Taliban blindside U.S. forces with surprise Afghan offensive

By Carlo Muñoz - The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2018

The Taliban are on the verge of dramatically expanding their control over southern and eastern Afghanistan in a surprise offensive that has caught Afghan and U.S. forces off guard and thrown a vexing new wrench into the Trump administration’s strategy for ending the nearly 17-year-old war there.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said Monday a Taliban assault on the city of Ghanzi — a key provincial capital linking other areas under the Islamic militant group’s control just 75 miles southeast of Kabul — has killed roughly 100 Afghan security forces and some 20 civilians over the past three days.

While the Afghan forces, backed by U.S. and NATO advisers, claimed Monday night to have retained control of central Ghanzi, local reports indicated Taliban fighters still held pockets of the city and had simultaneously swept in and taken over most of the surrounding province’s rural areas.

Analysts said the development has underscored the Taliban’s capability for a resurgence in Afghanistan and will likely increase the group’s political leverage over peace talks with U.S. officials that the Trump administration has quietly been trying to get off the ground.

Should the Taliban ultimately wrestle Ghazni away from Afghan security forces, it would mark the first major district center to fall to the group since it captured the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in 2015.

When President Trump introduced his administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan on Aug. 21, 2017 — a plan based on increasing military pressure to push the Taliban into a peace negotiation — he said his instinct was actually to withdraw American forces from the war zone entirely.

With the current developments as a backdrop, some wonder whether the president will be able to resist pulling the plug on a war in which, according to The Associated Press, the U.S. is spending $4 billion-plus a year just to keep the Afghan security forces afloat.

The Taliban and the Afghan government called separate, briefly overlapping, national cease fires in June, and the Trump administration has made its own contact with the Taliban in hopes of nudging them into talks with Kabul. But fighting across the country has intensified more recently.

The surge in violence in Ghanzi over the past several days has also sparked fresh and heated debates over how much territory the Afghan government actually controls.

“The government is in complete control of Ghazni,” Afghan Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak told the BBC on Monday.

Other officials said a smattering of Americans, as well as forces tied to the Afghan government’s intelligence directorate, were on the ground in Ghanzi to assist local security forces against the Taliban. “U.S. advisers [are] assisting Afghan forces and [American] airpower has delivered decisive blows to the Taliban, killing over 140” over the last three days of fighting, officials from Operation Resolute Support, the U.S. and NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, said in a social media post on Twitter.

Who controls what?

Territorial control over Afghanistan remains divided between the central government in Kabul, the Taliban and other militant factions. Figures published in May by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) claimed Afghan security forces held roughly 56 percent of the country’s 407 districts.

U.S. commanders have said their aim over the past year was to bring 80 percent of the country’s provinces under the central government’s control. “This, we believe, is the critical mass necessary to drive the enemy to irrelevance,” Gen. John Nicholson, head of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon last November.

But with Lt. Gen Austin “Scott” Miller, the Trump administration’s pick to succeed Gen. Nicholson, set to soon take over command in Kabul, the coalition remains no closer to achieving the goal.

There is also disagreement among analysts over the metrics used to determine whether a particular area is actually under government or Taliban control. In some areas determined to be within the grasp of Kabul, government forces only hold a small portion of a district or provincial center. Analysts and local reports show outer-lying areas surrounding the government-held centers — particularly in the southern and eastern countrysides — remain Talibanhotbeds.

Even before the assault on Ghanzi, the provincial governor could only travel from one government building to another in an armored convoy amid fears the militant group might attack, says Bill Roggio, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an editor with the think tank’s Long War Journal.

“Without U.S. forces there, the Afghan forces would not be able to stave this attack off,” Mr. Roggio told The Washington Times. “That is not success. That is not progress.”

He added that “it’s difficult to know who controls what” in the wider province around Ghanzi, where local reports Monday indicated Taliban fighters had overtaken two major districts, Khwaja Umari and Ajristan. While Mr. Roggio said U.S.-backed Afghan forces will likely be able to reassert control over Ghazni, the price will be high and ultimately untenable.

In Ajristan alone, between 40 to 100 elite Afghan commandos, as well as some 200 Afghan regular and special forces have already been killed.

Kabul blindsided

The surprise Ghazni offensive has exposed the Pentagon’s misperception of the the wider challenges still at play in Afghanistan, according to Mr. Roggio.

“Afghan intelligence and the U.S. as well…have very limited visibility on this enemy,” he said, adding that a continued lack of understanding of the Taliban and its capabilities is clouding Washington’s effort to establish peace talks the group.

A delegation of American officials met with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, in June for the first known bilateral talks with the terror group. The move fell in line with the Trump administration’s strategy of beating the Taliban on the battlefield and force them into talks that administration officials say will ultimately be led by the government in Kabul.

Mr. Roggio criticized the development Monday, saying Washington’s decision to hold direct talks with the Taliban — a longtime demand of the group’s leadership — has undermined the legitimacy of the Afghan central government.

But others has cast a more optimistic view of the situation.

David Sedney, who has worked on Afghan issues as a civilian, including multiple years in Kabul and at the Pentagon, since the war began in October 2001, said he believes the chances for peace are the best they’ve been.

“That doesn’t mean they’re great,” Mr. Sedney told The Associated Press. “It just means they’re better.”
Among the meaningful factors at play, he said, is Mr. Trump’s announcement a year ago that the U.S. would no longer set time limits on its military support for Afghanistan.

This introduced an element of uncertainty for the Taliban, Mr. Sedney said. On the other hand, the current U.S. push to draw Taliban leaders into peace negotiations with Kabul must succeed soon, he added, or risk following the failed path of previous efforts.

Huge blast leaves at least 95 dead and 158 wounded after bomb hidden in ambulance explodes in Kabul

by Toby Meyjes
January 27, 2018

WARNING - DISTRESSING CONTENT: The powerful blast occurred in Kabul, Afghanistan, near the city's police headquarters.

A powerful bomb blast has left at least 95 dead and 158 injured after an ambulance packed with explosives detonated near a police station.

The blast at shortly before 1pm occurred in Kabul. Afghanistan, in a crowded area that contains many administrative buildings including police headquarters.

The Public Health Ministry has confirmed that at least 95 people were killed and 158 wounded following the terror attack.

The Talbian has claimed responsibility for the blast, reports 1 TV .

According to reports, a driver in an ambulance passed through a checkpoint after he told police he was carrying a patient.

But police grew suspicious at a second checkpoint, where the bomb exploded.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast a week after it claimed an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in which more than 20 people were killed.

"It is a massacre," said Dejan Panic, coordinator in Afghanistan for the Italian aid group Emergency, which runs a nearby trauma hospital.

In a message on Twitter, the group said more than 50 wounded had been brought in to that hospital alone.

Mirwais Yasini, a member of parliament who was nearby when the explosion occurred, said the ambulance approached the checkpoint, close to an office of the High Peace Council and several foreign embassies, and blew up.

Buildings hundreds of metres (yards) away were shaken by the force of the explosion, which left torn bodies strewn on the street nearby amid rubble and debris.

People helped walking-wounded away as ambulances with sirens wailing inched their way through the traffic-clogged streets of the city centre.

The latest attack will add pressure on President Ashraf Ghani and his U.S. allies, who have expressed growing confidence that a new more aggressive military strategy has succeeded in driving Taliban insurgents back from major provincial centres.

The United States has stepped up its assistance to Afghan security forces and increased its air strikes against the Taliban and other militant groups, aiming to break a stalemate and force the insurgents to the negotiating table.

However, the Taliban have dismissed suggestions that they have been weakened by the new strategy and the latest attacks have demonstrated that their capacity to mount deadly, high-profile attacks remains undiminished.

Sewage tanker bomb kills at least 80, wounds hundreds in Afghan capital

By Mirwais Harooni and Sayed Hassib | KABUL
MAY 31, 2017

A powerful bomb hidden in a sewage tanker exploded in the morning rush hour in the center of the Afghan capital on Wednesday, police said, killing at least 80 people, wounding hundreds and damaging embassy buildings.

The victims appeared mainly to have been Afghan civilians.

The bomb, one of the deadliest in Kabul and coming at the start of the holy month of Ramadan, exploded close to the fortified entrance to the German embassy, wounding some staff, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said. Pictures showed the embassy building with its windows ripped out.

One Afghan security guard was killed and others were likely among the dead, Gabriel said. A spokeswoman for the German foreign ministry said the bomber's target was unknown.

"Such attacks do not change our resolve in continuing to support the Afghan government in the stabilization of the country," Gabriel said.

Basir Mujahid, a spokesman for city police, said the explosives were hidden in a sewage truck. He also suggested that the German embassy might not have been the target of the blast, which sent towering clouds of black smoke into the sky near the presidential palace.

"There are several other important compounds and offices near there too," he told Reuters.

The blast, which shattered windows and blew doors off their hinges in houses hundreds of meters away, was unusually strong.

No group had claimed responsibility by late Wednesday afternoon.

The Taliban, seeking to reimpose Islamic rule after their 2001 ouster by U.S.-led forces, denied responsibility and said they condemned attacks that have no legitimate target and killed civilians.

Islamic State, a smaller militant group in Afghanistan seeking to project its claim to a global Islamic caliphate beyond its Middle East base, has previously claimed responsibility for high-profile attacks in Kabul, including one on a military hospital in March that killed more than 50 people.

The NATO-led Resolute Support (RS) mission in Kabul said Afghan security forces prevented the vehicle carrying the bomb from entering the heavily protected Green Zone that houses many foreign embassies as well as its headquarters, also suggesting it may not have reached its intended target.

A public health official said at least 80 people had been killed and more than 350 wounded.

Germany will cease flights deporting rejected asylum seekers to Afghanistan in the next few days, a German official confirmed. Germany began carrying out group deportations of Afghans in December, seeking to show it is tackling an influx of migrants by getting rid of those who do not qualify as refugees.

The French, Turkish and Chinese embassies were among those damaged, the three countries said, adding there were no immediate signs of injuries among their diplomats. The BBC said one of its drivers, an Afghan, was killed driving journalists to work. Four journalists were wounded and treated in hospital.

Switzerland said the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation had several windows broken but the staff were safe.

Video shot at the scene showed burning debris, crumbled walls and buildings, and destroyed cars, many with dead or injured people inside. Blood streamed down the faces of walking wounded.

At the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital a few blocks away, there were scenes of chaos as ambulances brought in wounded. Frantic relatives scanned casualty lists and questioned hospital staff for news.

"It felt like an earthquake," said 21-year-old Mohammad Hassan, describing the moment the blast struck the bank where he was working. His head wound had been bandaged but blood still soaked his white dress shirt.

Another lightly wounded victim, Nabib Ahmad, 27, said there was widespread destruction and confusion.

"I couldn't think clearly, there was a mess everywhere," he said.

Frenzy erupted out outside the hospital as ambulances and police trucks began bringing in the bodies of those killed. Some bodies were burned or destroyed beyond recognition.

India and Pakistan condemned the blast.

"India stands with Afghanistan in fighting all types of terrorism. Forces supporting terrorism need to be defeated," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet. India said its embassy staff were safe.

Wednesday's attack provided another clear demonstration that Ramadan, which began at the weekend, would provide little respite from the violence across Afghanistan.

Amnesty International demanded an immediate and impartial investigation.

"Today’s tragedy shows that the conflict in Afghanistan is not winding down but dangerously widening, in a way that should alarm the international community," it said in a statement.

