View Full Version : [Afghan News] February 18, 2012

03-03-2012, 05:52 AM
Afghanistan hopeful of Pakistan's help in peace drive
By Michael Georgy | Reuters – Sat, Feb 18, 2012
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Afghanistan is optimistic that regional power Pakistan will help the Kabul government advance a reconciliation process with the Taliban, the Afghan president's spokesman said Saturday.
Pakistan, seen as crucial to efforts to end the war in Afghanistan, has repeatedly said it wants peace in its neighbor.
Afghans, however, have always been suspicious of Pakistani intentions because of historical ties between Pakistani intelligence and insurgent groups like the Afghan Taliban.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan were strained for months after the assassination in September of Afghan peace envoy and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Afghan officials blamed Pakistan's intelligence agency, allegations angrily denied by Islamabad.
But talks this week between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani leaders in Islamabad were encouraging, said Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi.
"We noticed a big change among the Pakistanis. The atmosphere is much better," Faizi told Reuters in Islamabad. "We are more optimistic than before that they will support us."
Faizi said Karzai made several demands when he met top Pakistani officials.
He would not list them but Afghanistan is known to want access to Taliban leaders belonging so the so-called Quetta Shura, named after the Pakistani city where it is said to be based.
They would be the decision makers in any substantive peace negotiations.
Pakistan has consistently denied giving sanctuary to insurgents and denies the existence of any Quetta Shura, or leadership council.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said after a recent trip to Kabul that a lot of ill will between Kabul and Islamabad had eased.
And she indicated Pakistan would encourage militant groups seeking to topple the U.S.-backed Kabul government to pursue peace if asked by Afghanistan.
The apparent change in mood comes at a critical time when the Afghan government is exploring ways to reach the next stage of reconciliation -- negotiations with the Taliban. So far, there have only been contacts, Afghan officials say.
The Afghan Taliban announced last month it would open a political office in Qatar, suggesting it may be willing to engage in negotiations that could likely give it government positions or official control over much of its historical southern heartland.
Karzai's government supports any talks that take place in Qatar, but it wants to widen the reconciliation process to other countries because that could make the effort more comprehensive.
Faizi said Afghanistan had a preference for holding the next phase of the reconciliation process in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
"We want these two countries to facilitate the real (formal) talks," he said.
Saudi Arabia has had some influence in Afghanistan since it supported mujahideen fighters against Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s. It has maintained a close relationship with Pakistan.
During his trip to Islamabad, Karzai also met opposition politicians and religious leaders.
Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, a cleric who heads a Pakistani seminary where senior Afghan Taliban members studied in the past, suggested Karzai asked him in talks Saturday to urge the Taliban to pursue peace negotiations.
"Karzai is well aware of our contacts with the Taliban," he told Reuters.
An Afghan official confirmed the meeting took place.
"The Afghan position these days is to have good relations and take on board all the parties and political sides of Pakistan and not just the government," he said.
"Sami-ul-Haq comes across as one of the main parties."
(Additional reporting by Serena Chaudhry in ISLAMABAD; and Jibran Ahmad in PESHAWAR; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Meeting in Pakistan Reveals Tensions Over Afghan Talks
New York Times By DECLAN WALSH February 17, 2012
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan over potential Taliban peace talks spilled into the open on Friday, with Pakistan’s foreign minister saying it was “preposterous” for Afghanistan to demand that her country deliver the insurgent leadership to the negotiating table.
“If that is the expectation, there is no reality check,” said the foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar. “It is not only unrealistic, but preposterous.”
Ms. Khar was speaking at the conclusion of a two-day trilateral meeting among the leaders of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in Islamabad, Pakistan, that was supposed to focus on regional cooperation but was overshadowed by a tentative American-driven initiative to start peace talks with the Afghan Taliban.
Her comments are significant because the Taliban leadership — and many of its fighters — are believed to be hiding in Pakistan or using Pakistan’s tribal areas as a base to attack Western and Afghan forces.
Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders have repeatedly stressed their support for an Afghan-led peace process. They insist that they have little direct control over the Taliban fighters on their soil — a position that infuriates the Afghan government, which has accused Pakistan of orchestrating the insurgency.
During a bilateral meeting on Thursday, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan asked Pakistan’s leaders to “use their influence” to help bring the Taliban to the table, said Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, who was there. Other Pakistani officials played down reports that Mr. Karzai upbraided the Pakistanis during the meeting.
But on Friday, Mr. Karzai said at a news conference that “impediments” in his relationship with Islamabad needed to be removed “sooner rather than later.”
