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News from Afghanistan


05.11.2007 00:25

* Afghan forces prepare to retake fallen district: president
* At least 25 Taliban reported killed in Afghanistan
* Better health care for Afghan children
* AFGHANISTAN: Displaced families in Farah need urgent help
* Afghanistan: Armed Northern Militias Complicate Afghan Security
* Merkel pledges more help to Afghan police
* Afghan Koran publisher arrested
* Regional Powers Look To Build New 'Silk Roads'
* New mullah in Arghandab district wants Canada to stay in Afghanistan
* War on poppy succeeds, but cannabis thrives, in one Afghan province
* Despite war, Afghanistan' s beauty survives
* Taliban militants free 211 Pakistani troops

Afghan forces prepare to retake fallen district: president
Sun Nov 4, 2:13 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai said preparations were being made to retake a district captured by Taliban rebels two days ago, attributing the militants' success to his weak police force.

The governor of Bakwa district in the western province of Farah, Yahya Riadth, said separately troop reinforcements had moved into the area and he anticipated an operation shortly.

Taliban militants swept into Bakwa, a strategic district that includes the main road linking southern and western Afghanistan, late Thursday after heavy fighting. Late Monday they took neighbouring Gulistan.

"It is a serious concern," Karzai told reporters Saturday during a media briefing with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"There is a preparation going on to free that district from the Taliban," he said, referring to Bakwa, which has in recent months seen a spike in Taliban activity.

Taliban insurgents have previously overrun several districts in remote parts of Afghanistan, including Bakwa, but have been easily ejected with the help of the international militaries here to aid the country's weak security forces.

They have, however, held the district of Musa Qala, close to Gulistan, since February and the area is considered a Taliban base.

Karzai said the reason the militants were able to move into districts was "clear."

The reason for their success is the weakness of the Afghan forces, including a lack of training and a shortage of proper equipment, especially in far-flung areas of the country, Karzai said.

International forces are helping to train the Afghan army and police, which were non-existent when the Taliban were forced out of government in late 2001 by a US-led coalition.

Karzai said the solution to his fragile nation's insecurity was the further training and equipping of the Afghan forces.
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At least 25 Taliban reported killed in Afghanistan
Sun Nov 4, 5:26 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Afghan and international security forces killed 25 Taliban in an area of southern Afghanistan that has witnessed days of deadly clashes, officials said Sunday.

The 25 were killed Saturday in an operation by Afghan police and soldiers from the US-led coalition in the troubled province of Uruzgan, the interior ministry said in a statement.

"The bodies of the dead were left at the battlefield," it said, adding that a Taliban commander was seriously hurt.

The operation was in a district next to some of the most volatile parts of southern Afghanistan, a focus of a bloody Taliban-led campaign launched soon after the extremists were removed from government six years ago.

The coalition announced separately that its troops, teamed up with Afghan security forces, had repelled an attack Friday on a military base in Uruzgan province.

"There were some casualties to the enemy," a coalition spokesman told AFP without providing details.

Two foreign soldiers, one of them a 21-year-old Dutch national, were killed in Uruzgan in incidents on Friday and Saturday.

The Netherlands has around 1,650 soldiers in Uruzgan, while there are also several hundred Australian troops in the province.

The coalition also announced it had killed several insurgents Saturday in the southern province of Helmand -- an area where several British troops have taken the lead in NATO-led operations.

Warplanes were called in after rebels tried to ambush soldiers around Musa Qala district, the centre of which has been in Taliban control for months and is considered a rebel base.

The Taliban overran two districts in neighbouring Farah province in the past week: officials have said they are preparing operations to take them back.

The Taliban insurgency has grown steadily in the past years, with daily attacks over summer which are expected to drop off as winter approaches. More than 5,000 have been killed this year, most of them rebels.

In other violence blamed on the Taliban, a bomb exploded near the border with Pakistan early Sunday, killing a school headmaster who was returning from prayers, police said.
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Better health care for Afghan children
By AMIR SHAH, Associated Press Writer Sun Nov 4, 7:32 AM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - Close to 90,000 children who would have died before age 5 in Afghanistan during Taliban rule will stay alive this year because of advances in medical care in the country, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Sunday.

The under-5 child mortality rate in Afghanistan has declined from an estimated 257 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2001 to about 191 per 1,000 in 2006, the Ministry of Public Health said, relying on a new study by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.N. and aid agency Save the Children both hailed the advances in health care in Afghanistan.

"This is certainly very positive news," said the U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan, Adrian Edwards. "To come from such low life expectancy to see this improvement does appear to be an indication that the work on the health sector here is beginning to pay off."

