Afghanistan war: Marjah battle as tough as Fallujah, say US troops

Christian Science Monitor

US and Afghan troops moved towards the center of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and mine fields. Sixty percent of the front-line forces are Afghan troops.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Thousands of US and Afghan troops ground their way towards the center of the Talibanstronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and even greater numbers of home-made bombs, booby traps, and minefields than anticipated.

US Marines raised an Afghan flag inside the town limits but pockets of Taliban militants dug in, with some veterans comparing the intensity of the fighting to that encountered when they stormed the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2005.

“In Fallujah, it was just as intense. But there, we started from the north and worked down to the south. In Marjah, we’re coming in from different locations and working toward the centre, so we’re taking fire from all angles,” Captain Ryan Sparks told Reuters.

The operation to clear Taliban insurgency from their biggest stronghold in Helmand province looks increasingly like an acid test of Western military and political strategy in Afghanistan, with the outcome likely to deal a powerful propaganda blow one way or the other.

With US General Stanley McChrystal’s reinvigorated counter-insurgency campaign placing the emphasis on protecting communities rather than killing militants, the first measure of success for the thousands of US, NATO, and Afghan troops involved in Operation Moshtarak (the Dari word for ‘together’) will be avoiding civilian casualties.

The vast majority of Marjah’s civilian inhabitants, of whom there are somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000, have stayed put after a NATO information campaign entreated them to “keep your heads down” and the Taliban mined all approaches to the town.

Afghan officials say the involvement of Afghan forces in unprecedented numbers – 60 percent of the front-line forces are said to be Afghan – will help alleviate the threat because Afghan soldiers are better able to distinguish between “terrorists and farmers.”

Civilian casualties a key metric

So far this advantage and the coalition’s tactics of attacking in overwhelming numbers but with a restrained use of its overwhelming firepower has largely worked, with civilian casualties limited to 12 killed when a rocket landed 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) from its target, and seven wounded in separate incidents.

In an indication of how important the issue of civilian casualties may prove to be, General McChrystal promptly offered his apologies to President Hamid Karzai and launched an investigation into the incident. Mr. Karzai only signed off on the operation hours before it began and senior members of his administration reportedly had reservations about advising inhabitants to shelter in their homes rather than fleeing Marjah.

Ghafar Jan, a 32-year old farm laborer living in Marjah, reached by telephone, said that powerful explosions had cast a pall of dust and smoke over the town, and that the “lightning” of rockets was visible from his house.

“The Taliban will fight until the last minute because the attack is coming from all directions so I don’t think they can fall backward to safety,” Jan said. “I don’t know what will happen. God knows what will happen.”

Taliban bravado?

The top Taliban commander in Marjah, Mullah Abdul Razaq Akhund, insisted that his fighters had pushed back the NATO and Afghan allies who were, he claimed, involved in a face-saving operation masking their defeat in Afganistan.

“Tens of foreign soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs and we have also destroyed many vehicles. By the grace of God we have had few casualties,” he said.

He was contradicted by NATO reports that two of its troops — one American, one British – had been killed in the fighting.

Meanwhile, Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal said that a government-in-waiting is ready to sweep in once coalition forces have cleared the town of Taliban, bringing with them up to 2,000 Afghan police to provide security. Civil servants and development specialists will organize the local administration. Previous town officials were killed, co-opted by the insurgents, or forced to flee. With a new administration, in theory, will come schools, hospitals, and jobs.

“The most important thing will be the aftermath,” says Haroun Mir, an Afghan analyst in Kabul. “How quickly will the coalition countries fix the town? How quickly will the Afghan government provide services to people? And how quickly will they be able to provide justice and security?”

Mir notes that in the past some police officers had pursued vendettas against people they accused of colluding with the Taliban.

North of Marjah, coalition forces are also battling Taliban militants in Nad-i-Ali district, supposedly an area under government control. Although fighting there has been less intense than some of the battles raging in Marjah, it is an indication of the difficulty of holding ground, let alone building on it.