The terse comments exposed Mr. Karzai’s quandary. He is wary of American attempts to broker peace, fearing they will leave him politically isolated, yet he harbors a deep suspicion of Pakistan that stretches back a decade.
Pakistani leaders, for their part, say Mr. Karzai and his American allies need to provide “clarity” on what shape any Taliban talks would take before Islamabad could commit to them.
“We will support any Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process,” Ms. Khar said, but she added that Pakistan needed to know “what degree of ownership” Afghanistan had over it.
The Obama administration wants to anchor the peace process in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, where the Taliban are to open a liaison office. As a goodwill gesture to the insurgent leadership, the United States is considering releasing five Taliban prisoners being held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
But Mr. Karzai has been less enthusiastic about holding talks in Qatar, and in comments to Pakistani reporters on Friday, he talked instead about a different process that would be based in Saudi Arabia or Turkey.
Meanwhile, during a news conference at the end of the meeting, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran brushed off questions about his country’s nuclear program. “The nuclear bomb will not bring superiority to any nation,” he said, before harshly criticizing countries with “hegemonic designs” — a clear reference to the United States.
The speculation that Israel is planning an attack on Iranian nuclear sites loomed unspoken over the talks, given the likely repercussions for Iran’s eastern neighbors. Mr. Malik called on a peaceful resolution to the crisis. “Let us not open another door of conflict,” he said.
The trilateral meeting took place against a backdrop of continuing violence in Pakistan. On Thursday, two American drones killed 21 people in North Waziristan, in the northwestern tribal areas.
On Friday, as the three leaders were meeting in Islamabad, what appeared to be a suicide attack at a bazaar in Parachinar, Pakistan, a tribal town with a history of sectarian violence, killed at least 13 people and wounded 30 more, official said.
Security forces opened fire on protesters after the bombing, wounding seven people, and an indefinite curfew has been imposed on the area.
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Afghan General Sounds Alarm
Defense Minister Says New U.S. Proposal to Cut Local Troop, Police Forces Risks Endangering Nation
Wall Street Journal By YAROSLAV TROFIMOV FEBRUARY 18, 2012
KABUL - An American proposal to cut the size of Afghan security forces by more than one-third after 2014 could lead to a catastrophe, Afghanistan's defense minister told The Wall Street Journal, underlining his government's growing fears of being abandoned after most foreign troops withdraw.
The minister, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, expressed his concerns after the U.S., which along with its allies funds Afghanistan's military and police forces, circulated a new proposal to cut troops to 230,000 after 2014, from 352,000 this year.
That proposed troop reduction, discussed at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ministerial meeting in Brussels, was confirmed in an interview by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, commander of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan that developed it.
The smaller Afghan force, estimated to cost some $4.1 billion a year, reflects "our assessment of what the international community will provide and what the Afghans can provide for themselves," Gen. Bolger said.
The Afghan government is still negotiating with the U.S. over what kind of American military presence, if any, will remain in the country after that deadline. With most of the U.S.-led coalition forces scheduled to leave Afghanistan by late 2014, a robust Afghan army and police will be needed to keep the Taliban insurgency at bay, Afghan leaders and some American lawmakers say.
"Nobody at this moment, based on any type of analysis, can predict what will be the security situation in 2014. That's unpredictable," Gen. Wardak said. "Going lower [in Afghan troop numbers] has to be based on realities on the ground. Otherwise it will be a disaster, it will be a catastrophe, putting at risk all that we have accomplished together with so much sacrifice in blood and treasure."
Many NATO allies have long opposed the American drive to ramp up the size of the Afghan army and police, saying that the Afghan economy simply cannot afford such an expensive professional military. The Afghan forces are expected to meet their target of 352,000 personnel, scheduled for October, months ahead of time.
The recent proposal to cut the force's size after 2014 has been produced by a "U.S.-only planning team," and does not yet reflect an agreed position of the allied governments, Gen. Bolger said.
The U.S. is now spending some $11.2 billion a year on Afghan security forces—well above the Afghan government's annual budget. The Obama administration's request for fiscal 2013 is $5.7 billion.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking to reporters before the Brussels meeting, said the size of the future Afghan force will largely depend on "the funds that are going to be put on the table." The U.S. is looking for additional contributions from countries outside NATO, such as Japan, South Korea, Sweden, and Arab Gulf monarchies.
America's European allies, gripped by economic problems at home, are particularly reluctant to meet U.S. requests to fund a significant part of the $4.1 billion price tag estimated for the years after 2014, with some pressing for an even leaner Afghan force.
"The Americans didn't ask our advice when they were building it up, and now all of a sudden they want us to pay up," one diplomat from a NATO country said.