Karzai, surrounded by children at a news conference in Kabul, thanked international aid organizations and Afghan health workers for the work they've done to raise health standards. He said 89,000 children will be saved each year because of the improved health care.

Still, Afghanistan continues to face severe problems. Health Minister Mohammad Amin Fatimi said 250,000 children under age 5 die every year, mostly from malnutrition, diarrhea, tuberculosis and malaria.

Child immunizations have risen dramatically in recent years, and newly trained volunteer health workers are helping treat pneumonia among villagers in remote areas, said Tariq Ihsan, a deputy director with Save the Children.

But Ihsan said the youngest children make up the bulk of the country's high child mortality rate.

"My feeling is that we really need to look at this very carefully, because the children who are dying now could be the newborns," Ihsan said. "Many newborns are dying because they don't have access to immediate health care. I think that's a real challenge for Afghanistan. They need to ask, 'Are we saving enough newborns?'"

Deaths of Afghan children who don't reach their first birthday have dropped from 165 per 1,000 in 2001 to 129 per 1,000 today, a drop of some 22 percent, Edwards said.

Afghanistan' s child mortality rate, from birth to age 5, has been among the worst in the world. Only Sierra Leone, with 283 child deaths per 1,000 live births, Angola (260) and Niger (259) ranked below Afghanistan at 257, UNICEF said in a 2006 report.

By comparison, the United States has eight under-5 child deaths per 1,000 births. Singapore and Iceland, with three childhood deaths per 1,000, topped the rankings.

The UNICEF report noted that, like Afghanistan, most of the countries with the worst child mortality rates have suffered from armed conflict.

Fatimi, the health minister, said 85 percent of Afghans now have access to basic health care — a marked improvement from the past.

A U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban militant movement from power.
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AFGHANISTAN: Displaced families in Farah need urgent help
04 Nov 2007 13:36:00 GMT
More KABUL, 4 November 2007 (IRIN) - Hundreds if not thousands of recently displaced people in southwest Afghanistan are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection, displaced families and provincial aid workers told IRIN on 4 November.

Due to insecurity, there are no reliable figures on the exact number of people who have abandoned their in the Gulistan and Bakwa districts of Farah Province and sought temporary refuge in other parts of the isolated province.

However, Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan UNAMA), said "about 500 families might have been displaced" as a result of fighting.

Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, have acknowledged that Taliban insurgents have overrun at least two districts in Farah Province.

Immediately after Afghan government forces lost control of Gulistan District on 2 November, insurgents reportedly executed several civilians accusing them of being government spies, the Afghanistan Interior Ministry (MoI) and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a joint statement on Sunday.

"This is an intolerable outrage designed to terrorise the local population," read the MoI-ISAF press release.

Foreign fighters

Provincial officials say the recent spate of violence across southern, south-western and central-western Afghanistan has been exacerbated by numerous foreign fighters who have joined and supported Taliban rebels.

"Foreign fighters in particular have been cruel and have widely committed violence against the local populace," said Gulam Nabi Hukak, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in neighbouring Herat Province.

Hukak accused Taliban fighters and their foreign supporters of "repeated and deliberate" violation of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions in their fighting tactics.

No Taliban spokesman was immediately available for comment.

No aid for displaced

As the clashes continue, many families have spent days on the move without aid.

"Our children are hungry and we live in the open air," said one displaced man who had come to Farah city in search of food for his family.

Gulam Rasoul, provincial head of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) in Farah, conceded that no aid had been delivered to displaced families, at least by ARCS.

"We do not have adequate resources to assist needy people," Rasoul told IRIN, adding that the province's response capacity was weak and not in a position to meet the current needs of the displaced.

Inaccessibility

With an intensifying insurgency and widespread criminal activities, Farah is inaccessible to the UN and aid agencies.

The UN, nonetheless, is working with provincial authorities to identify and assist conflict-affected people in the province, said Siddique of UNAMA.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the UN and ARCS have repeatedly requested all warring parties, particularly the Taliban, to allow aid workers access to all vulnerable people in volatile and conflict-affected areas.

So far, Taliban rebels have not responded to these pleas and aid workers' access has remained restricted.
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Afghanistan: Armed Northern Militias Complicate Afghan Security
Ron Synovitz 11/04/07 EurasiaNet Partner Post from RFE/RL
Much of the world’s attention on Afghanistan is now focused on the country’s Pashtun-dominated south and east, where Taliban fighters are battling NATO troops and U.S.-led coalition forces. But there is a different kind of tension in northern Afghanistan.