The explosion will add pressure to the fragile government of President Ashraf Ghani, which has faced mounting discontent over its inability to control the insurgency and provide security for Afghan citizens.

The Taliban have been stepping up their push to defeat the U.S.-backed government. Since most international troops withdrew at the end of 2014, the Taliban have gained ground and now control or contest about 40 percent of the country, according to U.S. estimates, though Ghani's government holds all provincial centres.

U.S. President Donald Trump is due to decide soon on a recommendation to send 3,000 to 5,000 more troops to bolster the small NATO training force and U.S. counter-terrorism mission now totaling just over 10,000.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, told a congressional hearing this year that he needed several thousand more troops to help Afghan forces break a "stalemate" with the Taliban.

At least 30 killed in attack on military hospital

By Ehsan Popalzai and Ralph Ellis, CNN

Wed March 8, 2017

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN)Attackers dressed in medical uniforms stormed a military hospital in the heart of the Afghan capital of Kabul on Wednesday, killing more than 30 people and wounding at least 50, said Dawlat Waziri, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

A suicide bomber set off an explosion at the south gate to the Sardar Mohammed Daud Khan hospital before three gunmen entered the building and made their way to the second and third floors, said Sediq Sediqqi, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman.

The gunmen killed and wounded doctors and hospital employees and injured Afghan soldiers, according to an Afghan Defense Ministry statement.

Afghan security forces and police mounted a six-hour siege at the hospital, which is the biggest and best-equipped facility in the country. They killed the attackers around 3:30 p.m. local time.

The facility, known locally as the "400 bed" hospital, is located only a few hundred meters from the US embassy and the diplomatic quarter of Kabul. Other recent attacks in Kabul have targeted important public buildings, such as the nearby Afghan Supreme Court and national parliament.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mojahid, denied responsibility for the attack in a tweet, saying: "Today's attack on hospital in Kabul has nothing to do with the Mujahidin of Islamic Emirate," using the group's formal name.

In the vacuum of a Taliban claim, the ISIS-affiliated news agency Amaq said ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. Although the group usually attacks sectarian targets, it is credible that it planned and carried out the attack. CNN has not independently verified the claim.

This is not the first attack at the hospital named after Afghanistan's first president. In May 2011, suicide bombers got inside, and killed six people and injured 26 others. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

Witnesses told CNN an explosion was first heard around at 9 a.m. local time (11.30 p.m. Tuesday ET).

Afghan National Police special forces rushed in to counter the attack. Video showed heavily armed soldiers and armored vehicles surrounding the hospital and a helicopter landing on its roof.

"At first there was a firing followed by a huge blast," an employee at a nearby hospital said.

An employee at an Italian restaurant nearby said she heard one explosion around 9 a.m., then heard gunfire about 25 minutes later.

The attackers were not immediately killed because security forces were busy evacuating patients, the defense ministry statement said.

The injured were taken to the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital, said Smael Kawosi, media relation officer for the Ministry of Health.

Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah condemned the attack.

"I condemn the terrorist attacked on hospital in Kabul," he tweeted. "While we work for peace, we'll avenge the blood of our people."

The US Embassy in Kabul said, "Targeting a medical facility providing care for the brave Afghans working to protect their fellow citizens has no possible justification in any religion or creed."

NATO forces in Afghanistan indicated that the organization was standing by to assist Afghan security forces, according to tweets from Operation Resolute Support.

"Once again insurgents show complete disrespect for humanity by attacking a hospital. We stand with Afghan people against terrorism."

The NATO tweets condemned the attack, using an older name for the hospital.

US Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of Resolute Support and US Forces in Afghanistan, said the attack "is an unspeakable crime." He praised Afghan security forces for the swift response, saying the forces deserve "our highest praise and respect."

Militants have long targeted loosely guarded targets in Kabul and across Afghanistan. Last month, at least 20 people died after a suicide blast outside Afghanistan's Supreme Court in Kabul, police and other officials told CNN.

A suicide bomber detonated his explosives in a parking lot near the court in the Afghan capital, according to Basir Mojahid, spokesman for Kabul's chief of police.

Earlier in the year, a spate of attacks -- two suicide bombings near the Afghan Parliament in Kabul, an explosion at a Kandahar province government compound and a suicide bombing in Helmand province -- left dozens of people dead and wounded.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Kabul attacks, which killed at least 36 people and injured 76 others in the capital.

Last summer, seven students, three police officers and two security guards were killed in the attack on the American University of Afghanistan campus in the capital.

Police searched the university's grounds and killed two attackers who stormed the campus with guns and explosives, Fraidoon Obaidi, chief of Kabul police's criminal investigation department, said. The gunmen detonated explosives and fired guns, witnesses said, causing some students and faculty to flee.

Taliban 'behead' woman

KABUL: A 30 year old woman was beheaded on Monday evening in Sar-e-Pul province of Afghanistan by a group of armed men, local officials said today.

The Nation
January 9, 2017

Provincial Governor spokesman Zabiullah Amani, confirmed the incident and said that the armed men were linked with Taliban. The incident took place in the remote village of Latti in Sar-e-Pul.

Amani said that the women was beheaded because she visited the city alone without her husband. Amani said that the victim’s husband is in Iran and they don’t have children.

Sar-e-Pul women's affairs head Nasima Arezo, also confirmed the incident. The village is under Taliban control and so far no one has been arrested.

However the Taliban rejected any involvement.

Islamic State claims responsibility for Kabul attack, 80 dead


July 23, 2016

Twin explosions tore through a demonstration by members of Afghanistan's mainly Shi'ite Hazara minority in Kabul on Saturday, killing at least 80 people and wounding more than 230 in a suicide attack claimed by Islamic State.

Graphic television footage from the site of the attack showed many dead bodies lying on the bloodied road, close to where thousands of Hazara had been demonstrating against the route of a planned multi-million-dollar power line.

"Two fighters from Islamic State detonated explosive belts at a gathering of Shi'ites in the city of Kabul in Afghanistan," said a brief statement on the group's Amaq news agency.

If confirmed as the work of Islamic State, the attack, among the most deadly since the U.S.-led campaign to oust the Taliban in 2001, would represent a major escalation for a group hitherto largely confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar.

The explicit reference to the Hazara's Shi'ite religious affiliation also marked a menacing departure for Afghanistan, where the bloody sectarian rivalry between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims typical of Iraq has been relatively rare, despite decades of war. Islamic State is an ultra hardline Sunni group.

Officials in Afghanistan's main intelligence agency, the National Directorate for Security (NDS), said the attack was planned by an individual named Abu Ali, an Islamic State militant they said was based in Achin district in Nangarhar.

They said three bombers were involved in the attack.

The Persian-speaking Hazara, estimated to make up about 9 percent of the population, are Afghanistan's third-largest minority but they have long suffered discrimination, and thousands were killed during the period of Taliban rule.

"We were holding a peaceful demonstration when I heard a bang and then everyone was escaping and yelling," said Sabira Jan, a protester who witnessed the attack and saw bloodied bodies strewn across the ground. "There was no one to help."

The Taliban, a fierce, albeit Sunni enemy of Islamic State, denied any involvement and said in a statement posted on its website that the attack was "a plot to ignite civil war".

The attack succeeded despite tight security which saw much of Kabul city center sealed off before the demonstration, with stacks of shipping containers and other obstacles and helicopters patrolling overhead.

An Interior Ministry statement said 80 people had been killed and 231 wounded, with local hospitals straining to cope with those being brought in.

The worst previous attack against the Hazara was in December 2011, when more than 55 people were killed in Kabul during the Shi'ite festival of Ashura. That attack was claimed by a Pakistani Sunni militant group called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.


President Ashraf Ghani declared a national day of mourning and vowed revenge, while the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, condemned the attack as a war crime.

The United States and Russia condemned the attack and renewed pledges of security assistance to Kabul.

"We remain committed to work jointly with the Afghan security forces and countries in the region to confront the forces that threaten Afghanistan’s security, stability, and prosperity," the White House said in a statement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his "readiness to continue the most active cooperation with ... Afghanistan in fighting all forms of terrorism", Russian news agencies quoted a Kremlin statement as saying.

Saturday's demonstrators had been demanding that a 500 kV transmission line from Turkmenistan to Kabul be re-routed through two provinces with large Hazara populations, saying they feared being shut out of the project.

The government said the project guaranteed ample power to the provinces, Bamyan and Wardak, which lie west of Kabul, and that altering the planned route would delay it by years and cost millions of dollars. But the resentment felt by many Hazaras runs deeper than simple questions of energy supply.

In November, thousands of Hazara marched through Kabul to protest at government inaction after seven members of their community were beheaded by Islamist militants, and several protesters tried to force their way into the presidential palace.

The protests by a group whose leaders include members of the national unity government have put pressure on Ghani, who has faced growing opposition from both inside and outside the government.

They also risk exacerbating ethnic tensions with other groups and provinces the government says would have to wait up to three years for power if the route were changed.

The transmission line, intended to provide secure electricity to 10 provinces, is part of the so-called TUTAP project backed by the Asia Development Bank, linking energy-rich states of Central Asia with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Taliban storms into northern Afghan city in major blow for security forces

By Tim Craig and Sayed Salahuddin
September 28, 2015
The Washington Post

KABUL — Taliban insurgents fought their way into a major city in northern Afghanistan on Monday, driving back stunned security forces in a multi-pronged attack that also sent Afghan officials and U.N. personnel fleeing for safety.

The fall of Kunduz would be a huge blow to the Western-backed government in Kabul and would give Taliban insurgents a critical base of operations beyond their traditional strongholds in Afghanistan’s south. Afghan government leaders and the U.S.-led coalition here view the battle for Kunduz as a key test of the Afghan security forces in their continuing fight with the Taliban.

For the moment, Afghan officials acknowledged, much of the city is in Taliban hands, and Afghan authorities were left struggling over how to turn the tide, although they insisted that they would prevail once they mount a counterattack.

The assault began shortly before dawn when hundreds of Taliban fighters advanced into the city from four directions. Although Afghan security units were backed by helicopter gunships, the Taliban took over a 200-bed hospital and overran the local prison, freeing hundreds of prisoners. From there, they seized the office of the governor, who was not in the city at the time.

The militant group posted triumphant pictures to Twitter showing Taliban fighters hoisting their white-and-black flag throughout the city.

Kunduz, a hub for the country’s once relatively stable grain region about 150 miles north of Kabul, would hand the Taliban one of the linchpins of Afghanistan’s economy. It was the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan in November 2001, when the group’s grip on the country collapsed in the face of opposition fighters and U.S. airstrikes.

If Taliban fighters succeed in keeping control of Kunduz, it would be the first time in 14 years that they have seized and held a city.

On a broader level, the attack displays the Taliban’s battlefield power and coordination even as the radical Islamist insurgency faces internal discord following the acknowledgment in the summer of the death of its longtime leader, Mohammad Omar.

The U.S. military still has 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, but it was unclear Monday whether any American personnel were stationed near the fighting in Kunduz.

Army Col. Brian Tribus, a military spokesman, said that the American-organized coalition has not conducted any recent airstrikes in Kunduz but that it was providing intelligence and surveillance support to the Afghan army. Coalition forces “train, advise and assist” the Afghan military, but Tribus declined to discuss specifics of the mission, citing concerns about operational security.

Afghan security officials said that government forces withdrew Monday in an attempt to avoid civilian casualties and that they are planning a counteroffensive to regain Kunduz — a city that has already been the target of Taliban attacks twice this year.

