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Default [Afghan News] October 19, 2012 - 10-19-2012, 12:01 PM

NATO chief calls for free elections in Afghanistan
By Adrian Croft
MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - NATO's chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged the Afghan government on Friday to strive for free, fair and transparent elections in the 2014 presidential poll, saying they marked a critical juncture in the country's quest for peace.

His words came a day after President Hamid Karzai suggested foreign members be removed from the election watchdog, in a step that could be seen as bolstering his grip on power.

"I think it is essential for building trust and confidence between the Afghan people and the Afghan government that the presidential elections take place in a manner that is free, fair and transparent," Rasmussen said in an interview with Reuters on the airstrip at Camp Marmal, a sprawling military base near Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

He spoke at the end of a two-day visit to Afghanistan with senior diplomats from 35 countries that supply troops to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.

Rasmussen told reporters earlier that a smooth political transition of power according to the Afghan constitution would be a "litmus test, an indication of the strength and sustainability of the Afghan democracy".

"The way the presidential election is conducted will have strong importance when it comes to the whole credibility of the transition process," he added.

Rasmussen and the NATO ambassadors have been assessing the progress of their plans gradually to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces, permitting foreign combat troops to leave by the end of 2014.

A security analysis released by the International Crisis Group think-tank this month said Karzai's increasingly unpopular government could collapse after the NATO withdrawal, especially if people lost confidence in the outcome of presidential elections the same year.

"In the current environment, prospects for clean elections and a smooth transition are slim," the ICG report said.

Opponents of Karzai, who is barred from seeking a third term by the Afghan constitution, say they are worried the president is trying to install an ally or relative as his successor to maintain an influence on power.

After meeting Afghan leaders and commanders of the NATO-led force, Rasmussen said the campaign was making significant progress and he reaffirmed the timetable leading towards Afghans taking full security control by the end of 2014.

"Based on this visit, I don't see any need to change the strategy," he said.

Despite Rasmussen's confidence, violence continues across the country as the deadline of end-2014 looms.

A roadside bomb killed at least 19 people, mostly women and children, who were on their way to a wedding in Afghanistan's north on Friday, local police officials said.

Rasmussen said Karzai and other Afghan officials had assured him of their "very, very strong determination to do what it takes" to prevent the alarming increase in "insider" attacks, when Afghan policemen and soldiers turn their weapons on foreign mentors.

At least 52 members of the NATO-led force have been killed so far this year in insider attacks.
(Editing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Jeremy Laurence)



Afghan Officials Spar Over 2014 Vote
New York Times By MATTHEW ROSENBERG October 18, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan - Nearly two years before Afghanistan’s presidential election, a brewing dispute between President Hamid Karzai and Afghan lawmakers over the handling of voter fraud complaints is raising questions about whether a credible election can be held — and, by extension, future international support for the country’s financially ailing government.

American and European diplomats are already trying to set the bar as low as possible for the 2014 election. American officials talk of the need for a vote that is merely “acceptable,” purposefully avoiding the usual admonition of a “free and fair” election — a goal they say is too lofty given Afghanistan’s situation.

Yet United Nations officials and Western diplomats fear the coming vote might not meet even that low standard if Mr. Karzai and the Parliament cannot agree on new laws for the election, leaving it to be held under the same rules that yielded fraud and political crisis after the 2009 presidential vote.

A similar crisis in 2014 would probably prove far more dangerous. It would play out just as the American-led combat mission was coming to an end, raising the specter of a charged political showdown among pro-government factions — many of them drawn along ethnic lines and some well-armed — at the precise moment the Afghan state needed to present a united front against the Taliban.

The failure to hold a credible election would also further test the patience of the international community, which pays most of Afghanistan’s bills and is expected to cover the hundreds of millions of dollars it will cost to hold the election.

“If there’s a question mark over the election, it might affect future international support for the Afghan government,” said Nicholas Haysom, the deputy special representative at the United Nations mission in Afghanistan.

Mr. Haysom and Western diplomats in Kabul said they are genuinely neutral on the current dispute, which appropriately enough is about whether foreign experts should help adjudicate accusations of electoral fraud. A measure approved recently in Parliament’s lower house mandates that two foreign experts chosen by the United Nations sit on the country’s five-person Election Complaints Commission, which is supposed to adjudicate fraud accusations.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, however, Mr. Karzai was blunt in his opposition to the presence of any foreigners on the complaints commission: “Their interference in the election process is a violation of Afghanistan’s national sovereignty.”

He then emphasized his point with a tart reference to the coming American election: “Afghanistan is not interfering in their election, and we are hoping they don’t interfere in our election.”

Later, Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for the president, said Mr. Karzai would veto the measure if it passed the upper house with the provision for foreign experts. “We are capable of organizing free and fair elections,” he said in a brief telephone interview.

It was Mr. Karzai’s experience in 2009 with the complaints commission that shaped his opposition to the new law, Mr. Faizi said.

The commission then had three foreign members and two Afghans. It disqualified tens of thousands of votes, forcing Mr. Karzai into a runoff against his top competitor, Abdullah Abdullah. Though Mr. Abdullah eventually dropped out of the race, Afghans close to Mr. Karzai have said in the years since that the president believed that the United States and United Nations had tried to unseat him, partly by using the commission’s power to disqualify ballots.

For the parliamentary elections in 2010, Mr. Karzai forced the commission to reduce its foreign membership to two experts, giving Afghans a majority.

“The interference in the presidential election was a very good lesson” for the Karzai administration, Mr. Faizi said Thursday.

But members of Parliament were adamant about the need for at least two foreigners on the complaints commission.

“We have had bad experiences with the elections and president’s interference in the elections, and that’s why we wanted to have two United Nations representatives to watch the election process and the complaints,” said Humarai Ayoudi, a lawmaker from western Afghanistan.

Without the foreign experts, “we will have an election full of frauds and irregularities,” she added, echoing a widely held view in the Parliament.

The inclusion of the foreign experts was also among a list of principles for electoral reform that Afghan advocacy groups have drawn up and were signed Wednesday by about 40 political parties and factions.

Despite the increasing focus on the election among the Afghan political class, there are still no clear contenders from either Mr. Karzai’s camp or the opposition.

The president cannot run for a third term. He is believed to be laying the groundwork for a trusted ally to succeed him. But he has not indicated any favorites publicly, and every month seems to bring a new rumor of whom he will back; names bandied about have included his brother Qayum and his former chief of staff, Umer Daudzai, whose political party, Hezb-e-Islami, grew out of an insurgent faction that is still fighting the government.

Neither those two nor any other Karzai allies or possible opposition contenders — a group that includes Western-trained technocrats, former warlords and former Taliban officials — have publicly said anything about running.

Other concerns about the election are also beginning to spread among Western diplomats and international officials. An Afghan plan to issue biometric ID cards before the vote is seen as particularly problematic because there are doubts the cards can be fully distributed in time.

