Friday, October 08, 2004

Bamiyan, a predominantly Shi'ite Hazara town, reached after an excruciating eight-hour, 180-kilometer ride west from Kabul through dramatic mountain passes, is a success story in Afghanistan. Probably the safest place for internationals to work in the country, it slumbers under the shadows of mountain ranges pocketed with caves, some still inhabited. A French humanitarian organization tried to resettle the cave dwellers into homes, but the project failed when they refused to abandon their way of life. At night, hundreds of lights from their caves glow like stars in a black sky.
The military laments that its successes in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone unnoticed, while any bad news is immediately set on by a national media intent on painting every U.S. commitment as a quagmire. This might be true, but the military is not without responsibility for this state of affairs.
Military-media relations have improved since General William Sherman announced, "I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell before breakfast."
Afghan security forces killed seven suspected Taliban militants and seven Afghan policemen were killed when their vehicle drover over a landmine in the latest violence ahead of the landmark polls on Tuesday. The suspected Taliban fighters were killed in two-hour clash on Monday after they ambushed a battalion of government troops some 40 kilometres east of Tirin Kot, an official said.
Kabul sure looks a lot different when you're not riding in an armoured vehicle. The chaotic Kabul traffic doesn't get out of your way when you're just travelling in a civilian 4X4. Around the vehicle, yellow and white taxis edge and jostle for position while pedestrians, nearly all the women in pale blue burkas, wander amongst the barely moving traffic. The soldiers don't like to sit in traffic too long because it makes them an easy target. The military drivers like to punch and blast their way through and the Afghans seem to understand. And it's hard to blame the soldiers.
During a delay in getting a media pass, blamed on a computer software problem, I visit the "British Cemetery" in Kabul.
Senior officers in Kabul ascribe the relative calm to aggressive operations by U.S.-led troops and the Pakistan army to sandwich the Taliban and its allies, who are bent on disrupting the vote, along Afghanistan's southern border. "The strategy is to take the fight to the enemy ... not wait for the enemy to come to us," said a senior official with U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. "That's very much the posture now -- to be aggressive and out and disrupt anything that might be planned in Kabul and around," he said.
Still, in the wake of two decades of war and continuing social and political tensions, self-censorship is not uncommon in the Afghan press. Journalists are under tremendous pressure and regularly face threats, harassment, and violence from a variety of sources, including warlords, politicians, and government officials.
Mounting evidence shows that in developing countries around the world, independent media are under increasing threat, especially when national elections approach. In the case of Afghanistan, vague legal provisions governing free expression not only fail to protect journalists; they sometimes place them in greater jeopardy.
This summer, I worked at Internews, a media development NGO, which has built a network of stations across Afghanistan and is now supporting a new national radio program.
The NATO allies are girding for a surge of attacks by Talib fighters and others in the last days before Afghanistan's presidential elections on Saturday, according to General James Jones, NATO's commander. "We assume that there will be some attempts to disrupt the elections," Jones, a U.S. Marine Corps general, said in an interview here. "We're doing everything we can to find out what that is." He declined to discuss intelligence about specific possible attacks.
An Afghan commander who rose to prominence before the emergence of the Taliban regime goes on trial in London this week in what is believed to be Britain's first ever case involving allegations of torture. Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, 41, is accused of conspiracy to torture and take hostages in Afghanistan between 1991 and 1996 when he was a commander in the Sarobi district of Kabul province. Zardad moved to Britain in 1998 and was running a pizza parlour in south London when he was arrested for the alleged crimes.
Three young men are escorted out of a metal cage at the intelligence headquarters in Afghanistan's southern city of Kandahar and ordered to hold up their voter registration cards. Officials believe from their fake, laminated IDs and suspicious behaviour that they are Taliban recruits intent on carrying out attacks during Saturday's landmark election. Aged from 18 to 26, they wear the turbans and traditional baggy shawal kameez outfits that are ubiquitous in Kandahar's teeming bazaars. And they would have no difficulty in gaining access to polling centres with the fake IDs.