Of particular importance in any area restored to government control will be providing alternative livelihoods to poppy farmers: central Helmand is a drugs-producing hub with many locals complicit in the narcotics industry.
“I’m sure they are well-prepared for that,” says Mir.

“All we want is peace,” said Ghafar Jan, the farm labourer. “People are tired of fighting, people are hungry now, and there is no medicine for the sick. I don’t care who is in control. I want those who can bring peace, justice and Sharia law.”


Afghanistan war: US troops’ new push into ‘heart of darkness’

Christian Science Monitor

US soldiers in the Afghanistan war are battling to clear the ‘heart of darkness’ in Kandahar Province where Taliban chief Mullah Omar used to preach. It’s one of many operations gearing up in southern Afghanistan as more foreign troops arrive.

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN

The soldiers came under Taliban surveillance as soon as they set out. Intercepted radio chatter among insurgents left no doubt that Charlie Company was walking into an ambush as it closed on a Taliban stronghold deep in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province.

The sudden clatter and whine of small-arms and machine-gun fire sent everyone scrambling for cover. Bullets spat up dust from the berms of a grape field. The shots hit far more accurately than those of local fighters – one of many signs that committed militants had returned early from their winter break in Pakistan.

“They were close. That was good stuff,” said Spc. Justin Jun, of Lake TahoeCalif. “I don’t think I’ll need to shave in a while.”

Since being deployed here six months ago, the United States Army company (1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment) has been pushing due west of the provincial capital, Kandahar, into what foreign forces call the “heart of darkness.” Zhari district – a patchwork of irrigation ditches, grape fields, and tightly packed mud compounds – is not only ideal guerrilla territory but also an area of enormous symbolic importance. Four miles west of Charlie Company’s patrol route lies the village mosque where one-eyed cleric-turned-Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar preached in the 1990s.

Like other infantry battalions fanned out from Kandahar, home to 800,000 people, these soldiers are carrying out Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy of blocking Taliban fighters from civilianswhom they hide among and intimidate.

Similar operations are underway across southern Afghanistan as more US troops arrive, with the largest coalition operation of the nine-year war now gearing up in Marjah District in neighboring Helmand Province.

‘Heart of darkness’

In many places, as in Zhari, the battle is just beginning.

Until the deployment of 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment here, US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan lacked the troops to even challenge the insurgents in the “heart of darkness.”

A single Canadian rifle company had tried to cover the district, while a contingent of 2,500 troops had responsibility for the 20,000 square mile province Kandahar and its million-plus residents. Relative to their number, the Canadians took heavier casualties than any major troop contributor in Afghanistan, accounting to nine percent of the coalition’s 1,626 fatalities despite providing two percent of its current forces.

In Charlie Company’s operations area, villagers who can afford to have fled to more peaceful parts of the district, leaving behind the desperately poor and the militants. Commanders and foreign fighters who left at the start of winter have streamed back, including Kaka Abdul Khaliq, a former mujahideen fighter whom theUS military holds responsible for the deaths of several servicemen.

“Before he left for Pakistan last year they were conducting all kinds of attacks,” says Noel Engels, an American law enforcement official who works with coalition and Afghan units across the district. “It’s a big year for [the Taliban]. They need to hold Kandahar as much as possible.”

A sharp enemy

The Taliban are sophisticated fighters. Using children as spotters, they have developed an effective early warning system allowing them to plan ambushes and thwart coalition missions targeting their leaders. They exploit the US tendency to counterattack aggressively by drawing the foreign soldiers into traps by planting improvised explosive devices. They have an unsurpassed knowledge of the terrain. They use a command structure under which members of different units – whether IED-making cells or assassination squads – must seek permission before carrying out attacks, allowing greater coordination and instilling a sense of discipline.

Meanwhile the Taliban’s shadow government, led by “district governor” Jebar Agha, organizes gatherings, bans schools, and metes out the brutal but impartial justice that helped raise the original Taliban to power.

There is talk among US officers about the bringing in an entire brigade, but nothing is definite. For the soldiers already in Zhari their work is cut out.