Sangar Rahimi and Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting.



Activists, MPs Warn Against Failure to Reform Election Law
TOLOnews.com By Shakeela Ahbrimkhil Thursday, 18 October 2012
Afghan civil society activists and lawmakers met on Thursday to discuss the demand of the country's political parties yesterday for major amendments to the election law.

The civil society activities warned that the proposed principals set forward by the parties are essential for a fair election in 2014, as lawmakers urged the government to send the draft election law for approval as soon as possible.

"The draft prepared by the Ministry of Justice is a pro-government law under which the government has the authority to suspend the election. If this law is enforced, it paves the way for a political coup in the country," head of the Afghanistan Civil Society Association Azizullah Rafiee said at the Thursday meeting.

The lawmakers present also believe that the current draft of the election law is too government-dominating which if approved by the parliament could lead to questions over the fairness and transparency of an election.

"The logical demands of the political parties and the civil society activists should be considered and the amendments should be started immediately but as the government does not intend to launch a transparent and fair election, it refuses to announce the exact date of the election and begin making the amendments," Badakhashan MP Fauzia Kofi said.

Afghan senator Ali Akbar Jamshidi said the role of political parties in the process of the election is vital and that their involvement in formulating the election law should be increased.

"The civil society activists and political parties can help the government to create a good election law. Involvement of political parties in the election process is vital – the government has only considered 30 percent of the demands of the political parties whereas their role should be 50 percent," Jamshidi said.

Others warned that the current law draft is a complex one with potentially tribal divisions.

"The government-prepared law has not been sent to the parliament so far – it's at the Council of Ministers Laws Committee. It's a complex law which could inflame racism and tribal conflicts in the country. It's better to ignore those [aspects]," Kabul MP Sayed Hussian Alemi Balkhi said.

Daniel Murphy, Chief of Party for Democracy International in Afghanistan which organised the meeting, stressed the role of Afghans in the election process and that there would not be foreign interference.

"I was not necessarily taking a position on what the electoral law should be or how it should be changed. Rather, we see our role as encouraging the dialogue between the different stakeholders so that this can be an Afghan process and the vast majority of Afghans can accept the process as more credible," Murphy told TOLOnews.

Meanwhile, the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA) deputy director Farid Khalid criticised the low presence of women at the Thursday meeting.

"The presence of government representatives and women were less visible in this meeting," Khalid told TOLOnews.

TEFA was established in 2009 to monitor the transparency of election in the country.

The upcoming presidential election is expected to be held in early 2014 despite the security and financial challenges ahead.



US sees potential for wider anti-Taliban uprising
By ROBERT BURNS | Associated Press
AB BAND, Afghanistan (AP) — Fed up with the Taliban closing their schools and committing other acts of oppression, men in a village about 100 miles south of Kabul took up arms late last spring and chased out the insurgents with no help from the Afghan government or U.S. military.

Small-scale revolts in recent months like the one in Kunsaf, mostly along a stretch of desert south of the Afghan capital, indicate bits of a grass-roots, do-it-yourself anti-insurgency that the U.S. hopes Afghan authorities can transform into a wider movement. Perhaps it can undercut the Taliban in areas they still dominate after 11 years of war with the United States and NATO allies.

The effort in Ghazni Province looks like a long shot. The villagers don't readily embrace any outside authority, be it the Taliban, the U.S. or the Afghan government.

American officials nonetheless are quietly nurturing the trend, hoping it might become a game changer, or at least a new roadblock for the Taliban. At the same time, they are adamant that if anyone can convince the villagers to side with the Afghan government, it's the Afghans — not the Americans.

"If we went out there and talked to them we would taint these groups and it would backfire," said Army Brig. Gen. John Charlton, the senior American adviser to the Afghan military in provinces along the southern approaches to Kabul.

Charlton, who witnessed similar stirrings in Iraq while serving as a commander there in 2007, said that in some cases the Taliban are fighting back fiercely, killing leaders of the armed uprisings. In Kunsaf, for example, the Taliban killed several village fighters in skirmishes as recently as last month, but the Taliban suffered heavy losses and have thus far failed to retake the village.

The American general visited two military bases in the area last week — one in Ghazni's Ab Band district that was vacated by a U.S. Army brigade as part of September's U.S. troop drawdown, and the other in nearby Gelan district, where Afghan paramilitary police forces are moving in to fill the gap left by the Americans. Charlton found far fewer paramilitary police there than he says are needed; he is nudging the Afghans to get hundreds more into the area to put more pressure on the Taliban in support of the village uprisings.

Charlton said the U.S. and its coalition partners are taking a behind-the-scenes role — encouraging the Afghans to court the villagers while finding a role for U.S. Special Forces soldiers to forge the villagers into a fighting force as members of the Kabul-sanctioned Afghan Local Police.

Some have compared the apparently spontaneous uprisings to the Iraq war's Anbar Awakening of 2007, in which Sunni Arab tribes in the western province of Anbar turned on al-Qaida in their midst, joined forces with the Americans and dealt a blow that many credit with turning the tide of that conflict. The U.S. armed and paid the tribal fighters and sought to integrate them into Iraqi government forces.

By coincidence, the first localized movement to draw outside attention in Afghanistan was in Ghazni's Andar district, about 100 miles south of Kabul. Thus some U.S. analysts are calling this the Andar Awakening, drawing an Iraq war parallel that even the most optimistic American commanders say is a stretch.

"That just builds some false expectations," said Army Lt. Col. Kevin Lambert, a 1st Infantry Division battalion commander whose area of operations includes Ghazni. He nonetheless is encouraged that after initially balking, the Afghan government is now trying to leverage the Andar unrest. It has installed a new district governor who Lambert said is sympathetic to the uprisings and made changes in the local security forces. It also has authorized a U.S. Special Forces team to work with the villagers.

"It's going to take time, it's not going to be an Anbar (Iraq) sweep," Lambert said. "It is going to be village by village, district by district, and we may not see the results of this for some years."

Senior officers at the U.S. military headquarters sound even more cautious.

"So far what we are not seeing is a coalescing of it into a greater movement," said Australian Maj. Gen. Stephen Day, the plans chief for the international coalition's joint command. He said "nothing as substantial" as the Andar uprising is happening elsewhere in the country.

U.S. officials say there are signs of anti-Taliban resistance, or at least sentiment, in a dozen or more villages in Andar, and at various locations in the nearby districts of Qarabagh, Moqur and Ab Band. There have been small-scale uprisings also in provinces closer to Kabul, including Laghman and Logar.

The question Day says he's asking is, "Is there a golden thread here that we can pull on that will unite them all?"

It is with that possibility in mind — and an awareness that U.S. influence here is likely to shrink as its forces continue to withdraw — that the Americans are encouraging the Afghan military to complete a plan dubbed Operation Solidarity to make what it can of this unexpected new opening in Ghazni province. Charlton, the American adviser to the commander of the main Afghan army group in this region, said this should be a major focus for the Afghans over the winter, when harsh weather tends to lessen the pace of combat operations.