DUBAI, UNITED EMIRATES — Joe stands by the airline ticket counter in the dim fluorescent lighting and tells me to wait, but I'm too caught up in the moment. I stuff my ticket into a pocket and get trapped in an undertow of rushing bodies pulled toward the metal detectors. Five in the morning Sunday, Oct. 3, and every journalist in the world, it seems, has converged on Dubai to catch a connecting flight to Kabul for the upcoming presidential election.
But things are now taking a more positive turn with Mr Karzai, who is a clear favourite to win Saturday's poll, making his first real campaign appearance yesterday when he flew to Ghazni south of Kabul to speak to a crowd of about 10,000 people. This coincided with other rallies by prominent rivals, like Yunus Qanuni and General Abdul Rashid Dostum in Kabul and in Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan's north. Hamid Karzai's nephew Jamil Karzai was also in Mazar, to help with his uncle's campaign.
Our South Asia Correspondent Geoff Thompson spoke to Jamil Karzai and began by asking him whether he thought his uncle's inability to make many personal appearances in this campaign would hurt his prospects.
Britain has honoured a Nepalese soldier serving with the British Army for exemplary bravery in Afghanistan. Sergeant Kajiman Limbu of the Second Battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles based in Brunei has been awarded the Military Cross for exemplary gallantry during last year's operations in Afghanistan, the British Embassy in Kathmandu said.
Limbu, who was part of a British Army Training Team assisting the Afghan National Army, saved the life of an officer while assisting a coalition convoy ambushed by Afghan insurgents near Kabul. Limbu went to rescue the injured officer exposing himself to enemy fire from close quarters. Even after the rescue, he engaged the enemy for an hour till reinforcements arrived, an embassy statement said.
Limbu's valour has reinforced the faith the British Army has in its Gurkha soldiers, said Keith George Bloomfield, Britain's ambassador to Nepal. "Limbu displayed the very best qualities of the Gurkha soldier and I am delighted that his gallantry has been recognised with this most prestigious decoration," the envoy said.
Currently, the British Army employs about 3,400 soldiers from Nepal, known for their bravery and prowess with the khukuri, a native dagger.
(Hindustan Times-India)

Zurmat is a district in Paktia province south of Kabul. In the parched village of Naik Nam the earth and walls are a blinding white, the mud baked by an unforgiving sun. Drought and poverty have led to neglect of the mud structures, which look like half-destroyed sand castles after the first wave has hit them. A maze of barely perceptible paths winding through the desert leads to the dunes and homes that hide behind them. Described by United Nations workers as a hotbed, the Taliban are said to be very active in Zurmat, a former Taliban stronghold, after six or seven in the evening.
My guides are two doctors from Zurmat, Dr Omar and Dr Mohammed Qasim. Both men were very nervous as we made our way from Gardez, the provincial capital, to their hometown. At first they took a taxi and then opted for a private car. They dressed me in a salwar kamis, a long shirt draped over matching baggy pants, and gave me a cap to complete the disguise. They would be telling locals I was a Saudi, they said, because people there liked Saudis. With an American base nearby, I doubted the wisdom in spreading rumors of a six-foot Saudi visiting a pro-Taliban village, but kept my skepticism to myself.
Pakistan's interior minister said he would tell provincial governments to ban all religious gatherings, except at mosques, after a car bomb blast at a militant rally killed at least 40 people on Thursday. Speaking at a news conference hours after the attack in the central city of Multan, Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao also said no banned militant organisations would be allowed to continue with their activities. "We will advise the provincial government to impose bans on (religious) gatherings, processions and congregations until further orders," he said. "Prayers in mosques are exempted from this."
After voting ends the 47 boxes will be locked and the number of votes cast in them recorded and they will then each make their way to the Chamkani voting center, spending the night there before being taken over the rocks and rivers to the provincial capital of Gardez the following day. Here they will be opened and the number of ballots compared to the number on the box. Thus in Chamkani alone 47 boxes will be moving and lightly defended targets heading to the district office, and then one bonanza collection heading to Gardez, should anybody be inclined to derail the elections. And some people have already acted on these inclinations.
