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March 7, 2011 

Gates apologizes for latest civilian deaths in Afghanistan
By the CNN Wire Staff March 7, 2011
Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday offered his personal apology to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai for the killings of nine Afghan boys last week in a NATO-led helicopter attack targeting insurgents, saying the incident "breaks our hearts."

Why is Robert Gates making a surprise visit to Afghanistan?
By Tom A. Peter – Mon Mar 7, 12:20 pm ET The Christian Science Monitor
Kabul, Afghanistan – US Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Afghanistan for a surprise visit Monday at a critical time for war strategists in the White House. As heavy fighting is expected to resume as the weather improves, Mr. Gates will likely be assessing the scope of the troop drawdown scheduled to begin this July. Defense officials, however, have been quick to insist that this is not a decisionmaking trip.

Gates: US should stay involved in Afghanistan
By ROBERT BURNS, AP National Security Writer – Mon Mar 7, 7:20 am ET
BAGRAM, Afghanistan – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that both the U.S. and Afghan governments agree the American military should remain involved in Afghanistan after the planned 2014 end of combat operations to help train and advise Afghan forces.

Gates: US starts to frame long-term security deal with Afghanistan, rules out permanent bases
By Robert Burns, The Associated Press | The Canadian Press – Mon, 7 Mar, 2011 3:17 PM EST
KABUL - The United States is beginning to decide what its responsibilities will be in Afghanistan after U.S. combat troops leave, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Monday, but he ruled out permanent military bases in the strategically important country.

U.S. negotiating security deal with Afghanistan
By Robert Burns Associated Press Monday, March 7, 2011
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States is beginning to decide what its responsibilities will be in Afghanistan after U.S. combat troops leave, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday, but he ruled out permanent military bases in the strategically important country.

Afghan government asks U.N. to ease limits on 5 ex-Taliban
By Saeed Shah | McClatchy Newspapers
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government has asked the United Nations to remove the names of five former senior Taliban members from its terrorist blacklist, including the man who ran the extremist regime's feared religious police, McClatchy has learned.

Twin Blasts Kill Two Afghan Police
VOA News March 7, 2011
Afghan officials say twin bomb blasts have killed two police officers and wounded at least 25 other people in the eastern part of the country.

Australia making progress in Afghanistan: defense minister
CANBERRA, March 7 (Xinhua) -- Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith on Monday said Australia is making "quiet but steady progress" in war-torn Afghanistan.

37 insurgents join Afghan peace process: NATO
KABUL, March 7 (Xinhua)-- A total of 37 Taliban insurgents have given up insurgency and joined reintegration process in Afghanistan's Kunar province, some 185 km east of capital city Kabul, spokesman of NATO-led forces said on Monday.

Heavy rains threaten to delay Canadian-led road project in Afghanistan
By Tara Brautigam, The Canadian Press | The Canadian Press – Mon, 7 Mar, 2011 6:45 PM EST
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - A major Canadian road project in southern Afghanistan has been hampered by an element the military has no control over, one rarely associated with the arid region of Kandahar: rain.

Afghanistan deputy minister: expansion of economic ties with Iran important
TEHRAN, March 7 (Xinhua) -- Afghan Deputy Commerce and Industry Minister Mohammad Sharif Sharifi said Afghanistan attaches great importance to expanding economic and trade relations with Iran, the local satellite Press TV reported on Monday.

Afghan Air Force returns to flight
By Keith Gerein, Postmedia News March 7, 2011 canada.com
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — The traffic jam never ends at the world's busiest single-runway airport.

Afghan MPs Elect First Deputy Speaker
Tolo news March 6, 2011
Afghan legislators on Sunday elected Khalid Pashtun as the first deputy house speaker.
Mrs Rahila Salim and Khalid Pashtun were the candidates for the seat, but Mr Pashtun sweeping majority of votes won the position.

Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan suffer high rate of brain trauma
JULIAN SHER From Monday's Globe and Mail Monday, Mar. 07, 2011
Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were hospitalized for traumatic brain injury between 2006 and 2009 at almost three times the rate of Americans fighting there in earlier years before the war escalated, according to a National Defence study obtained by The Globe and Mail.

New militia brings security, and worries, to Marjah
McClatchy Newspapers By SAEED SHAH 06/03/2011
MARJAH, Afghanistan - Namatullah, a 19-year-old volunteer for a new armed "neighborhood watch" militia now patrolling alongside Marines in northeast Marjah, simply drew his finger across his throat when asked why he and other residents hadn't banded together to protect their districts until the arrival of the U.S. soldiers.

Ancient wonders of Afghanistan
An exhibition of Afghan treasures at the British Museum reveals a truly fascinating history, says Adrian Hamilton. And it's a testament to the heroic curators who saved the collection from the ravages of war
The Independent Monday, 7 March 2011
For most of us, Bagram in Afghanistan means a vast US base. Not for the British Museum.

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Gates apologizes for latest civilian deaths in Afghanistan
By the CNN Wire Staff March 7, 2011
Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday offered his personal apology to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai for the killings of nine Afghan boys last week in a NATO-led helicopter attack targeting insurgents, saying the incident "breaks our hearts."

Karzai responded at the joint appearance with the visiting Gates by saying he accepted the apology, which appeared to ease for now renewed tension over the issue of civilian casualties caused by the U.S.-led NATO forces fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

"While we take the apology with a lot of respect, agree with it and accept it today, I would request Secretary Gates that you take the plea of the Afghan people to Washington that these civilian casualties stop and make the utmost effort so that we don't have them anymore," Karzai said.

The remarks were intended to show that Karzai and his government were moving past the incident despite public anger over the killings and the continuing presence of the U.S.-led military force.

Gates cited that anger in his apology, saying that the deaths of the boys who were cutting wood was "a tragedy for their families" and "a setback for our relationship with the Afghan people whose security is our chief concern."

"I would also like to offer President Karzai my personal apology because I know these tragedies weigh heavily on his heart and create problems for him as the leader and protector of the Afghan people," Gates continued.

Gates arrived earlier Monday on the previously unannounced trip. It was his 13th visit to Afghanistan since he became defense secretary in 2006.

The timing appeared intended to address Karzai's anger over the killing of the nine boys. Until Monday, Karzai had indicated that previous apologies, including one from U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the U.S.-led military coalition, were insufficient.

Meeting with U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield after his arrival, Gates choked up when a service member asked him what kept him up at night.

"You all," Gates responded, his voice catching. He said he thinks about the U.S. forces deployed in Afghanistan every day, before joking that Congress also keeps him up.

