View Full Version : [Afghan News] March 21, 2012


یاسمینه
03-21-2012, 06:17 PM
Karzai's team clash over relations with US
In presence of western officials, Afghan president's chief of staff and senior diplomat accused each other of spying.
Aljazeera By Qais Azimy and Mujib Mashal 20 Mar 2012
Kabul, Afghanistan - The increasing influence of a conservative circle within President Hamid Karzai's palace has impeded progress in signing a crucial strategic agreement with the US to chart the relationship beyond 2014, officials and analysts have said.
Their outspoken anti-US views have frustrated Karzai's diplomats negotiating with US officials, often resulting in messy clashes.
On March 8, a day before Afghanistan and the United States signed an agreement to gradually transfer control of prisons to the Afghan government, Jawid Ludin, the deputy foreign minister, and Karim Khurram, Karzai's chief of staff, were summoned to brief Karzai ahead of a video conference with US President Barack Obama. Also in the room were General John Allen, the US commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Kabul.
Just minutes before the call between the two leaders, Karzai left the room for a break, according to three separate sources inside the palace. In the following few minutes, in a confrontation that reportedly verged on physical violence, Khurram and Ludin accused each other of spying - one for Pakistan, the other for the United States. They were split up by the NATO commander and the US ambassador.
Accusations
It all began with a complaint from General Allen, the palace sources said. The US embassy and NATO declined to comment for this article.
General Allen reportedly stated that the prison would be gradually handed over, one of Karzai's pre-conditions to signing a long-term strategic agreement on wider issues. But the Afghan government's media wing must tone down its anti-US rhetoric, Allen insisted.
The Government Media and Information Center (GMIC) falls directly under the authority of Khurram, Karzai's chief of staff.
Ludin, one of Karzai's chief negotiators, turned to Khurram and reiterated the General's point - that such comments hindered negotiations with the US.
Khuram, according to the palace sources, said GMIC was only defending Afghanistan's interests - which Ludin took as an insult.
What Khurram insinuated, an official close to Ludin said, was that the foreign ministry was betraying Afghanistan in negotiations with the US.
Ludin said he would take it upon himself to stop GMIC from making such statements, to which Khurram reportedly responded: "Not even your father can do that."
"You are a spy for the Americans, you do whatever they tell you," Khurram told Ludin at the meeting, according to one official.
Ludin, in return, accused Khurram of spying for Pakistan. At that point, General Allen and Ambassador Crocker are said to have stepped in to prevent a physical confrontation.
Ludin declined to comment for this article. Khurram, after hearing about the premise in person, promised an interview, but then refused to answer his phone.
"Diplomacy was set aside," one senior government official told Al Jazeera about the meeting. "They turned to the Afghan way of arguing."
When Karzai returned to the room, the video-conference went ahead. The prison deal, gradually transferring control to the Afghan government over six months, was signed before the cameras of the world's media the next day, as planned. But the reported confrontation underlines how divided President Karzai's inner court is, with regard to the nature of the long-term relationship with the United States.
Divided palace
"It has been one and half years that the palace has been fractured into two groups," said analyst Abdul Waheed Wafa, the director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University.
"On the one side, you have people who say: 'We have not achieved what we want, but we need to stick with the internationals because the alternative is chaos.' Then the other elements - they are against night raids, and against a long-term US and international presence."
The strategic agreement is supposed to provide Afghanistan - a poor country that requires foreign donations for roughly 90 per cent of its annual budget - some assurance to continue its new beginning after decades of war. More importantly, the support of the US would bolster Afghan standing in a volatile region, where the country's neighbours have long been accused of interfering in its internal affairs. For the US, a longer presence in Afghanistan would ensure that it could operate against "threats to US national security", by being able to go after the sanctuaries of those who it believes would use violence against US interests.
But the increasing influence of the conservative chief of staff, and his clashes with what he sees as pro-US elements within Karzai's circle and beyond, has hindered progress to such a point that, in recent weeks, the US announced "it is more important to get the right agreement than to get an agreement". Some interpreted that as the US expressing a decreasing interest in the commitment.
Wafa said the announcement was a bluff that put pressure on the Afghan negotiators, who then compromised, tabling certain preconditions for separate discussions.
"The change of tone in the US was partly to pressure Afghans," said Wafa. "But some Afghans believe it is true - that these people [US officials] are fully frustrated, the US public opinion is against the war, even some senators who were staunch supporters of the war are now saying it is hopeless. That those who wanted an exit got an excuse - that look, the Afghans don't want us, they don't want to sign a long term commitment."
Three issues have been of contention in the negotiating process: US control over Afghan detainees, night raids, and permanent military bases. The two sides agreed to remove the issues of prison transfer and night raids from the strategic agreement, allowing them to be discussed separately.
The prison transfer was signed on March 9, while the memorandum over night raids is being finalised this week, according to an official at the national security council. But the contentious issue of military bases still looms large.
Divisive figure
The argument on March 8 was not just a spur of the moment event. Those views were repeated in subsequent interviews.
"Khurram clearly has an agenda - and he wants to disturb any progress in the relations with the US," an official close to Ludin insisted days after the incident. The other side was no different.
"Absolutely, there are circles that see their sustenance in the West's benefits, and they don't think about the nation," said analyst Ghulam Gilani Zwak, the director of Kabul's Afghan Research and Consulting Center. "They insist on not negotiating and bargaining, and their actions are slave-like.
"But there are others who have the interest of the nation in mind, who don't want the repeat of what Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Younus Qanooni signed with the US in December 2001, bringing our independence under question."
Zwak was referring to an alleged status of force agreement signed between the US government and representatives of the northern alliance, then a minority group holed up in the north, which helped the US topple the Taliban.
The foreign ministry's dysfunction is much spoken about in Afghanistan. Zalmai Rasul, an aging foreign minister, has been called a passive operator without much foreign policy experience. Ludin, a former spokesman and chief of staff to Karzai, shoulders most of the responsibility in the foreign ministry, where many appointments are allegedly based on kinship.
"Our foreign policy weakness is that we haven't had a stable foreign policy, a clear vision. It's all been reactionary, ad-hoc," said Wafa.
Ahmad Shuja, a Washington-based Afghan analyst, believes the palace repeatedly steps on the toes of the diplomats, making it difficult for them to do their job.
"Karzai's statement, his dynamism, eclipses the efforts of the foreign ministry to set policy. It is diplomacy 'Afghanistan style' - not policy in the conventional sense."
And Khurram's tight grip over the president in the past year has made the job much more difficult for diplomats like Ludin, said analysts.
Frustrations
A controversial former minister of culture, Khurram took over the post of Karzai's chief of staff in early 2011 - a position that has held increasingly more power in the country, particularly under Khurram's predecessor, Omar Dawoodzai.
During his stint as culture minister, Khurram was known as a strict censor of television programmes.
Shuja believes Khurram's seemingly anti-US views stem from two sources.
"His political ideology is shaped by his alignment with Hizb e Islami, and that seems to figure in his calculations," he said. Led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Hizb e Islami began as a political party that fought the Soviets. It played a major role in Afghanistan's bloody civil war in the 1990s, and now is considered the third (and weakest) faction of the anti-US insurgency.
"But also, let's not forget that they have been trying to reach out to the insurgency. Delaying the signing of a strategic pact will help them in appeasing the Taliban," added Shuja.
In purging the GMIC, which is largely funded by the US embassy, the new chief of staff announced his intention to control the government's message. Frustrated with Khurram's control, the US embassy cancelled funding for a brief period and withdrew its advisers from the media group.
Khurram also issued a warning to the president's press staff, ordering them not to allow US advisers in press conferences, one palace official tols Al Jazeera.
The US embassy declined to comment for this story. But a US official based in Kabul confirmed the frustrations with the palace.
"For the embassy, it is hard to get any access inside the palace since the chief of staff changed," the official said.
Khurram has at least three private newspapers, a television channel and a radio station under his control, directly or indirectly, one official - who formerly worked for him - said.
"The message is not just an anti-American one, but also divisive internally," said Khurram's former colleague. "His brand of conservative Pashtunism strengthens the notion that all Pashtuns are unilateralist and conservative by nature.
"The president's non-Pashtun allies have been increasingly isolated. The damage that Khurram has inflicted on President Karzai's image in one year - his enemies could not have done the same."
Reporting by Qais Azimy in Kabul, Afghanistan and Mujib Mashal in Doha, Qatar.
Follow them on Twitter: @QaisAje, and @MujMash