“We are prepared, and measures have been taken to recapture the city,” the deputy interior minister, Ayoub Salangi, told reporters.

In Washington, a U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said officials at the Pentagon believe that, based on previous Taliban assaults on population centers, Afghan ­forces will probably be able to prevail.

The United States can conduct airstrikes only if Afghan forces are judged to be “in extremis,” or facing a critical threat from militant forces, the defense official said, adding: “I wouldn’t rule out there being some sort of extremis situation.”

Taliban fighters have taken all the major government buildings in Kunduz, including the police and intelligence headquarters, and set fire to some of them, said Amruddin Wali, a member of the provincial council.

“This will have a lot of impact on morale on all sides,” said Atiqullah Amarkhail, a retired Afghan general and military analyst. “Government forces may lose morale, while opposition forces’ morale will be boosted as they can now say they can capture cities.”

But he noted that Taliban gains do not necessarily foreshadow “the fall of the entire north or the fall of the government.”

Over the summer, the Taliban was able to steadily expand its reach across the country. Most major population centers, including Kabul, remain firmly under the control of government forces but still vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Across large swaths of rural Afghanistan, however, the Taliban has also been seizing strategic targets that form the backbone of the Afghan economy.

Hafizullah Benish, the agriculture director for Badghis province, said in an interview over this past weekend that the Taliban now controls much of Afghanistan’s $30­ million pistachio crop in the northwestern part of the country.

Taliban gains in Helmand province in the south forced the evacuation of British engineers from a hydropower project this month, the Guardian newspaper reported.

Dominic Medley, spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said Monday that all U.N. staffers were evacuated from the Kunduz area as security deteriorated.

The Taliban fighters were outside Kunduz all summer. In June, the Taliban briefly gained control of two of the city’s six districts. Within days, however, Afghan security officials had driven them out again.

Monday’s attack may have been timed to coincide with the first anniversary of Afghanistan’s new national unity government.

On Sept. 29, 2014, after a months-long stalemate over election results, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in to replace former president Hamid Karzai. The second-place finisher in that election, Abdullah Abdullah, was named to a new position of chief executive officer.

Ghani and Abdullah have struggled to oversee an Afghan military that appeared surprised by the ferocity of Taliban attacks this summer.

This year’s fighting season was marked by clashes not only in historical Taliban strongholds in the southern part of the country but also in northern areas that had previously been relatively secure.

The insurgency has been joined by thousands of fighters who have been driven from neighboring Pakistan because of the ongoing Pakistani military operation in that country’s tribal belt.

But in the summer, Ghani’s government and Army Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of the U.S.-led coalition, stressed that Afghan forces were well prepared to prevent significant Taliban gains on population centers.

Faisal Sami, an Afghan senator from Kunduz, said he and other local officials had grown increasingly worried in recent months that Ghani’s government did not have a serious plan for keeping the city safe.
“This is a major embarrassment to this government,” Sami said.

In recent weeks, there were also growing calls for Ghani to replace the governor of Kunduz province, Omar Safi, who was away on Monday.

“The main reason for the deterioration of the security situation and the Taliban’s gains is bad management of the affairs by the governor and lack of attention from the central government,” said Mohammad Yousuf Ayoubi, the chief of Kunduz’s provincial council.

51 dead, hundreds wounded in lethal wave of Kabul bombings

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The explosions on Friday, which devastated buildings and overwhelmed hospitals with hundreds of casualties, were the first major militant assaults on Kabul since the announcement of Taliban leader Mullah Omar`s death.

The attacks underscored the volatile security situation in Afghanistan amid a faltering peace process and the potency of the Taliban insurgency despite being riven by growing internal divisions.

In the first attack, a powerful truck bomb tore through the centre of Kabul just after midnight on Friday, killing 15 civilians and wounding 240 others.

Less than 24 hours later, 27 cadets and civilians were killed when a suicide bomber dressed in police uniform blew himself up at the entrance of Kabul Police Academy.

Explosions and gunfire also erupted when Camp Integrity, a US special forces base in Kabul, came under attack late Friday, killing nine people, including a NATO service member.

The Taliban distanced themselves from the truck bombing which struck near a Kabul military base -- as they usually do in attacks that result in mass civilian casualties.

But they claimed responsibility for both other attacks, which marked a serious breach of security at a premier training institute for Afghan forces and a foreign coalition facility.

The carnage highlighted the risk of a bloodier insurgency under a new Taliban leadership as Afghan forces face their first summer fighting season without full NATO support.Friday`s bombings were the first major attacks since Mullah Akhtar Mansour was named as the new Taliban chief last week in an acrimonious power transition after the insurgents confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar.

Experts say the escalating violence demonstrates Mullah Mansour`s attempt to boost his image among Taliban cadres and drive attention away from internal rifts over his leadership.

"The new wave of attacks is a tactic by the Taliban`s new leadership to show they are capable, potent and operational," said security analyst Abdul Hadi Khaled.

"The demise of Mullah Omar divided the movement and affected the morale of their ground fighters. Hitting Kabul with a wave of powerful attacks is a way of showcasing their strength."

Mansour is seen as a pragmatist and a proponent of peace talks, but he also has powerful rivals within the Taliban who are strongly opposed to negotiations with the Afghan government.

After 13 years of war US-led NATO forces ended their combat mission in Afghanistan in December, leaving behind a 13,000-strong residual force for training and counter-terrorism operations.

Friday`s attacks marked Kabul`s deadliest day since the end of that mission.

People wounded in the attacks were pouring into city hospitals, officials said, with reports emerging of blood shortages and urgent appeals for donors circulating on social media.

In the deadliest attack, a suicide attacker managed to place himself in a queue as police trainees were waiting to be searched before entering the academy, killing 27, two security officials told AFP.

Anguished relatives of cadets gathered near the academy, which was cordoned off by heavily armed security officials as ambulances with wailing sirens rushed to the scene.

Four militants including a suicide car bomber also launched an attack on Camp Integrity, triggering explosions and an hours-long firefight, with military jets heard flying over the centre of Kabul.

NATO did not reveal the nationalities of the victims, but a local security firm contracted to guard the camp said eight were Afghans.

Earlier Friday, a truck bomb detonated near an army base in the neighbourhood of Shah Shaheed, rattling homes across the city, ripping off the facades of buildings and leaving scattered piles of rubble.

That attack left 15 dead and 240 wounded, deputy presidential spokesman Sayed Zafar Hashemi said.


Afghan bombers target markets, hospital, 38 dead

By Hamid Shalizi and Rob Taylor
KABUL | Tue Aug 14, 2012

(Reuters) - Islamist suicide bombers targeted markets crowded with Ramadan shoppers and a major provincial hospital in Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing at least 38 people and wounding close to 100.

The bloodshed underscored a surge in fighting ahead of a withdrawal by most Western combat troops and handover to Afghan forces winding up in 2014. NATO-led forces have been struggling to eliminate Taliban insurgent bastions, especially in the east.

Suicide bombings in markets in the southwest province of Nimroz killed at least 28 people - 18 of them civilians and three policemen - and wounded over 70, police said, in the deadliest day of violence in the normally peaceful region since 2001.

Women and children and at least three members of the Afghan security forces were among the dead in Zaranj, the capital of the largely rural province, which lies on Afghanistan's western border with Iran.

Another bomber blew himself up in front of Zaranj hospital, while two others detonated explosive vests in other areas of the city, killing mostly civilians, President Hamid Karzai's office said in a statement.

The toll in Zaranj was expected to rise, provincial governor Abdul Karim Barahawi said. "The attackers blew themselves up in crowded markets to target civilians. There was no government installation nearby," Barahawi said.

Another 10 civilians were killed and 28 injured when a bomb went off in a bazaar in Dashte Archi district in the northern province of Kunduz, district Governor Sheikh Sadruddin said.

All the outdoor markets attacked by the bombers had been packed with people buying food and supplies to end their daily Ramadan fast, local police said.

An Afghan policeman killed 11 colleagues in Nimroz province on Saturday, firing on them at a checkpoint in Dilaram district, adding to a recent spate of such killings that have alarmed NATO commanders and left 34 foreign soldiers dead.

Afghanistan's Interior Ministry this week that the Taliban had not let up on attacks during Ramadan and security forces had stepped up security ahead of the Eid al-Fitr festival ending Islam's holiest month.

Despite a decline in civilian casualties in the first half of this year compared to 2011, the United Nations last week said Afghan civilians were still bearing the brunt of fighting between insurgents and the foreign-Afghan coalition.

A spokesman for NATO-led forces said he had no details on Tuesday's attacks. A member of parliament, Sharifa Hamidi, told Afghanistan's Tolo Television that the attacks were "brutal (and) cannot be justified".

A half-yearly report by the United Nations last week said 1,145 civilians have been killed between January 1 and June 30 this year as well as 1,954 wounded, representing a 15 percent decline on last year due to a severe winter that hampered fighting.

Homemade bombs and suicide attacks remain the biggest killers of Afghan civilians and Afghan and foreign troops.

Death toll from Afghan holy day bombs reaches 80
(AFP) – December 11, 11

KABUL — Afghanistan said Sunday the death toll from bombings targeting the Shiite Muslim holy day of Ashura, which raised fears the nation could face an eruption of sectarian violence, has climbed to 80.

The coordinated attacks struck in Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Tuesday as Shiites gathered to mark the holiest day in their calendar.

"The Ashura incident happened at a time that the people of Afghanistan were happy after a successful Bonn conference," Karzai said during a speech in the capital, referring to the international meeting in Germany on his country's future.

"Unfortunately the blast in Ashura martyred 80 people. The death toll has reached 80... It was either hitting our happiness or a wider policy is involved behind it."

The twin blasts have prompted fears that Afghanistan could see the sort of sectarian violence that has pitched Shiite against Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Pakistan.

The Afghan state is already fragile, with different ethnic groups including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks living together, sometimes uneasily, under one flag as a decade-long war rumbles on with no end in sight.

But US ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker told reporters Saturday he did not expect the attacks to spark a wave of sectarian violence in the country and Shiite leaders had called for calm.

Shiites make up roughly 20 percent of the population.

Karzai on Wednesday blamed Pakistani extremists for the unprecedented attack in Kabul, demanding justice from the government in Islamabad.

By pointing the finger at the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi militant group, Karzai threatened to ratchet up tensions with neighbouring Pakistan, which responded by calling for an end to the "blame game".

The group's purported claim of responsibility for the attack has not been confirmed independently.

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are tense, and frequently spiral into mutual accusations over the violence plaguing both their countries.

Meanwhile the Taliban issued a fresh statement Sunday renewing their condemnation of the "inexplicable bombings" which they described as a "pre-planned plot of the defeated enemy".

"Nobody should be allowed to reach their sinister goals by creating rifts and divisions amongst our united people on the basis of religion, race, language or region," the statement said.

Initial death tolls were put at 55 in Kabul and another four in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Afghan ex-president felled by violence as he pushed for peace
sonia verma

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Sep. 20, 2011

The day before he was killed in his home by a visitor with explosives hidden in his turban, Burhanuddin Rabbani was in Tehran, urging the world’s top Islamic scholars to take a stand against suicide bombing.

Mr. Rabbani implored the gathering of 700 Islamists – including envoys from Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad – to stop killing their fellow Muslims because it was an insult to their religion.

“Especially in our country, there are a number of individuals who kill Muslims in the name of Muslims. We should take a clear stand against this new phenomenon when the killing of Muslims is seen as something allowable,” said Mr. Rabbani, a former jihadist and Afghan president who, for the past year, had sought in vain to negotiate with insurgents as head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council.