Gates is scheduled to meet with senior officers and Afghan leaders during his visit to Afghanistan. He will be traveling to southern and eastern parts of the embattled country.

The defense secretary last traveled to Afghanistan three months ago, in December 2010. Gates prefers to tour the embattled country quarterly to monitor the war effort, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.

From Afghanistan, Gates will fly to Stuttgart, Germany, to visit the U.S. Africa Command and will continue to Brussels, Belgium, to attend a meeting of NATO defense ministers.

CNN's Rick Martin contributed to this report.
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Why is Robert Gates making a surprise visit to Afghanistan?
By Tom A. Peter – Mon Mar 7, 12:20 pm ET The Christian Science Monitor
Kabul, Afghanistan – US Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Afghanistan for a surprise visit Monday at a critical time for war strategists in the White House. As heavy fighting is expected to resume as the weather improves, Mr. Gates will likely be assessing the scope of the troop drawdown scheduled to begin this July. Defense officials, however, have been quick to insist that this is not a decisionmaking trip.

When the fighting season came to a close in Afghanistan last fall, commanders and politicians lauded gains against the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Still, they claimed the real measure of progress would be made when fighting resumed this spring and the military power of the Taliban became apparent.

Now that it is spring, Washington appears to be following up on that assessment. The primary goal of the trip is to get a better sense of how far the United States has come in the past three months, according to Mr. Gates's spokesperson. Gates is slated to meet with soldiers and travel to the volatile southern and eastern areas of the country, and bring his observations back to Washington.

IN PICTURES: Fighting continues in Afghanistan

What Gates could findSince Gates’s last visit in December, Afghanistan has seen an unusual amount of military activity for the winter, a fact that International Security Assistance Force officials attribute to a greater number of insurgents who stayed in the country to fight, rather than spending the winter resting in Pakistan or elsewhere outside Afghanistan. ISAF officials say that they believe this may give them the upper hand this spring and summer.

“This year is going to be a lot different than past spring offensives where insurgents reinfiltrated,” says US Air Force Lt. Col. John Dorrian, an ISAF spokesman. “Because there are more insurgents who are active this winter, we have maintained a much higher operations tempo than we have in past years.... Insurgent leaders were here and active and that enabled us to track them and attempt to capture and kill them, preferably capture.”

Gates will also likely review the strength of Afghan security forces who will eventually replace international troops. Although these forces have grown in number – there are 70,000 more Afghan security forces today than there were at this time last year – many Afghans still question their capability.

“The reality is this: The Afghan National Army, the Afghan national police, and other related security apparatus in this country are not yet cohesive enough to be called national entities. They still consist of regional and tribal entities. Even the command and control at mid-level in the police and Army, and NDS [National Directorate of Security] are politically oriented,â€

Mr. Sultanzoy adds that there are still serious questions about the level of education of members of the Afghan security forces and the equipment made available to them.

Clues on drawdown?Presently, it remains unclear just how many of the 97,000 US troops commanders will remove from Afghanistan, and Gates has yet to give any indication. Officials insist that Gates has not come to Afghanistan to make any final determinations.

“This is not a decisionmaking trip,” Gates’s chief spokesman, Geoff Morrell, told reporters traveling with the official Pentagon delegation. “This will certainly inform [Gates] on making those decisions in coming months.”

Later this month, President Hamid Karzai is scheduled to announce his plan to shift responsibility from coalition forces to Afghan troops in some areas of the country. This may provide some window into the new relationship between the US and international forces after July.
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Gates: US should stay involved in Afghanistan
By ROBERT BURNS, AP National Security Writer – Mon Mar 7, 7:20 am ET
BAGRAM, Afghanistan – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that both the U.S. and Afghan governments agree the American military should remain involved in Afghanistan after the planned 2014 end of combat operations to help train and advise Afghan forces.

"Obviously it would be a small fraction of the presence that we have today, but I think we're willing to do that," Gates told a group of U.S. troops at Bagram air field, which is headquarters for U.S. and NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan. "My sense is, they (Afghan officials) are interested in having us do that."

A soldier asked Gates about a long-term military presence, and Gates noted that Washington and Kabul have recently begun negotiating a security partnership. He mentioned no details. He was to meet later in the day with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

On Sunday, the Afghan National Security Council discussed the matter of a long-term security accord with the U.S., according to a statement issued by Karzai's office. The statement said Karzai told the council that the U.S. wants the deal worked out as soon as possible. And he said that on the Afghan side it was matter not just for the government but for the Afghan people to decide.

The U.S. has said it wants a long-term relationship with Afghanistan, in part to ensure the country does not again become a haven for al-Qaida or affiliated terrorist groups. Karzai's interest is rooted in his desire for U.S. security guarantees and commitments that could help bring stability and prosperity.

Gates is at the start of a two-day visit with U.S. troops, allied commanders and Afghan leaders to gauge war progress as the Obama administration moves toward crucial decisions on reducing troop levels.

The trip comes during heightened tensions between the U.S. and Afghanistan. On Sunday, Karzai rejected a U.S. apology for the mistaken killing of nine Afghan boys in a NATO air attack. The Afghan president told Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, that expressing regret was insufficient for last week's killing of the boys, ages 12 and under, by coalition helicopters.

A planned visit to a combat outpost south of Kabul was scratched due to poor weather, and instead Gates made a brief flight north to Bagram, headquarters for the U.S.-led command that is responsible for eastern Afghanistan. The Pentagon chief visited a combat hospital, where Maj. Gen. John Campbell told reporters three soldiers had been admitted earlier in the day with wounds from a roadside bomb blast.

In his remarks to troops assembled inside a cavernous building on the air field, Gates offered encouragement.

"I know you've had a tough winter, and it's going to be a tougher spring and summer, but you've made a lot of headway," he said. "I think you've proven, with your Afghan partners, that this thing is going to work and that we'll be able to prevail."

Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters flying with the Pentagon chief from Washington that Gates wants to get a first-hand feel for changes on the ground since he last was in Afghanistan in December.

The U.S. is committed to beginning a troop withdrawal in July. But the size and scope of the pullback will depend on the degree of progress toward handing off full control to the shaky Afghan government.

Morrell said Gates expects to hear from troops and commanders that U.S. and NATO strategy is making important progress against the relentless Taliban, who are thought to be gearing up for a spring offensive.

Campbell told reporters in Bagram that the number of roadside bomb attacks has risen in the last two weeks.