Protracted fight

As the initial confusion of the Jan. 27 attack subsided, Charlie Company began returning fire. Kiowa attack helicopters launched salvoes of missiles, A-10 gunships came in on strafing runs, and F-16 fighter jets growled overhead. In the three-hour attack, only one Afghan man was wounded, shot in the back with a Taliban bullet.

Knowing that the coalition can eavesdrop on their conversations, the Taliban radio operators vowed that reinforcements were on their way. But the insurgents, masters of hit and run, were already slipping away, blending back into the population until the next patrol to come their way.


Battle begins to win over Taliban to Karzai’s court

The Independent

Cautious interest as Afghan government seeks to draw all parties to the table

The Taliban fighter sitting in the front of the car was expressive, engaging, and dismissive of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s pleas for men like him to lay down their guns. Omar Khel, a tribal militant from Wardak province outside Kabul, is exactly the kind of reluctant rebel the Afghan government and the international community want to bring in from the cold.

“I am not in favour of fighting,” Mr Khel, a chubby man with strong features and grey-flecked hair, said. “I don’t have enmity with the Americans. I have enmity with Fahim, with Khalili, with Dostum. We are fighting them.” He had named the three most notorious warlords in the new Afghan government.

Mr Khel’s views are not representative of all insurgents, but they do illustrate one of the problems Mr Karzai’s “big tent” style of government creates: the inclusion of some individuals inevitably alienates others. And unfortunately for the architects of the reintegration and reconciliation programme outlined in London last week, other insurgents may be harder to woo.

Abdul Rahmad, a Taliban commander from the volatile southern province of Kandahar, told The Independent that he was ready to enter peace talks with Mr Karzai, but only if the existing Taliban demands are met. These include the withdrawal of the foreign troops supporting the fragile Afghan government, and changes to the constitution implementing sharia law as interpreted by the Islamists. Although he admitted that the insurgents included “bad and corrupt people”, he said he would fight on because “We have no sharia law, no sharia justice.”

It is possible he was being disingenuous: the insurgents have little to gain by publicly agreeing to talks and would actually weaken their position by appearing ready to consider peace. Their strongest hand is running down the clock on the international community.

Acknowledging as much in an interview with The New York Times, the Afghan official in charge of reconciliation said the government had been discussing ways of ending the war with the Taliban for some time. Mohammad Massoum Stanikzai said Taliban denials of talks were a PR strategy. “They are continuing to say this, it’s something they say in the media, but this is not a fact,” he said.

And although past efforts at reintegrating rebel fighters have lacked the political will, resources or organisation to succeed there is a sense of optimism among Western diplomats in Kabul that last week’s conference in London has changed this. One said: “What’s different is that for the first time you have the infrastructure to not only make promises and agreements but to follow through and make sure they’re enforced.”

Against this are a series of challenges that Afghan and international officials are just beginning to address with specific proposals. One difficulty is ensuring incentives offered to genuine fighters are not seen by others as reason to become temporary insurgents. Sorting bona fide insurgents from opportunists will be hard for an intelligence community recently lambasted by Major-General Michael Flynn, US and Nato deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, as ignorant of the Afghan people.

Another concern is that reconciliation with the senior Taliban leadership can proceed only after offensives, beginning with the imminent assault on the insurgent stronghold of Marja in Helmand, start rolling the enemy back.

And women’s rights groups and non-Pashtun ethnic groups opposed to the predominantly Pashtun Taliban have to be persuaded they are safe working with their traditional foes. A Western diplomat said these “different groups are looking at reconciliation-reintegration policy with great concern”.

Yesterday Mr Karzai arrived in Saudi Arabia to seek help in drawing Taliban representatives to a loya jirga peace council. Saudi was among three countries to recognise the Taliban when it was in power.

The names of Taliban interviewees have been changed


To fight deadliest Taliban threat in Afghanistan, US troops go low-tech

Christian Science Monitor

To thwart militants in Afghanistan from planting roadside bombs, or IEDs, US soldiers are pleading with locals to alert them to threats. Air surveillance can be too imprecise and approval for airstrikes too slow in coming.