French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie called Thursday for creation of a separate international force for Afghanistan that would deal with the growing problem of illegal drug cultivation in the country.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

The burly general stood a little uncertainly before the roaring crowd in Mazar-i-Sharif. For 20 years Abdul Rashid Dos-tum had built up a reputation for ruthlessness: the Uzbek general who imposed his will on northern Afghanistan from the turret of a tank. Now, in the approach to the country's presidential election, he had come to politely solicit votes. "I am here because of you," he said. "I see a future when leaders respect their people. I see peace in Afghanistan." Then, in a flourish worthy of any western spin-doctor, he leapt on to a horse and galloped away in the manner of a medieval lord.
Two rockets struck near the U.S. military base in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Friday morning, the eve of Afghanistan's historic presidential election, a spokesman for the NATO-led peacekeeping force said. One rocket failed to explode when it hit across the street from the base close to the media accreditation center for the election. All U.S. Embassy staff were ordered to briefly take cover in an underground bunker.
Afghan soldiers and police raided a hideout where a large group of suspected Taliban militants were suspected of preparing to disrupt this weekend’s presidential elections, prompting a three-hour firefight that left seven insurgents dead, officials said today. The fighting broke out at about 3pm yesterday in a mountainous area of southern Uruzgan province, hours after rebels had attacked a police checkpoint, said Matiullah Khan, the provincial chief of police.
Massouda Jalal is making history by becoming the first Afghan woman ever to run for president. "Three years back I could not even dream of being a presidential candidate," the 41-year-old mother of three says. "And if I won what is the translation? The whole world would say the people of Afghanistan won the election, not gun, not dollar."
Warlords and the Taliban are undermining Afghan women's participation in the political process through ongoing threats and attacks, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Widespread intimidation of women and general insecurity threaten women's right to vote freely in the October 9 presidential elections, stand for political office and fully participate in public life. The 39-page report, "Between Hope and Fear: Intimidation and Threats Against Women in Public Life in Afghanistan," details how warlord factions, the Taliban and various insurgent groups attack and harass women government officials, election workers, journalists and women's rights activists.
An international agency says the response to a voter registration drive among Afghan refugees in Pakistan has been overwhelming. In just four days, an estimated 650,000 have registered to vote in the first presidential election in their homeland Saturday.
Pakistan's military and al Qaeda-linked militants agreed to a 10-day truce on Monday, the day the army killed four Islamic militants including two foreigners in a tribal region near Afghanistan, officials said. Militant tribesmen in the semi-autonomous South Waziristan region offered the cease-fire after negotiations with government representatives, officials and local tribal sources said.
The Guardian reported Sunday that Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Christino, "a senior Pentagon intelligence officer who worked at the heart of the US war on terror," said that prisoner interrogations at Guantánamo Bay - the US military facility in Cuba which currently houses Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees - has not produced any intelligence that resulted in preventing "a single terrorist attack." Lt. Col. Christino also said that the reports of the value of these interrogations had been "wildly exaggerated" by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Christino's remarks and those of three other US intelligence officers who support his comments are contained in the book "Guantánamo: America's War on Human Rights," by British journalist David Rose, which will be released this week.
Christino, who served from June 2003 until his recent retirement in June 2004 as senior watch officer for the central Department of Defense unit known as the Joint Intelligence Task Force-Combating Terrorism (JITF-CT), also said that the screening process in Afghanistan that determined which captured troops would be sent to the US prison camp was "hopelessly flawed from the get-go."
About 150 diplomats, politicians, artists, and others paid tribute at a concert by Pakistani musicians to Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was slain in the city by Islamic militants. Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded in Karachi in 2002 while researching a story on Islamic militantcy.
A roadside bomb exploded Wednesday afternoon under a convoy carrying one of President Hamid Karzai's two running mates in the upcoming presidential election. The attack, in remote Badakshan province, killed one man and injured five others, including a former Badakshan governor. Officials said they had no idea who had carried out the attack on Ahmed Zia Massoud's convoy, which occurred in a relatively peaceful area of far northeastern Afghanistan. They said a bomb or mine detonated as the vehicles were passing. A similar incident occurred in northern Kunduz province last month, when a bomb exploded under a convoy carrying Vice President Nematullah Shahrani.