Illegal ethnic-Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara militias in the north appear to be using the threat of a resurgent Taliban as an excuse to hoard weapons and more forcefully protect their interests, such as ruling over land they have controlled since the Taliban’s collapse or defending drug export routes that are a major source of income.

Experts say the entrenchment of the militias, who once fought together against the Taliban, reflects divisions and mistrust among regional commanders of different ethnicities which -- if left unchecked -- could exacerbate tensions in the country at a time when its security situation is already on a razor’s edge.

"Obviously, what is happening in the north is really the growing Balkanization of the country," said Sam Zia-Zarifi, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch and field researcher in Afghanistan who has monitored programs by the United Nations and Afghan government to disarm the militias.

"It’s been an ongoing trend in Afghanistan for warlords who are ostensibly allied with the government to entrench themselves even more fully," Zia-Zarifi told RFE/RL. "A lot of them are now swollen with the narcotics trade -- profits from the sale of poppy and heroin. They have a lot of political clout because many of them have allies in the parliament, if they are not directly members of the parliament. And the next step is to openly flex their military muscle."

Disarmament Falls Short

Attempts to demobilize the patchwork of rival militias across Afghanistan were once trumpeted as a necessary step toward peace and the creation of a functioning democracy. But UN officials have acknowledged that their initial voluntary disarmament program failed to reach its targets.

Militia leaders in the north still command the loyalty of thousands of fighters who can be mobilized quickly in the event of a local dispute or crisis.

Brigadier General Abdulmanan Abed, an Afghan Defense Ministry official involved the country’s ongoing disarmament program, says there is an "environment of mistrust" in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif about the Kabul government’s ability to prevent Taliban infiltrations.

The commander who holds sway in Mazar-e Sharif is Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful general whom Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed as chief of staff for the Afghan National Army.

Dostum is enormously popular among his fellow ethnic Uzbeks in the north. According to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Dostum also is one of several regional commanders who appear to be exploiting Kabul’s preoccupation with the violence-ridden south and east in order to stake claims on their old fiefdoms.

In May, when Dostum’s supporters staged protests against a controversial governor of the northern province of Jowzjan, the demonstrations turned violent -- leaving at least 10 people dead and more than 40 injured.

Armed supporters of Dostum also clashed with authorities in Faryab Province in May, forcing Kabul to send in troops to quell the violence.

Provincial authorities in Jowzjan accuse Dostum’s political faction, Junbish-e Melli, of rearming its supporters in the north. But Junbish representatives have repeatedly denied those accusations, telling RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that they are only a political group and have no weapons.

Another powerful commander accused not fully disarming and demobilizing his factional militia fighters is Mohammad Qasim Fahim.

Fahim commanded ethnic Tajik fighters from the Panjshir Valley in the former United Front -- also known as the former Northern Alliance. The U.S.-backed alliance also had included Dostum’s fighters. But the former United Front disintegrated as the rival militias raced to stake out territory after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

It was Fahim’s fighters who, against the pleas of the international community, seized control of Kabul when the Taliban fled Kabul in late 2001. And Fahim’s Islamist political faction -- Jam’iat-e Islami-yi -- used its de facto control of Kabul as a negotiating position at the Bonn Conference in December of 2001.

That initially gave Jam’iat-e Islami-yi commanders control of some of the most powerful posts in Karzai’s post-Taliban transitional administration – heading the ministries of Defense, the Interior, and Foreign Affairs as well as the Afghan intelligence services.

Fahim himself was Defense Minister from late 2001 thru most of 2004. But he was removed from the post in December 2004 after being accused of illegally occupying land in Kabul.

Commanders of other factional militia also have accused Fahim of hoarding weapons for his own militia fighters at a time when, as Defense Minister, he was in charge of the government demobilization efforts.

Unilateral Hoarding of Weapons

Christopher Langton, an expert on conflict and defense diplomacy at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says that amid a perceived spread of the Taliban-led insurgency during the last two years, as well as disturbances further north and heavy fighting in the south, some former United Front commanders have decided unilaterally that they may need weapons in the future.

"Some are quite senior, some close to the government and in politics," Langton said. "And they don’t see why they should have to disarm whereas groups in the south remain armed -- and some of the groups in the south have actually been armed by international forces in order to fight on the side of the [Afghan] government."

Other independent experts say the lack of detailed information about local militia command structures has compromised the effectiveness of disarmament efforts.

The International Crisis Group says it is not formal militia structures, but rather, the informal structures that must be understood in order to identify commanders at the village level responsible for calling into action the militia fighters who have stashed away their weapons.