The three-stage plan, designed with U.S. assistance and launched by the Afghan 203rd Corps in September, begins with an assessment of individual village uprisings and their potential for success. Those deemed worthy of pursuing are then approached by the Afghan military, in some cases to provide weaponry. Charlton described the third stage as a networking effort "to stitch these groups together into something larger."

Charlton, who was a central player in fostering the Anbar Awakening in Iraq as a brigade commander in the provincial capital of Ramadi in 2007, is notably optimistic about the nascent Afghan uprisings.

"Over the course of the winter, if this thing works out right, these groups will be supported, they will come together a little bit more and by the springtime the insurgency will not have the popular support bases that they are used to having," he said.

Charlton said he's not discouraged by the merely incremental progress thus far.

"To me, the Taliban are doing the same thing that al-Qaida was" in Iraq, he said. "They used these really oppressive, violent tactics that eventually alienate these populations. And I see that same dynamic here," even though that may not be enough to ignite a broader uprising.

"It may not change Afghanistan, but if it can help deny some support bases in Ghazni, we'll take that. That is something we haven't had."

___

Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

Robert Burns can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP



Afghanistan's Gray Future
It's Hamid Karzai's country now, and not everything is black and white.
Foreign Policy BY HASEEB HUMAYOON OCTOBER 18, 2012
In projecting Afghanistan's future, it's misleading to hold a mirror to its troubled past. Many pundits assume Afghanistan will disintegrate upon the last combat soldier's departure in 2014 -- that Afghans themselves are devoid of the will to construct, better suited to blowing it all up. The future of the country, though, is neither black nor white. The truth is that Afghanistan has been transformed since 2001, rendering responsible politics a chance to define its outlook.

Alarmists about Afghanistan's future paint two likely scenarios: civil war, or the forceful return of the Taliban. Neither of these scenarios ring true. Even more importantly, they are predicted on perverse detachment from the realities on the ground, and colored by a view where external factors determine Afghanistan's course. More essential than what Washington or Brussels decides is whether Afghan politicians will manage to preserve and advance political stability through the constitutional order or not. And fundamentally, the person with the most influence over the extension and legitimacy of the system -- or the irresponsible undermining of it -- is President Hamid Karzai.

Powers amassed in the office of the presidency since 2004 have transformed Karzai from being a conciliator among different contentious factions (that saw him as harmless back in 2001) to a Machiavellian manipulator of his political competitors and international supporters. Karzai's public clashes with the U.S. Embassy during the Bush administration and his pronounced detachment from the Obama White House have made clear the diminished U.S. political leverage in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Afghan president has increasingly turned to local strongmen as a source of power, thereby embedding the chaotic mix of patronage and populism as the essence of politics in Afghanistan. In Afghan politics, real power is the prize, but no single major person or group in the country -- other than the nihilistic Taliban and former civil-war fighter Gulbudin Hekmatyar -- is pursuing it with overt force and violence. And that's a step in the right direction.

Absent parties and durable groupings, Afghan politics can seem chaotic and unpredictable. Yet the past eight years of the constitutional order offers evidence that when conflicts arise, politics moderate. In the heat of the 2009 presidential elections, Atta Mohammad Noor -- a powerful supporter of Abdullah Abdullah, the leading opposition candidate -- entered into an ugly public conflict with Hanif Atmar, then the minister of interior and a Karzai loyalist. Tensions heightened, and concerns about violent clashes between Noor and the government were real. The framework governing politics in the country, and the conduct of politicians were as yet untested -- any clash was expected to be hard to contain. Yet, just as the tension reached a simmer, so did the pursuit of a negotiated end to the brawl. Politics prevailed over the resort to force. Noor remained unapologetic for his support of the opposition, but the government recognized his right to stay within the system and yet not necessarily pledge full loyalty to the person heading it.

In the 2010 parliamentary elections, the regional and provincial strongmen who had once opted to be above the law or outside the frames of democratic institutions actually canvassed for seats. Now, they have a multitude of reasons to invest in the constitutional order: from access to power and prestige, to immunity and business. They are seeking all these perks through civilian platforms, as opposed to the sheer force or numbers of their guns and guys. The encouraging factor is that if the nascent constitutional order has grown to offer all these perks to strongmen, it should someday be able to regulate them too.

Challenges to order, nonetheless, abound. Semi-organized militias and paramilitary outfits have increased in the past two years -- under different labels such as the Afghan Local Police, Critical Infrastructure Police, and other ambiguous formations outside the standard law and order institutions. Similarly, some local officials have extended official and unofficial support to the mobilization of armed groups in some districts of provinces such as Kunduz and Baghlan. With a radius of influence limited to districts, their return to the scene, much contrary to arguments flashed out most recently in a New Yorker article by Dexter Filkins and echoed by other commentators, is not a sure sign of any looming civil war.

Civil wars do not erupt out of clashes at the provincial or district levels, but rather when the settlement for control or share of power at the center fails to offer the needed flexibility or satisfaction to most parties concerned. The much-dreaded 1992-1996 civil war in Afghanistan was not a product of any district level clashes. In fact, the trigger and sustainer of the war was violent scuffle over leadership and key posts in the central government, of course with the meddling regional forces -- in particular, Iran and Pakistan -- through the allegiances of their proxies developed in the 1980s.

But the dominant feature of the post-2001 government has been its flexibility -- even ingenuity -- in ensuring everyone gets a piece of the pie. Even those who are very overtly opposed to the leadership of the country either have a direct share of the system, or they have immediate family members or group loyalists in high government positions. For example, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum is vocally anti-Karzai, but continues to enjoy a generous salary as the ceremonial chief of staff to the supreme commander of the Armed Forces. Former Vice President Ahmad Zia Masood is mobilizing as opposition to Karzai, yet his brother-in-law Salahudin Rabbani chairs the government's High Peace Council. Such is the settlement that even loyalists of the insurgent leader Gulbudin Hekmatyar also enjoy a major portion of power in Kabul and provinces. They may be using the violent capabilities of Hekmatyar as a bargaining tool, but they are unlikely to surrender all the privileges they currently enjoy to go to war with other factions.

Afghanistan's politics of patronage -- where access to influence and key resources are doled out -- also works against the eruption of an all out civil war. This is how those at the center keep their networks at the periphery happy: either through government appointments, official sanctioning of revenue streams, or simply by sending a share of their own extorts out. And those in the periphery do the reverse. Often, they send shares of their extracts and extorts to patrons at the regional or central hubs. In the long term, these dynamics are highly undesirable for accountable and responsive governance, but the liquidity of these patronage networks at least insure that interests get negotiated and clashes get averted. Of course, the downside is that the Afghanistan of today does not work fairly for all of society. Patronage may not help the public, but it is working for most of the political class.