"The enemy is trying to get an early start on what he would call a spring offensive," Campbell said, adding that it was not yet clear whether there has been an increase in Taliban fighter infiltration from the Pakistan side of the border.

U.S. commanders have been saying for weeks that the Taliban are suffering big losses in territory and personnel, while being denied the funding and infiltration routes they have relied on in the past to ramp up guerrilla operations each spring.

Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, top commander in the southwestern province of Helmand, told reporters last week that a Taliban counteroffensive is anticipated.

Mills said he expects the Taliban to try "to regain very, very valuable territory ... lost over the past six to eight months." He added that U.S. and allied forces are intercepting "as many of the foreign fighters as we can" who come from Pakistan to attack U.S. and Afghan troops.

Gates sees the spring as a potentially decisive period for President Barack Obama's war strategy, which includes beginning to withdraw U.S. forces in July.

This week's visit is Gates' 13th trip to Afghanistan, and probably one of his last as defense secretary. He has said he will retire this year but has not given a date.

After Afghanistan, Gates planned to fly to the Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters of U.S. Africa Command to attend a ceremony Wednesday marking the arrival of a new commander, Army Gen. Carter Ham.

Gates will attend a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
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Gates: US starts to frame long-term security deal with Afghanistan, rules out permanent bases
By Robert Burns, The Associated Press | The Canadian Press – Mon, 7 Mar, 2011 3:17 PM EST
KABUL - The United States is beginning to decide what its responsibilities will be in Afghanistan after U.S. combat troops leave, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Monday, but he ruled out permanent military bases in the strategically important country.

President Hamid Karzai wants U.S. military support even as he heavily criticizes the current U.S.-led military campaign for being too quick on the trigger. Nine Afghan boys died in an accidental air strike last week, reopening a raw issue.

Gates said the U.S. is interested in keeping a military presence in this former al-Qaida haven beyond the planned end of combat in three years. At a news conference with Karzai, Gates said a team of U.S. officials would arrive here next week to begin negotiations over a new compact for U.S.-Afghan security relations after 2014, when all international combat forces are supposed to be gone. U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001, and President Barack Obama has repeatedly said the war is not open-ended.

The Pentagon chief also said the U.S. and its allies will be "well positioned" to begin withdrawing forces in July this year, although he gave no specifics. The withdrawal would continue through 2014, with Afghan forces gradually taking over the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency.

Gates' promise to draft a post-2014 "strategic partnership" with this poor, unstable nation is meant to reassure the mercurial Karzai, who fear that he and the country's fragile civilian government might be overthrown without U.S. military backing. It is not clear how far-reaching or binding the document would be.

Vexing questions remain about whether Kabul will be ready to govern by 2015 and prevent a return to extremist Taliban rule.

Gates opened his remarks by offering a personal apology for the children's deaths last week, an incident that had prompted Karzai on Sunday to issue a statement calling the deaths unacceptable and reject an apology issued by U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander of American and NATO forces in the country.

"This breaks our hearts," Gates said of the deaths. He called it a setback, too, for U.S. ties to the Afghan people — a relationship that is central to Petraeus' strategy for countering the Taliban insurgency by winning the loyalty of ordinary Afghans.

Asked by a reporter whether he accepted Gates' apology, Karzai said, "I trust him fully when he says he's sorry." He added that words alone from even the most senior American defence official was not enough for Afghans tired of civilian casualties.

"They want it not reduced — they want it stopped," Karzai said.

The top U.S. commander in the area where the nine Afghan boys were killed, Army Maj. Gen. John Campbell, told reporters travelling with Gates that the incident was regrettable, but he also said without offering any details, "there is a lot more to that story." He said it is still being investigated.

Campbell said 90 per cent of civilian casualties in his area of responsibility are caused by the Taliban.

Gates arrived Monday on a two-day visit intended to give him a first-hand sense of how Obama's war strategy is faring, and whether it is on track to sufficiently weaken the Taliban while building up the capacity of Afghanistan's own army and police.

"While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view we will be well positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July, even as we redeploy others to different areas of the country," he said. He immediately added a reassurance to Karzai that, "we are not leaving" this summer. "Come September, October and beyond, there will still be substantial numbers of coalition troops still partnering with Afghans," he said.

Karzai and Gates both mentioned that their discussions included the topic of negotiating a strategic partnership, which in Karzai's eyes is a way to parlay the enormous U.S. investment in blood and treasury since 2001 into the foundations of long-term stability.

"The specifics remain to be negotiated," Gates said. "But I would say that if the Afghan people and the Afghan government are interested in an ongoing security relationship," with some level of U.S. military presence, "The United States I think is open to the possibility of having some presence here in terms of training and assistance," possibly using Afghan bases.

"We have no interest in permanent bases" for the U.S., he said. "But if the Afghans want us here, we are certainly prepared" to stay.

Negotiations over a post-war security agreement with Afghanistan recall the struggle to fashion a security compact with Iraq three years ago, although these talks are unlikely to be as contentious. In both cases the United States had an interest in ensuring that chaos did not follow a U.S. withdrawal, allowing a new foothold for al-Qaida. What's different is that the U.S. has a written agreement with Iraq that requires all U.S. forces to depart at the end of this year unless the Iraqi government reopens the question and invited the U.S. to stay.

Earlier, during an encounter with U.S. troops at Bagram air base, Gates said he thought the U.S. and Afghanistan were both interested in a longer-term U.S. military presence.

"Obviously it would be a small fraction of the presence that we have today, but I think we're willing to do that," Gates told the soldiers. "My sense is, they (Afghan officials) are interested in having us do that."

This week's visit is Gates' 13th trip to Afghanistan, and probably one of his last as defence secretary. He has said he will retire this year but has not given a date.

After Afghanistan, Gates planned to fly to the Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters of U.S. Africa Command to attend a ceremony Wednesday marking the arrival of a new commander, Army Gen. Carter Ham.

Gates will attend a NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
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U.S. negotiating security deal with Afghanistan

By Robert Burns Associated Press Monday, March 7, 2011
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States is beginning to decide what its responsibilities will be in Afghanistan after U.S. combat troops leave, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday, but he ruled out permanent military bases in the strategically important country.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants U.S. military support even as he heavily criticizes the current U.S.-led military campaign for being too quick on the trigger. Nine Afghan boys died in an accidental air strike last week, reopening a raw issue.

