Sub-editor, World Desk, London, London
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Mar 31, 2010

Q+A: NATO sees Kandahar battle as Afghan turning point

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. and NATO commanders released details this week of plans for the biggest offensive of the nearly 9-year-old Afghan war, to seize control of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city and birthplace of the Taliban.

Following are answers to questions about the battle plan, which will unfold during the coming months:

Mar 18, 2010

U.S. troops leave border to Afghan boss accused of graft

SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan (Reuters) – One of the most important trade routes in Asia was closed last week while a boyish-looking man everyone calls “the general” showed around the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

General Stanley McChrystal clambered to the top of a roof, where “the general” — officially a colonel in the Afghan Border Police — pointed out the area where NATO forces plan to build a new $20 million border station.

Mar 16, 2010

Afghanistan confirms blanket pardon for war crimes

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan confirmed for the first time publicly on Tuesday that it had enacted into law a blanket pardon for war crimes and human rights abuse carried out before 2001.

Human rights groups have expressed dismay that the law appeared to have been enacted quietly, granting blanket immunity to members of all armed factions for acts committed during decades of war before the fall of the Taliban.

Mar 16, 2010

Afghanistan denies peace talks with Taliban No. 2

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s government denied a report on Tuesday that it had been holding secret peace talks with the Taliban’s number two leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, when he was arrested in Pakistan.

The announcement last month of Baradar’s arrest in Karachi by U.S. and Pakistani agents has led to numerous unconfirmed media reports the former top Taliban military commander might have been talking to Kabul, and that may have led to his arrest.

Mar 13, 2010

New U.N. mission chief in Kabul after tough year

KABUL (Reuters) – A new United Nations mission chief arrived in Kabul on Saturday to take up his post after a difficult year that saw the mission divided over election fraud and forced to cut back staff after a deadly attack.

Italian-Swedish diplomat Staffan De Mistura, who has previously held the same role in Iraq, promised to help improve the lives of ordinary Afghans while respecting the sovereignty of their government.

Mar 6, 2010

NATO backs Afghan official despite jail accusation

KABUL (Reuters) – The NATO-led military force in Afghanistan said on Saturday it had confidence in the choice of a man picked to run a former Taliban stronghold, despite a NATO commander saying he spent years in a German prison for assault.

Abdul Zahir, head of the new administration installed in the town of Marjah, denies the accusation that could set back the biggest NATO military operation of the eight-year-old war by damaging his legitimacy.

Mar 4, 2010

Commander raises issue of corruption in Afghanistan

SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan, March 4 (Reuters) – The commander of U.S. and NATO forces said on Thursday his forces could defeat insurgents on the battlefield, but could not ultimately win the war unless the Afghan government earned the trust of its people.

General Stanley McChrystal said in an interview that one of his top objectives was to put corruption centre stage.

After weeks in which news from Afghanistan has been dominated by a military offensive in the town of Marjah in Helmand province, McChrystal spent Thursday with finance ministry officials discussing efforts to tackle corruption in customs collection in neighbouring Kandahar province.

Insurgents "feed upon the lack of legitimacy of the government of Afghanistan," McChrystal said in the interview with Reuters and the New York Times. "They always come back to the idea that the government is corrupt.

"To the degree that it is one of the causes of the insurgency, it worries me more than the insurgency itself.

"We can fight the insurgency, we can defeat the forces of the insurgency, the ground forces and whatnot. But if we don’t have effective governance, credible governance, then you don’t defeat the cause of the insurgency."

"Our number one objective may be to put corruption front and centre," McChrystal told his staff before heading out to the province’s Chaman-Weesh border crossing near the town of Spin Boldak, where Afghan officials acknowledge only a fraction of legitimate customs revenue is collected.



PRESSURE ON KARZAI

Western officials put strong pressure on President Hamid Karzai to announce new measures to fight corruption last year after Karzai’s re-election in a vote that was marred by fraud.

However, the issue has slipped somewhat from the top of the agenda since the new year began, overshadowed by military operations in Helmand. Karzai has repeatedly said corruption in Afghanistan, while a problem, is exaggerated in Western media.

"I actually think we are making progress against corruption, albeit very slow progress," McChrystal said.

"The military operation in Marjah was designed so that we will be able to do the governance part. Well, we’re still in the process of doing it, so the proof will be in the execution."

McChrystal said he had discussed corruption with Karzai at a meeting on Wednesday before his trek to the border, where Western forces plan to begin building a $20 million customs depot later this year to prevent revenue being siphoned off.

Corruption at the border crossing is now "total," said Bismullah Kammawie, director general of Afghanistan’s customs.

Kandahar province has a target to generate only around $40 million in customs revenue, he said.

"The potential — I think if I tell you the potential is five times as much, I would not be wrong," Kammawie said.

