Archive for September 2007
By Chris Morris
BBC News, Kabul
Tuesday, 25 September 2007
It’s all quiet in Afghanistan’s national stadium in Kabul. The grass is being watered, the pitch is being marked out for a football match, and a couple of workmen are carrying wooden scaffolding behind one of the goals.
But only a few years ago – at the turn of the century – this was where the Taleban held their public executions, hanging or stoning people to death in front of large crowds.
And the comparison between then and now is worth thinking about, at a time when there are suggestions that the Western-backed government here could be about to start talks with the Taleban.
President Hamid Karzai has always been keen to promote reconciliation. This still feels like a very early stage of negotiations, but the United Nations has now upped the ante by offering to mediate.
It could all come to nothing or – possibly – something significant could be starting to happen.
“The government has left the door open,” said President Karzai’s spokesman, Hamayun Hamidzada. “We welcome any initiative, any effort, that will lead to peace.”
So the government is putting out feelers, trying to work out whether there is a genuine desire for contact among the central leadership of the Taleban.
It is useful to remember that Taleban has become a catch-all term used to describe quite diverse groups and tribes – local Afghans, groups backed by Pakistan, foreign radicals linked to al-Qaeda.
They won’t all be welcome at the negotiating table.
“We have been in contact with the Taleban,” Mr Hamidzada said, “with those who actually wanted to join the political process, or just come back as ordinary citizens.”
But can there really be meaningful talks at the same time as military clashes are taking place every day in places like Kandahar and Helmand?
“What we’re doing is opening the door of negotiation for those Taleban who are actually Afghan,” he replied.
“But others, more radical, who are coming from outside – their intention is to destroy Afghanistan and we have to deal with them militarily.”
Finding out what the Taleban really think is not easy. We reached a Taleban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, by phone somewhere in southern Afghanistan.
He told the BBC that the government should agree to the Taleban’s demand that foreign troops leave the country, before serious negotiations begin. In other interviews he’s phrased things slightly differently.
“We want a free independent Afghanistan,” he said. “We want 100% Islamic law and no foreign interference. That is the inspiration behind our jihad [holy war].”
But there are tens of thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan at the invitation of President Karzai’s government. Many of them are fighting against the Taleban every day.
Still, senior officials at Nato and the UN say they are interested in the idea of formal discussions between the government and the Taleban, provided that the Afghan constitution is respected.
As for the Americans, for a long time their mantra has been “no talks with terrorists”. But it is a little more nuanced now.
The Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte, was a recent visitor to Kabul.
“We would think that this proposal for talks should be handled in such a way by the government of Afghanistan,” he said, “that it does not in any way undermine or prejudice all the important political, social and economic accomplishments that have occurred in this country since 11 September 2001.”
That seems to be a view shared by many vendors on Kabul’s Music Street, a riot of noise in the heart of the city. There are CDs, DVDs, videos… Hollywood, Bollywood, you name it.
All of it was banned completely under the Taleban. So there are – understandably – mixed feelings about talking to the Taleban once again.
“They can’t come back with the same system that they used to have, but talking is good because we’re fed up with the war, with the fighting,” said one man.
“They might try to ban music again, so I’m not sure I want them back. But we’re all sons of the same soil,” said another.
‘Fingers in the pie’
So will anything significant actually happen?
At the moment, it is hard to tell. Some well-connected sources argue that it probably won’t.
There are elements in Hamid Karzai’s government – and in parliament – who do not want to talk to the Taleban at all. Sharing power in any sense would mean they would lose ground.
And then there are other foreign powers – who do not have military forces in the country – but who have their own interests in Kabul.
“Moscow is ruling here, India is ruling there, Tehran is ordering here. So now Afghanistan’s [destiny] is not in our own hands.”
Professor Wadir Safi of Kabul University points out that all Afghanistan’s neighbours have got a finger in the pie, and wield influence somewhere in this complex political system.
But he is looking in particular at events in Pakistan.
“I think if Benazir Bhutto is coming to power there, they will be happy for these talks to happen as soon as possible,” he argued.
In order to solve Pakistan’s internal problems it will be in their interest “to talk to the Afghan government through the Taleban to finish this situation”.
That could just be wishful thinking. Perhaps a few disaffected tribes could be persuaded to talk and to change sides.
And there are certainly officials in Kabul who think constant military pressure on the Taleban over the past six months could be pushing them towards compromise.
But one source in Pakistan, with close contacts in the Taleban, is not optimistic.
They will always talk at a local level, he argued, but there is little sign of change in the central command.
Central Kabul is busy and bustling these days. People enjoy basic personal freedoms they never had under the Taleban.