Mr. Gates said the United States is interested in keeping a military presence in this former al Qaeda haven beyond the planned end of combat in three years. At a news conference with Mr. Karzai, Mr. Gates said a team of U.S. officials would arrive here next week to begin negotiations over a new compact for U.S.-Afghan security relations after 2014, when all international combat forces are supposed to be gone. U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001, and President Obama repeatedly has said the war is not open-ended.

The Pentagon chief also said the United States and its allies will be "well positioned" to begin withdrawing forces in July this year, although he gave no specifics. The withdrawal would continue through 2014, with Afghan forces gradually taking over the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency.

Mr. Gates' promise to draft a post-2014 "strategic partnership" with this poor, unstable nation is meant to reassure the mercurial Mr. Karzai, who fears that he and the country's fragile civilian government might be overthrown without U.S. military backing. It is not clear how far-reaching or binding the document would be.

Vexing questions remain about whether Kabul will be ready to govern by 2015 and prevent a return to extremist Taliban rule.

Mr. Gates opened his remarks by offering a personal apology for the children's deaths last week, an incident that had prompted Mr. Karzai on Sunday to issue a statement calling the deaths unacceptable and reject an apology from U.S. ArmyGen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander of American and NATO forces in the country.

"This breaks our hearts," Mr. Gates said of the deaths. He called it a setback, too, for U.S. ties to the Afghan people — a relationship that is central to Gen. Petraeus' strategy for countering the Taliban insurgency by winning the loyalty of ordinary Afghans.

Asked by a reporter whether he accepted Mr. Gates' apology, Mr. Karzai said, "I trust him fully when he says he's sorry." He added that words alone from even the most senior American defense official was not enough for Afghans tired of civilian casualties.

"They want it not reduced — they want it stopped," Mr. Karzai said.

The top U.S. commander in the area where the nine Afghan boys were killed, Army Maj. Gen. John Campbell, told reporters traveling with Mr. Gates that the incident was regrettable, but he also said, without offering any details, "There is a lot more to that story." He said it is still being investigated.

Gen. Campbell said 90 percent of civilian casualties in his area of responsibility are caused by the Taliban.

Mr. Gates arrived Monday on a two-day visit intended to give him a firsthand sense of how Mr. Obama's war strategy is faring and whether it is on track to weaken the Taliban sufficiently while building up the capacity of Afghanistan's own army and police.

"While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view we will be well positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July, even as we redeploy others to different areas of the country," he said. He immediately added a reassurance to Mr. Karzai that "we are not leaving" this summer. "Come September, October and beyond, there will still be substantial numbers of coalition troops still partnering with Afghans," he said.

Mr. Karzai and Mr. Gates both mentioned that their discussions included the topic of negotiating a strategic partnership, which in Mr. Karzai's eyes is a way to parlay the enormous U.S. investment in blood and treasury since 2001 into the foundations of long-term stability.

"The specifics remain to be negotiated," Mr. Gates said, "but I would say that if the Afghan people and the Afghan government are interested in an ongoing security relationship," with some level of U.S. military presence. "The United States, I think, is open to the possibility of having some presence here in terms of training and assistance," possibly using Afghan bases.

"We have no interest in permanent bases" for the United States, Mr. Gates said, "but if the Afghans want us here, we are certainly prepared" to stay.

Negotiations over a post-war security agreement with Afghanistan recall the struggle to fashion a security compact with Iraq three years ago, although these talks are unlikely to be as contentious. In both cases the United States had an interest in ensuring that chaos did not follow a U.S. withdrawal, allowing a new foothold for al Qaeda. What's different is that the United States has a written agreement with Iraq that requires all U.S. forces to depart at the end of this year unless the Iraqi government reopens the question and invites the United States to stay.

Earlier, during an encounter with U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base, Mr. Gates said he thought the United States and Afghanistan both were interested in a longer-term U.S. military presence.

"Obviously, it would be a small fraction of the presence that we have today, but I think we're willing to do that," Mr. Gates told the soldiers. "My sense is, (Afghan officials) are interested in having us do that."

This week's visit is Mr. Gates' 13th trip to Afghanistan and probably one of his last as defense secretary. He has said he will retire this year but has not given a date.

After Afghanistan, Mr. Gates plans to fly to the Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters of U.S. Africa Command to attend a ceremony Wednesday marking the arrival of a new commander, Army Gen. Carter Ham.

Mr. Gates will attend a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
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Afghan government asks U.N. to ease limits on 5 ex-Taliban
By Saeed Shah | McClatchy Newspapers
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government has asked the United Nations to remove the names of five former senior Taliban members from its terrorist blacklist, including the man who ran the extremist regime's feared religious police, McClatchy has learned.

The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai views the U.N. blacklist as the primary obstacle to starting peace talks with the Taliban, since anyone who's on the blacklist risks arrest if he's seen in public. All five of the former Taliban have been named to the 70-member High Peace Council, which the Afghan government set up last year to try to forge a political settlement, increasingly convinced that the war effort is going nowhere.

U.N. approval of the request, made formally by the Afghan government to the U.N. Security Council in a letter dated Feb. 27, is by no means certain. While most of the international community, including the United States, agrees in principle to delisting those who've given up the armed struggle, in practice the process is slow. Russia, whose troops fought — and lost — a bloody war against the Taliban, has been particularly reluctant to remove any names from the blacklist, even of those Taliban members who've died.

"Internationally, the High Peace Council body is being supported. So members of the High Peace Council should be accepted. Yet they're still on the blacklist," said Shaida Mohammad Abdali, the deputy national security adviser.

Among those whose delisting the government is requesting is Maulvi Qalamudin, the former deputy head of the notorious Department of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

All five already are "reconciled" with the Afghan government, and have lived freely in Afghanistan for a number of years.

Diplomats in Kabul said that the Afghan government often pushed the process of delisting without providing sufficient documentation to prove that individuals no longer were involved in terrorism. But Abdali complained that "There is a criteria for listing but no specific criteria for delisting."

In the last six years, Abdali said, just 15 names have been removed from the blacklist. He said the issue was mired in a "big, broad, unnecessary bureaucracy," while some members of the Security Council were "reluctant."

He also said that the delisting process must include current Taliban, as that was what the peace talks required — a much more controversial step. Washington sees many of those who are still in the Taliban leadership is dangerously close to al Qaida.

"Having them (current Taliban) on the list means that there is no trust. That is raised by the Taliban all the time when they meet us. How can we expect them to be reconciled if they are not wanted?" Abdali said.

The terrorist list includes Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. Blacklisted people can't travel legally without special permission.