COMBAT OUTPOST JFM, AFGHANISTAN

The metal detector was almost off the scale.

In front of a dusty track lay a five-foot-wide crater where an Afghan farmer had been killed by a roadside bomb. Scrap metal used for shrapnel was buried everywhere.

For the United States and coalition soldiers fighting theTaliban, every civilian the insurgents kill adds weight to the argument they repeat over and over: “The solution is to make the Taliban go away,” Lt. Mark Morrison, a US platoon leader from Albany, N.Y., deployed in southern Afghanistan, told villagers. “That way you won’t be in danger, and I won’t be in danger.” Read the rest of this entry »


Political satire show has Afghans glued to their TVs

The Independent

‘Alarm Bell’ creator has been threatened and beaten but jokes about Karzai go on

Today, President Hamid Karzai will be inaugurated in front of an audience of foreign dignitaries. But appearing on Afghan television, he is a little less statesmanlike. The incessant bickering, it seems, has grown too much, and Mr Karzai snaps: instead of calmly swearing an oath to his country, he is trying to strangle the US ambassador, jowl quivering next to spit-flecked jowl. A UN official gazes placidly at the unfolding chaos but luckily there’s someone here with a little more nerve. “Shut up,” screams a cross-dressing interpreter. It’s not exactly The Daily Show, but this is political satire, Afghan style.

Zang-e-Khatar (“Alarm Bell”), is a popular TV show in Afghanistan that has been thriving on the country’s political tribulations. It receives primetime billing – 9pm every Wednesday – and almost everyone with a TV seems to have seen an episode.

“It’s good entertainment,” said Ahmad Fawad, a shopkeeper. “It’s our custom to watch it every week.” His friend chimed in: “It’s funny and it’s informative. Our government is weak and Zang-e-Khatar tells people what’s going on.” The election debacle and subsequent speculation over who Mr Karzai will appoint to his cabinet have provided ample material; the visit of Hillary Clinton, David Miliband and a host of other foreign dignitaries to give their support to a man many foreign governments view as a disaster will doubtless provide plenty more. Host Hanif Hangam, whose silk scarf, dark glasses and turquoise rings lend him the swagger of a hip-hop star, is unlikely to be deferential.

In last night’s episode, for example, the show’s panellists lambasted the beleaguered President for failing to control his ministers, who they claimed went sex-trawling in Tajikistan instead of attending to the business of State. They wondered aloud how many positions Mr Karzai would give to the Taliban commanders who had delivered the pro-Karzai vote. And for good measure they derided the announcement that a new anti-corruption squad mentored by the British and Americans will clean up government. “Phew!” exclaimed Hangam, the show’s creator and leading comic, in an expression of relief that was not entirely sincere.

Owing an inevitable debt to Jon Stewart’s US current affairs review, The Daily Show, the show has a satiric sting that has enraged some of its targets. MPs tried to have it banned after it lampooned their opulent lifestyles and broadcast clips of them dozing through debates. Hangam says he has been threatened and beaten up since the show first broadcast five years ago. Now he says he is past the point of being scared – and, after all, he was once thrown in jail for pursuing his previous dream, acting, under the Taliban regime. He glows with pride when asked about his work. “The greatest thing is I made something out of nothing,” he says.

On some occasions politicians have noted the criticism, apparently reining in a tendency to throw water bottles at each other during heated debates after the show called for bottling companies to make softer MP-proof receptacles. The Taliban, foreign agents and even hapless pilgrims trying to get to Mecca are all fair game. The only subjects Hangam avoids are those he thinks will inflame ethnic tensions.

“They talk about the lack of respect MPs and politicians [show ordinary people] and I think to a large extent that’s true and that’s why it’s widely watched,” Fowzia Kufi, a young female MP, said. “Politicians ignore the programme but they should pay more attention.”