Afghanistan Shootings: Witnesses Saw One Shooter, Not Many, Say Afghan Officials
By MIRWAIS KHAN 03/21/12 The Huffington Post
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- None of the Afghans who witnessed the March 11 massacre of 16 villagers has reported personally seeing more than one shooter, despite claims that many U.S. soldiers took part in the killing, two Afghan officials said Wednesday.
Afghan villagers disputed U.S. statements that only one shooter was involved in the killings in the southern Panjwai district. Afghan investigators heard villagers claim more than a dozen Americans were involved.
The two Afghan officials told The Associated Press that accounts of many gunmen were based on hearsay.
"To my knowledge, everybody in the villages said only that somebody had told them that they had seen several foreign troops in the villagers where the shootings occurred," said Fazal Mohammad, the top government official for Panjwai district.
"But nobody personally said that they had seen a group of troops in this incident. The evidence collected from the villagers was not enough to confirm that there was more than one shooter. I personally met many different people there, but I never found a single person who personally saw a number of foreign troops."
Mohammad also said that he suspected that insurgents may have been trying to take advantage of the shooting incident.
"It is possible that some people were passing around information," he said. "It is time for Afghanistan to calm down and not let the insurgents take advantage of this case. They want foreign troops to leave such areas like this so they can hold those areas. We should be aware of their intentions and try to help the government, not the insurgents."
Sardar Mohammad Nazari, chief of police for Panjwai district, also said that he never found one person who had seen a group of foreign troops with their own eyes.
U.S. officials launched a search party after the alleged shooter, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, went missing, and the Afghans could have confused the searchers for assailants.
Bales was taken into custody following the killings and was transferred to the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
In Washington, the Pentagon disputed a claim by villagers that there was a roadside bombing the day before the shooting attack, wounding some soldiers, and the shooting spree was retaliation.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, told reporters that U.S. officials had no indication that such a bombing happened.
He also disputed a claim by villagers that U.S. troops lined them up against a wall after the roadside bombing and told them that they would pay a price for it.

Neighboring Countries Scramble To Be NATO's Exit Route From Afghanistan
March 21, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty By Charles Recknagel
As international forces leave Afghanistan, neighboring countries stand to gain enormous sums of money.
How much? The United States today pays $500 million a year in transit fees to send military materiel through Central Asian states to Afghanistan.
Now, that amount will rise as Washington and other members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) repatriate what has accumulated in Afghanistan over the past decade.
Forty-nine other countries also have forces in Afghanistan, and thousands of tons of materiel to remove.
The five Central Asian states, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan all stand to gain.
But the country that gains most will depend both on geography and deal-making.
"What you are seeing is an enormous game, at the moment, of bargaining," says Neil Melvin, a regional expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "People know what the situation is, that the ISAF has to leave, has to leave in large amounts in a compressed time frame, and so all of these countries are in a position to negotiate around that."
Uzbeks Well Poised
Among those in pole position is Uzbekistan, with the best railroad network in Central Asia.
It is already a key part of the railway link for supplies from the Baltic ports through Russia and Kazakhstan to Termez on the Uzbek-Afghan border.
Now, as the cargo flow reverses, there are signs Tashkent will seek significantly higher transit fees.
Eurasia.net recently reported that the latest transit agreements show Uzbekistan will charge carriers of nonmilitary goods leaving Afghanistan up to 50 percent more than the existing rate for the use of its railroad.
Such price-gouging assures that all countries exiting Afghanistan will be interested in alternative routes as well.
One alternative is the road-based corridor from the Tajik-Afghan border through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, across the Caspian Sea, and through Azerbaijan to the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti.
It, too, is already bringing supplies east as part of the U.S. Northern Distribution Network and can go into reverse operation.
Bargaining Underway
But the road corridor has problems. It passes through a volatile region of Afghanistan and, in Tajikistan, poor roads limit the passage of trucks, particularly in winter.
Already, the bargaining is under way in some capitals.
Visiting Bishkek last month, U.K. Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey suggested London might trade military equipment for favorable transit fees.
"If all ISAF members leave different things, [the Afghans] could end up with a very confused package of equipment," he said. "But we will also have discussions with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to see whether any of the equipment would be of value to these countries."
Harvey did not specify what kind of military materiel he meant. But he told reporters "the flow of narcotics and terrorism is something we all need to work together to frustrate."
The deals are not likely to include ammunition and weapons. Under agreements with all the countries involved in the northern routes, cargo is restricted to nonlethal equipment and even armored vehicles can be shipped only after their weaponry has been removed.
All the exit routes north from Afghanistan face competition from the cheapest way of all: Pakistan.
France has already indicated it finds the northern routes too expensive and wants the Pakistan route reopened.
So does Washington.
A Volatile Mix
The average shipping cost of a container from Afghanistan to Karachi is $7,200, but by the northern routes it costs $17,500.
Islamabad has kept the Afghan border closed to NATO supplies since November, when a NATO attack on a Pakistani checkpoint sent tensions soaring.
Melvin predicts that Islamabad will want more than money to reopen the route.
"A lot of it is going to be tied up to the broader political discussions around Pakistan's role in post-ISAF Afghanistan, the role of the Taliban, [and] the role of Pakistan inside Afghanistan," he said. "And there is going to be an opportunity for Pakistan to have increased transit-fee options."
All this makes the bargaining over exit routes from Afghanistan a volatile mix of money, politics, and regional interests.
In a measure of how much, Moscow this month suggested NATO could use its Ulyanovsk airport in the Volga region if Kyrgyzstan were to close its Manas airbase to the alliance.
Much of the previous pressure on Bishkek to close Manas to NATO, of course, has come from Moscow itself.
And that means Kyrgyzstan, like many other Central Asian states, now will have to carefully balance its relations with Moscow and Washington to profit from the endgame in Afghanistan.

U.S. not to abandon Afghanistan -- Afghan analyst
Abdul Haleem, Chen Xin
KABUL, March 21 (Xinhua) -- The United States and its allied nations would not leave Afghanistan at lurch as expected or predicted by some people, an Afghan analyst said.
"It is a naive opinion to say that U.S. would withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan," Kabul University professor and political analyst Syed Masoud observed in talks with Xinhua.
Nevertheless, he opined, some unnecessary forces might return home while the remaining ones, particularly the Special Forces, would be relocated from cities to their barracks.
Around 130,000-strong NATO-led forces with over 90,000 of them Americans have been deployed in Afghanistan to help stabilize the conflict-ridden nation.
He made this remarks amid Taliban's call for the pull out of NATO-led forces from Afghanistan as the pre-condition for peace talks and Afghan administration's demand for the completion of security transition to Afghan forces in 2013 instead of 2014.
Meantime, the analyst was doubtful over the reported peace talks with the Taliban militants, saying the United States " neither destroys Taliban nor makes the peace talks succeed".
Both Afghan government and the United States have been in direct and indirect contacts with the Taliban to bring the outfit into negotiating table. However, the armed opposition group rebuffed at any offer, saying there will be no dialogue in the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, a pre-condition unacceptable to Kabul and Washington at the moment.
Nonetheless, the analyst was of the view that the United States has been using Taliban-led militancy as a pretext for its military presence in Afghanistan by saying, "if Taliban militants are smashed and peace process is succeeded then the U.S. military should pack up and leave."
Meantime, public opinion is in favor of the presence of U.S.- led coalition forces in Afghanistan at this stage.
"Factional fighting and civil strife would be resumed if foreign forces leave the country," an ordinary resident of Kabul namely Mohammad Kabir told Xinhua.
"To be frank, I want foreign forces not to leave Afghanistan unless the Afghan national security force is capable enough to ensure security in the country," Kabir who still remembers the bitter memories of bloody factional fighting in 1990s said.