The other four High Peace Council members on the list, all of whom held official positions in the Taliban government, are Arsalan Rehmani, the former deputy higher education minister; Rahmatullah Wahidyar, the ex-deputy minister for martyrs and repatriation; Saeedur Rehman Haqani, the former deputy minister for mines and industries; and Habibullah Fawzi, a Taliban diplomat who served in Pakistan and elsewhere. All are considered moderates in the Taliban regime, which grabbed power in the mid-'90s and ruled until a U.S.-led international operation ousted it in October 2001.

Qalamudin, however, was the chief enforcer of the Taliban's brutal, medieval Islamic rule, which banned television, music and education for girls, required men to grow long beards and forced women to stay inside unless they were dressed in all-enveloping burqas and accompanied by close male relatives.

Qalamudin's minions beat women and men in the street for not following the strictures. He also issued his own edicts, including, on one day in 1997, a ban on women wearing makeup or high heels — or any shoe that "makes noises" when they walk. Qalamudin was captured in Kabul in 2003 but was released in 2005.

Last month, Washington signaled a more positive position on talking to the Taliban, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "an intensified diplomatic push" was needed to "support an Afghan-led political process to split the weakened Taliban off from al Qaida."

A representative of the American Embassy in Kabul, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the U.S. government was "working on a case to case" basis with other Security Council members to consider removing Taliban names on "merit."

Separately, while visiting Kabul on Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. would be in a position to meet a pledge to start pulling out some troops from Afghanistan in July.

"While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view we will be well-positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July even as we redeploy others to different areas of the country," Gates said.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article from Afghanistan.)
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Twin Blasts Kill Two Afghan Police
VOA News March 7, 2011
Afghan officials say twin bomb blasts have killed two police officers and wounded at least 25 other people in the eastern part of the country.

Afghanistan's interior ministry said the blasts happened Monday in Jalalabad near a mosque. Those wounded include 16 police officers and nine civilians.

The eastern city of Jalalabad is along a key trade route to Pakistan and has been the site of numerous militant attacks in recent weeks.

Last month, a group of suicide bombers raided a branch of Kabul Bank in the city, killing at least 35 people and wounding more than 70 others. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

Kabul Bank handles the payroll for many of Afghanistan's police and soldiers. Local officials said several police officers who had come to collect their salaries were among the casualties in the February attack.
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Australia making progress in Afghanistan: defense minister
CANBERRA, March 7 (Xinhua) -- Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith on Monday said Australia is making "quiet but steady progress" in war-torn Afghanistan.

"We remain of the view that in Afghanistan, together with 48 other international security systems force countries, that we are doing our bit to stamp out international terrorists," Smith told Australia Associated Press in Perth on Monday.

Smith said Australia's 1500 personnel currently in the war-torn country was "appropriate", and the Australian soldiers would continue to mentor and train the Afghan National Security Forces in Uruzgan province for the next three years.

Smith will visit Brussels of Belgium on Thursday for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Defense Ministers' Meeting on Afghanistan.

He said the meeting would discuss further how to transfer security responsibility to Afghan authorities by the end of 2014.

He added that the NATO/ISAF meeting would also be an opportunity to discuss an international response to the recent violence in Libya.

Ahead of the international meeting, Smith will visit London on Tuesday to meet with United Kingdom Secretary of State for Defense Liam Fox to discuss the possibility of Australia leasing or buying a Bay Class amphibious vessel from the UK.
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37 insurgents join Afghan peace process: NATO
KABUL, March 7 (Xinhua)-- A total of 37 Taliban insurgents have given up insurgency and joined reintegration process in Afghanistan's Kunar province, some 185 km east of capital city Kabul, spokesman of NATO-led forces said on Monday.

"We are seeing early success of the Afghan-led reintegration program. Just this week 37 former insurgents joined the peace process and reintegrated into Afghan society in the Ghazi Abad District of Kunar," Brigadier-General Josef Blotz told reporters in a weekly press conference.

The spokesman of more than 140,000 NATO-led forces said the ex- insurgents were under the command of Arsala Khan.

Ghazi Abad and Pech Valley are the districts in Kunar province have witnessed bloody battles over the past couple of weeks which according to Afghan officials left over 70 civilians including nine children dead.

The NATO-led forces has claimed responsibility for killing nine Afghan children in Kunar province and rendered apology for the mistake.

However, President Hamid Karzai has strongly condemned harming civilians and said on Sunday that civilian deaths in NATO operations were intolerable.
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Heavy rains threaten to delay Canadian-led road project in Afghanistan
By Tara Brautigam, The Canadian Press | The Canadian Press – Mon, 7 Mar, 2011 6:45 PM EST
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - A major Canadian road project in southern Afghanistan has been hampered by an element the military has no control over, one rarely associated with the arid region of Kandahar: rain.

Heavy downpours over the past couple of weeks have slowed construction of a 22-kilometre road in the Panjwaii district, a volatile area where the Canadian battle group is conducting one last push to win over locals before combat operations end in July.

"I would say that up until the last few weeks, it was going pretty well," said Capt. Jean-Francois Huot of the 5 Combat Engineer Regiment.

"The first rain didn't affect much, but then with the accumulation and the speed at which it evaporates we've seen, well, look how slow it is."

The deluge has clogged irrigation canals and left sandy plains a muddy mess. Last week, a crew from the Kandahar Air Wing had to be dispatched to rescue two Afghan men whose truck became stranded because of flash flooding.

The Royal 22e Regiment had hoped to have the road finished by mid-April. Military officials say once completed, the road will link rural villages together, boost commerce and trade and improve the freedom of movement for Afghans.

Capt. Victor Bertrand, an infantry officer with the 1st Battalion of the Royal 22e Regiment, said the rain has hindered work on the road's gravel bed, as well as efforts to clear the route of improvised explosive devices.

"It was at one point impossible to move gravel trucks forward, so if they cannot go, then you cannot continue the road," Bertrand said.

"Even for some of our military vehicles, it's hard to proceed at times on those roads. Our vehicles get stuck, you have to get out of the mud, so it's a difficulty in itself. It's more travelling and it has an impact."

The rain may have also discouraged insurgents from planting IEDs. Bertrand said there were fewer IEDs found along the road last month than in January.

"Now to know exactly why will be a challenge ... (but) the weather still has an impact on the insurgents."

The road is being carved through the Horn of Panjwaii from the central village of Bazaar-e-Panjwaii to just west of Mushan. It is part of a larger military effort in Kandahar province that draws on troops from many countries, including the United States.