Taliban attack UN Kabul guesthouse in attempt to upend Afghan runoff

Christian Science Monitor

Gunmen stormed a Kabul guesthouse popular with UN workers Wednesday in what the Taliban called the first of more attacks ahead of Afghanistan’s Nov. 7 runoff election.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Taliban gunmen stormed a private guesthouse in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in a bloody predawn attack Wednesday that killed six United Nations staff and signaled a clear intent to disrupt the upcoming presidential runoff.

The United States embassy in Kabul confirmed that at least one of the dead was an American.

The raid, which appeared to be coordinated with rocket attacks on the presidential palace and the luxury Serena Hotel popular with foreigners, was the worst attack the UN has faced in Afghanistan and, like assaults on aid workers elsewhere could prompt some to leave the country.

The Taliban said the attack was the start of a campaign to wreck a runoff vote scheduled for Nov. 7.

Before dawn three militants disguised as police and wearing suicide vests sealed off the road outside the Bekhtar Guesthouse in central Kabul before shooting their way past a security guard. Once inside, they threw grenades and, by some accounts, dragged guests from their beds before killing them. At least one detonated his vest before security forces recaptured the building following a two-hour siege.

Eyewitnesses said that some terrified guests fled over the roof of a next-door building; others were injured jumping from balconies as flames engulfed part of the building. Twelve people were killed in total, with nine more said to be in serious condition.

Attack could scare off aid workers

Kai Eide, the UN head of mission in Afghanistan, said the attack would not deter the organization from its mission but that there would be a review of security measures. A truck bombing of the UN headquarters in Bagdad in 2003 killed 22 people and prompted the organization to pull out of Iraq for several years. Although UN workers have occasionally been targeted in Afghanistan before, Wednesday’s attack had the highest death toll so far.

The attack could have a heavy impact on aid agencies in the country, with security analysts warning that some may pack up altogether while others will definitely scale back their operations. Aid workers due to arrive in the country to help with the second round of voting have been advised to delay their flights.

“I think there’s going to be a bit of an exodus,” says one analyst who asked not to be named.

Aid workers are softer targets than the coalition bases, embassies and government ministries that the Taliban has concentrate its attacks on in the capital up til now.

President Hamid Karzai ordered an urgent overhaul of security around international aid institutions.

Deadliest month since 2001

The attack came as the loss of eight more American soldiers on Tuesday brought total troop casualties this month to 54, making October the deadliest month of the war for US forces since it began in 2001. The casualty rate has shot up sharply since July when thousands of additional US troops were deployed to some of the most volatile parts of the country.

Seven soldiers fell victim to a cluster of roadside bombs in southern Afghanistan, while an eighth was killed in an explosion in another part of the country. Improvised explosive devices, the Taliban’s weapon of choice, are the largest single killer of foreign forces in the country. (Read here about how US troops are trying to counter the IED threat in Afghanistan.)

The rising number of casualties, the high-profile resignation of a highly regarded US Foreign Service officer, and the growing tensions over next week’s Afghan election runoff will intensify pressure on Barack Obama as he edges towards a crucial decision on whether to commit thousands more troops to Afghanistan.


Afghanistan runoff: Abdullah wants election chief sacked

Christian Science Monitor

Abdullah Abdullah, the top challenger to President Karzai in Afghanistan’s election, said Monday he would otherwise not participate in the Nov. 7 runoff. The ultimatum could be a cover to withdraw from the race.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Abdullah Abdullah, the main opposition candidate in Afghanistan, demanded Monday the dismissal of the country’s top election officer as a condition for taking part in a runoff vote scheduled for Nov. 7.

Many analysts see his ultimatum – which also called for the suspension of several government ministers – as highly impractical so close to the ballot. Instead, it could serve as cover for an honorable withdrawal from the race.

Although election officials have been rushing to organize a second round of voting after frontrunnerPresident Hamid Karzai reluctantly agreed to one last week, the possibility of a powersharing deal between the two candidates has persisted as a more pragmatic solution.