U.S. general suggests Afghan force should stay level after ’12 drawdown
The Washington Post By Karen DeYoung March 20, 2012
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Tuesday that, once a scheduled 23,000 U.S. troops are withdrawn by the end of September, he does not expect to consider additional drawdowns until next year.
“I’ll give the president my best military advice with regard to the combat power that we’ll need to accomplish this mission, probably in 2013,” Gen. John R. Allen told Congress. “I’m not sure that I’d be able to see out to ’14 at that point, but I’d probably have a pretty good feel for it.”
The United States and NATO have agreed to withdraw all combat troops by December 2014. By then, the U.S.-led coalition will have transferred security authority to Afghan forces throughout the country, Allen said. “But we will still have combat forces in Afghanistan all the way to the end.”
Allen’s comments appeared to place a military marker in the path of the rapid withdrawal advocated by some lawmakers and, according to opinion polls, by a majority of the American public.
The question, which the administration has barely begun to discuss, is how fast to withdraw the 68,000 troops who will remain after September. During a news conference last week, President Obama called for a “gradual pace” that “doesn’t result in a steep cliff at the end of 2014.”
Allen and other commanders have indicated that they would prefer that all 68,000 troops remain through most of 2013 for an additional summer of fighting. Administration critics, including the leading Republican presidential contenders, have accused Obama of undermining the war effort by signaling withdrawal plans at all, of following the political winds in heading for an early exit, and of not listening to the advice of military commanders.
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asked Allen whether he had the administration’s assurances that “you can have the forces you believe you need through the end of the 2013 fighting season.”
In what appeared to be a carefully worded reply, Allen managed to be both pointed and respectful of presidential authority. “I have been given assurances by the White House that we’re in a strategic conversation,” he said. “There has been no number mentioned. There has been no number that has been specifically implied.”
So far, he said, the conversation has been “excellent,” and he is confident that any decision “will account for my recommendation, the recommendation of the theater commander, and the Joint Staff in this process.”
When McKeon asked whether the White House “has always followed your best military judgment,” Allen replied, “As the commander in Afghanistan, it has, sir.”
Allen gave a generally upbeat assessment of the war, saying that the United States is “on track” to achieve its military goals. The capabilities of Afghan security forces, he said, are “better than we thought” as they move toward assuming full security control.
“To be sure, the last couple of months have been trying,” Allen said. “None of us harbor illusions. We know that we face long-term challenges as well.”
He acknowledged strains between coalition and Afghan forces, including “revelations that American troops had mishandled religious texts” and “what appears to be the murder of 16 innocent Afghan civilians at the hands of a U.S. service member.”
In addition to the military’s criminal investigation of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the suspect in the shooting deaths of the civilians, Allen said, there was an “administrative investigation of the entire command and control process,” conducted by the U.S. command in Afghanistan, looking into why and how Bales was assigned there.
But overall, Allen said, “I assure you, the relationship . . . remains strong.”
“Throughout history,” he said, “insurgencies have seldom been defeated by foreign forces. Instead, they have been ultimately beaten by indigenous forces.” Transition to Afghan forces, he said, “is the linchpin of our strategy, not merely the ‘way out.’ ”
Allen reiterated the importance of military night raids on Afghan homes in U.S. apprehension of Taliban commanders and said that development of village police in the Afghan countryside was continuing with the assistance of U.S. Special Operations forces there.
Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded that U.S. forces be withdrawn from Afghan villages into centralized bases and that night raids be approved by judicial warrants, even when conducted in partnership with the Afghan army.
U.S. officials have said that they are negotiating the warrant issue with the Afghan government, and Denis McDonough, the Obama administration’s deputy national security adviser, noted Tuesday in an interview with National Public Radio that the United States, in special security courts, has a system of judicial warrants for such operations.
It is “reasonable to expect we would do the same kind of thing in Afghanistan,” McDonough said. Similar restrictions requiring judicial warrants were placed on U.S. troops in Iraq.
Allen did not directly address Karzai’s demand that U.S. troops withdraw from Afghan villages. Obama and Karzai, he said, were “in full agreement” that Afghan forces will be completely in the lead “on Dec. 31, 2014.”
Lawmakers showed little appetite for pressing Allen on larger issues of the war and growing public calls to end it. Several, including Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), a longtime advocate of troop withdrawal, stated their positions that war funding should stop.
“If we get into 2014 and see President Obama or a Republican president, and Afghans are not trained where they need to be, and we’re spending money and losing lives, will you say to the next administration, ‘You need to stay on the timetable [for withdrawal]?’ ” Jones asked.
“I’ll be honest with you now, and I’ll be honest with the next administration,” Allen replied. “It’s my moral obligation to ensure that this force is resourced. . . . I believe this strategy will work. . . . If I think that’s coming off the rails, congressman, I will let you know that.”

Congress airs differences on when to exit from Afghanistan
McClatchy Newspapers By Rob Hotakainen Tuesday, March 20, 2012
WASHINGTON - Leaders of the House Armed Services Committee differed Tuesday on how quickly to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan, while the top commander of forces there said the U.S. campaign remains "on track" despite a spate of recent setbacks.
In the first hearing since the March 11 massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma said the U.S. has done "amazing work" fighting the war in Afghanistan — including killing Osama bin Laden last year and eliminating much of al Qaida's senior leadership — and that it's time to speed up the removal of troops.
"After 10 years of war, and great cost to both the American and Afghan people, it is time to find additional ways to put the Afghans in charge of their own fate as quickly as we responsibly can and bring our troops home," Smith told his colleagues on the committee.
But Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, the committee's chairman, called for patience and said he's concerned that the United States has its "eyes on the exits" after President Barack Obama announced plans to withdraw all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2014.
"These decisions by the president have made it increasingly difficult to build up trust and confidence with the Afghan institutions that will ultimately ensure that the security and political gains by U.S. and NATO efforts are sustained into the future," McKeon said.
Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told the committee that "unequivocally ... we remain on track to ensure that Afghanistan will no longer be a safe haven for al Qaida and will no longer be terrorized by the Taliban."
But he said the past couple months of the war "have been trying," including an outbreak of riots that came after the burning of Qurans by American forces. And he described this month's apparent murder of 16 civilians by a Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier as "heart-wrenching."
"This campaign has been long, it has been difficult, and it has been costly," Allen said. "There have been setbacks, to be sure. We're experiencing them now, and there will be more setbacks ahead. I wish I could tell you that this war was simple, and that progress could be easily measured. But that's not the way of counterinsurgencies."
He added: "We are making a difference. I know this, and our troops know this."
Smith said the United States is safer as a result of having made "significant progress" in its goal to dismantle al Qaida. But he said that Americans "should be under no illusions."
"Being in a better position in Afghanistan is still finding yourself in a very difficult spot," Smith said. "Afghanistan is a poor country, with an uneducated population, plagued by groups that use violence to achieve their goals, and with a government that is often both incompetent and corrupt."
While Smith offered no specific timeline for an exit, he said the United States needs to "look for ways to push this process to go as quickly as we can safely do so." He said that a large-scale military presence in Afghanistan will have "diminishing returns" that the United States "should accelerate the plans we have already made."
McKeon called the killing of 16 civilians a "horrific incident" but said it was isolated. He said U.S. gains in the war "have now been called into question by some, due to the actions of a rogue few."
And he said the lack of long-term public support for the U.S. effort is hurting.
"In the absence of a sustained, public campaign to support the mission in Afghanistan — from the White House on down — many have begun to question what we're fighting for," McKeon said. "With friend and foe alike knowing that the U.S. is heading for the exits, our silence is likely viewed as a preamble to retreat."
The 10 members of the Washington state congressional delegation are split over how soon to bring home the 90,000 U.S. soldiers still in Afghanistan.
After the killings of the 16 civilians, Rep. Jim McDermott, a Seattle Democrat who long has pressed for a quick and orderly pullout, said he feared the shootings would inflame already-high anti-U.S. sentiments in the region.
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, Wash., called the shootings "jaw dropping" and "incomprehensible." But he said he did not believe the incident alone would become a catalyst for sweeping U.S. troops out of Afghanistan ahead of schedule.
Last May, Larsen and Smith voted against an amendment calling for an almost immediate troop withdrawal, save for small counterterrorism missions. They argued such a hurried pullout potentially could destabilize Afghanistan's fledgling security forces.
Two other Washington state House Democrats — McDermott and Norm Dicks of Bremerton — voted for the measure, which failed. Three Republicans voted no: Reps. Dave Reichert of Auburn, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Camas and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane. (Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, did not vote.)
In the Senate, Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are among those who have pressed for a faster pullout.
All members of Congress will get a chance to weigh in as they take up Obama's request to spend another $88 billion for the war in 2013.
(Kyung M. Song of the Seattle Times contributed to this report.)