Mr. Rabbani’s fears proved prophetic. The next day he became the victim of the violence he deplored when a suicide bomber, brought to his home by Rahmatullah Wahidyar, a former minister of the Taliban government, embraced him before blowing himself up. The blast killed Mr. Rabbani, four of his guards and another peace adviser.

The brutal assassination has sent fresh shock waves across Afghanistan just over a week after insurgents launched a brazen attack on the United States Embassy compound in Kabul.

In some ways, however, the killing of Mr. Rabbani was felt more profoundly, because it violated pashtunwali, the unwritten code of conduct that governs so many aspects Afghan life.

This time, the killers weren’t targeting symbols of Western power, nor were they hunting a corrupt Afghan politician. Mr. Rabbani, about 70 years old, was an Islamic scholar, a devout Muslim who was killed by a guest he had welcomed in good faith inside his home.

“I cannot believe his killers were Afghan,” said Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan lawmaker whose husband happened to be on the same plane as Mr. Rabbani, when he flew from Dubai to Kabul the day he was killed.

“In our culture when someone comes to your home – even if they are the enemy – you are both safe,” she said, sobbing. “These killers don’t believe in Afghanistan. No, they are sick.”

While Mr. Rabbani’s assassination is dramatic because of his prominence, it underscores a broader reality in Afghanistan, where 80 per cent of civilian deaths are caused by insurgent attacks; “Muslims killing Muslims,” as Mr. Rabbani had put it.

It is also evidence of an upsurge of fighting, which is happening as 100,000 U.S. troops start to withdraw from the country, where they waged an gruelling 10-year long war. The prospect of Western forces leaving by the end of 2014 has stoked fears among Afghans of a new civil war.

Against that backdrop, militants have become emboldened, increasingly targeting Kabul with high-profile attacks that seem to underscore the difficulties of achieving the kind of negotiated settlement with the Taliban that Mr. Rabbani sought through the High Peace Council – an effort that was admittedly failing.

“He was honestly ready to resign, he was so frustrated. He said the Taliban are not ready for peace,” noted Waheed Mozdah, an independent analyst in Kabul and former member of the Taliban government.

“The Taliban never talked to this Council. They dismissed it as an American-made jirga,” he added, using a Pashtun word for council.

The Haqqani network, which operates from a sanctuary in Pakistan, was blamed for the assault on the embassy compound, as American and Afghan officials sought to depict the criminal network and broader Taliban movement as distinct entities.

However, analysts say such divisions are overstated; that the hardline Haqqanis are not a breakaway movement, but rather, are loyal to Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s spiritual leader.

The attack on Mr. Rabbani seemed unrelated to the Haqqanis. Mr. Wahidyar, the former Taliban minister who escorted the suicide bomber, had fought alongside Mr. Rabbani against the Soviets and was not a known associate of the family.

Neither he, nor his associates were searched when they entered Mr. Rabbani’s home. It was a customary gesture of trust.

Afghan attack left mass of bodies at luxury hotel

June 29, 2011 

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Hotel guest Abdul Zahir Faizada watched as a uniformed gunmen shoved a man to the ground and shot him to death at point-blank range. Suddenly, gunfire erupted and another assailant blew himself up. 

By the time the siege of the luxury Inter-Continental Hotel ended Wednesday, 20 people lay dead — including nine attackers, all of whom wore suicide-bomber vests — and one of Kabul's premier landmarks was left a grisly scene of bodies, shrapnel and shattered glass. 

It was one of the biggest and most complex attacks ever orchestrated in the Afghan capital and appeared designed to show that the insurgents are capable of striking even in the center of power at a time when U.S. officials are speaking of progress in the nearly 10-year war. 

The brazen attack by militants with explosives, anti-aircraft weapons, guns and grenade launchers dampened hopes that a peace settlement can be reached with the Taliban and raised doubt that Afghan security forces are ready to take the lead from foreign forces in the nearly decade-long war. 

Faizada, the leader of the local council in Herat province who was in Kabul to attend a conference on that very issue, had just finished dinner at the hotel restaurant and was walking to his room on the second floor around 10 p.m. Tuesday when the militants struck. He said he saw five or six people in security-type uniforms clashing with the hotel staff and guards.

"Suddenly I saw this guy in a uniform pushing a man to the ground. He shot him dead," Faizada said. 

For the rest of the night, Faizada and the mayor of Herat stayed locked in their darkened hotel room, whispering into cell phones with friends back in Herat who were giving them news updates of what was happening during the standoff. 

The attack came just a week after President Barack Obama said he would start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan next month. The suicide bombers struck on the eve of a two-day conference on transferring the responsibility for security across the nation to Afghan forces between now and the end of 2014. 

The U.S.-led military coalition, Afghan government and Ashraf Ghani, chairman of the transition commission, all vowed that the Afghan army and police would be ready in time.

"Such incidents will not stop us for transitioning security of our country," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said. 

A man named Jawid, who was staying at the hotel when the attack occurred, isn't convinced the Afghan forces will ever be ready. 

"Where is the security in this country?" asked Jawid, who uses only one name. "Where is the security in this hotel?" 

Jawid escaped by jumping out the window of his room on the first floor of the Inter-Continental, which sits on a hilltop overlooking the capital. 

When the siege was over just after dawn Wednesday, 11 civilians were dead, including a judge from Logar province's court of appeals, five hotel workers and three Afghan policemen, according to Afghan intelligence officials. The Interior Ministry said a Spanish citizen was among the dead. The ministry said 18 people were wounded in the attack — 13 civilians and five policemen. 

The State Department said three private U.S. citizens were at the hotel when it was attacked. Consular officers from the embassy were in touch directly with two of them who were unharmed and with the family of the third who "is getting medical care," spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington. The extent of the injuries to the third American were not clear, he said. 

An Afghan government official who toured the six-story hotel after the siege gave this account of the assault: The attackers entered the hotel compound from an area behind the kitchen and ballroom, which is in a separate building connected by a corridor to the main hotel. They moved down a hill covered with heavy vegetation to the front of the ballroom, where they killed two hotel guards. One attacker was slain. 

Some of the attackers took the corridor into the main hotel building where at least four climbed stairs to the roof to exchange fire with Afghan security forces, the official said. Other attackers went to the second and third floors and started knocking on hotel room doors, but the guests had been warned to stay locked in their rooms. 

Since authorities had cut off power to the hotel, militants used heavy flashlights to find their way. Night-vision goggles gave Afghan security forces the advantage as they hunted down the militants. 

Three suicide bombers died on the roof — either by detonating their explosives-laden vests or from missiles fired by NATO helicopters that were called in to assist the Afghan forces. Two others blew themselves up on the second and fifth floors, the official said. 

"I was not able to even look into a room where they exploded themselves. The whole room was full of their body parts," said Matiullah, an Afghan policemen stationed at the hotel who suspects the militants slipped through 100-yard (100-meter) gaps between checkpoints surrounding the hotel.

Four other attackers — their bodies intact — were found at different places in the hotel, including the rooftop. 

Latifullah Mashal, the spokesman for the Afghan intelligence service, said the Afghan security forces — despite an assist from NATO advisers and three Black Hawk helicopters — won the battle against the militants in the dark halls. 

"The enemy failed to carry out their plan," he said. "They were all killed and there was no major cost to civilian life. We are sorry for the loss of life, but we say to them: We Afghans have the ability to stop terrorist attacks, and we will." 

He suggested the attackers might have stored weapons in the area and then posed as hotel employees or workers at a construction site nearby. 

"So far, we don't know how they infiltrated," he said. "We do have a few clues." 

The Taliban claimed victory and boasted an inflated death toll: 50 foreigners, foreign and Afghan advisers and high-ranking officials. 

"One of our brave fighters carried out a suicide attack at the eastern entrance to the hotel and then we were all able to get in," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement recounting the operation. 

He said one fighter from Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan provided cellphone updates of the siege. "We are all inside the building and have already launched our attack with light and heavy weapons," Mujahid said the caller reported. "Until 4 a.m., they opened as many hotel rooms as they could, and when they were confident that foreigners were in the room, they opened fire and killed them. … The resistance continued until 8 a.m." 

Afghan police were the first to respond to the attack, prompting firefights that resounded across the capital. A few hours later, an Afghan National Army commando unit arrived to help. Associated Press reporters at the scene heard shooting from rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft weapons and machine guns through the morning. Flares and tracer rounds streaked across the sky. 

After hours of fighting, three NATO helicopters circled, clockwise, over the hotel — with at least two firing missiles at the rooftop. U.S. Army Maj. Jason Waggoner, a spokesman for the coalition, said the helicopters killed three gunmen, and Afghan security forces clearing the hotel engaged the insurgents as they worked their way up to the roof.

Missile fire from the helicopters and four loud explosions seemed to mark the end of the standoff. The lights in the hotel were turned back on. Ambulances started removing bodies from the scene. 

But later in the morning, Kabul Police Chief Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi said the last of the bombers, who had been injured and hiding in a room, blew himself up — the finale to the deadly drama in the Afghan capital. 

The Inter-Continental — known widely as the "Inter-Con" — opened in the late 1960s, and was the nation's first international luxury hotel. It has at least 200 rooms and was once part of an international chain. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, however, the hotel was left to fend for itself.

Attacks in Kabul have been relatively rare, although violence has increased since the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid in Pakistan and the start of the Taliban's annual spring offensive. 

On June 18, insurgents wearing Afghan army uniforms stormed a police station near the presidential palace and opened fire on officers, killing nine.

In late May, a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan police uniform infiltrated the main military hospital, killing six medical students. A month before that, a suicide attacker in an army uniform sneaked past security at the Defense Ministry, killing three people.


In Afghanistan, more women are driving 

As more Afghan women obtain driver's licenses, they continue to face resistance from their male-dominated Muslim society. 

By Mark Magnier
Los Angeles Times
October 10, 2009

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan

Karima Yousafzai jumps behind the wheel of her 1994 Toyota Corolla and heads into traffic, deftly negotiating around wannabe motocross champions, oblivious pushcart peddlers, a roadside herd of sheep and several contenders for the crazy-driver-of-the-year award. She takes little notice of the looks directed her way.

"I've stopped caring about the stares men give you," the 43-year-old university professor says. "I just ignore them."

A female driver in Afghanistan is something of a rare bird.

In the first six months of the fiscal year that began April 1, the number of driving permits issued to women in the Kabul area was up fourfold. That sounds great until you consider that officials issued just 180 licenses to women in the last 18 months, compared with 27,985 for men.

Men own the roads of Afghanistan, and many of them want it to stay that way. They say it is un-Islamic and culturally offensive for women to get behind the wheel.

Yousafzai, who teaches the Koran for a living, disagrees. The holy book makes no mention of internal combustion engines, automatic transmissions or driving restrictions on women, she says.

"When men say women aren't capable of driving, my response is, 'I'll challenge you any time,' " says Yousafzai, wearing a head scarf and dark glasses.

Afghanistan, a male-dominated Muslim society, has often discouraged women from participating in public life. That includes driving, especially from 1996 to 2001, when the fundamentalist Taliban government all but outlawed it. It is "against Afghan traditions and has a negative impact on the environment," the Taliban declared in May 2001.

After the Taliban was ousted at the end of that year, President Hamid Karzai pledged to respect women's rights. There was an initial jump in the number of female drivers, but tradition dies hard, and Karzai's promise has faltered.