And that begs a question – is the Afghan government’s vision for Afghanistan really compatible with that of the Taleban anyway?
“The government’s vision is the legitimate one for Afghanistan,” said presidential spokesman Hamayun Hamidzada.
“The burden of responsibility is on the Taleban to make their vision compatible, not on us,” he added.
“So you’re asking them to change?” I ask.
“Of course. Change in the light of the constitution. Change for the Afghan people. Change for the sake of peace.”
But there are some who won’t change.
And even if a meaningful process of reconciliation does begin, the future of Afghanistan will probably be fought over as well as talked about for years to come.
HERAT, 25 September 2007 (IRIN) – Increasing armed robberies and abductions are causing widespread concern in Herat, a relatively peaceful province in western Afghanistan.
In one of the most recent cases, over 600 workers at a flourmill in Herat Province lost their jobs when the company was shut down after its owner was abducted by armed men in September.
The closure of Aria Flour Company, which supplied about 400 bakeries in Herat city, has resulted in rising flour prices and affected the work of hundreds of bread shops, local residents said.
Over 12 cases of armed robbery, kidnapping, extortion and attacks on financial centres have been reported in Herat city in September alone – a 50 percent increase on the same period in 2006, provincial security officials said.
One of the country’s main commercial centres, Herat’s share of Afghanistan’s national income has already seen a marked reduction in the last four months. “In the first four months of 2007 we saw a reduction of about US$14 million in Herat’s overall income compared to 2006,” said Ziaullah Sakha, head of the customs department in Herat.
Thousands of Afghans have swarmed into Herat Province since April after at least 200,000 Afghans have been deported to Afghanistan from neighbouring Iran, according to the Afghan government.
Iran’s deputy interior minister, Mohammad-Baqer Zolqadr, told the Iranian IRNA news agency on 12 May that about 85,000 Afghans had been deported to Afghanistan in three weeks alone since 21 April.
Most deportees are single men who, in view of their plight, are considered susceptible to crime, according to the Herat branch of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), the country’s rights watchdog.
Herat Governor Alhaj Sayed Hussain Anwari, however, classified wrongdoers in his province into three main categories.
“First, there are armed thieves who are widely involved in security incidents. There are also Taliban elements, who try to destabilise the whole situation. Some people with political motivations also contribute to the festering security situation,” Anwari told IRIN.
Officials in Herat Province acknowledge that criminal gangs and their influential kingpins easily escape legal action as a result of endemic corruption and their ability to exploit kinship ties in provincial bodies.
Limited police force
There are only 2,700 police for over two million people in Herat Province, Afghanistan’s second most populated province after Kabul, according to the provincial authorities.
Devastated by decades of armed conflict and chaos, Afghanistan is yet to build up its security infrastructure, including a national police force of 80,000.
Governor Anwari complained about lack of police resources and professionalism, saying they contributed to deteriorating security. “The police are not professional,” he said.
In a press release issued on 20 September the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency expressed concern about the impunity of those accused of the abduction of businessmen, and armed robberies.
Noor Khan Niekzad, a senior police officer, said: “We are doing our best to arrest criminals and ensure an atmosphere of peace for the citizens of Herat”.
“Insecurity plunges people deep into poverty and vulnerability,” said Gulam Nabi Hakak, head of the AIHRC in Herat Province. “People could again migrate to Iran and Pakistan if security does not improve.”
ZARANJ, Sept 23 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Life came to a standstill as a powerful hurricane, accompanied by a dust storm, lashed Zaranj, capital of the Nimroz province.
Metrology Department official Muhammad Omar said the twister with a speed of more than 110 kilometres per hour started hitting the area Friday evening.
Muhammad Akbar Sharifi, director of the Agriculture Department, told Pajhwok Afghan News the windstorm destroyed dozens of trees besides raining down sand on scores of villages.
Irrigation canals were choked with sand and polythene bags, added the director, who pointed out Khashrud was the only district unaffected by the tempest that forced the closure of shops and schools.
Zaranj-based shopkeeper Ahmad Shakib complained: “The strong winds stopped my work and I had to close my shop because business was simply impossible.”
Resident Ahmad Farid observed in the holy month of Ramadan, the faithful streamed to the bazaar to buy foodstuff for Iftar and Sehr, but the harsh wind made their task difficult.
Ghulam Sarwar (25), hailing from Zaranj, grumbled: “The perimeter wall of our house has been pulled down, with sand and dust flying into our residence.”
Dr. Khan Aqa of the Health Department said a large number of people were suffering different diseases like allergy, asthma and pulmonary problems in the wake of the hurricane.