Taliban Jails Commanders for Back-Door Peace Talks
A sense of uncertainty and betrayal is growing in the Afghan insurgency’s ranks. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on the leadership’s struggle to regain control.
The Daily Beast By Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau Mar 20, 2012
The Taliban’s internal disputes over whether to talk peace are turning the Afghan insurgency against its own, threatening to undermine the guerrillas’ previously unshakable unity. Last week the military committee of the Taliban’s ruling body, the Quetta Shura, ordered the arrest of Mullah Ahad Agha, a high-ranking commander in southern Zabul province, and Mullah Ghulam Hassan, a similarly important commander in Ghazni province who served as deputy intelligence minister when Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was in power.
Their purported crime: unauthorized contacts with representatives of the High Peace Council. The Taliban’s top leadership has never hid its hatred of the council, which was established by President Hamid Karzai to contact the Taliban and bring about peace negotiations. Last September a Taliban suicide bomber assassinated Burhanuddin Rabbani, the council’s chief, in his own home.
The insurgency’s leaders have long insisted they’re not negotiating with Karzai, a man they denounce as an “American stooge.” In fact, when the rebels broke off their preliminary talks with the U.S. in the Gulf state of Qatar last week, one of the reasons they cited was that the Americans were supposedly spreading false rumors that the Taliban had also entered into negotiations with Karzai’s representatives. In fact, however, at least some Taliban leaders do seem to be breaking ranks and talking with their Afghan enemies.
Earlier this month three senior religious clerics from the High Peace Council’s Kandahar provincial branch arranged to meet Agha, Hassan, and several other commanders in the southwestern Pakistani border city of Quetta to explore the possibilities of more formal talks. Soon after their discussions, Agha and Hassan were arrested by Taliban enforcers. Other commanders avoided arrest by going into hiding. After reports of the meeting appeared in the Afghan media, the Taliban’s spokesman denied that any such meeting had taken place. But Taliban sources tell the Daily Beast there’s no doubt that the talks did take place.
The madrassa’s headmaster says many of his students may not follow orders to cross the border and fight when the school term ends. “Maybe only 50 percent will go,” he says
Agha and Hassan seem to be in serious trouble. Taliban sources say the two are being charged not only with talking to the enemy but with accepting payoffs to do so, either from NATO or from Karzai himself. According to a well-placed Taliban source in Quetta, Hassan is telling his interrogators that he had permission to talk to the Kandahar elders from no less than the notorious commander Mullah Ismael, a member and former head of the military council. Ismael made millions for the insurgency through ransom kidnappings and payoffs from Afghan security contractors who purchased safe passage for coalition supply convoys through Taliban-controlled territory. He emphatically denies the accusation that he approved the Quetta meeting.
Nevertheless, he seems to be under a cloud of suspicion, according to the source in Quetta–which could further divide the leadership. “This is the first time there has been such a serious violation of the once solid discipline among the Taliban,” a former senior Taliban minister tells the Daily Beast. “This case has raised concern among the top leaders about the internal trust and unity that the Taliban has historically had,” adds Zabihullah, a senior Taliban official.
This apparent breach of discipline couldn’t come at a worse time for the insurgents. The two-year-old U.S. military surge has already seriously weakened them in the south and the north. And now the Taliban’s top commanders are supposed to be busy drawing up battle plans and organizing their forces for the upcoming fighting season. This disunity can only hurt those preparations.
Senior Taliban sources worry that the command-level upheaval will further reduce the guerrillas’ resolve to continue the fight. There was already considerable dissatisfaction among the rank and file against the leadership’s negotiations with the Americans. “Many Taliban are ambivalent, hesitant and confused over the peace talks,” says a former Taliban official who is the headmaster of a militant madrassa along the border with Pakistan. “That includes high-ranking commanders. They may be reasoning: ‘Why die, if some Taliban are talking peace with the U.S. and others with the Afghan government?’”
After a decade of vows that the jihad would never end until total victory and the imposition of Taliban-style Sharia law throughout Afghanistan, the unheralded peace moves have just about paralyzed the insurgency’s ranks with a sense of betrayal and uncertainty. Even usually hot-blooded madrassa students may be having second thoughts about joining the fight. The madrassa’s headmaster says many of his 80 students may not follow orders to cross the border and fight once the school term ends early next month. “Maybe only 50 percent will go,” he says.
Some Taliban officials are speculating that the disarray surrounding the detention of Agha and Hassan could have been one of the unspoken but underlying reasons behind Mullah Omar’s breaking off the Qatar talks with the Americans. “He is trying to reestablish a degree of discipline, unity and common purpose,” says a former Taliban intelligence officer who remains close to the leadership. “Peace talks were becoming too divisive an issue.” That would be very bad news for anyone who yearns for an end to the war.
Sami Yousafzai is Newsweek's correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he has covered militancy, al Qaeda, and the Taliban for the magazine since 9/11. He was born in Afghanistan but moved to Pakistan with his family after the Russian invasion in 1979. He began his career as a sports journalist but switched to war reporting in 1997.
Ron Moreau is Newsweek’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and has been covering the region for the magazine the past 10 years. Since he first joined Newsweek during the Vietnam War, he has reported extensively from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.
For inquiries, please contact The Daily Beast at editorial@thedailybeast.com.

Security Council Members Express Support For Afghan Mission
March 20, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
UNITED NATIONS -- Security Council members have expressed support for a continued United Nations presence in Afghanistan ahead of a planned vote on a renewal of the UN mission's mandate.
Jan Kubis, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special representative in Afghanistan, told the council that many challenges remained in Afghanistan.
He said those include: securing funding for national priority programs, strengthening and improving the electoral process ahead of the 2014 presidential elections, and enforcing laws that safeguard rights for women and girls.
The vote on the UN mission is expected to take place on March 22.
Afghan Ambassador to the UN Zahir Tanin said a shooting spree last week by a U.S. soldier that left 16 Afghan civilians dead and the burning of Korans on a U.S. military base "could undermine our trust and cooperation by inciting deep sorrow, anger, and frustration amongst Afghan people."
Tanin said it was imperative that the perpetrators be held accountable.
Kubis told the UN Security Council that the killing of foreign troops who are in Afghanistan to train local security forces was "unacceptable." Kubis told reporters after the meeting that he hoped the impact of the incidents would be "temporary."
With AP reporting

U.S. Envoy: Washington Wants Reset In Relations With Pakistan
March 21, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty By RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal
Cameron Munter, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, says Washington agrees that it's time for a reset in relations between Washington and Islamabad.
Munter made the remark during a visit to the volatile northwestern Pakistan city of Peshawar, not far from the Afghanistan border.
His visit came as the Pakistani parliament on March 20 began a debate about the future of Pakistani ties with Washington, after months of severely strained relations.
Munter said the United States wants to reach a deal with Pakistan on the reopening of ground supply routes from Pakistan to NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.
The routes were shut after the November NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
That bloodshed, and other issues, led to a sharp deterioration in ties between the Pakistani government and Washington.