U.S. officials stressed Friday that the number remains a subject of debate both among U.S. officials and between U.S. and NATO officials.
"There is an awful lot in play," said a U.S. military officer. "There are 10 American opinions, 10 German opinions, 10 French opinions.... You are hearing the normal give and take."
U.S. and Afghan officials say they expect the issue to be settled by a NATO summit in Chicago in May.
Gen. Wardak has long campaigned for an even larger force than that currently envisioned, saying that implementing a successful counter-insurgency strategy would require between 400,000 and 500,000 troops. He said he now realizes he won't get that number.
"We are becoming victim to a lot of issues—economic austerity, the war has been prolonged beyond the expectations elections in countries where we are becoming hostage to local political agendas," Gen. Wardak said.
Afghan officials aren't just worried by the manpower levels. They also say the Afghan army badly needs the "enablers"—such as medevac, intelligence, surveillance and airlift assets—that are currently provided by NATO.
"At the moment these forces are built as lighter-than-light infantry," Gen. Wardak said. "They don't have all the capabilities that a modern army in any country has."
It is possible that a force of 230,000 would be sufficient if the security situation improves, the Taliban embrace the tentative peace process with Kabul, and Pakistan shuts down insurgent safe havens on its soil, Gen. Wardak said.
"If it happens the question of numbers will be less relevant," he said. "But if it doesn't then all that we are planning will be in danger. We have to leave some level of flexibility."
Gen. Bolger said that the U.S. and allies recognize Afghan concerns. "Three years is a long time. We'll want to look at the security situation in the country, we'll want to look at what arrangements Afghanistan has made with other countries," he said. "We haven't figured any of that out yet."
He added that NATO hasn't determined whether any planned drawdown of Afghan forces would start on Jan. 1, 2015, or on a different date.
Retired U.S. Lt. Gen. David Barno, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security think-tank and a former commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, cautioned about the need to weigh the fiscal constraints against the perils of cutting the Afghan forces too deeply. "The risk here is you are going to reduce funding for Afghan security forces in the midst of a robust insurgency," he said. "Leaders have to be careful they do not get seized with the affordability argument without understanding the military implications."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an influential voice on Afghanistan policy, said he believed that cutting the Afghan forces to 230,000 "does not seem wise."
"I would hate to be the senator who tried to end this on the cheap. If we fail to deliver it will be a huge blunder that haunts our country," he said. "If the country goes back to Taliban control it will all be for nothing."
With attrition rates in the Afghan army running at 1.4% a month, the proposed drawdown could be achieved—at least in part—without the mandatory dismissals that could fuel the insurgency with an influx of resentful, trained ex-soldiers.
In Iraq in 2003, an American decision to disband the Iraqi army helped spark an insurgency that has yet to be extinguished.
"Immediate downsizing of 130,000 people in a country like Afghanistan, where these people are providing livelihood to at least a million people, will have very risky consequences," Gen. Wardak warned. "It has to be gradual," Gen. Bolger agreed.
Afghan leaders, many of them—like Gen. Wardak—drawn among U.S.-backed anti-Soviet mujahedeen commanders, still have painful memories of how the U.S. turned away from Afghanistan after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, a disengagement that plunged the country into a civil war and ultimately led to the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
"I do hope the international community has learned from their experience in the 1990s," Gen. Wardak said. "This country is located in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, and there are lots of threats." —Julian E. Barnes, Adam Entous and Matt Murray contributed to this article.

Afghan president says Taliban can not open office in Qatar
Xinhua Feb. 17, 2012
ISLAMABAD - Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Friday that Taliban can not open office in Qatar and his government will decide the venue for any talks with the Taliban.
The remarks came amid reports that Taliban have opened political office in the Gulf state and have held exploratory talks with the U.S. officials. A Taliban spokesman said last week that the office in Qatar has been opened on their suggestion.
President Karzai told Pakistani TV anchors and columnists at a breakfast interaction that the United States can not hold talks with the Taliban on behalf of the Afghan government.
"We will hold talks with the Taliban either in Saudi Arabia or Turkey," the Pakistani TV channels quoted Afghan President as saying.
Karzai told an American newspaper ahead of his Pakistan's visit on Thursday that his government has joined talks with the Taliban.
Taliban quickly rejected Karzai's claim and a Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that Taliban representatives have neither held talks with the "powerless" Kabul administration anywhere nor has had any intention so far to hold negotiations with Karzai's administration.
During the Friday morning breakfast meeting with the local media, the Afghan President Karzai also called the Pakistani government to reopen supply line for the NATO forces in Afghanistan, which has been closed following an attack by the NATO troops on two Pakistani border check posts in Nov. 26, 2011, which killed 24 Pakistani troops and wounded a dozen others.