Flanked by running mates, campaign aides, and turbaned elders, Dr. Abdullah said his conditions were “the most modest demands we could come up with. The people of Afghanistan … were disappointed. They don’t want to go through the same thing in a few days’ time. These are the minimum conditions” for participation in the second round.

On the subject of the Independent Election Commission’s perceived bias towards incumbent President Hamid Karzai, Abdullah referred to a quote by IEC chairman Azizullah Ludin from The New York Times: “We will have another election, and we’ll have the same result. Karzai is going to win.” Abdullah also accused the IEC of violating Afghan law by “changing results announced by the [UN-backed] Electoral Complaints Commission.”

At the very least, analysts say, Abdullah’s demands will intensify the pressure on President Karzai as the two men bargain over the make-up of the next government. “I think they are bargaining now for post-election posts,” says Omar Sharifi, a political analyst in Kabul. “This is Afghan politics. There are always behind-the-scenes talks.”

Abdullah set Oct. 31 as the deadline for his demands to be met. He refused to say whether he would boycott the runoff if they were not.

The Taliban has threatened to kill anyone taking part in the vote.

Campaigning since Karzai’s reluctant endorsement of a second round last week has been muted, with both candidates fighting their corners on US airwaves more than rallying supporters at home. Karzai questioned the reliability of the United States as a partner Sunday, as he fought off criticism of the first, fraud-ridden round of voting. Meanwhile, in an interview with CNN, Abdullah warned that US strategy in Afghanistan would fail without a credible government in Kabul as a partner.


Afghan election runoff: As officials scramble, some voters dig in heels

Christian Science Monitor

Some Afghans say they are tired of the election’s toll on lives and business. A runoff between President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah is slated for Nov. 7.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

No one on Chicken Street wants any more voting.

Instead of the usual brisk trade in carpets, silks, and gemstones, the popular strip of shops in Kabul is largely deserted. Afghans say their country’s political uncertainty is hurting business. For some shopkeepers sales have dropped by half.

Their disenchantment comes even as United Nationsand Afghan election officials make frantic preparations to hold another round of voting between President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah, if they fail to reach a deal before Nov. 7, when the runoff is scheduled.

Among the daunting tasks: Replacing 200 of 380 district election chiefs implicated in fraud during the first round of voting with more reliable staff.

The scramble comes after Mr. Karzai, under pressure from Western officials, agreed Tuesday to accept the findings of a vote-rigging inquiry that triggered the runoff between the two leading candidates.

But although both men claim that more voters will turn out than last time – Dr. Abdullah said Wednesday that voters would “embrace” the prospect – many Afghans have little appetite for more polling.

Turnout estimates were as low as 5 percent for some areas particularly hard-hit by the insurgency during the first round, held Aug. 20.

Haji Abdul Hakim, a carpet dealer on Chicken Street, says he is angry about the failure of the Afghan government and the international community to bring the process to a swift end.

“Business is very slow,” he says. “Everyone is making a loss. Democracy? The original democracy is good but the United Nations doesn’t know about it. Everybody is angry. There are no jobs and winter is coming. Difficult, difficult, difficult.”

His view is characteristic of most interviewees – others derided the runoff for creating “the same problems all over again.”

Still, not everyone is unhappy with Tuesday’s announcement of a runoff election. In Shorobak, in southern Kandahar Province – where fraud was widespread first time around – tribal elder Haji Mohammad Brits says his community wants a runoff vote.

“We will go for a second round if it’s necessary,” he says. “The delay that happened in the result – it’s good because the people can see who did the fraud and they will know a lot of things about the fraud, the problems that happened.”

However, there are serious questions about how to organize another ballot in less than three weeks, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledging Tuesday it would be a “huge challenge.”

“We have learned very valuable but painful lessons from the first election. We must not repeat what they have done last time,” he said.

Ballot papers, indelible ink, and other election materials supplied by the UN are already in Kabul, ready to be flown to the provinces Thursday, according to UN spokesman Aleem Siddique.