For Poor Afghans, Norouz Is A Vivid Reminder Of Life's Hardships
March 20, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty By Frud Bezhan, Fareba Wahidi
KABUL -- Thousands of people have been flocking through the dusty streets and bazaars of Kabul buying groceries, gifts, and garments in preparation for Norouz, the spring festival marking the traditional New Year.
Norouz, arguably the biggest occasion of the year, is a time when, for at least a few days, many Afghans forget their troubles and gather at funfairs, observe special rituals, and celebrate with food and dance.
But for thousands of poor Afghan families, the ancient festival is a vivid reminder of their woes as they struggle to make ends meet in one of the poorest and most volatile countries in the world.
Along a grimy pavement flanking the Kabul River an elderly man in an orange uniform stands crouched over a large wooden broom. As he slowly sweeps the ground, dozens of children pass him by waving kites and singing celebratory songs.
But Agha Sardar, a 72-year-old cleaner, does not look up. For him, Norouz is a painful reminder of what he once had and the continuing misery in which he continues to live.
“I didn’t buy anything. I have no money and no desire left," he says. "Where can I go if I have to work all day? I used to work as a farmer; I served in the army, and I was respectable. Now, life is just passing me by.”
'We Just Can't Afford It'
Sardar lives in Sharhara, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Kabul. After entering a dark alleyway, his home is a long trudge up a narrow path past lanes of mud-brick houses and canals of open sewage.
A slanting rusty door is the entrance to the dark, damp room Sardar calls home. Inside, the only furniture in the room is a dusty Afghan rug, several large cushions and pillows, and an old photograph on the wall.
Sardar lives in this one room with his widowed daughter and mentally ill son. To make ends met, he must work full-time to provide for the family. He earns a meager 5,000 Afghanis ($100) a month cleaning filth and picking up trash from the littered streets.
Sardar, a widower, maintains that with little money and hope for the future, he is unable to celebrate days like Norouz.
“When it was Eid last month I didn’t have enough money so I had to get an advance," he says. "It’s difficult to be in such a desperate position. Most of the time I borrow from shopkeepers until I receive my money so that my family can eat.”
In the back of the room, in the makeshift kitchen, stands Shaima, Sardar’s daughter.
Unable to decorate the room or prepare traditional foods, Shaima says she is occupying herself with cleaning the house -- something she feels compensates for Norouz, when people usually perform rituals that signify renewal.
"What can poor people like us do?" she asks. "We can't buy new clothes, or any food. We just can't afford it."
Written by Frud Bezhan based on reporting by Fareba Wahidi of RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan

Afghanistan corruption 'could see UK cut off security funds'
William Patey, the outgoing British ambassador to the country, has said Britain could withdraw funding if something isn't done
Guardian.co.uk By Emma Graham-Harrison Tuesday 20 March 2012
Kabul - Britain could withdraw funding for Afghanistan's security forces if the Afghan government fails to tackle the country's huge corruption problems, the outgoing British ambassador to Kabul has warned in a valedictory interview with the Guardian.
When foreign combat troops leave in 2014 Afghanistan will still be an impoverished and unstable state and the government will not be able to pay the army and police until huge mines start large scale production in several years time, Sir William Patey said. The security forces are the country's main bulwark against a "descent into chaos", he said.
But there are concerns corruption is now so rampant it threatens the legitimacy of the government, which Transparency International rates as one of the most corrupt in the world, behind only Somalia and North Korea.
"Nobody thinks that [Afghanistan] will be self-sustaining before 2024 or 2025 when the mineral resources that are currently being developed, and the future mineral resources, begin to kick in with revenues," he said in his office in the heart of Kabul's heavily-fortified diplomatic quarter. "If something is not done about corruption in the long term, then there would be a very strong argument that says you would be throwing good money after bad," the ambassador said.
"And while we obviously want to maintain the state here, if the Afghans themselves are not prepared to make an effort, the British people will take a different view on this."
The west has spent billions of dollars fighting the Taliban-led insurgency on the grounds it is critical to deny safe haven to al-Qaida and similar groups, and has pledged continued cash support for Kabul to pay for security and development when soldiers leave. Asked if a cut-off of funds could include UK contributions to the estimated $4.1bn a year needed to support the security forces, Patey said it could, "in a worse case scenario".
He added: "Some Afghans may think we have no choice, because we have predicated this as a national security issue. Our preferred choice is to promote a stable, democratic Afghan state, but it's not our only choice, it's not the only way we can protect our national security."
Years of fighting and investment had contributed to a basic level of government stability that had made Patey optimistic about the western mission, however, despite corruption worries.
"Afghanistan doesn't have to be a model state for us to succeed, but it does have to be a state capable of governing itself, capable of resisting international terrorism, and we don't want it to return to an ungoverned space, or governed by a system that is completely hostile to us," he said.
"I actually think we are on the path and those sacrifices that have been made will not be in vain."
But, speaking just days after the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier, he also admitted that western soldiers could overstay their welcome.
This month's killings of mostly women and children came on top of a series of other damaging revelations, including a video showing US Marines urinating on what appeared to be the corpses of Taliban fighters, and the discovery US troops had burned copies of the Qur'an on Bagram airbase.
With more than 100,000 foreign troops still in Afghanistan he warned there were almost certain to be more cases of individual misconduct that were damaging to the wider mission.
"I absolutely expect there will be something else, you cannot have this many troops, this many people in Afghanistan and not cause offence or come up against the acts of individuals, who cause offence, so we will have more of it," he said.
Civilian casualties are probably the issue that most angers Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who has long criticised western leaders for their failure to prevent them. His government's failure to combat corruption in turn is a major western concern.
"[There is] not enough leadership from the top on the subject beyond statements and rhetoric," Patey said.
Most prominently prosecutors have yet to make significant progress on the case of Kabul Bank, a lender with ties to the family of Karzai and his first vice-president that nearly collapsed and has since been described by Western officials as a virtual Ponzi scheme.
Nearly $900m is missing, and while the two main suspects have officially been detained, they live under a loose form of house arrest and have been spotted travelling around Kabul and enjoying meals at hotels and high-end restaurants, according to the New York Times.
"Kabul Bank is so symbolic, because it's two people who have been caught, bang to rights, they've been caught red-handed," said Patey.
"All the rest remains allegations and suspicions, so that's why it's a kind of litmus test. If you won't do these ones, what chance the rest?"
Hanging on the wall outside Patey's office is a map of the British retreat at the end of the first Anglo-Afghan war in 1842. It serves as an understated reminder of the lessons of history, although he thinks the best clue to handling the current turmoil lies not in Britain's bloody 19th century mistakes, but the descent into a vicious civil war in the 1990s.
Mohammad Najibullah, president when Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, survived for several years without their firepower; it was only when funds dried up that his government fell, Patey points out.
"It was when the money was taken away and he couldn't pay his armed forces that led to the collapse into civil war. And indeed if the Afghans were unable to sustain their army and police force, why wouldn't we see a descent into chaos?"
"That's why I say it's absolutely vital that we continue to play our part which will be increasingly financial."