After decades of war, Langton describes the nature of Afghanistan as "a country based around armed groups." He says it is naive for anybody to think such a situation could be changed by a voluntary program to disarm and disband militia.

"If, at the beginning, there wasn’t the threat of Taliban coming back [to the north], there were other reasons for retaining weapons," Langton told RFE/RL. "Self-protection in a place like Afghanistan is one reason.

"The possibility of having to guard opium convoys or heroin consignments going abroad is another reason," he said. "And the other reason is commercial -- selling armed guards to local authorities to guard their properties. What I think the so-called resurgent Taliban does is to give some perceived legitimacy to [the hoarding of weapons]."

Kabul’s Overtures To Taliban

Langton says fears among non-Pashtun commanders in the north have been heightened by recent overtures in Kabul about bringing moderate Taliban into the government -- an issue he says is closer to reality now than ever before.

"It does strengthen the belief amongst the former Northern [Alliance] groups that they may have to be prepared to stand up to some kind of Pashtun-dominated government," Langton said. "The United Afghan National Front opposition group, which was given birth last year, came together as a political opposition to the government largely because the people in the party feared that there might be a need to be united once again. And, of course, these are the former Northern Alliance commanders.

"The formation of this political group is an indication that there is a retention of weapons because there is a fear of increasing Taliban involvement both, possibly, in legitimate government and as a force which is encroaching further north illegally," Langton said.

Still, Langton and other experts conclude that the Afghan government is not about to face an armed insurrection by commanders from the former United Front.

They say such a development would require a degree of unity among northern militia that doesn’t appear to exist. And they say the political coalition formed last year by northern commanders does not translate into an armed alliance -- except at local levels where militia commanders are trying to protect their personal and vested interests.
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Merkel pledges more help to Afghan police
By Hamid Shalizi Sat Nov 3, 11:03 AM ET
KABUL (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her first visit to Afghanistan on Saturday and said Berlin would increase efforts to strengthen the Afghan police, seen as key to fight suicide and roadside bombs.

Germany has some 3,000 German troops in Afghanistan and was the lead nation with responsibility for training the Afghan police from 2001 till this year.

"We should further strengthen our efforts in building up the police," Merkel said after meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai, adding that she would see whether her government could set aside more money for the task in the 2008 budget.

The U.S.-trained Afghan army has made great strides since Afghan and U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001 for not handing over al Qaeda leaders after the September 11 attacks.

But as the resurgent Taliban now rely less on conventional warfare and more on suicide and roadside bombs, the poorly trained, under-staffed and under-equipped Afghan police are now the front line defense against insurgent attacks.

As the lead nation in training the Afghan police, Germany has spent 74 million euros ($107.4 million) on the force since 2002.

The European Union took over the lead in police training this year and the United States has begun pumping money in -- some $.2.5 billion in this year alone.

But it will take time for the police to get up to strength.

MORE AFGHAN TROOPS, BETTER TRAINING
Taliban rebels overran two districts in western Afghanistan this week, easily ejecting the lightly armed police.

"The reason is the weakness of Afghan forces and the shortage in the right numbers of the Afghan forces, especially in the far flung areas of the country," Karzai told reporters.

"We must all try, the international community and Afghanistan together, to enable further the abilities of Afghan forces in numbers in training and in equipping, that is the answer," he said.

After meeting Karzai, and military and diplomatic leaders in Kabul, Merkel flew to Mazar-i-Sharif, the main base for German troops in the north.

Germany's parliament voted last month to renew the deployment of its troops, mostly based in relatively peaceful Afghan north, for another year, defying public opinion which is strongly against the mission.

The mandate is controversial in Germany, which has only gradually expanded its role in overseas military missions since World War Two.

The deaths of 26 German soldiers serving under NATO's command in Afghanistan have eroded public support and a newspaper showed only 29 percent of Germans backed the extension of the mission.

But NATO allies, engaged in heavy fighting to contain Taliban insurgents in the south and east of the country, would like to see German troops to do more and operate outside north.

"We will not move to the south or to any other part of the country, we will stay in the north of Afghanistan," Merkel told reporters in Mazar-i-Sharif before leaving Afghanistan.

Berlin and some other alliance nations restrict where and how their troops may be deployed in Afghanistan and bar them from engaging in military operations. German troops, NATO commanders say, are even forbidden to patrol at night.

($1=.6891 Euro)

(Additional reporting by Tahir Qadiry in Mazar-i-Sharif)
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Afghan Koran publisher arrested
By Alix Kroeger BBC News, Kabul Sunday, 4 November 2007, 16:00 GMT
The publisher of a new translation of the Koran has been arrested after complaints from religious scholars that the new edition was un-Islamic.