The Royal 22e Regiment began building the road in late November, within days of entering Kandahar as Canada's final contingent of soldiers before the military mission ends.

So far, 17 kilometres of road have been cleared of IEDs. Troops and civilians driving gravel trucks have come under small-arms fire, but such attacks have been sporadic, Bertrand said.

When asked about their expectations for project completion, both Huot and Bertrand laugh.

"Hopefully we saw the last rain yesterday," Huot quipped.

The military will contract out the paving of the road to Afghans. That is expected to begin in a couple of weeks — weather permitting.
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Afghanistan deputy minister: expansion of economic ties with Iran important
TEHRAN, March 7 (Xinhua) -- Afghan Deputy Commerce and Industry Minister Mohammad Sharif Sharifi said Afghanistan attaches great importance to expanding economic and trade relations with Iran, the local satellite Press TV reported on Monday.

"The Islamic Republic possesses enormous technical and engineering capabilities that it could share with Afghanistan," Sharifi was quoted as saying on Sunday.

Kabul would create good conditions for Iranian private companies to invest in Afghanistan and "the Afghan government supports foreign investment in the country and guarantees the investment," the Afghan official said.

Afghanistan is currently in need of massive investment in its energy, agriculture and mining sectors, where Iran can play a major role, he said according to Press TV.

Iranian Deputy Commerce Minister Hamid Safdel said Sunday that Iran's non-oil exports to Afghanistan have exceeded 1.3 billion U. S. dollars in the current Iranian year ending on March 20, said Press TV.

Iranian investors can significantly contribute to the level of trade by investing in Afghanistan's natural resources and petrochemicals and exporting engineering and technical services, Safdel said, adding the large number of Iranian exhibitions in different parts of Afghanistan help boost the export of Iranian technical services to its eastern neighbor.
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Afghan Air Force returns to flight
By Keith Gerein, Postmedia News March 7, 2011 canada.com
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — The traffic jam never ends at the world's busiest single-runway airport.

Nearly every minute of every day, lineups of choppers, fighter jets, transport planes and unmanned drones are either taking off or landing on the same strip of tarmac, providing fits for air traffic controllers and keeping sales of earplugs brisk.

The armada at Kandahar Airfield features a multinational mix of colours and flags: America's stars and stripes; Canada's Maple Leaf; and the concentric circles of Britain's Royal Air Force.

But until recently, almost none of that traffic displayed the black, red and green of Afghanistan. The Afghan air force was essentially out of business, nothing but a national joke.

Over the past 18 months, however, the AAF has been staging a comeback with the help of NATO forces.

"For the Afghans to run their country the way they want, to be able to keep out that terrorist threat, they need an air force," says Maj. Jeffrey Hunziker, a U.S. air force officer who is serving as a trainer.

"And they have come a long way. They can now fly by themselves. As of a year ago, the group we work with wasn't going anywhere without an adviser on board."

Examples of AAF growth are plenty: Hangars under construction; crews taking classes on weapon safety; new residences for air force personnel; even a medical clinic with a dentist's office.

But perhaps the biggest sign of a turnaround is in the proud grin of Col. Abdul Halim, a 27-year veteran of the Afghan air force.

Halim comes from a generation of airmen who learned their skills on Russian-built aircraft that flooded into Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, he watched the planes and helicopters pass through a succession of warlords, and gradually disintegrate into nothing but scrap metal.

For much of the current war, the air force's Kandahar wing consisted of a pair of dilapidated Mi-17 helicopters that seemed permanently grounded. Today, there are six, all of which are operational, and another five on the way.

More importantly, those helicopters are now being used on missions, Halim says.

The choppers move troops, carry food and firewood on humanitarian operations, and even transport cash to pay Afghan soldiers in the field. On occasion, rocket launchers are strapped on so they can fly as escorts on military campaigns. They've also served as medevac aircraft, and this past week, one crew rescued two labourers whose truck became stuck during a flash flood.

"We have accomplished a lot after starting from zero," Halim says. "If a military does not have an air force, it is not a complete military. It cannot defend itself."

The Kandahar wing expects to get four Italian-made C-27A Spartan transport planes to replace Afghanistan's aging fleet of Antonov-32s. Plans are also in the works to obtain a number of light-attack planes, though the model has not yet been chosen.

"Of course, they want the coolest new thing. They want jet fighters," Hunziker says. "But those are expensive and there's a more difficult level of training."

Despite Halim's optimism at seeing Afghans back in the skies, there is still a wide gap between desire and reality. Long-term plans for the country's air force are modest at best and large technical challenges remain.

NATO's goal is to eventually grow the AAF to 8,000 personnel, compared with targets of 170,000 Afghan soldiers and 135,000 police.

Currently, there are about 1,200 air force spots available at Kandahar Airfield, though only half are filled. Of the staff on the list, only eight are full-time pilots, meaning that a maximum of four helicopters can be taken out at any one time.

And when those helicopters do go out, there's just a handful of places they can fly because most air traffic controllers and battlefield commanders transmit their instructions in English, and few Afghan crews are fluent and able to participate.

To counter that, trainers at Kandahar Airfield are providing daily English lessons from classrooms in the main hangar.

In addition, advisers are still struggling to streamline the Afghans' "supply chain" process that ensures adequate deliveries of uniforms, oil, jet fuel and other staples, U.S. Maj. Jason Church says.

Basic safety lessons are also necessary. At one session this week, a U.S. instructor was warning Afghan crews to keep rockets and other explosive weapons out of the reach of lightning storms.

Then there's the cost. Funding for the operation is largely covered by the United States, and it's unclear if the Afghan government can sustain its air wing once NATO withdraws from the country.

Even among Afghan soldiers, there is little awareness of the AAF.

Hunziker believes the force eventually will find its way through all these challenges.

"We're laying the groundwork. Years from now, I'll be able to look back and say I helped to build that air force," he says.

Edmonton Journal

kgerein@edmontonjournal.com
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Afghan MPs Elect First Deputy Speaker
Tolo news March 6, 2011
Afghan legislators on Sunday elected Khalid Pashtun as the first deputy house speaker.

Mrs Rahila Salim and Khalid Pashtun were the candidates for the seat, but Mr Pashtun sweeping majority of votes won the position.

"I will do my best to address the challenges in the best possible way," First Deputy Speaker Khalid Pashtun said.

Parliamentarians highlighted the need for termination of elections special tribunal.

They said no other option is acceptable except that it is terminated.