The good news in Afghanistan should come from President Obama
The Washington Post By Editorial Board Wednesday, March 21, 2012
FACED WITH the difficult task of defending the U.S. mission in Afghanistan after a series of setbacks, Gen. John R. Allen underlined Tuesday some of the good news that has been overlooked recently. Testifying to the House Armed Services Committee, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan pointed out that the Taliban has been greatly weakened by a NATO offensive in the south and by special forces operations against its commanders; attacks are down by a quarter so far this year compared to 2011.
The military gains are reversible, of course. But another important piece of Gen. Allen’s testimony concerned the continuing development of the Afghan army and police, which he said were on course to reach a strength of 352,000 men by October, compared to 140,000 in October 2008. The growing strength of those forces, the general argued, meant that NATO’s strategy for the war is still workable, and the best way forward: a gradual transfer of fighting responsibility to Afghan units between now and the end of 2014.
Gen. Allen’s assessment has the backing of President Obama, who to his credit is resisting calls for rapidly scaling back or even abandoning the Afghanistan mission. But if the United States is to achieve an acceptable outcome, more will be needed than presidential patience in an election year. Gen. Allen requires Mr. Obama’s help in three other important ways — only one of which appears to be on the White House’s to-do list at the moment.
The task the administration acknowledges is quickly completing a strategic cooperation agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that would provide for U.S. military advisers and trainers as well as counterterrorism forces to remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Not only will those forces be needed to prevent the Taliban from regaining power in Kabul, but an accord on them is needed now in order to stabilize the shaky relationship between the U.S. and Afghan governments — and to persuade the Taliban that it cannot wait out a U.S. withdrawal. To finish the pact, U.S. and Afghan officials have to settle the sensitive question of how special forces “night raids” will be managed in the future; the right answer is to hand them over to Afghan units as quickly as possible.
If that can be done, the administration must still tackle the challenge of fostering a credible Afghan government that can manage the army and the country after 2014. An election is due that year, and Mr. Karzai has pledged not to run for another term as president. It’s important that the United States, United Nations and other outside parties begin to work on creating the conditions for elections that Afghans will accept as free and fair — and to commit to fully fund the Afghan army and government after 2014.
Lastly, Mr. Obama must do more to build support in the United States for his policy. The president has given just a handful of speeches on Afghanistan during his first term, and his recent public comments have focused on bringing troops home, rather than completing their mission. While Gen. Allen is doing his best this week, the most prominent advocate for continuing to put U.S. lives on the line should be Mr. Obama.

Source: Afghanistan slaying suspect first failed to mention children
Kevin Murphy Reuters March 20, 2012
REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales initially asserted that he had shot several Afghan men outside a U.S. combat outpost in southern Afghanistan on March 11 and did not mention that a dozen women and children were among the dead, according to a senior U.S. official briefed on the case.
"He indicated to his buddies that he had taken out some military-aged males," the senior official said. Soldiers normally use that term to denote insurgents.
But Bales' story soon broke down when commanders on the base learned details of the pre-dawn shooting spree in which 16 Afghan civilians were killed in their homes. At that point, the 38-year-old Army veteran was taken into custody. He refused to talk further and soon asked for a lawyer, two officials said.
The accounts contradict widely published reports suggesting that Bales had confessed to a crime after the shootings. The account of Bales' first statement implied he might have asserted a legitimate military purpose for his alleged unauthorized foray to two nearby villages.
A U.S. official said the Army's Criminal Investigative Command, which is conducting the investigation into the case, is "looking closely at his story that he had killed some people."
The officials stopped short of calling Bales' alleged statement a confession, and it could not be learned if he had provided commanders at Combat Outpost Belamby, a small Special Forces base in Panjawi district, with a fuller account of his actions that night.
Asked by reporters last week if Bales had confessed, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta also hedged, saying, "I suspect that that was the case."
In revealing details about Bales' alleged statements after the shooting, U.S. officials may be attempting to undermine claims by his defense lawyer that his client had little memory of what happened that night.
Defense attorney John Henry Browne, told CBS News that Bales "has no memory of ... he has an early memory of that evening and he has a later memory of that, but he doesn't have memory of the evening in between."
Browne said he will not mount an insanity defense for Bales, but will argue that his client suffered from "diminished capacity," like an emotional breakdown.
Bales is being held in solitary confinement in an Army prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. The Army is expected to bring formal charges against him later this week.
According to U.S. officials, Bales left the combat outpost at about 3 a.m. on March 11. He allegedly walked to two nearby villages and went house to house shooting families inside. He had been drinking alcohol before the incident, according to an official briefed on the investigation.
The Army has held off bringing charges against Bales, the officials said, because authorities are trying to make the charges as complete as possible to avoid any criticism that they aren't conducting a thorough investigation.
The officials asked not to be identified discussing an ongoing criminal investigation.

'No proof' in Afghan massacre suspect Sgt Bales case
20 March 2012 BBC News
The lawyer representing a US soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in their homes has said there is little proof of his client's guilt.
John Henry Browne said there was "no forensic evidence" against Staff Sgt Robert Bales and "no confession".
He also dismissed reports suggesting Sgt Bales, 38, was having financial troubles as irrelevant to the case.
Sgt Bales is being held a military detention centre awaiting charges, which are expected this week.
The killings have undermined US relations with Kabul and led to calls for Nato to speed up their planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
After meeting with Sgt Bales at a US army base in Kansas, Mr Browne told reporters: "We've all heard the allegations. I don't know that the government has proved much."
Sgt Bales is the only known suspect in the killings - despite repeated Afghan assertions that more than one American was involved.
Mr Browne said he now plans to travel to Afghanistan to gather his own evidence. Money troubles
The lawyer also responded to questions about Sgt Bales' financial history.
He and his wife had reportedly struggled to make the payments on two properties they had bought.
It has now also emerged that - along with another man and his company - Sgt Bales owed a reported $1.5m (£950,000) from an arbitration ruling nearly a decade ago which found him guilty of securities fraud while he was working as a stockbroker.
Mr Browne told Associated Press "that doesn't mean anything".
"Sure, there are financial problems. I have financial problems. Ninety-nine percent of America has financial problems," he said.
"You don't go kill women and children because you have financial problems."
His wife, Karilyn, has issued a statement expressing her condolences to the victims and their families and saying what reportedly took place is "completely out of character of the man I know and admire".
Mr Browne first met his client at Fort Leavenworth on Monday to begin preparing his defence.
The Pentagon has previously said that Sgt Bales could face charges that carry a possible death penalty.
Such a trial could take years, contrasting with Afghan demands for swift and decisive justice.

Jailed in Afghanistan, French Suspect Escaped in Mass Break-Out
March 21, 2012
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - French school shooting suspect Mohamed Merah was jailed for bombings in Afghanistan in 2007, but escaped months later in a mass prison break organized by Taliban insurgents, a top Afghan prison official said on Wednesday.
Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin, is suspected of killing seven people in the name of the al Qaeda militant network, including three children at a Jewish school in southwestern France.
Afghan security forces detained Merah on December 19, 2007, and he was sentenced to three years in jail for planting bombs in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace, Kandahar prison chief Ghulam Faruq said, citing prison documents.
Merah escaped along with up to 1,000 prisoners, including 400 Taliban insurgents, during an attack on southern Afghanistan's main Sarposa Prison in June 2008, when the Taliban blew apart the main gate with a big truck bomb.
The high-security prison, on Kandahar's southern outskirts, has separate compounds for ordinary criminals and inmates being held for political and insurgency-related offences. Merah was likely in the political section, prison sources said.
He was in Afghanistan at a time when Afghan security officials were pleading for more international help, saying more than 4,000 foreign fighters had flocked to the country to aid the Taliban, most of them from Chechnya, North Africa and Pakistan.
It was not clear where Merah fled to after he escaped from prison and how or when he arrived in France, but many foreign fighters left the conflict-racked country as a surge in NATO reinforcements gained momentum in 2009.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the gunman had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and had carried out his killings in revenge for French military involvement abroad.
France has 3,600 troops in Afghanistan as part of the 130,000-strong NATO-led force, mainly patrolling Kapisa, a mountainous province near Kabul. They are to shift their focus in March to training and leave the country at the end of 2013.
In Pakistan, an intelligence official who declined to be identified said Merah had never been arrested there.
"We have no information about him," the Pakistani official said.
(Writing by Jack Kimball and Rob Taylor; Editing by Robeert Birsel)