Pakistan Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar said this week that the NATO has been allowed to resume supply via Pakistani airspace of perishable items.
The Pakistani government had been insisting that the decision to restore the NATO supply will be taken by the parliament, but the parliament has not yet started debate on the issue.
The opposition parties in Pakistan criticized the government's decision to restore the NATO supplies without discussing the issue in the parliament.
Karzai said that the restoration of supply to NATO forces will benefit Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When asked about Pakistan's offer to impart training to Afghan National Army, the Afghan President was quoted as saying that his government has no objection to any such training.
The Afghan government has in the past rejected Pakistan's offer to train Afghan armed forces and President Karzai himself insisted on few occasions that Afghans will not repeat the former Soviet- era mistake of sending troops to neighbouring countries for training.

Pakistan cautions Kabul on Taliban peace hopes
Associated Press Friday, February 17, 2012
ISLAMABAD - Pakistan told Afghanistan on Friday it was "preposterous" to think Islamabad could deliver the Taliban’s leader to the negotiating table and warned the neighboring nation against "ridiculous" expectations about peace talks.
The public comments by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar were an unusually harsh upbraiding for the diplomatic world, where such quarrels usually play out behind closed doors. They reflected Pakistan’s anger at repeated allegations by Afghanistan and the U.S. that it is harboring the Taliban’s leadership on its territory.
Khar spoke following talks between Pakistan and Afghanistan in Islamabad that were supposed to identify specific steps Pakistan would take to facilitate peace negotiations, but ended in apparent acrimony.
It was a serious setback for a peace process that the United States is strongly promoting as a way to end the decade-old Afghan conflict and allow it to withdraw most of its combat troops by 2014 without the country further descending into chaos.
The foreign minister said Pakistan supports an Afghan-led peace process but cautioned against Kabul expecting too much in terms of Islamabad’s ability to provide them access to the Taliban’s leaders.
"If you have unrealistic, almost ridiculous expectations, then you don’t have common ground to begin with," said Khar.
Pakistan is seen as key to the process because much of the Taliban leadership, including chief Mullah Omar, is believed to be based in the country, and the government has historical ties with the group. Analysts say Pakistan can either help the talks or act as a spoiler.
But Islamabad has always denied Taliban leaders are using its territory and rejected allegations that the Pakistani government has maintained its links to the group, frustrating Afghan and American officials who say Pakistan is not aggressively going after the terror group.
It’s unclear whether Karzai asked Pakistan for help getting to Omar during his current visit to Islamabad, and he made no public mention of the cleric. But he has called on Pakistan to facilitate contact with Omar and other Taliban leaders in the past.
The presidents of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran held a three-way summit in Islamabad over the past two days that focused on Taliban peace talks and other regional issues. Pakistan and Afghanistan also held bilateral meetings on the side of the summit, which ended Friday.
The Pakistani foreign minister indicated her government was still uncertain on exactly what role Afghanistan wanted Islamabad to play in the peace negotiations, saying "they have not conveyed that clarity to us."
In the past, Afghan officials have said they want Islamabad to offer tangible assistance, such as giving Taliban representatives safe passage to meeting sites outside of Pakistan. Afghan officials have also said that they want Islamabad to grant access to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a top-ranking Taliban official who was captured in Pakistan in 2010. His arrest reportedly angered Karzai because Baradar had been in secret talks with the Afghan government.
The Afghan president has said he has been seeking Pakistan’s help in the peace process for some time, but that so far, it has not provided much more than words of support.
"What we need now is to formulate a policy that is actionable and implementable, and actually act upon it," Karzai said at a press conference Friday featuring Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Pakistani foreign minister’s comments came as she spoke to reporters after the news conference.
Khar said that any expectation that Pakistan can deliver the Taliban’s chief for talks is "not only unrealistic, but preposterous."
Asked about reports that the most recent discussions between Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani officials were confrontational, Khar said, "The talks were very, very useful, and if they are hard, that is fine."
"We need to have some hard talks," she said.
Many analysts believe Pakistan has maintained links with the Taliban because it is seen as a key ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw, especially in countering the influence of Islamabad’s neighbor and archenemy, India. Pakistan helped the Taliban seize power in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
That history has contributed to the tense relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ties were strained further last year when a suicide bomber assassinated former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul. He had been serving as Afghanistan’s envoy to Taliban peace talks, and Afghan officials accused Pakistan of playing a role in the killing — allegations it denied.
There have been some signs that momentum for Taliban peace talks has been growing.