This is not to say that Afghanistan is fully stable, but given the checks and balances applied by the constitutional order and patronage politics on potentially warring factions, only external pressures can really be seen as threatening its stability and endurance. The Taliban are certainly the main threat, but they increasingly do not pose an existential challenge to the extension or stability of the constitutional order, for they have failed to offer a responsive alternative to the public, and the perception of their cohesiveness is also diminishing.
* * *

Pundits and politicians argue that with the drawdown of foreign forces in 2014, the Taliban will be unstoppable. Their frame of reference for this pessimism is the Taliban's awe-inspiring march across the country in the 1990s, when within three years of their formation they had around 90 percent of the country in their control. The political and economic landscape of Afghanistan today makes the Taliban's cruise across the country simply fantastical. In 1996, the Taliban won control of Jalalabad -- the supply route to Kabul, and the commercial and population center of eastern Afghanistan -- by bribing the local forces in the region in cash (reportedly at the cost of $10 million), and a promise of safe passage. With the wealth and power that local actors around the country have amassed these days, though, the price for any such deal down the line has gone up exponentially. It is hard to imagine the current strategic actors in just the Jalalabad region striking any financial deal -- unless the Taliban offer hundreds of millions of dollars, which is unrealistic given the economic strife of their principal paymasters in Pakistan.

When the Taliban first emerged on the political and military stage in the 1990s, they were an untested group, offering an exit from the chaos of commander rule. In the past 10 years, however, by resorting to brutal terrorist attacks and violently countering any efforts at development, the group has exhausted any public space it once had. Consider this: the Taliban have now operated twice longer as an insurgency than as a government. Their brand is now associated with the brutality of beheadings. This year, popular uprisings against them in the rural and urban areas of the country are a spreading reality. Urban Afghans have long seen that the Taliban represents regress, but rural Afghans increasingly recognize it too.

Battlefield realities further undermine any possibility of the Taliban's forceful return. The insurgency has suffered massively over the past two years, in particular the ranks of its mid-level commanders. A targeted campaign by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to kill and capture field commanders has weakened their capability and also sown mistrust among the leadership and field operations.

For years, the Taliban thrived on projecting a cohesive and committed image of their leadership -- the inner circle around Mullah Omar. But 10 years on the run has ruptured the group's leadership and invited desperate reactions by their patrons in Pakistan's military establishment. In February 2010, the Taliban's No. 2 and veteran figure Mullah Abdul Ghani Beradar was put behind bars in Pakistan, on charges of seeking a political deal with the Afghan government without the consent of Islamabad. Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, former defense minister of the Taliban, died in 2008 -- arrested by Pakistan in 2006 upon U.S. Vice President **** Cheney's trip to the region. Mullah Agha Jan Muhtasim, another senior figure, has all but defected to the Afghan government (he's currently on government- sponsored treatment in Turkey for wounds he suffered in his hideout in Pakistan). Members of the Haqqani family have been targeted by drone strikes, and other influential figures of the early inner circle of the group -- such as
Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Usmani and Mullah Dadullah -- have perished on the battlefield. Returning to power would be a challenging feat for a group that's finding it increasingly difficult to ensure the survival or loyalty of its core.

In short, projecting that there will be a full return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan is as lazy as the alarms about civil war. At best, the Taliban have turned into a terrorist outfit that enjoys a foreign sanctuary but is finding it hard to win any decisive battle or territory within Afghanistan. This is not to say that the Taliban and other insurgent groups are not strategic factors in defining Afghanistan's trajectory any longer. They still have the support of power elements in Pakistan, and a narrative that's exploitive of the weaknesses of the post-2001 constitutional order: dependency on foreign forces, corruption, and absence of justice.

The road ahead, however, is not so much about what particular card the Taliban pull, or spectacular attack they manage to organize. But rather whether the constitutional order in Afghanistan overcomes the greatest test to its viability and endurance on the tenth anniversary of its establishment: the 2014 elections. Whether the elections are a course correction and return a sense of justice to the political narrative of building a new Afghanistan depends largely on the choices of President Karzai in the less than 18 months leading up to the 2014 transfer of power.
* * *

For the first time in Afghanistan's history, an elected leader is set to finish his allotted time in office. For any new democracy, the major test is not so much on whether the initial elections are flaw and fraud free -- but whether future elections emerge as the only game in town for access to power. Afghanistan's 2009 presidential elections were marred with questionable conducts, despite a weak opposition to Karzai, which assured him victory. The field for 2014, however, is far more open -- which should inject energy into the political space, if Karzai doesn't manipulate the process.

The drawback is that Afghanistan's 2004 constitution conglomerates an unusual number of authorities and expectations into the office of the president. It was built this way to survive a fractured political space, with an all-powerful head of state meant to unify and centralize. It has delivered on both accounts, but now President Karzai holds the keys to ensuring stability and advance of the constitutional order, or undoing its gradually acquired legitimacy.

When talking of the looming transfer of power, Karzai has indicated that he sees his role as the selector of a deserving successor. Most recently, when asked by Time magazine on who might replace him, he responded saying: "I am busy working on this question, this is one of my jobs, one of my perhaps most important responsibilities." He has talked of finding the right person, as opposed to setting the fair conditions for the right person to emerge. But in doing so, Karzai is misreading a script he helped write: Afghanistan is a democracy where the public elects successors, not the sitting president. And having intentionally avoided organizing the political space into parties or blocs, he is not the leader of any party to steer toward a particular candidate.

The confusion in Karzai's approach to the transfer of power in 2014 is the biggest risk to political stability. In Afghan elections, access to state machinery in elections is decisive. Karzai's choice to select a successor and then opt for electioneering is dangerous because it undermines any chance of a level playing field, and erodes the possibility of energetic political campaigns ahead of 2014. Both the splintered opposition and the establishment, comprised of multiple blocs of ambitious politicians, are watching what Karzai chooses to do, or whom he chooses to endorse.

Given his immense powers, Karzai can choose to fiddle with political competition by continuing the intrigue around who is going to be his chosen successor in the 2014 race. Some even speculate that perhaps motivated by concerns about personal and family security -- not to mention impunity for associates accused of abuse and corruption -- President Karzai may tweak or undo democratic processes. Up until now, he has vehemently denied considering anything but stepping down in 2014. The reality is that allowing an irresponsible transfer of power with questionable legitimacy will further political instability, and thus undo the very cause of security and impunity that may steer the sinister option forward.
* * *
A more audacious option exists. Karzai's should decide to stay above it all, emerging as the overseer of an election among two powerful tickets, neither of which he endorses. Such an approach will be truly in line with his desired image of a man above factional interests or group loyalties. He helped create patronage networks that now filter violent scuffle over power, and the networks close to him may tempt him to play the decider. But it is time to inject doses of predictability in Afghan politics, and Karzai is powerfully placed to direct the future course of Afghan politics towards representative, responsive agendas and groupings.