But a major, and largely unanswered, question is how to avoid a repeat of the vote rigging that tarred the initial poll.

Independent Election Commission spokesman Mohammad Noor Mohammad admits this will be a “challenge” for election officials. “It will be something we respond to in coming days,” he says.

Of more immediate concern to potential voters is security. Durrani Shah, from Gereshk district inHelmand province in the south, says: “We did hard work and we lost lots of life and still no result of the election. We can’t go for the second time. We would be very happy to have the next government and to solve our problems.”


Stansted hijack airline applies to restart flights from Kabul

Evening Standard

It is better known for disasters and hijacking than in-flight service, but one of the world’s most notorious airlines could be flying to London by next spring.

Afghanistan’s national airline Ariana is seeking permission to fly to Europe for the first time since it was banned three years ago for safety breaches.

It believes there is the potential for flights to Heathrow because of the number of diplomats, aid workers and private security contractors wanting to get to Kabul and the 40,000 Afghans estimated to be living in Britain.

The last Ariana flight to reach Britain was a hijacked Boeing 727 forced by gunmen to land at Stansted in 2000 as they sought to get into Britain, claiming to be fleeing the Taliban.

They surrendered after a 70-hour siege. The hostages were released and the hijackers sent to prison. One recently surfaced as a cleaner at Heathrow. To rebuild its reputation Ariana has invested £15million in two new planes, training and technical support that it hopes will satisfy a panel of experts in November.

The airline is applying to the European Aviation Safety Agency for the right to fly into Europe.

Captain Moin Khan Wardak, Ariana’s president and chief executive and also the pilot on the last flight from Heathrow to Kabul, said: “My first aim is safety.”

The link with London was severed in the early Nineties as Afghanistan descended into civil war. A series of fatal crashes in 1997 and 1998, all down to poor maintenance, dealt the airline’s reputation a lethal blow.

Passengers nicknamed it “Scariana”. American bombs in 2001 destroyed much of its fleet at Kabul airport. In 2006 European air watchdogs banned it, meaning its planes cannot enter the EU.

But in June, Ariana took delivery of two Airbus 310/300 aircraft from Turkish Airlines, which is also training the crew to international standards. Its fleet of ailing Antonov aircraft is used on domestic routes. The company already operates an indirect flight from Kabul to Frankfurt using a stop-over in Istanbul and a plane registered in Turkey. With a sizeable Afghan population in London, flights between the capitals made good business sense, Capt Wardak said.

One of the main reasons Ariana is blacklisted is because security at Kabul international airport was considered inadequate, but now British security firm Global has taken over responsibility.


Warlords arm Afghans in the north

National on Saturday

MAZAR-E-SHARIF // Gunrunning here is a lucrative trade. The price of a Kalashnikov has quadrupled in parts of northern Afghanistan, driven up by the possibility of civil unrest as officials struggle to produce a result for August’s presidential election.

“The weapons business is good right now,” said Gen Abdul Malek, a local warlord who fought briefly with the Taliban before double-crossing them and executing 2,000 of their followers. “Where it was once $150 for an AK-47 it has gone up to $600,” he said. “Where it was five Afghanis” [about 10 cents] “for a bullet it is now 30.” Mazar-e-Sharif, the cosmopolitan city that straddles international trading routes, shows little sign of the troubles that have swept northern Afghanistan this summer. But its open spaces and gentle hum belie the political and ethnic tensions threatening to divide the previously peaceful region.

Residents say rival warlords are squaring up, exploiting the political deadlock for personal gain at the same time as the Taliban makes rapid inroads across the north. “They exploit the misfortunes of people, using – the name of their tribe to incite violence and make money,” a local journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “People are saying ‘Kill the Pashtuns’. The leader of the Pashtuns is saying ‘Kill the Tajiks’.”

The trouble started when the powerful governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammed Noor, fell out with President Hamid Karzai after the latter overlooked him as his vice-presidential running mate. Instead, Mr Karzai chose one of Mr Atta’s bitterest personal rivals, the warlord Marshal Qasim Fahim. Mr Atta threw his weight behind Mr Karzai’s main challenger, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, campaigning energetically for him and festooning Mazar-e-Sharif with posters of a smiling Mr Abdullah. Billboards endorsing the president were defaced or torn down.

