July 27, 2007 at 3:36 am

Posted in Health