If Karzai chooses to set a competitive stage and assume the role of a neutral statesman, it's likely that constructive politics will come of it. Potential candidates will have to appeal to and mobilize a population that is extremely young (nearly 70 percent of Afghans are under 25) and has come of age in a period of relative stability. The emerging generation of Afghans is a product of a more connected and open society -- free of ideological fragmentations, and influenced by the social and political openings of the past 10 years. Steering the political space to respond to this constituency is the only way of suffocating the Taliban's operating space and returning Afghanistan to a constructive course.

For many years, President Hamid Karzai personified the break from the harsh past -- and for a while emerged as an icon of the national will to leave Afghanistan's difficult past behind. Yet increasingly, he has strayed toward a confusing and a self-defeating path of courting extremists who don't owe their power to him -- thereby disillusioning many who had invested hopes in him, and voted for him in overwhelming numbers in 2004. The choice to return to the role of senior statesman steering the country to modernization will redeem him.

The irony of the past decade is how Karzai, a man once perceived to have limited influence in the country, has metamorphosed -- through sheer tactical genius and the space offered by a weak opposition -- into the single most decisive actor in determining whether Afghanistan will become politically stable, or the constitutional order will go obsolete. The bigwigs at the NATO planning tables or in the power corridors of Washington may think their decisions determine Afghanistan's future, but the ball is squarely in Karzai's court.



Afghan President Condemns Blast That Killed Wedding Guests
VOA News October 19, 2012
A roadside bomb blast has ripped through a minibus in northern Afghanistan, killing at least 19 people who were on their way to a wedding.

Friday's blast took place in the Dawlat Abad district of Balkh province. Authorities say at least 18 others were wounded.

Police say most of the passengers were women and children. The blast victims were taken to a hospital in Balkh's capital, Mazar-e-Sharif.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned the bombing.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan or UNAMA says anti-government elements were responsible for 80 percent of civilian casualties in the first half of this year, with most casualties caused by improvised explosive devices. The U.N. says 1,145 civilians were killed from January to June.

The U.N. report released in August said improvised explosive devices used by insurgents remain the leading cause of deaths among Afghan women and children. It condemned what it called the "indiscriminate" use of such bombs and demanded that insurgents immediately stop "deliberate" killings of civilians.

International combat troops are set to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Separately on Friday, police say at least nine football fans were killed when their bus collided with a fuel tanker in the northern province of Jowzjan. At least 36 people were injured in the crash.

The football fans were on their way to the capital, Kabul, for the final round of Afghanistan's first premier soccer league championships.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.



Turkey vows to continue training security personnel in Afghanistan
ANKARA, Oct. 19 (Xinhua) -- Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Friday Turkey would continue training the security personnel in Afghanistan after 2014 in an effort to facilitate security in the country.

Davutoglu made the remarks at a meeting of the International Contact Group (ICG) for Afghanistan in the Turkish capital of Ankara, saying that Afghanistan should not be viewed as a country of chaos and instability.

"Afghanistan has been the cradle of many old civilizations and a symbol of coexistence of many cultures. Currently, the people of Afghanistan are trying to rebuild their glorious history," Davutoglu said.

"There are preparations being made for the period after 2014 when the NATO mission and the transitional process would end," Davutoglu added.

"Security in the country must be established and supported by the training of the Afghan army," the Turkish foreign minister said.



Afghanistan: Exit but mission not accomplished
By Christiane Amanpour, CNN & ABC October 18th, 2012
This is part of a series on foreign policy issues Christiane Amanpour is analyzing in the-lead up to next week’s presidential debate on foreign affairs.

After 9/11, Afghanistan truly was a “War of Necessity”. There was an unusual consensus, not just among the U.S. and NATO powers, but in many parts of the world, including in Iran and other Muslim countries, that Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the Taliban who hosted them had to be defeated.

And after they were sent packing from the Afghan battlefield, an extraordinary thing happened. The Afghan people supported the intervention. The land known as the Graveyard of Empires welcomed the new “invaders.” They knew that they had not come to occupy or do harm, but to help achieve a better future after decades of non-stop war and wholesale devastation – not only of infrastructure and institutions, but also the most basic human rights and freedoms.

As the Taliban were forced out of Kabul in November 2001, Afghan men, as well as women and children, voted with their feet. They marched to demand equal education rights for all, including girls, and thus for a more progressive future than the medieval reality the Taliban and the other Mujaheddin fighters had inflicted on them.

Suddenly the head of the international forces was the new Afghan hero. For a precious couple of years, most of the important indicators –like corruption, child mortality, education and poverty – were heading in a rare upward the right direction. This rare time of hope lasted until President George W. Bush decided to fight a “War of Choice” in Iraq.

The best military minds and commanders, the best resources and attention were suddenly diverted to Iraq, and Afghanistan paid the price. As the Taliban ramped up their presence and their insurgency again, civilians were killed, international forces too, and slowly but surely Afghanistan descended into war again. The once-in-a-generation chance to put back the pieces of this vital Muslim country seems to be slipping away.

Will the presidential election make a difference?

Not much. Both President Barack Obama and challenger Governor Mitt Romney are now committed to ending the war and withdrawing by the end of 2014.

Obama

When he came into office, President Obama, tried to reverse the tide of war and leave Afghanistan in a position of greater strength by ordering a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops in December 2009. At its peak, there were about 100,000 U.S. forces in the embattled country.

But now, in an election year, with a weak U.S. economic recovery and with the American people tired of war, all 30,000 of the surge troops came home by the end of September.

In a visit to Afghanistan in May, Obama said, "We are pursuing a negotiated peace. In coordination with the Afghan government, my administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban.”

These talks have so far gone nowhere.

Biden

In the vice presidential debates last week, Vice President Biden said, “We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period. And in the process, we're going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion. We've been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now, all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's.”

Biden practically washed the U.S. hands of what happens next in Afghanistan. And the objectives he says are almost completed? Not exactly. Many Afghans fear that the moment international forces leave all will be lost in Afghanistan.

Obama’s initial strategy had been to beat the Taliban into submission so that they would come to the negotiating table, and also crucially to build up the Afghan Army to take over security from U.S. and NATO forces. So far neither mission has been accomplished.

To try to preserve more than a decade’s investment in blood and treasure made by the U.S. and the world, the U.S. has pledged to leave a residual force in Afghanistan: thousands of training troops and special forces for counter-terrorism operations. But those details have yet to be worked out with the Afghan government.

Romney

The governor has taken a long time to articulate his vision for Afghanistan. He omitted the topic entirely from his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in August.

But he did raise it when he delivered his first major foreign policy speech of the campaign at the Virginia Military Institute on October 8,agreeing with the President’s exit timetable, while taking political shots.

“I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014,” Romney said. “President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war – and to potential attacks here at home – is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11.”