Men commonly contend that women shouldn't be subjected to the unpredictable Afghan traffic and that their security could be compromised, given all the violence.

"Imagine if a woman had an accident," says Abdul Habib, a 20-year-old student, strolling with two male friends. "Hundreds of men would gather around and curse at her. Then I'm sure she would cry.

"After that she'd probably call her brother or husband for help," he adds, to the amusement of his friends.

Freshta Nahad, 21, a Kabul University economics student, sees little humor in such jibes. "If men obeyed the law," she says, "we wouldn't have so many problems."

"Security's a problem all over Afghanistan," says Fatima Maisjadi, 17, a carpet weaver who has driven a few times off-road with her family. "Why blame it on women?"

At the Mamozai Driving Academy in the basement of a Kabul shopping center, founder and instructor Summer Gul Khan runs students through a tutorial in a grubby room with road sign posters and disemboweled car parts.

"Carburetor, drive shaft, engine block," says the instructor, tapping each component with a stick.

Mamozai was the country's first private school to offer driving classes to women, nearly a decade ago. During its first two years, under Taliban rule, there were just two female students. Both worked for charity organizations and would remove their burkas while in the classroom, then dive back under the all-encompassing garment before driving, peering through the small eye-slit to see the road.

Now 20% of his several thousand students each year are women, Khan says, although few of them drive regularly after getting their licenses.

"Their families aren't comfortable letting them," he says. "Maybe they'll only do it in emergencies, or for short trips."

Khan, who charges $70 for the course, thinks Afghan women and men are equally suited to driving. The problem is that society doesn't offer women much encouragement or opportunity to practice, so they often lack confidence. Many of the men who bad-mouth them are illiterate and feel threatened by women's (slowly) rising status, fearing that they will take away their driving jobs one day, he says.

Policeman Mohammad Usman Nawabi, 53, says women are better at driving than men because they drive defensively.

"Some of these guys seem to think they're doing loop-the-loops in an airplane," he says.

During Soviet occupation, women were encouraged to drive, at least in Kabul, the capital. Safer Ali, 70, a snack cart owner, says that in subsequent years, the main cities filled up with conservative migrants from the countryside who bridled at even limited freedoms for women.

Zubaida Akbar, 19, a student and government employee, has been driving for less than a month. She doesn't have a license. "Getting a license isn't easy," she says. "You either have to know someone or pay money."

She started driving anyway, she says, because it was such a hassle to have a male relative drive her every evening to her visual arts classes.

"These roads are terrible," she notes, negotiating a 5-inch pothole.

"As you can see, I'm still learning to park," she says as a three-point turn morphs into at least a five-point.

She'd learn a lot more quickly if male drivers would stop doing stupid things that tear at her confidence, she says. Many Afghans are afflicted with road rage these days, which mirrors the stress and violence in their everyday lives.

When they see her at the wheel, some men race past her, then slam on their brakes in some version of "chicken."

"Sometimes I give them the finger," she says, a gesture she learned from foreign friends. "Of course, I should just try and ignore them, but we're all human."

Akbar says she nonetheless worries that if she gets into an accident, or if a soldier or policeman stops her on a lonely road and sexually harasses her, she'll be blamed.

"They automatically say it's the woman's fault, even when it's not," she says, heading around a traffic circle twice after getting some bad directions from her cousin. "Women here are defined by men. We don't even know who we are sometimes because they make all the decisions for us."

At the same time, the independence and self-esteem that come with driving are mostly worth the aggravation, women say.

"It's made me so proud," says Yousafzai, who two years ago had long arguments with her husband and father before they relented and allowed her to drive. "I was over-the-moon happy when I got my license, and I still am now."

2 Afghans face death over translation of Quran


February 6, 2009

KABUL (AP) — No one knows who brought the book to the mosque, or at least no one dares say. The pocket-size translation of the Quran has already landed six men in prison in Afghanistan and left two of them begging judges to spare their lives. They're accused of modifying the Quran and their fate could be decided Sunday in court.

The trial illustrates what critics call the undue influence of hardline clerics in Afghanistan, a major hurdle as the country tries to establish a lawful society amid war and militant violence.

The book appeared among gifts left for the cleric at a major Kabul mosque after Friday prayers in September 2007. It was a translation of the Quran into one of Afghanistan's languages, with a note giving permission to reprint the text as long as it was distributed for free.

Some of the men of the mosque said the book would be useful to Afghans who didn't know Arabic, so they took up a collection for printing. The mosque's cleric asked Ahmad Ghaws Zalmai, a longtime friend, to get the books printed.

But as some of the 1,000 copies made their way to conservative Muslim clerics in Kabul, whispers began, then an outcry.

Many clerics rejected the book because it did not include the original Arabic verses alongside the translation. It's a particularly sensitive detail for Muslims, who regard the Arabic Quran as words given directly by God. A translation is not considered a Quran itself, and a mistranslation could warp God's word.

The clerics said Zalmai, a stocky 54-year-old spokesman for the attorney general, was trying to anoint himself as a prophet. They said his book was trying to replace the Quran, not offer a simple translation. Translated editions of the Quran abound in Kabul markets, but they include Arabic verses.

The country's powerful Islamic council issued an edict condemning the book.

"In all the mosques in Afghanistan, all the mullahs said, 'Zalmai is an infidel. He should be killed,'" Zalmai recounted as he sat outside the chief judge's chambers waiting for a recent hearing.

Zalmai lost friends quickly. He was condemned by colleagues and even by others involved in the book's printing. A mob stoned his house one night, said his brother, Mahmood Ghaws.

Police arrested Zalmai as he was fleeing to Pakistan, along with three other men the government says were trying to help him escape. The publisher and the mosque's cleric, who signed a letter endorsing the book, were also jailed.

There is no law in Afghanistan prohibiting the translation of the Quran. But Zalmai is accused of violating Islamic Shariah law by modifying the Quran. The courts in Afghanistan, an Islamic state, are empowered to apply Shariah law when there are no applicable existing statutes.

And Afghanistan's court system appears to be stacked against those accused of religious crimes. Judges don't want to seem soft on potential heretics and lawyers don't want to be seen defending them, said Afzal Shurmach Nooristani, whose Afghan Legal Aid group is defending Zalmai.

The prosecutor wants the death penalty for Zalmai and the cleric, who have now spent more than a year in prison.

Sentences on religious infractions can be harsh. In January 2008, a court sentenced a journalism student to death for blasphemy for asking questions about women's rights under Islam. An appeals court reduced the sentence to 20 years in prison. His lawyers appealed again and the case is pending.

In 2006, an Afghan man was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. He was later ruled insane and was given asylum in Italy. Islamic leaders and the parliament accused President Hamid Karzai of being a puppet for the West for letting him live.

Nooristani, who is also defending the journalism student, said he and his colleagues have received death threats.

"The mullahs in the mosques have said whoever defends an infidel is an infidel," Nooristani said.

The legal aid organization, which usually represents impoverished defendants, is defending Zalmai because no one else would take the case.

"We went to all the lawyers and they said, 'We can't help you because all the mullahs are against you. If we defend you, the mullahs will say that we should be killed.' We went six months without a lawyer," Zalmai said outside the judge's chambers.

The publisher was originally sentenced to five years in prison. Zalmai and the cleric were sentenced to 20, and now the prosecutor is demanding the death penalty for the two as a judge hears appeals.

Nearly everyone in court claims ignorance now.

The mosque's mullah says he never read the book and that he was duped into signing the letter. The print shop owner says neither he nor any of his employees read the book, noting that it's illegal for them to read materials they publish.

Zalmai pleaded for forgiveness before a January hearing, saying he had assumed a stand-alone translation wasn't a problem.

"You can find these types of translations in Turkey, in Russia, in France, in Italy," he said.

When the chief judge later banged his gavel to silence shouting lawyers and nodded at Zalmai to explain himself, the defendant stood and chanted Quranic verses as proof that he was a devout Muslim who should be forgiven.

Shariah law is applied differently in Islamic states. Saudi Arabia claims the Quran as its constitution, while Malaysia has separate religious and secular courts.

But since there is no ultimate arbiter of religious questions in Afghanistan, judges must strike a balance between the country's laws and proclamations by clerics or the Islamic council, called the Ulema council.

Judges are "so nervous about annoying the Ulema council and being criticized that they tend to push the Islamic cases aside and just defer to what others say," said John Dempsey, a legal expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace in Kabul.

Deferring to the council means that edicts issued by the group of clerics can influence rulings more than laws on the books or a judge's own interpretation of Shariah law, he said.

Judges have to be careful about whom they might anger with their rulings. In September, gunmen killed a top judge with Afghanistan's counter-narcotics court. Other judges have been gunned down as well.

Mahmood Ghaws said that even if his brother is found innocent, their family will never be treated the same.

"When I go out in the street, people don't say hello to me in the way they used to," he said. "They don't ask after my family."


Taliban vows violent response to US troop increase


December 8, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban's fugitive leader said the planned increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan will give his fighters incentive to kill and maim more Americans than ever.

Mullah Omar, who is believed to be sheltered by fiercely conservative tribesman on the Afghan-Pakistan border, said battles would "flare up" everywhere.

"The current armed clashes, which now number into tens, will spiral up to hundred of armed clashes. Your current casualties of hundreds will jack up to thousand casualties of dead and injured," said the statement, which was written in broken English and posted on a Web site Sunday that has previously carried militant messages.

Violence in Afghanistan has spiked in the last two years, and 2008 has been the deadliest year for U.S. troops since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban for hosting al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

There are more than 60,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 32,000 U.S. forces. Though U.S. troop levels are already at their highest since the start of the conflict in 2001, American commanders have requested 20,000 more troops to stem the increase in violence that has engulfed parts of the country.

Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain warned on Sunday during a visit to Afghanistan that the situation "is going to get harder before it gets easier."

The rising violence in Afghanistan appears to be coordinated closely with the spike in militant attacks in neighboring Pakistan, and officials increasingly view both countries as part of the same battlefront.

Early Monday, militants in Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar attacked a truck terminal, torching more than 100 military vehicles loaded with supplies for American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, a witness and an Associated Press reporter said.

The attack was the second in as many days on the supply line in the city, showing its vulnerability to militants that control large swaths Pakistan's lawless regions close to Afghanistan.

Omar's message, released at the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, or the "Feast of the Sacrifice," also rejected any talks with the government of President Hamid Karzai while foreign troops remain in the country.

Karzai on Monday, during an Eid address, again asked armed militants who are fighting Afghan and NATO forces to lay down their weapons and join the government.

Karzai last month offered protection for Omar — who is wanted by the United States and is blacklisted by the United Nations — if he accepts Afghanistan's constitution and joins peace talks.

Omar dismissed that call in his latest message.

"Do not ever presume that in the presence of the occupation forces, the followers of the path of Islamic resistance will ever abandon their legitimate struggle merely on your empty and farcical pledges, material privileges and personal immunity," Omar said.

Omar also called on his fighters to administer "Islamic punishment" on anyone who kidnaps people for ransom. He said that the protection of people's lives is a major goal of jihad, or holy war. Kidnappings of Westerners have increased over the last couple of months, but not all the kidnappings are carried out by Taliban-aligned fighters.

Omar went into hiding after the U.S.-led invasion toppled his Taliban regime. Afghan officials have said he is hiding in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Pakistan says he is in Afghanistan.

In his statement, Omar also called on those Afghans who fought against Soviet troops in the 1980s to abandon their government jobs and join the ranks of the Taliban. He also said that the idea of creating tribal militias in order to fight the Taliban and other insurgent groups in the country will not work.