The Taliban are setting up an office in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar in the first step toward formal negotiations. Also, the Obama administration is considering releasing five top Taliban leaders from the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay as a starting point for talks.
But the process has also been riddled with rumor and uncertainty.
Karzai initially resisted the U.S.-backed move by the Taliban to set up a political office in Qatar because he felt the Afghan government had been sidelined and not kept fully apprised of the process of getting an office established. He said he preferred Saudi Arabia, and members of the Afghan government’s peace council have said that while the political office might be in Qatar, actual talks could take place in Saudi Arabia or another location.
Tension between Pakistan and the U.S. has also complicated the process, especially following American airstrikes in November that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops at two Afghan border posts. © Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

At Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan summit, a show of unity
Washington Post By Richard Leiby February 17, 2012
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - At one end of the flower-festooned table sat the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, perhaps the world’s most relentless America basher.
At the other end sat Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s leader, who owes his government’s survival to the United States.
And in the middle was Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, whose country’s complex relationship with Washington swings from pole to pole.
If any conflict exists among the chief executives of the three neighboring Islamic nations, it certainly was not apparent Friday at the close of a two-day trilateral summit in Pakistan’s capital. At a news conference that Zardari hosted in his splendid official residence, the theme was fraternal unity as the trio pledged to work for peace and prosperity in a region racked by war and terrorism.
“When brothers join their hands together, certainly the hands of God will assist them,” Ahmadinejad said at the news conference, which he dominated with windy disquisitions against “outside powers,” the United States presumably among them.
“They have targeted our region for their domination and hegemony. . . . We should deny others the opportunity to interfere in our affairs,” he said. “All problems are coming from the outside.”
His government is under severe sanctions and a threat of attack from Israel for its nuclear program, but Ahmadinejad played down the importance of a nation having nuclear weapons. That, he said, “is not going to bring about superiority.”
Evidently referring to nuclear-armed Pakistan, he added, “The foundation of our political relationship is humanitarian and is based on common cultural values.”
The only public sign of friction at the summit concerned the long-alleged ties between Islamist militants and Pakistan’s military and intelligence service. Afghan officials have called Pakistan an impediment to a negotiated peace with the Taliban because it harbors insurgents who are at war with Karzai’s government. Separate bilateral talks between Karzai and Zardari were meant to smooth tensions, but no declarations of progress emerged.
Karzai’s comments at the news conference reflected the sense that cloudy goals and overall uncertainty have dogged the nascent peace efforts.
“What we need now is to formulate a policy that is actionable and implementable, and actually act upon it,” Karzai said.
Surrounded by reporters after the presidents spoke, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said it would be “unrealistic” and “preposterous” for Afghanistan to expect that her country could somehow arrange for Taliban leader Mohammad Omar to join the reconciliation negotiations.
Earlier, the news conference was cut off after one reporter tried to inquire about the Taliban. But in the back of the palatial hall, the cameramen were not satisfied. “Shake hands, shake hands,” some shouted at the presidents.
And, quite dutifully, the leaders of the embattled nations of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan did just that.

1,400 graduates join army in N. Afghanistan
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan, Feb. 18 (Xinhua) -- A total of 1, 400 graduates were commissioned to the Afghan army in the country' s northern province of Balkh on Saturday, an army commander said.
"Today, after an eight-week training phase at Corps 209 Shahin Headquarters' training center in Mazar-i-Sharif city, a total of 1,400 graduates were commissioned to the Afghan National Army (ANA) to serve the nation," General Zulmai Weesa, commander of regional Corps 209 Shahin, told the audience at the graduation ceremony here.
The new graduates are prepared to be deployed to any part of the country to provide security for their people, Weesa said, adding the soldiers had received training under the U.S., NATO and Afghan trainers.
The Afghan government and NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan (NTM-A) have stepped up efforts to train and equip Afghan police and army as NATO-led forces have handed over the security responsibilities of several areas across the country to Afghanistan.
The process of handing over security responsibilities from over 130,000 U. S. and NATO-led forces stationed in Afghanistan to Afghan forces began in July, 2011 and would be completed by the end of 2014 when Afghanistan will take over the full leadership of its own security duties from U.S. and NATO forces.

3 insurgents killed, 8 detained in Afghanistan
KABUL, Feb. 18 (Xinhua) -- Three insurgent were killed and eight other suspects detained during joint operations launched by the Afghan forces and NATO-led troops in four Afghan provinces, the country's Interior Ministry said on Saturday.
"Afghan National Police, Afghan army and International Coalition Forces launched four joint operations in Kunar, Nangarhar, Kandahar and Helmand provinces over the past 24 hours killing three armed insurgents and detaining eight others," the ministry said in a statement.