Former journalist Ghows Zalmay is also the spokesman for Afghanistan' s attorney general.

He was arrested on the border on Sunday while trying to flee into Pakistan.

Demonstrators protested in two Afghan provinces against the new translation of the Koran into Dari, the second most spoken language in Afghanistan.

Religious scholars are outraged at Mr Zalmay's new edition of the Muslim holy book.

They say that it is un-Islamic, that it misinterprets verses about alcohol, begging, homosexuality and adultery.

They also complain that it does not contain the original version in Arabic as a parallel text for comparison.

Both houses of the Afghan parliament have held emergency debates.

Senators have called for Mr Zalmay and the translator, himself a mullah, to be punished.

One said Mr Zalmay was "worse than Salman Rushdie", whose book, The Satanic Verses, caused widespread outrage in the Islamic world.

Another said Mr Zalmay was under the protection of a foreign security company.

In the northern city of Taloqan 1,500 university students took to the streets in protest, while in the south-east province of Nimruz 1,000 local people, including several mullahs, took part in a demonstration.

The Afghan constitution enshrines freedom of expression, but for many Afghans that freedom has clear limits and they do not include making interpretive translations of the Koran.
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Regional Powers Look To Build New 'Silk Roads'
November 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Eight member countries of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program have agreed to a strategy to improve Central Asia's transport infrastructure.

The plan was agreed at a two-day CAREC ministerial conference ending today in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

The meeting brought together ministers from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Representatives of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and five other multilateral institutions also attended.

The CAREC Transport and Trade Facilitation Strategy calls for $18.7 billion investment over the next decade in six new transport corridors, mainly roads and rail links. Members of the bloc will provide about half of the needed funding, with the rest coming from organizations such as the ADB.

Demand For Supply

Robert Siy, director of ADB's regional cooperation division for Central and West Asia, says the project will facilitate Central Asian trade while also improving access to global markets.

"There's a lot of resources, a lot of products in Central Asia that are very much in demand both in South Asia as well as in Europe. And these transport corridors will enable those goods to reach very big markets," he said in a telephone interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service. "These corridors will become the priorities in terms of investments for the countries in Central Asia under the CAREC program as well as for the different multilateral institutions that are financing economic development projects in the region."

The plan also calls for the improvement of border crossings to facilitate the flow of trade.

Ministers at the meeting also endorsed a plan to establish the CAREC Institute. Siy said its first purpose is to enhance the capabilities of CAREC government officials to engage in regional cooperation processes and to plan and implement regional cooperation projects.

"We need to make sure that official in governments as well as representatives in the private sector understand the opportunities for regional cooperation and are able build the partnerships that will enable some of these very important projects to materialize," Siy said.

The institute will also conduct research to look at the opportunities and benefits of regional cooperation.

"We hope that the institute will identify maybe some innovative projects, some innovative partnerships, that then the governments as well as the different multilateral institutions will be able to pursue," Siy said.

Ten-Year Plan

The ministers agreed to a shared vision for their region for the next decade, including the aspiration that all countries will be members of the World Trade Organization. A joint statement also says that by 2018, governments aim to "fulfill Central Asia's potential as an energy hub" to ensure no community is without reliable and affordable electricity.

Initiated in 1997, CAREC is an initiative supported by the ADB to encourage economic cooperation in Central Asia.
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New mullah in Arghandab district wants Canada to stay in Afghanistan
The Canadian Press
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - When it comes to his views on Canada's presence in Afghanistan, it's like father like son for the new mullah in the Arghandab district north of Kandahar city.

Arghandab has been the site of heavy fighting involving Canadian and Afghan security troops as the Taliban sought to gain a foothold in the area with the death last month of Mullah Naqib, a former warlord who was an enemy of the Taliban.

"With what's going on right now in the district of Arghandab is not good and in this situation the Canadians must stay right here for a long time," said Kareemullah Naqibi, recently named by President Hamid Karzai as his father's successor.

"And with the acute situation in Kandahar city, I think that the Canadians should stay a long time too," said Naqibi, speaking through an interpreter to reporters in Arbhandab. "I do not say the exact time whether it's one month, two months or three months. They must stay because the security situation is not good right now."

A force of about 300 Taliban tried last month to gain control of Arghandab, lush farmland of grape and pomegranate orchards which would have provided the group with easy access to its former stronghold.

Naqibi blames himself for allowing a leadership vacuum and not acting sooner to solidify his position in the region.

Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid told reporters that the Taliban understimated the support the govenrment had in the area. He said the Arghandab people provided valuable information and with the action if ISAF, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police the Taliban were pushed back in two or three days.

"They cannot come back because we have strong civilian support," he said. "We have reports that they went to the mountains but we will follow them. They are not in Arghandab anymore but wherever they are, we will follow."

The governor said the Afghan people are grateful for the Canadian presence but noted it is a two-way street.

"They are also here to fight against terrorism. It is not just an Afghan fight and you are lucky because you are able to defend against your enemy thousand and thousands of miles far away from your country."

A strong Canadian military contingent will remain in Arghandab for at least a few more days according to the second-in-command for Canada in Joint Task Force Afghanistan.

"The insurgents came down in the Arghandab district to knock at the door and we made sure that the door was closed," said Col. Christian Juneau. "When they come back again the door will still be closed."

Col. Juneau said what was interesting about this encounter with the Taliban is some members of the local population in the region took up arms in support of the government.

The fact that a large force of armed men showed up in the region isn't something Juneau was about to dwell upon.

"If you look behind you, look at some of the coverage the trees and fields provide. It's difficult to detect that. They came in and we kicked them out and they left, at least some of them left, using that coverage," he finished.

About 50 Taliban soldiers died in the attack and an equal number were wounded.

There were about 300 members from the Canadian Battle Group involved in the military operation, along with 350 Afghan soldiers, 200 Afghan police as well as 33 U.S. mentors and 12 Canadian soldiers who work with the Afghan army.

In other words, the two sides really weren't evenly matched.

"You don't take a knife to a gunfight," observed Lt.-Col. Thomas Ritz, the commander of the U.S. police mentoring team dryly.

"We swept them from the battlefield," he added.

The Taliban were greater in number than previously reported said Lt.-Col. Shirin Sha Kowbandi, commander of the Kandak 21 battalion of the Afghan National Army.

"They had a plan to take Kandahar city too and we with the help of Canadian friends. We gave a lot of casualties to the Taliban forces," he said. "The amount of the Taliban were probably about 600 and we killed more insurgents."

Col. Ritz said the cooperation in coaltion forces working with Afghan security bodes well for the future and should send a message to the Taliban.

"What we did in this operation together was seize the initiative from the Taliban and took the fight back to the Taliban," Ritz said. "We're going to meet them again and we're going to defeat them again. And wherever they are we're going to find them."

The Canadian military effort has been focused almost entirely on the Panjwaii and Zhari districts over the past few years and the regions, west of Kandahar city, have been the site of bloody battles involving the Canadian forces.

Arghandab is likely the next area that Canada will be focusing in he said.

"Eventually we would like to focus our efforts somewhere else and this is an option, obviously," Juneau said. "We just would like to expand that inkspot that we have developed in the Zhari-Panjwaii districts."
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War on poppy succeeds, but cannabis thrives, in one Afghan province
By Kirk Semple The New York Times
KHWAJA GHOLAK, Afghanistan — Amid the multiplying frustrations of the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan, the northern province of Balkh has been hailed as a rare and glowing success.

Two years ago the province, which abuts Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, was covered with opium poppies — about 27,000 acres of them, nearly enough to blanket Manhattan twice. This year, after an intense anti-poppy campaign led by the governor, Balkh's farmers abandoned the crop. The province was declared poppy free, with 12 others, and the provincial government was promised a reward of millions of dollars in development aid.

But largely ignored in the celebration was the fact that many farmers in Balkh simply switched from opium poppies to another illegal crop: cannabis, the herb from which marijuana and hashish are derived.

Earnings for farmers

As the Afghan and Western governments focused on the problem of soaring Afghan opium production, which hit record levels this year and remains a booming industry, cannabis cultivation increased 40 percent around the country, to about 173,000 acres this year — from about 123,500 acres last year, the United Nations said in an August report. And even though hashish is less expensive per weight than opium or heroin, the report said, cannabis can potentially earn a farmer more than opium poppies because it yields twice the quantity of drug per acre and is cheaper and less labor intensive to grow.

"As a consequence," the U.N. report warned, "farmers who do not cultivate opium poppy may turn to cannabis cultivation."

Many farmers in Balkh have done just that, officials and residents say, and the province now has one of the most bounteous cannabis crops in the country.