He added, “I will evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders.” So is Romney leaving the door open to extending the U.S. stay? Not clear. But he rejects Obama’s policy of talks with the Taliban. "We don't negotiate with terrorists. I do not negotiate with the Taliban. That's something for the Afghans to decide how they're going to ... pursue their course in the future," he said last year during a Republican primary debate.

Ryan

Romney’s running-mate, Paul Ryan, criticized the Obama administration in the vice presidential debate last week but didn’t commit to a longer timeline in Afghanistan.

“We don't want to lose the gains we've gotten,” Ryan said. “We want to make sure that the Taliban does not come back in and give al-Qaeda a safe haven. We agree with the administration on their 2014 transition.... What we don't want to do is lose the gains we've gotten.”

So, no big difference between the two parties. And no real assurances that any exit will be safe.

This past Sunday, The New York Times threw up its hands, and in a devastating editorial, called for the U.S. to start withdrawing from Afghanistan now. After more than 2,000 U.S. deaths and more than 17,000 severely wounded, the Times says the war which had powerful support at the start, has bled that support away.

The Times points out that coming into office, Obama called Afghanistan a “war we have to win”.

What a tragedy then for Afghanistan, for the United States and for all the nations who fought for a better future to come to this realization: Mission Not Accomplished.



Afghan Police School Tries to Fix Struggling Force
By KATHY GANNON The Associated Press
Afghan police academy tries to prepare struggling police force for when NATO troops withdraw
At the gate to the National Police Academy, on the western edge of the Afghan capital, the guard's rifle bolts into firing position. "Stop!" he shouts.

It's 4 a.m., the street lights are not working and the guard's superiors had neglected to tell him that the red Toyota Corolla would be arriving. Time and again, suicide bombers have attacked Afghanistan's police and army outposts. So one of the first lessons taught at the academy is diligence.

The readiness of Afghanistan's security forces is central to U.S. and NATO plans to withdraw all forces from the country by the end of 2014, and the academy's new commander wants to help turn around a 146,000-strong national police force long riddled with corruption, incompetence and factional rivalries.

Such problems are not always acknowledged publicly. On Thursday, President Hamid Karzai said that his military and police are prepared to take full responsibility for security if the American-led international coalition decides to speed up the handover. And a statement released this week by the NATO-led force, ISAF, called the Afghan National Army the most respected institution in the country and said "the Afghan national police also rank highly."

But the National Police Academy's director, Mullah Dad Pazoish, presents a different viewpoint.

"There are police who don't even know the meaning of the word 'police,'" Pazoish said in a recent interview. "We have generals who have no training. They are the jihadi commanders."

International observers warn that the largely illiterate police force will disintegrate after 2014 into factional militias more loyal to local warlords than to the state.

There are also questions about the ability of the Afghan army, which continues to suffer from a high rate of attrition.

A report released this month by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group concluded that Afghan security forces are not even close to being ready to take over security nationwide. "Only 7 percent of the army and 9 percent of the national police units are considered capable of independent action even with advisers," the report stated.

And Karzai himself complained two weeks ago that Afghan forces are not getting the weapons they need from NATO allies, suggesting Afghanistan might have to go to other countries such as China and Russia to acquire them.

Little noticed amid the criticism is that the police have taken the heaviest casualties in the war. On average, nearly 10 police officers are killed or wounded every day, according to the ISAF statement.

The risks were clearly on the mind of the guard who recently pointed his weapon at the Toyota approaching the gates of the 70-year-old academy, the nation's oldest, a sprawling compound that harks back to a peaceful Afghanistan ruled by a monarchy.

Gen. Nawroz Khaliq, who took command of the academy eight months ago, wants to restore higher standards to the institution. A career cop with a receding hairline, Khaliq envisions an academy that will create a new generation of policemen who understand the law and are committed to upholding it.

"In 10 years this academy I promise will be as good as any in the world," he said inside his comfortable office across from the parade grounds. A giant picture of Karzai hangs on the wall. A bouquet of dusty plastic flowers dominates a small bookcase, and plush couches line the walls.

Khaliq said the withdrawal of foreign forces in 2014 could be an opportunity for Afghans to rise to the occasion and prove themselves, but he acknowledged that the job ahead is colossal.

After the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, the academy's traditional three-year program was mostly supplanted with a new eight-week training course in the rush to turn out uniformed policemen. Large sections of the police were drawn from the ranks of militias whose warlord leaders sit in the Afghan parliament. Others came from remote villages. Few had seen the inside of a school.

Standards for the eight-week police training program are low, according to Khaliq. There is no educational requirement, and new recruits don't even have to be able to sign their name, just provide their fingerprints. They do, however, need to be recommended by a government official, who vouches they are neither Taliban nor a criminal.

Falaq Niaz Samedi, a lawyer and law professor at the academy, said government officials promote poor-quality candidates and then blame the academy for turning out corrupt police.

"I was at a seminar when the deputy (interior) minister said to me, 'All police are robbers,' but I told him, 'Police are not the robbers. It is you people who are bringing in the robbers. You take all those people that you send out and the police will not be robbers.'"

When he arrived on the job, Khaliq said he was surprised to find only a handful of students in the three-year program. The academy's entrance exam had also been suspended for two years.

He immediately held nationwide exams in which 8,257 men took part. Nine hundred were selected for the academy.

But a discouraged-looking Khaliq said the government is already applying pressure to reduce the standards for entrance. Currently recruits have to have a Grade 12 education and be 18 to 25 years old, but the government wants to increase the upper age limit to 35 — presumably to accommodate more unemployed militiamen.

Khaliq said 30 years of war have devastated the country's education system and that even high school graduates today are poorly educated. Nevertheless, Khaliq is trying to shore up standards, increasing the three-year program to four to allow for one year of specialization. The curriculum has been expanded to include human rights, prisoner treatment and gender studies.

Nearly 30 women are enrolled at the academy. They study with their male counterparts but train separately and eat their lunch behind a giant white curtain, hidden from the hundreds of men in the cavernous dining halls. The female police officers are trained to protect and search other women. They are not deployed to outposts and checkpoints. At the academy they wear the gray uniform, with a longer tunic and a black headscarf.

A female recruit who goes by only one name, Spushmai, said she does not fear retaliation from insurgents who advocate a strict code of conduct for women, but that "we will be very worried after the foreigners leave."

Another fresh recruit, who wanted to practice his English, spoke haltingly.

"We are the future. We will have real training and education," said Azim Aga, 18, from northern Baghlan province. "Right now the police who are on the street are not educated and are from the jihad," a reference to Afghanistan's successive wars. "We will be proud policemen."

But pride alone will not defeat the militants.

In one Taliban attack on a police station this month, only two of the four officers had weapons, according to Khaliq. He said police have more vehicles than weapons and that barely 60 percent of the police out on the streets and in the rural outback have communications equipment.

Khaliq, who acknowledged the mountain of criticism heaped on the police, said they also make some of the greatest sacrifices, living among the insurgents, not knowing if their neighbor is Taliban.