The joint forces also seized 70 AK-47 guns besides defusing three Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), it said.
Afghan forces and NATO-led coalition troops have intensified cleanup operations throughout the post-Taliban country recently. Over 140 insurgents have been killed and more than 530 others detained by joint forces since beginning this year, according to the Interior Ministry.
Afghan officials often use the word "insurgents" referring to Taliban. However, the insurgent group, who launched in May 2011 a rebel offensive against Afghan and NATO forces, has not made comment.

Death toll from suicide blast in NW Pakistan rises to 36
ISLAMABAD, Feb. 18 (Xinhua) -- The death toll of a suicide blast that took place in Pakistan's northwest city of Parachinar on Friday afternoon has risen to 36, reported local media on Saturday.
Local Urdu TV channel Geo quoted official sources as saying that six more people injured in the blast that hit a mosque near a market in the city died at different hospitals on Saturday, bringing to 36 the total number of the people killed in the disaster.
Meanwhile, the blast has also injured 48 others in total and some of them are still in critical condition, said the official sources.
TTP Islahi, a new faction of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is formed by a militant commander Fazal Saeed Haqqani who has recently quit TTP, has claimed responsibility for the Parachinar attack, according to Geo report.
The report quoted the commander as saying that the Shia community was the target as it was allegedly taking sides and backing the government and armed forces in the ongoing military operation against them in Kurram Agency.
Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani has issued a statement strongly condemning the attack.
On Friday afternoon, a suicide bomber rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into a mosque in Parachinar, a main city in Pakistan's northwest tribal area of Kurram Agency bordering Afghanistan, in which a large number of Shia Muslims were offering Friday prayers, killing many people right on the spot.
The attack came at a time when the three presidents of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran were holding a two-day trilateral summit at which they vowed work together to root out the terrorism, extremism and militancy in the region.

European police bust Afghan migrant smuggling ring
AFP 17/02/2012
Police have arrested six members of a ring suspected of transporting thousands of illegal migrants from Afghanistan to Europe via Greece, making millions of euros, the EU justice agency said Friday.
Police from Belgium, Britain, France and Greece took part in "Operation Pakoul", named after a traditional hat worn in Afghanistan, against the ring which smuggled an estimated 5,000 illegal immigrants over the last 10 months.
"The main organiser in Greece is estimated to have smuggled between 120 and 160 migrants each week into various member states," Eurojust said in a statement issued in The Hague.
"This criminal is considered to be one of the most prolific facilitators of illegal immigration in Europe," it added.
Migrants on average paid 10,000 euros to be transported via Turkey, Greece and France to Britain, or from France via Germany to Scandinavia, Eurojust said.
The smuggling ring, consisting mainly of Afghan nationals, also employed Kurdish and Lithuanian facilitators, it added.
Operation Pakoul was the result of a near one-year-long investigation carried out by the French police and its judicial authority based in Lille.
The operation's suspected ringleader was arrested in Greece on Tuesday morning, two suspects were arrested in France, two in Belgium and one in Britain, while various searches were carried out.
The operation was coordinated by Eurojust, a special organisation comprising prosecutors, magistrates and police officers from the 27 European Union member countries, as well as European policing agency Europol.

Unreported Suicides in Central Afghan Province
Women take poison to escape family troubles or forced marriage.
IWPR By Jawed Bakhtari 17 Feb 2012
Afghanistan - Ghulam Rasul, 71, a short man with stooped shoulders had come to the marketplace in Nili, the main town of Daikundi province in central Afghanistan, to buy sugar, matches and candy. As he sat against the mud wall of a grocery shop under the hot sun, he told an IWPR reporter about three women in his village who had consumed rat poison in the past year. Two survived, and one died.
His village, Khalbarg, is in the Sang-i Takht district 150 kilometres from Nili. It took Ghulam Rasul, an influential figure in his village, about four hours to drive to Nili market in his aging Kamaz vehicle.
Ghulam Rasul said every year, several women in his village of about 500 households try to commit suicide, and often succeed. He said the government is never notified because most of the villagers are illiterate, do not have phones, and their only way of getting to Nili is by donkey or mule, a 24-hour trip.
An investigation report by IWPR suggests that at least 200 women commit suicide annually within the nine districts of Daikundi province. The data gathered by IWPR reporters indicates that the main factors are family violence and forced marriage.
The issue that has not been heavily researched either by the the government or by non-government organisations advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Ghulam Rasul did not give the name of the woman who died recently, but she was in her mid-twenties and recently married. He said she was the daughter of one Rauf Karbalai, and the wife of a man called Panahi, who had taken a second wife a year previously.