When Afghanistan votes Saturday in its first presidential election, three women, Hajira, Roshana and Farida, will face a choice, but not the one many people expect. Choosing their candidate was the easy part. All three women, residents of this southern city, favor the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai. But in the face of threats from Taliban insurgents to attack the election process, they cannot decide whether to vote at all, let alone whether to work at the polls as they have been asked to do.
The women say they do not fear death. They fear the shame a public death would bring their families. "My biggest fear is that if something happens election day, the whole town will talk afterward," said Farida, who is 23 and unmarried, and who, like the others, uses only one name. "There is already a general rumor that women who work outside the home are prostitutes to Americans or foreigners, that women who work outside the home lose their honor." There is a saying in the culture, Farida said: For a woman, a death in the home - with purdah, which literally means curtain - is a death of honor; a death outside the home is a death with dishonor.
"I just don't want to die on the street," Farida said.
More than 1,000 leathery, turbaned men gathered in a cavernous village mosque Friday for a presidential campaign rally. They no longer carried rifles, and some had even brought their small sons. But the assembly of mujaheddin, or former anti-Soviet fighters, crackled with esprit de corps.
The veterans were all ethnic Pashtuns, and the rally was held in Kandahar province, the heartland of Afghan Pashtun culture and the birthplace of President Hamid Karzai, who comes from a prominent Pashtun tribe and has courted Pashtun votes in his bid to be elected president this Saturday.
But these tough ex-fighters had come to show their support for someone else: Yonus Qanooni, the former interior and education minister and an ethnic Tajik, who is Karzai's major challenger. To them, the candidate's ethnicity mattered far less than his credentials as a fellow mujahid and defender of Islam.
Malik Ali Mahmad and his small security team were on high alert last Tuesday night. They had recently been sent to establish a government outpost in an isolated, Taliban-plagued district, Khaki Afghan, and there were rumors that the Islamic militia was planning a retaliatory raid. "I heard they had issued orders to kill me," Mahmad said Friday. "At 11:30 p.m. they attacked. There were hundreds of them. They had heavy weapons and rockets and Kalashnikovs and grenades. The fight lasted 4 1/2 hours. I killed their commander, but I lost two of my sons and my best friend."
The beefy, turbaned man spoke tersely, his eyes red with grief but his voice brittle with contempt. He had returned to Qalat, the capital of the southeastern province of Zabol 50 miles to the south, to bury his sons. A circle of men sat around him in a carpeted mud hut, silently paying their respects.
The Kabul air show went on all day. First, about 7am, came the fighter jets. Then, at lunchtime, helicopters flew low, tight figures of eight, rattling windows. "It is a demonstration," said one Afghan. He was right. With less than a week to go until Afghanistan's first democratic elections, the US and its allies are making great show of their air power. Journalists were invited to the airport yesterday to look over some fighter jets.
In Qalat, the capital of restive Zabul province, security chief Lt. Gen. Amir Mohammad Noori says that his 1,500 police and 500 Afghan National Army soldiers are ready for whatever the Taliban have planned for election day. Even so, he admits that the Taliban are evenly matched, with 1,700 guerrillas in Zabul, and that they travel freely in far-off districts such as Sari and Khake Afghan.
A three-member Japanese government team arrived in Kabul on Sunday to join an international mission to monitor next Saturday's presidential election in Afghanistan.
As expected, President General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan announced a major reshuffle of the senior officers of the Pakistan army of the rank of generals and lieutenant generals on October 2 and 3. The reshuffle was necessitated by the impending retirement of General Mohammad Aziz Khan as chairman, joint chiefs of staff committee, and General Muhammad Yusuf Khan as vice-chief of the army staff, both on October 7. With the retirement of General Mohammad Aziz Khan, a Kashmiri belonging to the Sudan tribe, from the army, the Pakistan army does not have any identified fundamentalist officers in the rank of lieutenant general/general.
The deaths of three Afghan soldiers and two militants over the weekend - barely noted in news reports - brought to at least 957 the number of people reported killed in political violence this year, according to an Associated Press review. The toll includes about 30 American soldiers.