But now with Mr Karzai expected to win the election, possibly in one round, Mr Atta looks vulnerable. Old enemies have taken note. Trying to usurp him is Juma Khan Hamdard, a Karzai ally and governor of Paktia province in the east. Mr Atta and Mr Hamdard go back a long way: they fought with different factions during the civil war and later, as governor of a neighbouring province, Mr Hamdard was held responsible for the deaths of 12 people after his Pashtun-centric policies provoked riots.

The two men sit on different sides of the ethnic split: Mr Atta is a Tajik; Mr Hamdard belongs to the Pashtun ethnic group. Both have reputedly used ethnic prejudice to stir up their followers at times, and Mr Hamdard has even accused Mr Atta of having local Pashtun leaders assassinated. Mr Hamdard’s spokesman denied suggestions that he was preying on ethnic insecurities. “Afghanistan is a house for all Afghans: Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks. And if you see the story of Balkh, it will tell you all Afghan tribes live together. Whoever tells you [otherwise] – it’s completely wrong,” he said.

Locals disagree. “As long as you have warlords in the government how can you have peace in the country?” said one. Mr Atta, meanwhile, has struck back at Mr Hamdard’s attempts to undermine his authority. In a blistering speech he accused Mr Hamdard, in league with the ministry of the interior, of distributing weapons in order to destabilise the north. “Twenty-five commanders were given weapons by Juma Khan Hamdard in Charbolak, Chintral and Balkh districts. For each commander there were between five and 25 AK-47s, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and motorbikes,” he said. At the same time Mr Atta defended the right of his own supporters to “peaceful demonstrations” against vote-rigging.

Some say that Mr Hamdard is a pawn in the plot, spurred on by government ministers unhappy with Mr Atta’s defiance. The powerful interior minister, Hanif Atmar, is rumoured to be behind the campaign to discredit him. But either way, the fragmentation of the north is down to the central government’s failure to impose itself. “The situation is declining faster and faster in the north,” political analyst Haroun Mir said. “People can’t rely on the Afghan security forces to provide protection. The absence of government authority [is creating the] tension.”

Into the political vacuum have stepped the Taliban. Swathes of the countryside and sections of main highways have become impassable over the summer and previously safe Nato supply lines are under threat. The scale of the problem was highlighted when the German military called in an air strike that killed 30 civilians – the kind of incident associated with seemingly more volatile parts of the country. And then on Thursday Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan warned that Islamist militancy was spreading north into Central Asia. Although some insurgents may have come from the Taliban’s strongholds in the south and east, most are local.

“The Taliban is a bunch of different groups using the same brand name,” a security analyst explained. “The Taliban is essentially using a federal model. The Quetta Shura [the supreme Taliban council led by Mullah Omar in Pakistan's Quetta] lets them do their own thing — which, by the way is where the government fails by being so centralised — and ships in a few high-value assets — Uzbeks, Chechens and so on.”

The map of Taliban activity in the north roughly reflects the location of the Pashtun communities there. Kunduz province, where they have effectively opened a northern front against the German soldiers stationed there, has a number of districts with Pashtun majorities. Balkh too has Pashtun communities. “I see the calm before the storm,” Gen Malek warned. “There will be violence and instability. There will be disagreements between the tribes.”

Some observers struck a more cautious note, suggesting that while some districts might harbour insurgents, trouble would only occur on a large scale if international forces began targeting their leaders. “Then you have a lot of little guys scrambling for power. That would lead to chaos,” the security analyst said. Meanwhile if Mr Atta is forced out of office he is unlikely to be out of power. During his five years as governor of Balkh he has consolidated up to 60 per cent of the province’s business interests – particularly construction companies. Even if Mr Hamdard wins the governorship he covets, Mr Atta will informally continue to run things.


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