This month in Ghazni province, Zalmai Faizi, a seven-year veteran of the national police force, buried his 5-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son. Taliban militants shot and killed them both as they sat in his parked car outside the family's home.

Faizi's voice broke, his eyes watered and he bit his lip as he recounted the killing in an interview. For a moment he couldn't speak. He clenched his fist and in a hushed voice said: "I don't want anyone to see me cry, because it will give strength to my enemies and hurt the morale of our policemen."



Afghan Leader Warns On Immunity For Foreign Troops
October 19, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has warned of possible problems ahead over the sensitive issue of immunity from prosecution for any U.S. or NATO troops deployed in the country after 2014.

The U.S.-led NATO force of more than 100,000 troops is due to end combat operations at the end of that year, but thousands of soldiers are expected to remain in Afghanistan to train and assist Afghan forces.

In Iraq, Washington pulled out all its troops, leaving no residual force, after failing to get Baghdad to grant its soldiers immunity from prosecution in local courts.

Karzai said in a statement that he had told visiting NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during talks in Kabul on October 18 that the Afghan people might not "permit their government to grant immunity."

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP



Afghan Warlord Accused Of Murder Allegedly Bailed Out By Vice President
By RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan October 18, 2012
KABUL – An Afghan lawmaker alleged that the country's second vice-president, Muhammad Karim Khalili, recently bailed out a warlord accused of murder, kidnapping and bribery, among other crimes.

The head of the Afghan Senate's complaints committee, Ubaidullah Barekzai told Radio Free Afghanistan on October 18 that the warlord was freed from a Kabul prison despite the serious criminal charges.

Barekzai said Abdul Hakim Shujai is an influential warlord in his native southwestern Uruzgan province.

Barekzai also said Shujai has been accused of involvement in the killings of at least 120 people.

Uruzgan residents have reportedly complained to the Senate committee that an illegal armed group run by Shujai recently kidnapped 20 local villagers, and subsequently killed 17 of the hostages.

Khalili's office was not immediately available to comment on the allegation.



Saffron is Viable Alternative to Poppy: Growers Association
TOLOnews.com By Anwar Hashimi Thursday, 18 October 2012
Saffron is being touted by the Afghan government as a viable alternative to poppy because of its high sale price and compatibility with the arid Afghan environment. The Afghan Saffron Growers Association agrees.

The spice is already cultivated in 23 provinces since its launch over 20 years ago in western Herat province with more than 3 tonnes expected to be produced in non-Herat production this year, Director Bashir Ahmad Rashidi said in an interview with Pajhwok.

With its high prices at the international markets and its ability to be grown in a dry environment, it may be the best alternative for the popular poppy cultivation in the country, according to Rashidi.

Herat has the highest level of saffron cultivation in the country with 2800 tonnes of raw material collected in the province last year, producing more than 1,792 kilograms of pure saffron and some 200 tonnes of saffron onions.

Rashidi told Pajhwok that the price for one kilogram of pure saffron costs 60,000 to 65,000 Afghanis (US$1,200 – $1,300) in local markets while it costs up to $6,000 in international markets. One kilo of saffron onion costs 250 Afghanis ($5) adding that the cultivation has increased to 3250 hectares of land this year with an estimated increase of 500 tonnes of saffron onion.

The Afghan government supports the industry, distributing 75 tons of saffron seeds in 15 provinces of the country last year. That amount has increased this year to 88 tons for free to 440 farmers in 23 provinces including Herat.

The government sees saffron not only as a lucrative alternative to poppy but also as a means of fighting opium which is helping fund militancy. Some 90 percent of the world's opium is still produced in Afghanistan, namely Helmand.

According to the Saffron Growers Association, 800 kilograms of seed is necessary per 1 hectare of land with a potential harvest of 2.5 kg of pure saffron. A further 500 tonnes of saffron onions would be ready for harvest in the fourth year after the first cultivation.

Saffron is normally cultivated in summer and collected in the last month of fall. It is used to making medicines, add flavour to food, appetizers, hot drinks and making perfume. It grows best in areas with light winter weather and dry, hot summers.



Under attack in Afghanistan and Pakistan, minority Hazaras risk death to reach Australia
Associated Press October 18 , 2012
QUETTA, Pakistan - As he knelt in prayer to mark one of Islam’s holiest days, Ali Raza Qurban saw a childhood friend and dozens of others die in a suicide attack on their Shiite mosque. Sunni militants were again targeting minority ethnic Hazaras in this city of narrow streets and wide-open hatreds.

Qurban decided it was time to leave. He found an agent who would hook him up with a smuggler in Indonesia and, for $8,000, get him to Australia.

But he never made it to Australia. He disappeared on Dec. 17, 2011, aboard an overcrowded, rickety wooden boat that capsized within hours of leaving the Indonesian shore.

Four months had passed since the suicide bombing at the mosque in Quetta, where the violence has spawned a vibrant human smuggling business. The smugglers operate out of small, unidentified shops. Selling promises of a safe and better life in Australia, they largely capitalize on the fear and desperation of the Hazara, a largely Shiite community that is facing attacks not only here but in neighboring Afghanistan.

In Quetta, Shiite leaders say many of the attacks against Hazaras are carried out by the Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Janghvi, which they contend is backed by elements within Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. Pakistan’s Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry and a panel of three judges last month ordered authorities to investigate allegations that vehicles illegally imported by the ISI were used in suicide bombings targeting Shiites.

Most of the Afghans who cross into Pakistan with the intention of going on to Australia and elsewhere are thought to be Hazara.

“Every month hundreds of Hazaras leave Afghanistan for another country,” said Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul-based Center for Strategic Studies, a privately funded think tank. In the last two months more than 20 Hazaras have died in targeted killings blamed on the Taliban, he said.

Hazaras, who were massacred by Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban in the late 1990s, fear that the religious militia will return to power after the departure of U.S. and other NATO service members in 2014, according to Rahmani.

“With 2014 getting closer, most of the Hazaras think that the history will repeat again,” he said. “So that is why they risk their lives for illegal immigrations to Australia and other places.”

Many choose Australia because it already has an established Hazara community.

The trip to Australia usually begins in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, stopping either in Thailand or Malaysia before arriving in Indonesia’s East Java province, according to testimony of survivors and local Malaysian authorities.

“Asylum seekers from Pakistan often fly either from Karachi or Lahore to Kuala Lumpur and sometimes enter through Malaysia’s northern border with Thailand,” said a Malaysian home ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. He said laws have been tightened in the last two years, sea patrols increased and cooperation has been stepped up with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“The people-smuggling groups that facilitate them are generally Pakistani, but Malaysians are sometimes hired for logistics to help in transportation,” said the official.

Once in Indonesia’s East Java, asylum seekers are packed into boats bound for Australia.

The booming business is confounding the governments of Indonesia, which has hunted down and arrested some smuggling kingpins, and Australia, which is being bombarded with more refugees than it is willing to accept. Australia is trying to discourage prospective asylum seekers with new laws and with offers to take more refugees who choose to enter the country legally.