The plant lines the main highways leading into Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital, and is visible to passing drivers. The crop's chief byproduct, hashish, is sold openly at many roadside fruit and grocery stands, particularly around Balkh, the ancient citadel town about 15 miles west of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Late on an October afternoon, Muhammad Ayud, 30, a sharecropper, was finishing a day of work at the three-acre parcel he farms here in this poor village just outside the town of Balkh. His plot was covered by a forest of cannabis plants, some more than 9 feet tall.

"This is nothing," he said. "If you give it real fertilizer, you'd see how tall it grows!"

Last year Ayud's parcel was mostly opium poppies. But his crop was wiped out by government officials during a campaign led by the provincial governor, Atta Mohammad Noor, who jailed dozens of growers for disobeying him and personally waded into several poppy fields swinging a stick at the flower stems.

Ayud, one of only two wage earners in his 16-member family, lost most of his expected earnings for the year, about $1,000, he said.

Family tradition
This year he planted cannabis instead, with some cotton as a fallback in case the government followed through on its promises to eradicate the illicit crop. It was a return to a family tradition, he said. His father and grandfather grew cannabis here.

Ayud said he knew it was illegal to grow cannabis, but that it was the only crop that would produce enough profit to feed his family. "I don't have anything else to grow," he said. Cannabis can earn about twice the profits of a legal crop like cotton, local officials say.

Farmers in this region have cultivated cannabis for more than 70 years and, by the estimates of several Balkh residents, at least half the adult male population smokes hashish. Resinous, pungent and black, the hashish is sold in thin, palm-size sheets that resemble large tire patches and sell for about a dollar each. Hashish from this area — called Milk of Mazar — was once prized by smokers around the world, though its primacy has since been supplanted by varieties from other countries.

Many farmers here, as elsewhere in Afghanistan, process the cannabis into hashish in their homes, then sell it to traffickers who come to their doors. The best hashish is exported, residents here say, while the inferior stuff is consumed nationally.

Atta says he has a plan to eradicate cannabis next growing season. Farmers have begun to harvest their crop, and officials say they do not want to destroy the farmers' livelihood without giving them time to plant an alternative.

"Marijuana is not difficult to control, like poppy," the governor said last month in his office in Mazar-i-Sharif. "It's very easy to eradicate. It's a very simple issue."

But Atta said he was still waiting for the development money that the central government and international community had promised Balkh in return for ridding itself of opium poppies. The money — he puts it at more than $5 million; officials in the central government say it is closer to $3 million — is earmarked for a range of projects, including rural development programs to promote farming alternatives to poppies and cannabis.

Many farmers around the town of Balkh suggested that forswearing cannabis might be harder than poppies. Not only are cannabis and hashish a more integral part of their customs, they said, but beyond cannabis there are no profitable alternatives.

The farmers said they would not grow cannabis only if the government provided an alternative source of livelihood, or improved the market for their legal crops.

"If, in the future, the government helps the farmers — and really helps — we will destroy all the poppy and cannabis," said Hoshdel, 40, a well-weathered farmer in Khwaja Gholak who has nine children. "If they don't help us, I swear I'll grow it."
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Despite war, Afghanistan' s beauty survives
By Cassie Biggs, The Associated Press via The News & Observer - Nov 03 11:54 PM
KABUL, Afghanistan - I'm 40 minutes into my flight -- glass of white wine in one hand, book in the other -- when it dawns on me that this is no ordinary vacation: I'm going to Afghanistan.
Like many people, I have an image of Afghanistan shaped by what I read and see in the media. Women in blue burqas, fields of opium poppies, fierce-looking turbaned men, tanks churning through dust.

That may well be true, but what I found on a weeklong trip was a surprisingly green country with incredibly welcoming people. I sometimes saw, peeping from beneath those enveloping burqas, strappy high-heeled sandals and crimson toenails.

I climbed the ruins of 12th-century citadels sacked by Genghis Khan, drank cardamom tea beneath a canopy of fruit trees in the Panjshir Valley, and explored the empty niches of 5th-century Buddhas blown up by the Taliban in Bamiyan.

With suicide attacks in the capital, kidnappings of foreigners and a resurgence of the extremist Taliban in the south, Afghanistan doesn't get many tourists.

Travel isn't easy

Most Western countries advise against all but necessary travel to Afghanistan; some countries have banned it. The U.S. State Department warns of "an ongoing threat to kidnap and assassinate U.S. citizens." Still, a few travel agencies, many run by former backpackers, will arrange trips.

For me, it had become a tradition to do something unusual on my birthday. After e-mails with security agencies, friends who lived in Afghanistan and, by chance, the son of a former Afghan diplomat, I had a loose itinerary: Kabul, Bamiyan and the Panjshir Valley.