JALALABAD, 23 September 2007 (IRIN) – Flash floods killed three people, displaced dozens and destroyed at least 100 houses in the Khiwa District of Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan, Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authorities (ANDMA) officials told IRIN on 23 September.
“About 300 families are affected by flooding, of which over 180 have been displaced,” said Shukrullah Ehsas, head of ANDMA’s Nangarhar provincial body.
Affected people said torrential rains, not common at this time of the year, started at midnight on 21 September. About four hours later, large quantities of rainwater gushed down from the Kashmond Mountains, in the northeast of the province, towards Khiwa District where around 1,500 families live.
One woman and two children have been confirmed dead in the floods so far.
“People have lost over 100 livestock animals,” Abdul Matin Adrak, head of ANDMA, said. “Hundreds of hectares of agricultural land have also been washed away by flood waters.”
The majority of displaced people have sought refuge in the homes of their relatives or friends in nearby villages. Some families, however, spent the night of 22 September in open air, locals said.
Aid organisations have dispatched assessment teams to the affected district to evaluate the situation and determine urgent humanitarian needs.
“Food is urgently and widely needed,” said Ehsas, who took part in a quick assessment mission to Khiwa District.
Flood-affected families also need non-food assistance such as tents, blankets and kitchen utensils, according to provincial authorities.
Floodwaters have also contaminated water sources, raising the risk of a diarrhoea outbreak, particularly among children and women. As such, Ehsas told IRIN that chlorine tablets and sachets of oral rehydration salts are also urgently needed.
Affected families will require long-term assistance to re-establish their lives, specialists said.
The Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) said it has already provided tents and kitchen utensils to more than 50 of the most affected families.
The governor of Nangarhar Province, Gul Agha Sherzai, said they distributed 220 sacks of flour to some vulnerable families on 23 September, according to Edrak of ANDMA.
“More aid will be provided once we receive a clear picture of the situation,” Edrak said.
However, officials acknowledge that decades of war have greatly reduced Afghanistan’s capacity to manage and respond to natural disasters.
By Patrick Worsnip
September 23, 2007
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sought increased backing on Sunday for efforts to impose peace and order in Afghanistan from representatives of key countries involved there.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and foreign ministers and U.N. envoys from 17 other nations gathered at U.N. headquarters in the latest of a series of meetings before Tuesday’s opening of the annual General Assembly gathering of world leaders.
Since U.S.-backed forces overthrew Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in late 2001, Karzai’s government has struggled to keep control, faced with a resurgent Taliban, independent-minded warlords and rising drug production.
About 50,000 foreign troops are deployed there, including a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, and separately led U.S. forces.
A U.N. mission supports and advises the Afghan authorities on economic and political development, justice reform, humanitarian aid and anti-drug programs along side NATO and a separate U.S. military presence..
In an opening address, Ban said security concerns — a reference to continued fighting in the south — prevented him from spreading the U.N. presence more widely in the country. He urged the meeting to discuss those concerns.
“In order to carry out such efforts, we need a reasonable level of freedom of movement and security,” he said according to a text of his speech made available by U.N. officials.
Underscoring the security problems, two Italian soldiers were reported missing while on patrol in western Afghanistan, Italian authorities said on Sunday.
“If I expect one thing to come out of this meeting, it is that they reinforce the commitment to Afghanistan,” U.N. Afghanistan envoy Tom Koenigs said earlier of the session attended by the country’s neighbors and key NATO states.
“We need more troops, we need more money and we need a sustainable commitment in Afghanistan,” he said on Friday.
Diplomats, however, said Sunday’s meeting was not expected to result in specific pledges.
Western countries have been pressing for the United Nations to boost its profile in Afghanistan after Koenigs quits at the end of this year, with a high-level mission chief who could act as a “partner” for Karzai.
Koenigs said the Taliban insurgency could not be defeated by military means alone.
“There must be a comprehensive strategy which comprises civilian and military action, so we come to a political offensive against the insurgency,” he said.
An Afghan presidential spokesman said last week Kabul was ready for peace talks with the Taliban but would not accept preconditions demanded by the Islamist rebels, such as the withdrawal of all foreign troops.
The Afghan meeting is the latest of several Ban has convened to underscore the central U.N. role. Ministers discussed Darfur on Friday and Iraq on Saturday. A meeting of Middle East mediators was scheduled for later on Sunday and a major conference on climate change will be held on Monday.