In this province where Taliban militiamen are active, the Americans are on alert. At the slightest suspicious sound of trucks or motorbikes, common means of attack in Afghanistan, they raise their assault rifles. Yet since they have been accompanied by their Afghan colleagues, the missions are easier: they have had stones thrown at them, but "the reaction of the population has changed since we started the patrols with the Afghan army."
Fishnet stockings and high heels are not the norm for riot police, but this is Afghanistan. Masouma was one of five women being trained by U.S. forces early Sunday to cope with civil disturbances during the country's first ever presidential vote on Oct. 9. Surrounded by nearly 200 men in dark blue uniforms, matching caps and black military-style boots, the small female contingent stood out with their colorful headscarves, lipstick, silver fingernails and gold earrings dangling under headscarves.
There, in a nameless squatter camp built entirely from rubbish, Gul Rakman lives in squalor with 95 other families, including 150 children and numerous cows, sheep and goats. It has been their home for three years -- ever since they returned from Pakistan, where they had been refugees, after the Taliban's collapse in 2001. Despite having no running water or electricity, or even a proper address, Rakman is now the proud owner of a voter registration card with his photo on it. But when asked which of the 18 faces he will choose from, his own goes blank.
"We will vote for whoever will give us a home to stay in, but we do not know who that is," he said. "Nobody has come to tell us who is good and who is bad, and we have no TV or radio to hear the news. We have no time to learn about these things -- if we don't work, we don't eat."
An unmanned US surveillance plane crashed today near the southern Pakistani air base of Jacobabad that is used by US forces operating in neighbouring Afghanistan, police said. "It was a small unmanned plane which crashed early this morning," local police officer Masroor Jatoi said. He said the wreckage was found in bushes near Jacobabad's Shahbaz air base. "It fell in an unpopulated area and there were no casualties or property losses," Jatoi added. The airbase is used by the US-led coalition for operations in Afghanistan to crush al-Qaeda and Taliban extremists. Pakistan is a key ally in the US led war on terror.
(The Age-Australia)

"Kabul," by Dominic Medley and Jude Barrand (Bradt/Globe Pequot, 178 pages, $12.95). Yes, we know tour groups are already venturing into the war zone, and frankly, traveling with a posse is what we'd recommend. But those with business in the land of the Taliban and independent tourists who want to get there first would be well advised to pack their pockets with this mini-guide, written by English journalists who have worked and lived there since post-Sept. 11, 2001.
The book, which originated as a 16-page survival guide aimed at workers in Afghanistan and their visitors, covers practicalities most guides wouldn't need -- finding sports equipment or electrical goods, how to buy alcohol without attracting attention, locating landmarks in a city where everything has been endlessly renamed by successive regimes.
Security advice is blunt and specific. No "avoid places where foreigners congregate" -- you'll learn that the Chicken Street shopping area, any restaurant that sells alcohol and the UNICA Guesthouse are considered potential targets. The authors make abundantly clear the danger of wandering in the world's most heavily land-mined country and lay out when and how to obtain permission to travel outlying areas, including the Khyber Pass.
Yet they believe the war-ravaged capital can once again become an exotic, cosmopolitan city at the crossroads of Central Asia. They point to the returning population, an expanding Afghan Tourist Authority, revitalized neighborhoods, bustling bazaars, new guesthouses and restaurants, refurbished hotels and restoration of the Kabul Museum, National Gallery, National Archives and historic Babur Gardens.
A rudimentary phrasebook in Dari and Pashto (the two official languages), day trips, and directories of international organizations, government ministries and U.N. offices are helpful. More and better maps would have been more helpful still.
(San Francisco Chronicle)

The weaver families of Qalai Nazer village on the western outskirts of Kabul are likely to vote for their ethnic Hazara clansman Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, one of 18 contestants, even though he appears to have little chance of the presidency. "Karzai has promised a lot -- roads, electricity," said Mohammad Reza, a wholesaler who has farmed out carpet weaving contracts to about 50 families in the village. "He has not fulfilled the promises. Mohaqiq fought the Taliban, he is famous for that."
Weblog Commenting by HaloScan.com

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?