Independent travel is not easy or recommended, especially for a single Western woman. I had two choices: using a foreign-run travel agency in Afghanistan, spending upward of $1,000 a day, or hiring a driver for a third the cost.

A friend recommended her driver, Shahabudin Sultani, a Bamiyan native dressed impeccably in a traditional Afghan tunic and trousers. At 6:30 a.m., we loaded bottles of water and bags of almonds and apricots into a minivan for the journey.

Although it is only 150 miles from Kabul, the drive to Bamiyan takes more than 10 hours along a dirt path that winds high up into the snowcapped Koh-i-Baba mountains before dipping into a verdant valley. The faster route -- from the south -- is not recommended.

Dotted along the red craggy cliffs are dozens of fortresslike mud and brick houses with high walls pockmarked by rocket and bullet holes, ubiquitous reminders of war. Children run along the path switching at donkeys or herding goats past rusting Soviet tanks and abandoned mortar guns, some of them used as makeshift dams or bridges.

War has been a constant in Afghanistan, and the Bamiyan Buddhas were silent witness to much of it. The 174- and 125-foot-tall statues were hewn out of the cliffs when Bamiyan, on the fabled Silk Road that linked Rome to China, was a thriving center of Buddhism and culture. They survived the violent introduction of Islam in the 7th century, though Islamic leaders ordered their gilded faces and hands sliced off. They escaped the rage of Genghis Khan, who razed the entire valley to avenge the loss of his favorite grandson at the battle for Bamiyan's Red City in 1221.

In the decade of resistance against the Soviets, the honeycomb network of 2,000 caves surrounding the statues housed thousands of refugees. Then came the Taliban, who promised to preserve the Buddhas, then blew them up in 2001.

I stayed at the Roof of Bamiyan hotel in a yurt -- a small round hut made of mud and straw and covered inside with Afghan carpets. The next morning, as I watched the sun cast a honey hue across the valley of green and beige fields, it was not hard to imagine how the Buddhas' gold- and jewel-encrusted face would have shimmered as it caught the light.

I headed to the village for a better look. Though Bamiyan is one of the safest places in Afghanistan, I covered my arms and legs and twisted a scarf around my head. I picked my way through the dusty pathways of the village, drawing a few stares and the occasional smile.
The towering niches, though empty, are more impressive close up. It's still possible to see the statues' outlines, and some parts remain as if in bas relief.

Most people leave after seeing the Buddhas, but there are other sites worth seeing, including the lakes of Band-i-Amir, five pools of sapphire blue set amid desert canyons, and the ruins of the Red City and the City of Screams, which were built in the 12th century and razed by Genghis Khan a century later.

The Red City, or Shahr-i-Zohak, sprawls over three levels atop a red cliff mountain at the entrance to the Bamiyan valley. Sultani, my driver, used to play there as a boy. He practically skips to the top, following our mandatory military guide while I scramble up the path behind. I cling to parts of the citadel's fortifications and keep an eye out for red-painted rocks, an indication of land mines.

One final adventure

For my last adventure in Bamiyan, we head to Dragon's Valley, a ridge in a valley of undulating anonymous gray sand dunes. Legend has it that a dragon terrorized locals, demanding a young girl each day to eat, until dragon slayer Hazrat Ali split the beast in two with his sword and left a fissure 3 feet wide at some points. His deed sparked a mass conversion to Islam.

The ribbed mountain does look like a dragon's scaly back. Inside the chasm you can hear the dragon's mournful rumbling -- bubbling spring water streaming like tears from his eyes.

Over the next few days I pack in a day trip to the Panjshir Valley, visiting the marble and stone tomb of Ahmad Shah Masood, a resistance hero who was assassinated by al-Qaeda a few days before the Sept. 11 attacks. The tomb is high on a hill with a commanding view of the valley he defended from Soviet troops.

Early the next day, Great Game Travel company picks me up for a daylong tour of Kabul that jumps from the 5th-century city wall to 16th-century Babur Gardens to the Kabul market.

Standing on a hill looking over the city, guide Ghulam Sakhi Danishjo points out the Kabul stadium where the Taliban once carried out public executions.

What happens there now?

"Oh," says Sakhi, "now, they just play soccer."
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Taliban militants free 211 Pakistani troops
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pro-Taliban militants set free on Sunday 211 Pakistani troops they have held captive since late August in a tribal region near the Afghan border, a military spokesman said.

"The soldiers have returned to the camp in South Waziristan," Major-General Waheed Arshad said, referring to the tribal region near the Afghan border from where the troops were captured on August 30 by fighters led by Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud.


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