"No Afghan will lower himself to such an irrational and insensitive position to fight against his own brothers for the interests of the invaders and lose his life and faith for ... the pleasure of the invaders," the statement said.

U.S. commanders have said that Afghan tribes are needed as crucial battlefield allies against the Taliban and other extremists in the same way local Sunni militias rose up to oppose al-Qaida fighters in Iraq's western Anbar province.

The tactic has long been endorsed by Gen. David Petraeus — the former top U.S. military official in Iraq who now oversees the Afghan war as commander of U.S. Central Command.


Afghan Gangs on Rise

Troubles with Taliban militants may be on the wane, but robberies and killings are increasing. Some say criminals have friends in government.

By Paul Watson
Times Staff Writer

May 21, 2005

BARIKAW, Afghanistan — Searching for his brother, Lahore Khan discovered some dark truths about the new Afghanistan: Terrorists are giving way to gangsters, who often have friends in high places.

It took Khan two years to establish that his younger brother Nasir, 19, was killed by a gang that allegedly strangled taxi drivers with a rope, and then broke down their cars and sold the parts on the black market in Pakistan.

Just 20 days after Nasir disappeared in April 2003, Khan showed the Nangarhar provincial police chief, a former warlord, a letter from a witness that named a prime suspect.

The police did little to follow the lead, Khan said. So the poor farmer from Barikaw, about 20 miles north of Kabul, began his own investigation. He walked for months along the main highways of several provinces, looking for his brother's body and any sign of his old, battered taxi.

While Khan searched, the gang apparently took more victims, burying some of them in the yard of a Kabul house. His brother's corpse was finally discovered there in February, 80 miles from the bus stop where he had picked up his last fare.

Although he lacks proof, Khan thinks there's a simple reason it took police so long to solve the killings of his brother and at least 26 others.

"These people have friends in Kabul in the Interior Ministry, and in the police stations, who are supporting them," he said of the criminal gang.

Senior officers in the national police share Khan's suspicion that organized criminal groups involved in armed robbery, kidnapping, drug trafficking and murder have powerful friends in the government headed by President Hamid Karzai.

Gangsters are like "the snake in the sleeve," and they pose a bigger threat to Afghanistan's emerging democracy than terrorists, said Gen. Abdul Jamil, who heads the police crime branch in Kabul.

"These are the most dangerous enemies because they look like friends," he said. "But in reality they are our enemies, and these are the people who work alongside us in the government. They are really dangerous."

Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, acknowledged that there were criminals in the ranks of the national police who were getting help from some senior government officials. But, given a history of two decades of war, Karzai is making dramatic progress, he said.

"It was to be expected that in Afghanistan this area would be the most damaged, the most corrupted, because this is how past regimes tortured people and committed all their crimes," Ludin said.

After Karzai won last the election in October, he promised to form a government based on merit, not a coalition to appease warlords. Compared to the warlords, he said, the remnants of the Taliban regime were a minor problem.

But at the urging of the U.S. and other Western allies, Karzai continues to accommodate former warlords in the central government in the hope that they will be easier to control inside the halls of power.

Karzai's critics say he is trading one set of problems for another: As the Taliban weakens and terrorism wanes, gangsterism is on the rise.

"This is a big mistake by the government," said Azaryuon, who heads a coalition of human rights groups. Like many Afghans, he uses only one name. "They think they might reform these [militia] commanders. Not only are they not reforming them, but they are also giving these criminals power."

Karzai made one of his most controversial appointments March 1, when he made strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum army chief of staff. New York-based Human Rights Watch and other groups say Dostum is one of several militia commanders who should be prosecuted for war crimes.

When police chiefs and governors start acting more like mobsters, Karzai moves them in the hope that they will be less autocratic off their home turf. In September, he removed Ismail Khan from the governorship of Herat, bringing him to Kabul and giving him a place in his Cabinet.

But betting on cooperation from warlords and shifting them around the country strengthens their grip on power because they are learning to cooperate, Azaryuon said.

"Karzai thinks that if he switches them from one area to another he can control them, but he is wrong because they are all together and united now," said Azaryuon, project coordinator for the Civil Society and Human Rights Network, a coalition of more than 30 Afghan groups.

Karzai has had some success building a professional army with a Western-trained officer corps loyal to the government. The new Afghan National Army cut its desertion rate significantly by boosting wages and now has more than 21,000 soldiers, although far short of the 70,000-troop target. Improved recruitment is leading to a better ethnic balance, but there are still rivalries.

Karzai and the U.S. military say the Taliban and their allies are on the decline despite a recent surge of attacks after a winter lull. Karzai hopes to further reduce the threat in coming months with an amnesty offer to Taliban members not suspected of serious crimes.

But restoring law and order is proving much more difficult.

In some areas, militia fighters have followed their commanders into the local police force, turning it into a private army in police uniform, human rights activists and other analysts allege.

The national highway police, made up largely of former mujahedin trained to protect the main road linking Afghanistan's regions, are considered a key link in the trafficking network that, according to the State Department, supplied almost 90% of the world's heroin last year.

Kabul, the capital, has suffered a surge in major crimes since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. More than 180 people have been killed in the last year, and police are having trouble stopping armed robberies, said Jamil, the police commander.

One of the capital's most feared gangs is headed by Rais Khudaidad, who has safe haven with his men in Kabul's lawless Paghman district, Jamil said. He said several other gangsters in Paghman were beyond the reach of the law "because these people have a lot of friends in the government."

Over the last two years, about 40,000 militia fighters have disarmed under a voluntary program, but it is unclear how many men still carry arms. Warlords who once wore combat fatigues are trying to maintain their power even as they switch to suits. Some are trying their hand at politics, and plan to run for parliament in election scheduled for September.

"Political and military analysts in Afghanistan increasingly recognize that there has been a fundamental change in the commanders' priorities during the past three years," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a February report.

"Most no longer see the need to maintain large stocks of heavy weaponry, since the coalition presence precludes the waging of open warfare. Instead, they have opted to maintain leaner, lightly armed forces adequate to protect their political, military and economic interests, including narcotics trafficking."

When Lahore Khan's brother disappeared, another taxi driver, in a letter, identified the missing driver's last fare as Shah Mahmood, a tailor. He also warned Khan to be careful because he was up against powerful people.

Khan went to look for Mahmood in his village on the pretext of buying a cow. Mahmood wasn't there. So Khan visited his shop. He wasn't there either. Each time Khan went back, the family said Mahmood was in Kabul.

Khan appealed to a provincial council that includes the governor, his deputy and the police chief, Hazrat Ali, a former warlord who provided militia fighters in the effort to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in late 2001. Some suspect that Ali allowed Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders to escape, a charge he denies.

"I asked them, 'What kind of commanders are you? People are disappearing and you don't care about it,'" Khan said. "And then Hazrat Ali told me that Shah Mahmood is one of his men. He said, 'Find him yourself, then I will punish him.' "

Sitting on the floor of his farmhouse, next to a wall of dry mud dotted with bits of straw, Khan unfolded a letter that he had sealed in plastic wrap to keep it clean. It is on the letterhead of the Bank of Afghanistan and signed by Hazrat Ali.

The undated letter, addressed to "All Security Guards and Policemen," advised that Khan's brother was missing, and instructed them to help "find the person he suspects." No names. No addresses. No orders to investigate a possible murder.

Khan carried on his search alone. He eventually found Mahmood and led the police to him. Khan says the judge who heard the case told him to produce a witness. The taxi driver who tipped him off was afraid to testify, Khan told the court. There was no proof his brother had been killed because his body had not been found.

With so little evidence, the judge sentenced Mahmood to two years in jail, Khan said. Even now, he is not sure what crime, if any, Mahmood was found guilty of. He suspects the judge only acted to protect the rest of the gang. It apparently went on kidnapping and killing until Kabul police uncovered the mass grave and charged seven people, including Mahmood, with murder in the serial killings.

When Khan heard a Radio Liberty report on the arrests and the mass grave, he went to the intelligence bureau of the national police to ask whether he could see the bodies. He was able to identify his brother from clothing, and the license plate of his car, which police found in the gang's house near the shallow grave.

During his hunt, Khan said he was often tailed by a man in a Datsun four-by-four truck. It was only months later, when police in Kabul published photos of seven people charged with the serial killings, that Khan learned his name.

The man was Rahmatullah, and Khan recognized him as a guard at the gate of Hazrat Ali's office in Jalalabad.

In an interview, the police chief said he couldn't recall whether he had met Khan, but insisted his force was clean.

"I did hear many complaints about cars being lost, so that is why I tried my best to arrest the criminals," Ali said by phone from Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. "And finally I did it. But their release or their punishment isn't up to us. It's up to the prosecutors."

Police in the national intelligence unit say Rahmatullah, a thin man with a long black beard and an artificial leg, is the gang's leader. His wife, Shirin Gul, is being held in the women's wing of Kabul's Pul-i-Charki prison. Her first husband was among the gang's early victims, police say. She's glad the gang killed him because, she said, he took her as a bride when he was 45 and she was a 13-year-old orphan and abused her and later forced her to work as a prostitute.

"I will always forgive Rahmatullah because he has saved me and he has fed my children and me," she said, "I think killing a coward and a person who doesn't care about his wife is allowed." Gul's son is also charged.

Police permitted a reporter to see, but not interview, Rahmatullah and Gul's son, Samiullah Khan, in another prison. Authorities gave conflicting accounts of where the rest of the gang, including Mahmood, were being held. Gul says they have escaped.

Despite finding his brother's killer, Khan says he doesn't feel a sense of victory or justice, or even of a long journey ending. He is certain the gang is bigger than the seven people arrested, and after two years of investigating, he thinks their victims number closer to 100 than 27.

He's afraid his children, or three other brothers, could be next. They live in a village not far from the sprawling U.S. base at Bagram, north of Kabul, yet Khan feels he lives at the mercy of criminals.

The suggestion that the system may have finally worked made Khan angry. His eyes flashing, he recalled a popular Afghan adage: "A drum always sounds good from afar."

"This saying is really true in Afghanistan's case because if you are in a foreign country you will always hear about democracy, peace and justice and security here," he said.

"But I don't think any of those exist."


How Afghan Captivity Shaped My Feminism

by Phyllis Chesler

On December 21, 1961, when I returned from Afghanistan, I kissed the ground at New York City's Idlewild Airport. I weighed 90 pounds and had hepatitis. Although I would soon become active in the American civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, and feminist movements, what I had learned in Kabul rendered me immune to the Third World romanticism that infected so many American radicals. As a young bride in Afghanistan, I was an eyewitness to just how badly women are treated in the Muslim world. I was mistreated, too, but I survived. My "Western" feminism was forged in that most beautiful and treacherous of countries.

In 1962, when I returned to Bard College, I tried to tell my classmates how important it was that America had so many free libraries, so many movie theatres, bookstores, universities, unveiled women, freedom of movement on the streets, freedom to leave our families of origin if we so chose, freedom from arranged marriages—and from polygamy, too. This meant that as imperfect as America may be, it was still the land of opportunity and of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

My friends, future journalists, artists, physicians, lawyers, and intellectuals, wanted only to hear fancy Hollywood fairy tales, not reality. They wanted to know how many servants I had and whether I ever met the king. I had no way of communicating the horror, and the truth. My American friends could not or did not want to understand. As with my young college friends so long ago, today's leftists and progressives want to remain ignorant.