In August, Australia reintroduced offshore processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Asylum seekers who are sent there will not be let into the country without going through the same process as those legally seeking protective asylum in Australia.

“The strategy underpins the key message that asylum seekers should think twice before getting on a boat to Australia, because they will be risking their lives at sea for no advantage,” according to Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

In 2011 four boats sank, killing 109 people. So far this year 23 boats have capsized with 200 people still missing and 2,225 people rescued. Most of the passengers have been Afghans, Pakistanis and Iranians.

Afghans, mostly ethnic Hazaras, make up the largest number of so-called boat people, according to a report by Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship. In the first three months of this year, 797 Afghans sought asylum after arriving in Australia aboard dilapidated smugglers’ boats. Iranians were a distant second with 132.

For those who seek refugee status entering Australia mostly by air, the odds are long. In the first three months of this year, Australia granted 215 primary protective visas and rejected 1,126, according to the report. The majority applying for those protective visas were from Pakistan and Iran.

And so many turn to smugglers.

In documents acquired by The Associated Press, the Pakistan government was told last year that Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, had become a thriving human smuggling hub. The documents, which originated from Pakistan’s Embassy in Jakarta, were based on interviews with the 49 survivors of the boat that capsized Dec. 18.

More than a third of the passengers were ethnic Hazaras, including Ali Qurban, said his father, Saeed Qurban, who had gone to Indonesia’s East Java in search of his son.

The elder Qurban, who cradled a framed photograph of Ali throughout an interview with The Associated Press, rifled through a small folder stuffed with newspaper clippings and documents. Several Indonesian newspapers featured front-page photos of Saeed Qurban crying as he searched rows of coffins.

The Pakistan Embassy document, based on interviews with survivors, said there appears to be “a mafia working in Quetta who is using the incidents of target killings and sectarian violence, unleashed against the Shia community particularly the Hazara tribe as a tool to instigate, motivate and persuade the youth to seek asylum in other countries.”

“This mafia seems to be deep rooted and has an extensive network in different countries,” the document said.

It described interviews with more than 25 Pakistani Shiites languishing in immigration detention centers in Indonesia after failing to reach Australia. The refugees all told of the same terror that drove them to leave Pakistan. None was willing to return to Pakistan, preferring to stay in jail in Indonesia in hopes of getting refugee status, said the document, which was given to the president and prime minister’s office.

Yet the trade flourishes.

“Quetta is full of agents. Every day boys are trying to get to Australia,” said Fauzia Qurban, Ali’s older sister, occasionally burying her face in her hands and weeping as she struggled to tell her brother’s story in an interview at her home.

Several agents refused to talk to the AP, and Fauzia Qurban feared for her family’s safety if she approached those who helped her brother flee Pakistan.

But she had the name of the kingpin, Said Abbas, who she said orchestrated her brother’s journey. Abbas operated out of Indonesia, hiring a phalanx of agents to recruit asylum seekers in Quetta, and is currently serving a 2 ½-year prison sentence in Jakarta for human smuggling.

Abbas, an Afghan national from eastern Ghazni province, was initially arrested in Jakarta in May 2010 but was released on bail. His involvement in the Dec. 17 tragedy was revealed by an Indonesian soldier, Ilmun Abdul Said, who went on trial in East Java for his part in arranging the smuggling expedition in which Ali Qurban died.

The boat that went down was 82 feet (25 meters) long and designed to hold 150 to 160 passengers. There were 249 on board when it sank. Ali Qurban was just 22 years old.

____

Kathy Gannon is AP special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan and can be reached at www.twitter.com/kathygannon
___
AP writers Ali Kotarumalos in Indonesia, Sean Yoong in Malaysia and Kristen Gelineau in Australia contributed to this report.



Afghanistan feels pressure in hunt for Swat Taliban chiefBy Andrew North
BBC News, Kabul 19 October 2012
More than a week since Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot by suspected Taliban gunmen on her way to school, the pressure to bring those behind the attempted murder to justice is not just on Pakistan but also on neighbouring Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government says Mullah Fazlullah - leader of the Taliban group which has claimed responsibility for the shooting - is hiding in the mountainous Afghan border regions - and has called for him to be handed over.

Pakistan has been shelling Afghan border villages for months, in response to what it says are cross-border raids by Fazlullah's men, including an attack in which 17 Pakistani police were beheaded.

Usually, it is the other way round - with Kabul accusing Pakistan of giving sanctuary to Taliban who carry out assaults inside Afghanistan.

Military offensive

But there are suspicions that any action against Fazlullah - the leader of the Swat faction of the Pakistani Taliban - could become entangled in the bitter relationship between the two neighbours.

There are even reports Afghanistan is using him as a bargaining tool against Pakistan.

Officially, the Afghan government rejects Pakistani claims that the man also known as Mullah Radio is still on its soil - three years since he fled a Pakistani military offensive that forced him out of Swat, Malala Yousufzai's home.

But in private, there is no such denial.

An Afghan security source who asked not to be named said that there were "reports that Fazlullah was in Kamdesh or Chapa Dara" - two districts in the border provinces of Nuristan and Kunar.

But the source rejected claims the Afghan intelligence service, the NDS, is backing the Pakistani Taliban leader - who is also known as the FM Mullah for the sometimes lyrical broadcasts he used to make when he was in control of Swat valley.

When asked however if any action against him was likely, the security source answered: "Fazlullah does not attack any Afghan security forces."

If he is hiding in the mountains of Kunar and Nuristan, they make a perfect hiding place.

Stretching along the ill-defined Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, they have long been a haven for militants, who move between isolated mountain hamlets and caves that were first used by Mujahideen fighters battling Soviet troops in the 1980s.

Extremism 'as a tool'

Despite years of US and Afghan military offensives - and just two years before Nato forces are due to pull out from Afghanistan - the two provinces remain largely outside government control.

The Americans lost dozens of troops in battles with insurgents as they tried to pacify the region, before closing down their bases there two years ago.

There are also reports of Fazlullah being in Nuristan's Kamdesh district, where one US post was nearly over-run by insurgents in 2009.

At a press conference with the NATO secretary general, President Hamid Karzai was asked about Pakistani claims that Mullah Fazlullah was still in Afghanistan.

But he did not directly answer, saying instead that he hoped the shooting of the schoolgirl would convince Islamabad that using extremism as "a tool against others" was not in its interest.

One of the president's advisers, who asked not to be named, took a different line saying the Afghan government "does not have the power to use Fazlullah as a tool."

But he said it was up to the Americans to take action against him.

"They have the technology."

American special forces still make forays into the lawless north-eastern border region, and are believed to have been involved in a strike in Kunar in August which killed Mullah Dadullah, another Pakistani Taliban leader.

Asked if any action was planned against Fazlullah, the US military in Afghanistan declined to comment.



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