Yesterday at a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, I urged the president to dissolve the tribunal, but Mr Karzai said he should discuss it with the Head of Supreme Court, said Speaker of the House of Representatives, Abdul Raouf Ibrahimi.

Lawmakers warned if the tribunal is not terminated, six officials in the Supreme Court will be summoned to the house.

"Today President Karzai promised to discuss it with the Head of Supreme Court before making his final decision," Mr Ibrahimi said.
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Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan suffer high rate of brain trauma
JULIAN SHER From Monday's Globe and Mail Monday, Mar. 07, 2011
Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were hospitalized for traumatic brain injury between 2006 and 2009 at almost three times the rate of Americans fighting there in earlier years before the war escalated, according to a National Defence study obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The military attributed the “significantly higher” hospitalization rate to “the risky nature of our Kandahar operation” in a report acquired under Access to Information.

“It has often been called ‘the invisible wound,’ ” said Alain Ptito, a researcher at Montreal’s Neurological Institute who sat on a Canadian Forces Health Sciences Advisory Panel on TBI. “The numbers may be higher.”

Considered to be a disturbing hallmark of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq because of the many roadside bombs that forcefully rattle the brain, TBI can result in severe concussions, long-term memory loss, depression and changes in behaviour.

While the proportion of Canadian soldiers injured – what the study called “a small but important minority” of about 6 per cent of all personnel in Afghanistan -- has been previously disclosed, the comparison to American numbers is new.

The total number of Canadian soldiers diagnosed with TBI was only 83; seventeen of those were classified with a “more serious forms of brain injury.”

Still, the study found the hospitalization numbers taken from the trauma registry database at Kandahar were “significantly higher than the expected rate,” amounting to a hospitalization rate of 71 per 10,000 deployed person-years of all Canadians serving in Afghanistan for the three years ending in 2009.

That compares with a rate of only 25 per 10,000 for U.S. troops in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2007 – before the increased fighting in recent years and last year’s surge of American troops in heavy combat regions.

It was also much higher than the American hospitalization rate of 42 per 10,000 for brain injuries during the same six-year period of intense fighting in Iraq.

The National Defence study offered several reasons for the differences.

It noted that U.S. personnel were initially deployed in a “mixture of both high-risk and low-risk areas” in Afghanistan and Iraq, while Canadian soldiers concentrated in the dangerous region in and around Kandahar suffered “high casualty rates.”

The report suggested American figures may also be low because TBI was not as recognized early on in the war.

(More recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Defense up until 2009 indicate that about 140,000 American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury since 2001 -- about 7 per cent of U.S. personnel deployed in those countries.)

But if anything, experts such as Dr. Ptito fear officials may be underestimating the seriousness of brain injuries among Canadian troops.

The military reported that 40 per cent of soldiers initially diagnosed with TBI were returned to duty, but Dr. Ptito cautioned that standard MRI tests may miss important symptoms. More sophisticated scans called “functional” MRIs, available in Canada, measure blood flow in the brain while the patient is active.

“If you use more sensitive tools, you find there are cerebral dysfunctions and the numbers will go up,” Dr. Ptito said.

In addition, the 6-per-cent injury rate cited in the military study apparently applies to all personnel “deployed in support of the current mission in Afghanistan,” which would include many non-combat positions.

The rate would presumably be higher among soldiers who are sent outside the base.

Special to The Globe and Mail
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New militia brings security, and worries, to Marjah
McClatchy Newspapers By SAEED SHAH 06/03/2011
MARJAH, Afghanistan - Namatullah, a 19-year-old volunteer for a new armed "neighborhood watch" militia now patrolling alongside Marines in northeast Marjah, simply drew his finger across his throat when asked why he and other residents hadn't banded together to protect their districts until the arrival of the U.S. soldiers.

"Before, we were scared of the Taliban. Not now," he said. "Now I carry an AK (AK-47 rifle) and feel good."

Namatullah, who goes by just one name, gave up farming to join the new militia, known by the jaw-breaking name of Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure, the latest innovation in the U.S. campaign to wrest Marjah and southern Helmand province from Taliban influence.
The idea of the ISCI, which is unique to Marjah, is simple enough: develop an independent force that will make sure the Taliban doesn't destroy new schools and water lines before local residents have the chance to enjoy their benefits. The Marines excitedly compare it to the "sons of Iraq," the movement that started in 2005 and played a key role in separating the people from the insurgents in Iraq.

But already, the concept is controversial.

At 800 strong, the ISCI dwarfs the town police force of 300, raising historic concerns that have always surrounded armed forces in Afghanistan, which have been responsible for some of the worst violence in a country brutalized by 30 years of war. Militias in Afghanistan have often changed sides and been used by local strongmen for their own greedy ends. Pro-government militias, hybrids that are neither police nor military, have been accused of favoritism, extortion and other abuses.

"The elders understand there can't be a return to warlordism," said Lt. Col. David Hudspeth, the commander of 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, which is stationed in central Marjah.

Mostly made up of illiterate farmers, the ISCI is a ragtag force. Its ranks include some former Taliban, residents and Marines admit, and there already have been some problems ISCI groups have clashed and in January an ISCI unit fought an hourlong battle with Marines.

But district governor Abdul Mutalab said that the ISCI is "playing a positive role" in transforming this backwater from a one-time Taliban stronghold into what the Marines hope will be a long-term success.

The militia is organized into units of about 30 men, one for each of the town's districts, which are laid out in 53 U.S.-style blocks. Well over half the blocks are covered by the scheme.

The Marines pay members of ISCI $150 a month - about a third less than a junior police officer. Every new ISCI block also receives $5,000 from the Marines to get started.

The existence of the militia has clearly made Marjah residents feel much safer, and the ISCI groups remain intact despite being targeted by the Taliban. Bazgul, the first Marjah resident to stand up a neighborhood armed force after the Marines arrived, which is now part of the ISCI, said that his brother was kidnapped by the Taliban three months ago. In late January they found his remains "in a hole in the ground." He's undeterred.

"I'm afraid of only my God. No one else," said Bazgul, who fought the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan back in the 1980s and, like many Afghans, goes by one name.

The long-term future of the ISCI initiative, however, is uncertain. Discussions are being held about moving some members into the regular police, and others into the Afghan local police scheme.

Whatever its fate, Marines insist ISCI has proved a point, that a sizable number of Marjah residents are willing to risk their lives by taking a stand against the Taliban.

"This is a relatively cheap process for us and the payoff is huge," said Lt. Matthew Caterisano, 28, of Plano, Texas. "The ISCI force has doubled in five weeks."