Kandahar is the heartland of the Taliban, and Western troops had only a limited presence near its border until a U.S. unit arrived in the area last year. The most powerful provincial official is Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai.

The province will be the focus of a "surge" of 30,000 extra U.S. troops this year, most of whom will be arriving in the next few months. McChrystal’s troops have plans to modernise the border there so a larger volume of supplies can be shipped in.

That will be followed by building the new customs depot, which will require moving thousands of people off nearby land.

The border itself is still in the hands of a unit of Afghan Border Police, led by a powerful young tribal chief in his early 30′s, who does not normally allow U.S. troops to show a presence there during daylight hours when the post is open.

Nevertheless, McChrystal said he expected the new projects to improve the way the border is run this year. "Make it more efficient, you also make it more transparent, and that allows you to fight corruption."

U.S. General David Petraeus said on Thursday he has expanded the authority of McChrystal, giving him operational control over virtually all American forces in Afghanistan.

Petraeus, who is head of U.S. Central Command, said he gave the order "that all U.S. forces, less a handful, be placed under Gen. McChrystal’s operational … control."

The order, which Petraeus said gave McChrystal more authority than his predecessors, could be used to curtail the activities of U.S. Special Operations Forces, officials said. Special Ops have come under increasing scrutiny since a NATO air strike late last month killed more than 20 Afghan civilians. (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)






Mar 4, 2010

Arrest of No 2 may signal Taliban feud: McChrystal

SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan (Reuters) – The arrest of the Afghan Taliban’s former number two figure may have been the result of an internal feud and purge among Taliban leaders, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces said on Thursday.

The arrest in Pakistan of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in a U.S.-Pakistani operation confirmed last month, was described as a major intelligence coup and a possible sign Islamabad is becoming more willing to help fight Afghan militants.

Mar 2, 2010

U.S. voices concern over Afghan media rules

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan promised on Tuesday to clarify restrictions on news coverage of Taliban strikes, and hinted it may row back from the most draconian measures, which amount to a total ban on filming during attacks.

Washington said it would make clear to Kabul its support for a free media, one day after the Afghan National Directorate of Security spy agency summoned journalists to its headquarters and threatened to arrest anyone filming while strikes are under way.

Feb 10, 2010

Efforts to curb Afghan opium crop fail this year -UN

KABUL, Feb 10 (Reuters) – Efforts to persuade Afghanistan’s farmers to stop growing illegal opium have failed in the past year, the United Nations said on Wednesday, predicting as much land will be under poppy cultivation this year as in 2009.

A U.N. report found that a trend of curbing cultivation — which had seen land planted with poppies cut by more than a third from 2007-09 — had come to a sudden end.

Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world’s illegal opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin, an industry which Western countries say funds the insurgency against NATO troops and the Afghan government.

Over the past several years, the country has consistently managed to produce thousands of tonnes more than the entire global demand for the illegal drug, despite an international effort to stamp it out. Declines in cultivation in recent years had been hailed as progress.

But the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) predicted in a preliminary report that it expects little or no change this year from the roughly 123,000 ha (304,000 acres) where opium was grown in 2009.

Most of the annual opium crop is planted before the winter and lies dormant underground this time of year, to be harvested in April or May. The report is based on surveys of farmers conducted late last year at the time of planting the 2010 crop.

CLEAR MESSAGE

"The message is clear: in order to further reduce the biggest source of the world’s deadliest drug, there must be better security, development and governance in Afghanistan," said the head of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa.

"The Afghan authorities must lead and own their drug control strategy: the rest of the world has a vested interest in its success," he said in a statement.

The report said the total amount of opium produced in Afghanistan may still fall because weather conditions are not as good as last year, when a bumper crop meant production overshot global demand despite a decline in cultivation from 2008.

Most of Afghanistan’s opium is grown in Helmand province, the most violent part of the country.

Some 10,000 U.S. Marines arrived in Helmand last year and seized most of the lower Helmand river valley before the planting season. Their commanders had hoped that their presence would reduce cultivation by providing more security so farmers could have access to food seed and get other crops to market.

Thousands more Marines have arrived in the province since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 more troops to the country in December, and are planning a massive assault on the last remaining large Taliban bastion in the province within days. [ID:nSGE61808T]

The report said restoring security to violent areas was the best way to combat drugs cultivation.

"There is a strong correlation between insurgency and cultivation. The UNODC assessment shows that almost 80 percent of villages with very poor security conditions grew poppy, while opium grows in only 7 percent of villages unaffected by violence," the agency said in its statement.

Previous bumper harvests in Afghanistan have led to a huge global opium glut that has caused prices to fall, persuading some growers to shift to other crops in recent years.

But prices for food crops fell even faster than opium prices last year, meaning the economic case for abandoning opium was no longer as strong, the report found.

(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)