“These two wives were fighting each other every day in the house,” Ghulam Rasul said. “This is why Karbalai’s daughter finally ate rat poison.”
Ghulam Rasul said Panahi had been paying more attention to his second wife, aged 18, and had handed over management of the household money to her. He said he had heard from village women that this became intolerable for the first wife.
One day, a fight erupted between the two wives. According to Ghulam Rasul, “A few hours after the violence, a female neighbour, Zainab, entered the Panahi house to call on Karbalai’s daughter. Panahi’s second wife of Panahi told Zainab that Karbalai’s daughter had gone to her room and had been silent for the last few hours.”
The neighbour knocked on the bedroom door, but got no response. She looked into the room through a window and saw Karbalai’s daughter lying on the floor in an unusual position. Nearby was a glass containing a blackish liquid. Then she saw a white package of rat poison.
“The woman screamed, ‘Karbalai’s daughter has taken rat poison!’” Ghulam Rasul said. “Of course, the neighbouring women gathered, screaming and weeping. Meanwhile, a man from the neighbourhood called out, ‘Go and dig the grave and announce at the mosque that Panahi’s wife has passed away’.”
An IWPR reporter spent four months visiting 30 villages around Nili and interviewing more than 100 residents face-to-face, including at least 40 women.
These are mountainous, traditional villages where neither men nor women talk easily about suicide. Some husbands threatened to kill the IWPR reporter if he used their wives’ names in any news story.
The reporter managed to record interviews with 17 women who had attempted suicide in the past 16 months – using either rat poison or insecticide – but had survived. The reporter also talked to relatives of women who had committed suicide, and took photographs of some of their graves.
IWPR’s investigation suggests that since many people do not believe there is rule of law within Daikundi province, people are tempted to commit suicide instead of seeking justice via the legal system.
The Health and Women’s Affairs Department and the local office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, AIHRC, both say they can count the number of suicide reports they have received on one hand.
The AIHRC’s local officer for advocacy and women’s human rights development, Halima Bashardust, said her office received reports of only four suicide attempts in 2011, in all of which the individuals survived. The four women were upset with their husbands and troubled by family issues, and swallowed rat poison, Bashardust said.
She added that mistreatment following forced marriages was another likely cause of suicide attempts.
Asked why her office did not have more data on the number of females who commit suicide, Bashardust replied that very few women came to her office to file complaints against their husbands. She also admitted that coordination was poor among government agencies in Daikundi.
The IWPR reporter tried four times to contact either the head of the local department for women’s affairs, Khoi Rezai, or her deputy to talk about the issue, but was unsuccessful. A spokesperson for the department, a woman named Hasani, said, “The director is not at her office and we don’t have permission to give interviews.”
Bashardust said the government hospital at Nili was the only credible source for data on suicide attempts. In 2010, the hospital recorded 42 suicides – 25 women and 17 men.
When treating patients, doctors hear from the relatives of victims that many cases of attempted suicide are due to forced marriage, abuse at the hands of husbands, and fighting over household finances, Dr Qasemi, a physician at Nili Hospital, said.
The IWPR reporter spent several weeks walking the corridors of Nili hospital to find patients who had attempted suicide, or relatives.
One morning, he saw a Toyota minibus race to the hospital gate. Two men and three women jumped out of the vehicle carrying a woman wrapped in a blanket and hurried into the hospital.
The reporter tried to follow but could not see what was happening. Thirty minutes later, there were screams from the women inside the hospital, and the reporter realised that the patient had died.
The reporter approached the driver of the minibus, who was cleaning the windshield. “The dead girl was Fatema, an 18 year-old whose parents were living in Iran. She lived with her uncle in the village of Zojok in Shahrestan district,” the driver said.
“As far as I know, the uncle’s wife wanted to engage Fatema to her nephew, but Fatema would not agree to marry the man. Finally, her uncle’s wife made up her mind that Fatema had to be engaged within two days. As a result of that decision, violence erupted between Fatema and her uncle’s wife. In protest, Fatema left home to stay at a neighbour’s house.
“Having stayed the night, in the early morning she quietly took a lot of drugs from her neighbour’s shelf and swallowed them with a few glasses of water. She became unable to speak, and the neighbours took her to hospital.”
Akbar Mujahed, head of the criminal department for the police in Daikundi, said his department had no record of anyone filing a case about a female suicide attempt.
Mujahed did not deny that women attempted suicide, but said most people in Daikundi resolved such matters through community and tribal councils.
When told that Nili Hospital recorded 42 suicides in 2010, Mujahed said: “The police have not received any information in this regard, and this surprises us.”