Afghan intel service rejects report alleging ongoing abuses at prisons
Associated Press March 20, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan - The Afghan intelligence service rejected findings Tuesday by international and Afghan rights groups that abuse has gone unchecked at some of its prisons.
The denial issued by the National Directorate of Security was the latest salvo in a dispute about conditions at Afghan prisons that has been raging since the U.N. first documented torture last year, and which is likely to become even more important as the U.S. moves to transfer its detention operations to Afghan authorities in coming months.
NATO and U.S. forces stopped transferring their battlefield detainees to 16 Afghan prisons in July after the U.N. found evidence of torture at the facilities.
The report by the Open Society Institute and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission suggested that external pressure had done little to stop this practice.
The groups said they found evidence that abuse including the beating of prisoners and the administration of shocks with electric cables was still going on at one of the 16 prisons — an intelligence-run facility in Kandahar — and was also happening at other facilities in the country. The report also said the U.S. government had sent detainees to the Kandahar facility since the moratorium.
“Monitors received 10 credible allegations of abuse in NDS Kandahar as recently as January 2012,” the report said.
The National Directorate of Security said the allegations were based on second-hand reports and could not be trusted.
“Based on our analysis and our documentation these findings are not correct. We strongly reject this report and its allegations are baseless,” the NDS said in a statement.
The rights groups’ report, which was issued quietly and without a press conference over the weekend, has only started to provoke public responses in recent days.
Western officials speaking on condition of anonymity said members of the Afghan rights commission wanted to avoid too much publicity out of fears that the government would either shut off all access to the prisons or come after the commissioners themselves. In December, three of the most outspoken members of the commission were removed from their positions without explanation.
In what appeared to be a move to soothe tensions, the commission posted an “update” to the report on its website that noted that it had found improvements to prison conditions in many provinces, though not in Kandahar.
The statement says the commission “hopes that the present improvement obtained in the situation of NDS facilities will be expanded to Kandahar province.”
Since the U.N. findings, NATO and U.S. forces have resumed sending detainees to some Afghan prisons that they say have put in place adequate reforms, but the Kandahar facility is not among these.
A spokesman for NATO and U.S. forces said that they have now halted prisoner transfers to the four additional facilities flagged by Saturday’s report.
“Upon learning of any potential abuses of human rights in detention facilities we are committed to immediately accessing the accuracies of the allegations and potentially halting transfers where appropriate,” said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings.
The report, called “Torture, Transfers, and Denial of Due Process,” also charged that the U.S. government had continued to send some of its detainees to a prison in Kandahar that had been flagged by the U.N. despite the moratorium.
The suggestion was that other arms of the U.S. government, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, had sent detainees to a prison known for torture.
“The U.S. embassy is working closely with Afghan officials on implementing a monitoring program for U.S.-transferred detainees,” Cummings said, referring queries on U.S. government-held detainees to the embassy.
“We take that allegation seriously and we’re looking into it,” said Gavin Sundwall, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

Explainer: The Afghan Public Protection Force
March 21, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty By Abubakar Siddique
Time is running out for companies operating in Afghanistan to make the switch from private security firms to a protection force operated by the Afghan government. What is the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), what are its advantages and disadvantages, and is it up to the task of protecting aid agencies and supply convoys?
What is the Afghan Public Protection Force?
The Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) is a government-controlled security force. For companies operating in Afghanistan, it is a major issue because, under an Afghan initiative intended to scale down the massive and lucrative private security industry, Afghan government employees' protection will depend on this new force.
The corps is part of the Afghan Interior Ministry and, initially, was to take charge of security for nearly all entities other than military bases and diplomatic missions by March 20. Just days before the deadline, seeing that many companies had not yet worked out contractual arrangements with the forces and apparently hoping to avoid security gaps, companies were given an additional 30 to 90 days to do so, depending on the riskiness of their business. For example, those involved in lower-risk roles such as reconstruction projects get 30 days. Companies carrying out what are deemed high-risk jobs, such as running supply convoys, get 90 days.
Ultimately the initiative is part of a government effort to eliminate parallel institutions -- meaning instances where the government, foreign militaries, or private firms are all essentially carrying out the same function.
Interior Ministry spokesman Siddiq Siddiqi explained that 57 private security companies have so far been dissolved and their responsibilities taken over by the APPF.
What will its role be?
In return for contract payments, the APPF will provide security to aid projects, company offices, and convoys transporting supplies for NATO-led international security forces. Some private security firms will continue to provide security to diplomatic missions and military bases because the APPF is not mandated to provide security to such sensitive installations.
So far, 16 companies have switched over to seek protection from the APPF, while 75 more are negotiating their terms with the force.
Who will be training the APPF?
All security personnel working for the protection force, which will eventually replace an estimated 11,000 guards working for private firms, will go through standard training courses supervised by Afghan and Western trainers.
Interior Ministry spokesman Siddiqi says that 8,000 guards have already been trained and that number is likely to grow to 18,000 as the force absorbs personnel who are currently working for private security companies.
He says on individuals who have worked for such private companies and who have clean criminal records may be part of the new organization. "They will have to go through standard recruitment procedures and will be background-checked by the [Afghan] intelligence [service]," Siddiqi says.
Where did the idea originate?
President Hamid Karzai has opposed the large number of "guns-for-hire" in his country for years. In 2009, he set a three-year deadline for all the security companies to disband into the APPF.
Lawmaker Shukria Barakzai, who sits on the Afghan parliaments' defense committee, says a large part of the international assistance to Afghanistan has been spent on security. She says the Afghan government had no role in awarding contracts to the security companies. Such contracts were often granted to Western security firms who subcontracted the work to Afghan strongmen, she complains, creating a major avenue for abuse and corruption.
"Sometimes, these contractors paid [the Taliban] to create insecurity," Barakzai says. "There were instances when the same company performed two roles: Half of the company's employees would accompany a NATO convoy for security, while the remaining members of the same company would attack the same convoy in the garb of the armed opposition to extract more money."
Who loses and who gains?
The creation of the APPF should dramatically reduce the number of foreigners acting as security contractors in Afghanistan. It will also deprive some major Western security firms of their lucrative security contracts with donors and aid agencies. So the security firms, both Afghan and international, that blossomed over the past decade are the biggest obvious losers.
But concerns may be growing at some companies that rely on those private firms for their protection, as worries have been expressed about having to rely on local security guards whose training and procedures they do not control.
On the ground in Afghanistan, it will look more like a compromise arrangement. The APPF will retain most of the guards working with security companies but is expected to make their work more accountable and transparent. In addition, the APPF has already licensed 14 risk-management companies. They will act as a bridge between reconstruction firms and the APPF to help manage payments, personnel, and ensure accountability of the Afghan security guards.
Lawmaker Barakazai says the arrangement is expected to work well for the Afghan government, foreign forces, and development companies. However, she also says "we are worried that such institutions undermine our regular police forces. We need a [professional] police for maintaining security and establishing the rule of law. Creating such institutions leaves us little time and money to focus on creating our professional police cadres, which Afghanistan needs to have forever."