Still, not everyone is happy with group.

"The ISCI are uneducated. They cannot advance government or the law," said Taimor Shah, an elder who lives in the town's northeast. "Some people in the ISCI were in the Taliban before. We cannot trust them."

For the Marines, however, it's a step that gets them closer to leaving Marjah under Afghan control.

"We're trying to fill the void until GIROA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) can pick it up," said Hudspeth, 39, of Hamptonville, N.C. "Our efforts are like a booster rocket, the starter."

(Shah is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)
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Ancient wonders of Afghanistan
An exhibition of Afghan treasures at the British Museum reveals a truly fascinating history, says Adrian Hamilton. And it's a testament to the heroic curators who saved the collection from the ravages of war
The Independent Monday, 7 March 2011
For most of us, Bagram in Afghanistan means a vast US base. Not for the British Museum.

In it's latest exhibition, on Afghanistan, Bagram (or Begram as it is called here) takes pride of place as a major trading city and the summer capital of the North Indian Kushan empire in the first centuries AD. There French archaeologists made a remarkable discovery in the late 1930s when they opened up a couple of sealed storerooms, containing the remains of a series of exquisite ivories that once covered chairs and couches, together with vases and bronzes as well as some astonishing engraved beakers and glass of the period.

The ivories are truly wonderful, as good as anything that survives from India itself in the period, depicting women and children at play and leisure with all the voluptuousness of the sculptures we know from early Indian temples. But then so are the decorated beakers, imported from Roman Egypt and Syria, depicting hunting scenes and mythological figures with the freshness and colour that we know from villa frescos of the Mediterranean at the time.

This being an exhibition about Afghanistan, it inevitably has a political purpose – not just to show that the country has a great cultural past of its own, but also that great and courageous efforts have been made by museum staff to preserve its treasures from the depredations of a full 30 years of war, anarchy and vandalism.

Each of the troves on display has its own story of Afghan curators and archaeologists secreting their whereabouts and defending them, even under threats to their lives, from gangs of looters and militia. To this the British Museum has added its own coda of Begram ivories taken and sold on the international market and now generously gathered by wealthy collectors to be returned to the country.

It's not a new exhibition, it should be emphasised. Indeed it has been almost continually on the move around the world for the last five years, starting in Paris, sent abroad to arouse and sustain international interest and assistance in the country and its past. Nor can it be said that the British have played a major part in its archaeological story, despite our role and association with the country. The Russians and French have been far more active in uncovering the past.

What the BM has done in this case, besides adding the final display of private rescue, has been to organise the exhibition into four lucid parts, each concentrating on major finds. The point of it all is to show that Afghanistan, even from the earliest times, was not just a mountainous region on the fringe of settled civilisations to the west, south and east. It was, as the exhibition's subtitle posits, "at the crossroads of the Ancient World", a source of wealth in itself from raw materials, particularly the lapis lazuli so prized by ancient civilisations, but also situated smack on the trading routes between the Mediterranean and Iran to the west, India to the south-west and China to the east.

The show starts, logically enough, with the Bronze Age gold bowls found by peasants in north-eastern Afghanistan and promptly cut into pieces for fair division amongst the finders. They date from around 2,000BC, and give evidence of a substantial civilisation sitting between Mesopotamian and the Indus cultures of the period. The craftsmanship is fine, the figures and the geometric patterning of the reconstructed objects have the primitive force of the period.

But it is between 300BC and around 200AD that the displays really get going. In 327BC, Alexander the Great, after some of the hardest-fought battles of his campaigns, finally took Bactria, the eastern end of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. His troops then revolted before he could go on into India, forcing the reluctantly departing conqueror to consolidate his gains with the foundation of several colonies and frontier posts.

Ai Khanum, built by Alexander's commander and successor, Seleucus, is a bit of Greece transplanted to Afghanistan, complete with temples, gymnasium, theatre and all. Its discovery and excavation in 1964 proved that the Hellenic occupation was more than skin deep. The finds on display of Corinthian capitals, sun dials and funerary statues could just as easily have been encountered in Greece itself. Their influence on Bactrian as Indian culture was profound.

In the end, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom lasted barely two centuries before the nomads from the north swept down and obliterated it, here as elsewhere. A second wave then founded the Indian Kushan Empire, which in turn flourished in Begram with a display of wealth and a diversity of objects that would have made any metropolis proud.

But it is with the glorious display of gold ornaments excavated from the burial mounds of the nomadic Scythians from the north that this exhibition makes its final flourish. Tillya Tepe, the "Hill of Gold", was discovered by Russian archaeologists in 1978 to worldwide acclaim and it was this prize that the bandits of the war period most eagerly sought. Astonishingly, it was kept from their deprivations by one brave Afghan who refused to reveal its whereabouts.

Gathered together here is not just an astonishing display of the conspicuous wealth that these first century AD horsemen went in for. Travelling light, they covered their loose clothing and themselves with clasps and bracelets of extraordinary vitality. Here, Greco-style cupids on dolphins lie close to golden belts with figured medallions. Mythical figures fight each other along the sheaths and guards of the swords and daggers. A collapsible crown of tree decorations shimmers with golden leaves, while a pair of pendants has a man controlling a pair of dragons with turquoise, garnet, lapis lazuli and carnelian chains hanging from the group.

For the archaeologists these objects raise endless questions about the continuing influence of Greek motifs and Iranian influence. Just what did go on in Achaemenid Bactria and what was its cultural legacy? Even the royal association of the Begram find has been questioned, with more recent research suggesting a trader's depository rather than a monarchical one. But of the Scythians and their beliefs we still know little. There is much still to learn about Afghanistan and its past, not just as a crossroads of other cultures, but a source of craft and arts itself.

For the ordinary visitor, though, however intriguing the history may be, what will excite are the objects themselves. We've all heard of Scythian gold, but here is the real thing, glorious in its profusion. Most of us know the Roman way with glass, but the Begram hoard has a life and colour that is truly stunning. A group of plaster medallions from Begram may have been intended as models for clients to order from but are quite entrancing in their own right. A Scythian necklace described as an "ornament for the neck of a robe" is a masterpiece of polychromatic forms.

Afghanistan needs our support and the brave souls who preserved these treasures are owed all our thanks. But one shouldn't be too studious about going. It's not a pilgrimage, but a journey of delight.

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, British Museum, London WC1 (020 7323 8181) to 3 July. The exhibition is supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch
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