Haji Daud, 71, is the tribal head of the village of Surma-Sang, near Nili. He usually mediates in disputes among people in the village, with the support of most community members.
The IWPR reporter approached Haji Daud and asked him why people did not believe in the government or the law, and came to him to settle their disputes instead.
In a loud voice, he replied that he was unable to talk to the media. “You broadcast my voice and story on the radio, yet these words that people speak with me are confidential. When people hear me speak in the media, they will never come to me,” he said.
More than a year has passed since the death of Karbala’s daughter. Now Panahi treats his second wife the same as he did with his first, according to neighbours.
Karbala’s daughter is buried on a hill where two winters have all but destroyed the grave. People from the village say none of her relatives has ever come to say prayers for her.
Mohammad Reja is an IWPR-trained reporter in Afghanistan

Doubts Over Afghan Police Loyalties
Critics say force remains riddled with local factional interests.
IWPR By Ahmad Javed Reja 17 Feb 12
Afghanistan - Despite a new survey indicating a rise in public confidence in the Afghan National Police, ANP, observers warn that the force’s loyalties remain divided, and this could pose a security threat once NATO forces withdraw in 2014.
Research carried out by the Afghan Centre for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research, ACSOR and the United Nations Development Programme indicates that 81 per cent of respondents felt respect for the law-enforcement agencies, a rise of eight percentage points from three years ago.
Local observers warn that despite the ANP’s apparently improved reputation, real concerns about its loyalties and cohesion persist.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a politician who currently chairs the Afghan Transition Coordination Commission dealing with the security handover from NATO to Afghan troops, said he was very dissatisfied with the police service, particularly in the north of the country.
“Police have been recruited on the basis of partisan, ethnic, and factional connections in the north,” he said, adding that once in uniform, their loyalties remained to their interest groups rather than to the public. “The police serve partisan, ethnic and parliamentary officials rather than the public. They take instructions from those who appointed them, and if they don’t do what they want, they will be fired.”
Ahmadzai said while the Afghan National Army had made some progress in recent years, “I am more worried and concerned about the police; that mistreatment by them could jeopardise the [handover] process because they interact closely with the public,” he said.
The ANP currently numbers around 150,000 officers, and tens of millions of dollars have been spent on forming and training the force, with particular input from the German and United States governments.
In northern Afghanistan in particular, many agree with Ahmadzai’s suggestion that factional allegiances remain strong.
Farid Ahmad Nurzai, a resident of the Dehdadi district of Balkh province, said that although he was happy Afghan forces were taking over from NATO, the current state of the ANP reminded him of the warlords and militias of the early 1990s.
Many Afghans fear a return to the civil war, in which armed factions committed major abuses amid general chaos and lawlessness.
“We can see that all the old militia members from Jamiat-e Islami and Junbesh-e Milli have been recruited either into local police units or to the ANP,” he said
Nurzai said the outlook would be dire unless a real national police force that rose above factional interests was forged.
A police officer in the north, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that ANP units across the region were divided along partisan lines.
In Balkh province, they were linked to the mainly Tajik faction Jamiat-e Islami, whereas in neighbouring Jowzjan province they were Uzbek and loyal to Junbish-e Milli. In Sarepul and Samangan, control of ANP units was divided among Junbesh, Jamiat, and the Hazara faction Wahdat-e Islami.
He claimed that the interior ministry was “filtering out policemen from other groups, the Pashtuns in particular”.
According to Balkh resident, Fahim Sarwari, “The current police are the former militia members, just with a change of uniform.”
Sarwari said the presence of international forces had ensured that the ANP more or less kept to the law, but a NATO exit could lead to a return of the chaos of the civil war era, with the police presenting a threat to civilians instead of protecting them.
Interior ministry spokesman Seddiq Seddiqi insists ANP appointments are made on the basis of merit, not political affiliation.
“Although some officials, including members of parliament, do lobby for certain individuals to be appointed to posts, the interior minister has never heeded any unsound recommendation,” he said.
Seddiqi said that the ministry was planning to start moving ANP officers to different provinces to encourage a nationwide sense of loyalty.
Another police officer in the north, however, said the ANP lacked the kind of disciplined management that would curb ethnic, linguistic and regional affiliations, build morale in the force, and forge a sense of national cohesion.
Claims that the interior ministry system was a meritocracy, he said, were “an absolute lie”.
Political analyst Abdul Wakil agreed that the former militia leaders still exerted more influence over police officers than ANP commanders or government ministers.
“How, then, can the nation trust this police force?” he asked.
Ahmad Javed Reja is an IWPR-trained reporter in Balkh province, Afghanistan. (