From New York to Kabul

My Afghan awakening began in New York in 1961 when I married my college sweetheart, Ali. I was an Orthodox Jewish-American girl; he was a Muslim boy from Afghanistan who had been away from home for fourteen years while studying at private schools in Europe and America.

My plan was to meet Ali's family in Kabul, stay there a month or two, study "History of Ideas" at the Sorbonne for a semester, then return to Bard College to complete my final semester.

When we landed in Kabul at least thirty members of his family were there to greet us. The airport officials smoothly confiscated my American passport. "It's just a formality, nothing to worry about," Ali assured me. "You'll get it back later." I never saw that passport again.

Upon our arrival in Kabul, my Western husband simply became another person. For two years, in the United States, Ali and I had been inseparable. He had walked me to my classes. We did our homework together in the library. We talked constantly. In Afghanistan, everything changed. We were no longer a couple during the day. He no longer held my hand or kissed me in public. He barely spoke to me. He only sought me out at night. He treated me the way his father and elder brother treated their wives: with annoyed embarrassment, coldness, distance.

My father-in-law, Amir, whom we knew as "Agha Jan" or "Dear Master," was a leading businessman and an exceedingly dapper man. In Afghanistan, he was a progressive. In his youth, he had supported Amanullah Khan (1919-29) who had boldly unveiled Afghan women, instituted the country's first educational and health care systems, and introduced European-style trolleys in the capital city. Nevertheless, he did not want an American or Jewish daughter-in-law. I was Ali's desperate rebellion. I was flesh-and-blood proof that, for fourteen years, he had actually been living in the twentieth century.

Ali had not told me that his father was polygamous until just before we had arrived in Kabul. Then he told me that, "actually," his father had two wives. He'd been "tricked" into marrying the second wife, with whom he had only two children, Ali explained, "which says everything. She's more like a family servant." Ali's mother treated the second wife Fauzia so badly that Agha Jan finally moved her into her own house. I would visit and have tea with Fauzia. She was grateful for the gesture of respect and for the company.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Agha Jan actually had three wives. This reality was one that Ali would not or could not discuss. He and his brothers blamed their mother for this third marriage to Sultana, which had jeopardized their inheritance considerably; this was a risky, tabooed subject. This third marriage didn't count because it counted all too much.

Agha Jan was in his sixties and stood six feet tall. His black hair was thick and only flecked with gray at the temples. He had a broad, frank mustache, and velvet black eyes that matched his black Italian handmade shoes. Although he wore the jauntiest and most expensive of Afghan-style karakul hats, Agha Jan also wore European-made suits and coats. As a devout Muslim, he neither drank nor smoked. Agha Jan's grown and married children, both men and women, executed a cringing half-bow whenever they greeted him.

Agha Jan's current home, with his third wife, Sultana, had one great European-style room in which he received visitors and dined. He usually ate alone, in a sitting room hushed by thick maroon carpets and thick, European-style velvet drapes. Rozia, his fourteen-year-old daughter by his third wife, served him each dish, bowing in and out of the room, like a servant.

"How can you justify polygamy?" I'd ask Ali. "It's humiliating, cruel, unfair to the wives, it dooms them to sexual celibacy and emotional solitude at a very young age and for the rest of their lives. It also sets up fearful rivalries among the half-brothers of different mothers who have lifelong quarrels over their inheritances."

When he was being Eastern, Ali would say: "Don't be a silly American. You say you're a thinker, God knows, you're always reading, and I therefore expect more understanding and broadmindedness from you. Polygamy tries to give men what they need so that they will treat their wives and children in a civilized way. In the West, men are serial polygamists. They leave their first wives and set of children without looking back. Here, we do not like the earlier wives to be abandoned, impoverished, and ripped from their social identities. If she is a good Muslim wife, accepts and obeys her husband's wishes, he will support her forever, she will always have her children near her which is all that matters to a woman, her world will remain whole."

When he was being Western, Ali would say, "Our country is not ready for personal freedoms. That's why I'm needed here, to help bring my poor countrymen into the twentieth century. It's my destined role and I need you to help me. Don't leave."

As to the veil, my Western husband would say: "You are too impatient about this damn chadari.[1] Afghan women are not stupid. Give them some time. They will, in time, probably all adopt the more Western, freeing clothing."

But Eastern Ali tried to justify the veil in other ways. He said: "The country is dusty and sometimes dangerous and a woman is better protected in many ways by the chadari. Anyway, country women do not wear chadaris when they farm. This is largely a phenomenon of the city and anyway it's dying out." This was not exactly true. Afghan countrywomen almost immediately turned their faces to the nearest available wall whenever a man to whom they were not related walked by. They tended to cover their heads and faces with their scarves.

We lived with Ali's oldest brother Abdullah, his wife Rabiah, and their two children, who all shared a home with my mother-in-law Aishah, or "Beebee Jan" (Dear Lady). Agha Jan had not lived with Beebee Jan for a very long time.

My life was akin to that of an upper class Afghan woman. My experience was similar to—but hardly as constrained as—that which an increasing number of Arab and Muslim women face today. In this first decade of the twenty-first century, women living in Islamic societies are being forced back into time, re-veiled, more closely monitored, and more savagely punished than they were in the 1960s. That said, I had never expected my freedom and privacy to be so curtailed.

In Afghanistan, a few hundred wealthy families lived by European standards. Everyone else lived in a premodern style. And that's the way the king, his government, and the mullahs wanted it to remain. Western diplomats did not peg their foreign policies to how Afghanistan treated its women. Even before multicultural relativism kicked in, Western diplomats did not believe in "interfering."

The Afghanistan I knew was a prison, a feudal monarchy, and rank with fear, paranoia, and slavery. Individual Afghans were charming, funny, humane, tender, enchantingly courteous, and sometimes breathtakingly honest. Yet, their country was a bastion of illiteracy, poverty, and preventable disease. Women were subjected to domestic and psychological misery in the form of arranged marriages, polygamy, forced pregnancies, the chadari, domestic slavery and, of course, purdah (seclusion of women). Women led indoor lives and socialized only with other women. If they needed to see a doctor, their husband consulted one for them in their place. Most women were barely educated.

In Kabul, I met other foreign wives who loved having servants but whose own freedom had been constrained. Some European wives, who had come in the late 1940s and early 1950s had converted to Islam and wore The Thing, as we called the cloaking chadari. Each had been warned, as had I, that whatever they did would become known, that there were eyes everywhere, and that their actions could endanger their families and themselves.

Afghans mistrusted foreign wives. Once, I saw an Afghan husband fly into a rage when his foreign wife not only wore a Western swimsuit to a swimming party—but actually plunged into the pool. The men expected to be the only ones who would swim; their wives were meant to chat and sip drinks.

The concept of privacy is a Western one. When I would leave the common sitting room in order to read quietly in my own bedroom, all the women and children would follow me. They'd ask: "Are you unhappy?" No one spent any time alone. To do so was an insult to the family. The idea that a woman might be an avid reader of books and a thinker was too foreign to comprehend.

Like everyone else, Ali was under permanent surveillance. His career and livelihood depended upon being an obedient Afghan son and subject. How he treated me was crucial. He had to prove that his relationship to women was every bit as Afghan as any other man's; perhaps more so, since he had arranged his own marriage to a foreigner.

Out and About in Kabul

After two weeks of marathon tea-drinking and pistachio-eating, my polite smile was stuck to my face. I could not understand what people were saying, I was bored, I wanted to get out on my own and see Kabul, visit the markets and the museum, and see the mountains closer-up. I was under a very polite form of house arrest. "It's not done," "People will talk," "Tell me what you need and I'll get it for you," were some of Ali's responses. And so, I began to "escape" from the house every day.

I never put on the headscarves and long coats and gloves pointedly left for me atop the bedroom bureau. I would take a deep breath, go out, and stride at a brisk, American pace. Always, a female relative or servant would run after me, bearing the scarves. I would smile, shake my head "no," and keep on going. Of course, I was also followed by a slow-moving family Mercedes. The driver would call out: "Madame, please get inside. We are worried that you will hurt yourself."

Sometimes, I'd walk faster, or I'd take a bus or a gaudi, a horse-drawn painted cart. The buses were quite colorful except inside, fully sheeted women sat apart from the men. The first time I saw this, I laughed out loud in disbelief and nervousness. In any event, as women moved onto the bus, men would jostle them, and make sneering remarks I could not understand.

My family was right. They knew their country. Barefaced and alone, I looked like an "uppity" Afghan woman and was thus fair game for catcalls, propositions, interminable questions, rough advances. Men would push themselves against me, knock me around, laugh, joke. But, I could easily have been kidnapped and held for ransom, taken to a cave, kept there for days, raped, then returned. Ali finally exploded at me and told me that this exact scenario had happened to the wife of an Afghan minister who had killed himself afterwards.

I had to be brought to heel. Ali's manhood and future depended upon this. A male servant would prevent me from going out. The family would call Ali and he would call me to yell, threaten, plead, or shame. I presented myself at the American embassy, which was located right next door. The embassy rented the property from my father-in-law.

"I want to go home. I'm an American citizen," I said.

"Where is your passport?" The marine guard would ask.

"They took it away from me when our plane landed. But, they told me that I'd get it back."

Each time, the Marines would escort me back home. They told me that as the "wife of an Afghan national," I was no longer an American citizen entitled to American protection.

I did, on occasion, get to speak with diplomats. Not a single foreign voice was heard protesting the condition of women. The Western media didn't care about what Afghans did to one another, or what men did to "their" women. Gin-soaked diplomats told me that it would be "immoral" to preach to Afghans about their tribal violence or their oppression of women; these were sovereign, sacred, local customs. One American diplomat put it this way: "We can't impose our moral or cultural values on these people. We can't ask them about their system of government or justice, their treatment of women, their servants, their jails. These are very sensitive, very touchy, very proud men who happen to own a piece of land that's important to us. If we aren't careful, their kids would be learning Russian—or Chinese—instead of English and German. You've got to remember, we're guests here, not conquerors."

I was under house arrest in the tenth century. I had no freedom of movement, nothing with which to occupy myself. I was supposed to accept this.

Ali knew he was losing me. We fought bitterly every single night. Was he trying to make me pregnant so that I'd have to stay? I was afraid to go to bed. His eldest sister, Soraya, offered to sleep with me in our bedroom—an act of courage and kindness that I have never forgotten. She must have known what was going on.

Yes, my husband "loved" me and wanted to protect me, but I was, after all, a woman, which meant that he believed he owned me, and that his honor consisted of his ability to control me. Ali was also locked into a power struggle with his father and with his culture. I was the symbol of his freedom and independence, a reminder of his life lived apart. He did not want to lose such a valuable symbol. If I became pregnant, I would have to stay. His father would be forced to stop making things so hard for us.

My Escape

I devoted all my waking time to planning an escape. I gave up on the American embassy. I stopped confiding in Ali. I began to contact foreign wives, most of whom would not or could not help me. I could only meet people through Ali or through a relative. I was not allowed to talk privately to anyone. All the public tea-houses were for men-only. I could not drift in and strike up a conversation with a man.

I finally found a foreign wife who agreed to help me. She was the German-born second wife of the ex-mayor of Kabul. She obtained a false passport for me. I had secretly written to my parents. I had also called them. They had agreed to send me a money order in care of this woman. Now, I only had to choose a flight and book a seat.