Sun Sep 23, 6:14 AM ET
UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – Eighteen countries meet here Sunday to review six years of efforts to spur reconstruction and good governance in Afghanistan at a time when the restive country is beset by a resurgent Taliban insurgency and soaring opium output.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and UN chief Ban Ki-moon are co-hosting the three-hour high-level meeting, set to open at 10:00 am (1400 GMT), which comes two days before world leaders begin summit talks during the UN General Assembly session. The Afghan leader is due to address the assembly Monday.
Joining Afghanistan at the talks are Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United States.
Also invited are the Asian Development Bank, the European Union, the European Commission, NATO and the World Bank.
Organizers say the talks are to focus on ways the international community and the United Nations can help the Kabul government tackle issues of security, good governance, regional cooperation and drug trafficking.
Afghanistan was in tatters after the 2001 fall of the Islamist Taliban regime, which led the international community to spend billions of dollars on development and send in tens of thousands of troops to fight a growing Taliban insurgency.
Participants at the meeting will review progress toward implementing the Afghanistan Compact, a five-year development blueprint launched in January 2006 by Kabul and some 70 foreign partners.
Under the deal, Afghanistan promised to take specific steps in the areas of security, governance, rule of law and human rights, and economic and social development in return for military and economic support.
Voicing concern about increased violence and terrorism in Afghanistan, the UN Security Council Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to extend for one year the mandate of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) there.
The UN-mandated ISAF force is at 39,000 people from around 37 nations, its most powerful since 2001, even though original estimates of troops and equipment requirements still have not been met.
It operates alongside a US-led coalition of about 15,000 and the fledgling Afghan security forces.
Around 168 international soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this year — the bloodiest since the insurgent Taliban were removed from government.
US-led forces in October 2001 toppled the Taliban, which was funded by and sheltered the Al-Qaeda extremist network, for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
Opium production meanwhile reached a record high in Afghanistan this year and more people are being killed in a Taliban insurgency that has seen suicide attacks spiral.
by Beatrice Khadige
Sat Sep 22, 12:42 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) – Zebulon Simentov, the last Jew in Afghanistan, is once again marking the Jewish holy day of fasting in solitude, in a deserted synagogue in the capital of a devoutly Islamic nation.
“I have everything I need for the 24 hours of praying and fasting,” Simentov tells AFP before the start of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at sunset on Friday.
Around two decades ago, there were still about 20 Afghan Jewish families living in Kabul, although all were from Herat — the largest city in northwestern Afghanistan near the border with Iran.
Through the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, the subsequent civil war and the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime, all went to Israel or moved to neighbouring former Soviet republics — undoing a Jewish presence built up from the seventh century.
Only Simentov has been left behind, becoming by default the guardian of Kabul’s empty synagogue.
The room where he receives visitors was once a prayer room for women. On the wall are pictures of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the late ultra-orthodox Lubavitch rabbi, Menahem Scheerson.
Adjoining this room is the bare-walled “small synagogue” for men, where he prefers to pray.
Simentov, approaching 50, dislikes the “big synagogue” across the corridor — another large and dirty room in which stands only a platform traditionally reserved for the rabbi.
A cupboard built into the wall faces Jerusalem. Its doors are open and it has been stripped of its treasure, a scroll of the Torah.
The precious document was stolen by a Taliban during the rule of the Islamist movement which was driven from government six years ago by a coalition led by the United States.
The man “wanted to sell it, thinking it was valuable,” Simentov says in Dari, one of the main languages in Afghanistan. He says he reads Hebrew perfectly but prefers not to speak it.
“Today that Taliban is jailed at Guantanamo Bay and I am waiting for him to be freed so I can ask him to return the Tables of the Law,” says Simentov, who wears a Jewish cap called a kippa, but is otherwise dressed like an Afghan.
Simentov is alone. His wife and two children are in Israel, which he says he has not visited since 1998.
“I have been the only Jew in Afghanistan for two years,” he says. Ishaq Levin, the synagogue’s former guardian, died from illness two years ago aged around 80.
Simentov says it is not easy to practise his religion alone.
But he has obtained special permission from a rabbi in Tashkent, capital of neighbouring Uzbekistan and home to 15,000 Jews, to slaughter his own meat in the kosher way that can normally only be done by a special rabbi.
Otherwise this former carpet salesman appears perfectly integrated into Kabul, where he is well-known by people who live around the synagogue, and warmly greeted when he is outside.
Jews have lived in several regions of Afghanistan and legends abound about their presence.
One says the Pashtuns, one of the main ethnic groups in Afghanistan, descended from a tribe from Israel. Another says the name Afghanistan comes from Afghana, grandson of King Saul — the first king of the ancient Kingdom of Israel.