Afghanistan's new chefs: girl scouts bend social norms with food
By Miriam Arghandiwal
KABUL (Reuters) - In a quiet corner of the Afghan capital, dining tables are covered with traditional fabrics, a man on the piano plays Frank Sinatra, and expatriates munch on food that can usually only be found back home.
Unlike other restaurants catering to Afghanistan's large expatriate community, the Afghan Garden Kitchen employs a cadre of all-female chefs -- teenage Girl Scouts from broken homes, that is.
"For children who may not have a father or a mother at all, we've got to find a solution where they can go and work, they're protected in their work and not forced into marriage by their families or because of their circumstances," said Marnie Gustavson, head of the non-governmental organization Parsa that runs the scout program.
Since the austere rule of the Taliban was ended by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, women have won back hard-fought rights in education, voting and work in Afghanistan, which the hardline group considered un-Islamic.
Their plight, however, remains severe, and jobs and lives are still restricted by custom and law.
Women and girls from households broken by war or drug use are particularly at risk of forced marriage or prostitution.
With a blue and yellow scouts' scarf tied around her neck, 13-year-old Zakia Shawbi moved from Kapisa province north of Kabul to the capital five years go because her drug-addict father could not support his eleven-member family.
"Three of my sisters got married and we were able to live off the money we received from their suitors ... how else could my mother raise us without our father's help?," she said.
Now she earns $20 a month, receiving orders, learning recipes and cooking -- vocational training for later in life that is part of a scout program which began in Afghanistan in 1931 and was resurrected years after the fall of the Taliban.
"It gives them more than job training, it teaches them to be self sufficient and upstanding citizens so their generation won't behave like the many war stricken, savage people of today," said Gul Ahmad Mustafa, a scout trainer.
UNCERTAIN FUTURE
It's not clear, however, if Shawbi will ever be able to use her skills once she leaves the scouts.
As with many jobs in Afghanistan, chefs are primarily men.
Without the backing of an influential family or being married into one, it is nearly impossible for a woman to become independent in a country consistently ranked as one of the world's worst places for women.
The dire treatment of women was the main reason Western countries gave for refusing to recognize the Taliban government as legitimate. It also caused the amount of foreign financial aid Afghanistan received to shrink significantly.
As Afghan leaders seek to negotiate with the Taliban as part of their peace talks, the future for women is uncertain.
The United States and NATO, who have been fighting Taliban insurgents for 10 years in an increasingly unpopular war, have repeatedly stressed that any peace talks must abide by Afghanistan's constitution, which says the two sexes are equal.
But President Hamid Karzai's reticence on the matter, constant opposition by the Taliban, and setbacks even at the government level cast a shadow on the prospects for equality for the 15 million women who make up about half the population.
"You can create a women's shelter to help women but all it needs is for a village elder to call it a *****house then it goes downhill from there," Mohamad Hashim Mayar, an adviser to the non-governmental agency coordinating Afghan relief bodies.
(Editing by Jack Kimball and Robert Birsel)

Radio Azadi Names Hindia d'Afghanistan 'Person Of The Year'
March 20, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Former princess and life-long humanitarian Hindia d'Afghanistan has been named Radio Azadi’s “Person of the Year” in Afghanistan. The 83-year old daughter of Afghanistan’s King Amanullah has devoted the last ten years of her life -- and most of her family’s wealth -- to rebuilding her country after decades of war and destruction.
“Before making the final decision we consulted several civic groups in Kabul, which praised Princess Hindia and her work,” says Radio Azadi Director Hashem Mohmand. “She supports the weak in Afghanistan and we wanted to honor her for her dedication to help her country.”
The reign of King Amanullah was marked by liberal reforms until he was deposed in 1929 and exiled to British India, where Princess Hindia was born. Banned from returning to her homeland, she spent most of her life in Italy, returning to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. When Princess Hindia was finally able to return to her homeland, she celebrated by donating the Monarch’s property and estate in eastern Afghanistan to the Afghan people.
Over the last decade, she has worked to increase awareness of the human rights situation in Afghanistan throughout Europe, raising funds for development projects targeted at education, homeless and orphaned children, and victims’ centers for abused women. In 2006, Princess Hindia was named Cultural Ambassador of Afghanistan to Europe by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Radio Azadi’s annual “Person of the Year” award recognizes outstanding individual contributions to democracy and civil society in Afghanistan. Previous winners include Afghan musician and UN Goodwill Ambassador Farhad Darya, lawmaker Ramzan Bashardost, physician and human rights activist Anarkali Honaryar and the governor of Nangarhar province, Gul Agha Sherzai.

Video: Ancient Airlifter Makes Daredevil Drops Over Afghanistan
By David Axe Email Author Wired News - Wed Mar 21, 6:32 am ET
The Caribou airlifter flies so low through the mountains and valleys of eastern Afghanistan that it’s invisible from the ground … until it’s right on top of you. The Vietnam-era, twin-engine cargo plane with the cranked wings and bulbous nose appears suddenly, racing just a couple hundred feet over the U.S. Army outpost on the outskirts of Marzak, in remote Paktika province. At a precisely timed moment, the Caribou pitches upward. A dozen black plastic pallets tumble from its cargo hold and, parachutes unfurling, drift down onto a snowy field adjacent to the American base. The Caribou, hundreds of pounds lighter, dives for the safety of a nearby valley.
The dramatic “Low-Cost, Low-Altitude” (LCLA) resupply, which I witnessed numerous times during my week at Marzak in January, represents the latest tactic in the high-stakes logistical campaign that underpins the U.S.-led war effort. Along with robot trucks, robot helicopters, “smart” parachutes, hybrid trucks and even airships, it’s also evidence of the Pentagon’s never-ending quest for better resupply methods.
Mountainous, landlocked, surrounded by hostile neighboring countries and lacking good roads, Afghanistan is a logistician’s nightmare. Isolated outposts such as that in Marzak are the most difficult to keep fed and fueled. There are no roads capable of supporting a heavy truck. At 10,000 feet about sea level, Marzak is too high for many helicopters. The large, powerful copters — American Chinooks, Russian-made Mi-17s — that can climb high enough are especially vulnerable to rockets and gunfire. Airdrops from high-flying C-17 or C-130 cargo planes are often imprecise. If the materials land too far away from the outpost, the resident soldiers must send out a risky combat patrol to retrieve them, a particularly difficult task without trucks and other heavy equipment.
The Army deployed to Marzak in January. Anticipating the need to supply it and other remote locations, in October the Army hired a boutique resupply company built around a single, 50-year-old DeHavilland Caribou and 15 civilian pilots, staff and ground crew. The Caribou and its crews, based at Bagram airfield near Kabul, are asked to do things most military airlifters cannot: Fly low and fast to drop small loads of critical supplies with pinpoint accuracy.
The company, whose name we’ve been asked to keep secret, began flying resupply missions in October. Since then, it has delivered more than a million pounds of cargo, according to a source close to the company. The secret to its success is the skill of the flight crews, the mechanics’ meticulous maintenance of the 1960s-vintage Caribou and upgrades to the rugged plane’s engines that give it extra oomph. “It makes for a perfect LCLA airdrop platform,” the source tells Danger Room.
“Low-Cost, Low-Altitude airdrops by civilians in Afghanistan is an extremely vital asset that’s usually overlooked by most,” the source continues. The lack of publicity could be intended to spare the Air Force any embarrassment. After all, until recently the flying branch did possess one small airlifter in the Caribou’s general category that could possibly have equaled the civilian plane’s low, pinpoint drops. The would be the C-27J, built by Alenia.
The Air Force and Army originally planned to buy the twin-engine C-27J together, but the Air Force fought to take over the program. The C-27s deployed to southern Afghanistan for the first time last year. They’d barely begun flying missions when the Air Force decided to scrap the entire 38-plane fleet to save money — a move that Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said was “particularly difficult,” as it left the Army in a lurch. Last week the C-27J cancellation was a hot topic debate in Congress.
With no military planes to assume the low-altitude resupply duty, highly skilled civilians and their ancient but upgraded Caribou will likely remain a unique lifeline for isolated troops. The Caribou’s dramatic airdrops should be a regular sight in the war’s waning years.

www.afghanistannewscenter.com (http://www.afghanistannewscenter.com)