And then, I fainted. I had come down with hepatitis. I learned later that Beebee Jan had ordered the servants to stop boiling my water. Some Afghans seemed to enjoy the spectacle of Westerners succumbing to such illnesses; they took it as proof of foreign "weakness." I was finally taken to the new hospital and accompanied by at least ten family members. The doctor said:

"Honey, you are very sick and you have to get out of here. Will they let you go? If you are strong enough to sit up and walk a bit, get on a plane, go home."

He gave me a pair of dark glasses to hide my jaundiced eyes from the flight attendants. And, he prescribed intravenous infusions of vitamins and nutrients. He sent a nurse to the house.

And then, Beebee Jan tried to pull out the IV and all hell broke loose. I called Agha Jan and begged him to come over. He was the Master of the Universe as far as his family was concerned.

He came. First, he prayed "for my recovery." Then, he asked everyone else to leave, after which he spoon-fed me milk custard. He was tender towards me; only afterwards did I understand that he could afford to be. My illness and probable departure meant that he had won the battle with Ali. Perhaps he did not want a dead American daughter-in-law on his hands either. And, he'd be glad to see me gone. I only spelled trouble for his family, any foreign wife would, especially one who had tried to escape so many times.

"I know about your little plan with the German woman," he quietly said. "I think it will be best if you leave with our approval on an Afghan passport which I have obtained for you. You have been granted a six-month visa for "reasons of health."

And he gave it to me on the spot. The Kingdom of Afghanistan passport has retained its bright orange color. He also handed me a plane ticket. "We will see you off. It is better this way."

Ali raged and swore—and begged me to stay but I remained adamant.

Thirty relatives dutifully came to see me off. Kabul was hidden in snow. I was booked on an Aeroflot flight to Moscow. The minute that plane took off a fierce joy seized me by the throat and would not let go. I was both jaundiced and pregnant. Had Ali discovered this while I was still in Afghanistan, I would never have been allowed to leave. Given my medical condition, it would have been my death sentence.

It was not the last time I would see Ali, though. In 1979, after the Soviet invasion, Ali escaped by crossing the Khyber Pass into Pakistan, disguised as a nomad. Since 1980, he, his new wife Jamila and their two children, Iskandar and Leyla, have been living near me in America. Oddly, but happily, we relate as members of an extended family.

My Feminist Awakening

I had experienced gender apartheid long before the Taliban made it headline news. I came to understand that once an American woman marries a Muslim, and lives in a Muslim country, she is a citizen of no country. Never again could I romanticize foreign places or peoples in the Third World—or marriage.

Once a Western woman marries a Muslim and lives with him in his native land, she is no longer entitled to the rights she once enjoyed. Only military mercenaries can rescue her. I have since heard many stories about Western women who have married Muslim men in Europe and America but whose children were then kidnapped by their fathers and kept forever after in countries such as Saudi Arabia,[2] Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Iran. The mothers were usually permitted no contact.

Today, women in the Islamic world are increasingly pressured into arranged marriages, forced to veil themselves, not allowed to vote, drive, or travel without a male escort, to work at all, or to work in mixed gender settings. Worse, many are genitally mutilated in childhood, and routinely beaten as daughters, sisters, and wives; some are murdered by their male relatives in honor killings, and stoned to death for alleged sexual improprieties or for asserting the slightest independence. Such violations of women's human rights are increasingly taking place among the Muslim community in Europe and in North America.

Westerners do not always understand that Eastern men can blend into the West with ease while still remaining Eastern at their core. They can "pass" for one of us but, upon returning home, assume their original ways of being. Some may call this schizophrenic; others might see this as duplicitous. From a Muslim man's point of view, it is neither. It is merely personal Realpolitik. The transparency and seeming lack of guile that characterizes many ordinary Westerners make us seem childlike and stupid to those with multiple cultural personalities.

A woman dares not forget such lessons—not if she manages to survive and escape. What happened to me in Afghanistan must also be taken as a cautionary tale of what can happen when one romanticizes the "primitive" East.

Did Ali really think that I would be able to adjust to a medieval, Islamic way of life? Or that his family would ever have accepted a Jewish-American love-bride?

There are only two answers possible. Either he was not thinking or he viewed me as a woman, which meant that I did not exist in my own right, that I was destined to please and obey him and that nothing else was really important. He certainly helped shape the feminist that I was to become.

When I returned to the United States, there were few feminist stirrings. However, within five years, I became a leader of America's new feminist movement. In 1967, I became active in the National Organization for Women, as well as in various feminist consciousness-raising groups and campaigns. In 1969, I pioneered women's studies classes for credit, cofounded the Association for Women in Psychology, and began delivering feminist lectures. I also began work on my first book, Women and Madness,[3] which became an oft-cited feminist text.

Firsthand experience of life under Islam as a woman held captive in Kabul has shaped the kind of feminist I became and have remained—one who is not multiculturally "correct." By seeing how women interacted with men and then with each other, I learned how incredibly servile oppressed peoples could be and how deadly the oppressed could be toward each other. Beebee Jan was cruel to her female servants. She beat her elderly personal servant and verbally humiliated our young and pregnant housemaid. It was an observation that stayed with me.

While multiculturalism has become increasingly popular, I never could accept cultural relativism. Instead, what I experienced in Afghanistan as a woman taught me the necessity of applying a single standard of human rights, not one tailored to each culture. In 1971—less than a decade after my Kabul captivity—I spoke about rescuing women of Bangladesh raped en masse during that country's war for independence from Pakistan. The suffering of women in the developing world should be considered no less important than the issues feminists address in the West. Accordingly, I called for an invasion of Bosnia long before Washington did anything, and I called for similar military action in Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Sudan.

In recent years, I fear that the "peace and love" crowd in the West has refused to understand how Islamism endangers Western values and lives, beginning with our commitment to women's rights and human rights. The Islamists who are beheading civilians, stoning Muslim women to death, jailing Muslim dissidents, and bombing civilians on every continent are now moving among us both in the East and in the West. While some feminist leaders and groups have come to publicize the atrocities against women in the Islamic world, they have not tied it to any feminist foreign policy. Women's studies programs should have been the first to sound the alarm. They do not. More than four decades after I was a virtual prisoner in Afghanistan, I realize how far the Western feminist movement has to go.

Based upon the Death of Feminism by Phyllis Chesler, copyright 2005 by the author, and printed with permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.

[1] The chadari is also known as the burqa', a covering worn by Afghan women.
[2] See, for example, "U.S. Department of State, Marriage to Saudis," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2003, pp. 74-81.
[3] New York: Doubleday, 1972.

Afghan Scholars Want Korean Missionaries Out 

IslamOnline.net & News Agencies

August 3, 2006

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — More than 500 Afghan scholars pressed on Wednesday, August 2, for the expulsion of hundreds of South Koreans on the grounds they were seeking to promulgate Christianity in the conservative Muslim country.

"They are not needed here," said Sayed Haider Hashimi, an organizer of the protest in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, reported Reuters.

"They have come to promulgate Christianity and the government should send them out."

Another scholar warned the government of "bad consequences" if the Koreans were not sent back home.

But a government official in Mazar-i-Sharif said there was no sign the Koreans promulgating Christianity in Afghanistan.

More than 1,000 South Korean Christians are in Afghanistan for a three-day "peace festival" which they say aims to help Afghans and not to preach Christianity.

The event is organized the Institute of Asian Culture and Development, a South Korea-based Christian humanitarian group that has been in Afghanistan for four years.


The Korean embassy in Kabul confirmed the arrival of its nationals, but declined to give a word on the nature of their mission.

"The South Koreans are here -- more than 1,000. They got tourist visas," an embassy official said.

The South Koreans arrived ahead of the event this weekend on tourist visas despite their government's recommendation against their visit and some attempts to stop them at the borders, embassy and Western officials said.

The embassy has suggested the roughly 200 South Koreans who live in Afghanistan, most of them in the capital, take their holidays abroad until the event is over, an embassy official told AFP.

"Most of them have followed our recommendation -- I've been getting reports that the majority have already left," the official said on condition of anonymity.

"We are very concerned about our own nationals' security. We have given so many warnings to the organizers but they have made their own decision."

In Seoul Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon also expressed his "deep concern".

"We again request that the organizers should cancel the event and that the travelers should give second thoughts to their trip," he told reporters.

A foreign ministry official said Seoul was considering plans for a mass evacuation of South Koreans from Afghanistan if necessary.

Kang Sung Han, a member of the visiting South Korean group in Kabul, denied that their mission was to proselytize in the Muslim country.

"They have come to travel to villages to teach people computer skills, teach them language and provide them educational and health facilities," Han told Reuters.

Proselytizing, a sensitive issue, is banned in Muslim conservative Afghanistan.

Thousands of Afghans took to the streets last February to protest the release of an Afghan man, who was facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity.

Abdur-Rahman was later released from prison and then spirited to Italy after the intervention of Western leaders, including US President George Bush, and Pope Benedict of the Vatican.

The New York Times reported in November 2004 that South Korean missionaries were taking the lead in aggressively evangelizing Muslims in Arab countries, applying discreet methods and making use of a seemingly endless financial support.

South Koreans proselytize, not in their own language, but in the language of the country they operate in or in English, said the American daily.


Bomber aimed to destroy embassy in Kabul


July 9, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The suicide bomber who detonated his vehicle at the gates of the Indian Embassy in Kabul intended to destroy the embassy itself, the Indian ambassador to Afghanistan said Wednesday.

Ambassador Jayant Prasad also said the death toll from Monday's bombing had risen to 58, up from 41, after several people died of their wounds. Prasad said several school-age children who attend classes near the embassy were among the dead. The Education Ministry confirmed that eight school children died.

"It is our reconstruction of events that the intention of the attacker was to detonate the device within the premises of the embassy and destroy the embassy," Prasad told The Associated Press.

A review of the bomb scene showed that one of the embassy guards killed in the blast still had his hand on the closed gate. The guard likely hadn't opened it because he saw a suspicious car driving close behind an embassy vehicle, Prasad said.

"The suicide attacker then decided to explode his device outside rather than inside, so the maximum impact was taken by the (sand-filled blast) barriers," he said. "So the damage to the embassy wasn't structural."

The blast barriers were installed in the last several weeks, Prasad said, because "we were expecting trouble."

Prasad said the embassy was attacked because of projects India is carrying out in Afghanistan. India has spent $750 million in aid since 2001, Prasad said.

One of India's key projects is the building of a road in southwest Afghanistan that will give the country access to ports in Iran. The road will allow commerce to bypass seaports in southern Pakistan that Afghan trade must now use.

That road project is due to be completed next week.

"We were targeted because we are doing certain things in Afghanistan for the social and economic development of Afghanistan, and some elements, some people, don't want us to do what we are doing here," Prasad said without elaborating.

Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University, noted in a Web posting this week that there has been a pattern of attacks on Indian road construction teams in southwest Afghanistan.

"These teams are constructing a road linking Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf via the Iranian rail and road network, which would bypass both Karachi and Pakistan's new port in Gwadar," Rubin wrote. "This road also passes through the Baluch parts of Afghanistan and Iran, next to the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, where Pakistan charges India with supporting nationalist/separatist insurgents."

Another major Indian project is the building of electrical transmission lines and substations to bring electricity from Uzbekistan to Kabul.

The ambassador refused to speculate on who might have been behind the attack — the deadliest bombing in Kabul since the 2001 fall of the Taliban. But he said the embassy noted with interest the statements from President Hamid Karzai's office putting the blame on a regional intelligence agency, interpreted as a clear reference to Pakistan.

Early accounts "are pointing in one direction," Prasad said. "We are waiting for the further investigations to confirm or not to confirm that."