News from Afghanistan: The challenge of 'good' vs 'bad' militias
- Afghanistan: The challenge of 'good' vs 'bad' militias
Gunmen in northern Afghanistan want the Karzai government to make their local unit an official part of the security force that will take over after US withdraws.
By Scott Peterson | Christian Science Monitor – 19 hrs ago
As two Afghan farmers tell it, they are part of the "good" militia in their northern province: unofficial armed men who protect schools, families, and farms, and have chased Taliban insurgents away.
They are not part of the "bad" militia, they say, that since 2010 has especially traumatized parts of Kunduz Province by forcibly extracting "taxes" from villagers, and engaging in killings and rape – all in the name of fighting insurgents themselves.
Now these traditional gunmen want the Karzai government to make their local unit an official part of the 350,000-strong Afghan security forces that will take over after US combat forces withdraw by the end of 2014.
ut as President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai meet today in Washington, such militias – both good and bad, and neither of them under government control – present a challenge to the future stability in Afghanistan.
Kunduz represents a blend of unofficial and official security forces in Afghanistan, where well-connected militia chiefs have been reluctant to disarm or cede influence. Here, the legacy of the decade-long fight against the Soviets in the 1980s has persisted, thwarting government efforts to extend its reach throughout the country.
Fighting back against the Taliban is second nature, says Abdul Wasi, a black-bearded, gray-turbaned farmer, though his militia would prefer it if the government trained them, paid them, and officially made them members of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a program launched by Gen. David Petraeus and modeled after the Sons of Iraq to mobilize Sunnis in Iraq against Al Qaeda.
"Going 30 years back, we were involved with these guns," says Mr. Wasi. "Our families fought the Soviet Union, so that is our legacy. We can't sleep without guns."
They call themselves arbaki, after the proud and revered local militias that formed more than a century ago to fight the British in Afghanistan. But that is a term that has been used by nominally pro-government militias with both good and bad reputations.
"Yes, we are winning the war, meaning we pushed the insurgents out of our area," says Mohammed Yasir, a young man with a budding beard and a light-brown wool cap from a district near Khanabad.
'GOOD' V 'BAD' MILITIA
"If there was no arbaki, [the Taliban] would kill many people in one night," says Wasi. He joined the militia two years ago, when the Taliban shot at a vehicle he was riding in with a rocket-propelled grenade.
"They kill people with any connection to the government,” says Wasi, who, with half a dozen family members with government connections, has been a target. But, he claims: “The provincial capital is secure because of the arbaki."
These farmers' local militia "might be considered pure" because they operate apart from the much larger territory encompassed by a key commander who fought the Russians, says Gran Hewad, a political researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul who closely follows Kunduz affairs. The commander, Amir Mir Alam, controls a militia with a notorious reputation for violence and abuse of civilians.
Mr. Mir Alam has kept good relations with key people in Kabul and Kunduz, and in the past "disarmed only in name," says Mr. Hewad, interviewed in Kabul. Mir Alam was instrumental in recruiting a militia from 2009 in concert with Afghanistan's National Directorate for Security, to make up for manpower shortages in the province.
"Already there was insecurity; this was a new wave of insecurity in Kunduz," says Hewad about Mir Alam’s militia. "These are the proxy forces undermining the rule of law and national government.... They have fought people, looted, burned houses, abducted, and raped women – whatever crimes are known in Afghanistan are committed by them."
Mir Alam’s militia is "getting bigger, with the normal argument that the Americans are leaving and the Taliban are recruiting," says Hewad. "The government argues that the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] would be better after 2014. If they are not lying, they should disarm these people. If there is a political will, it is possible."
Hewad noted in a November blog post that militia numbers have been increasing in Kunduz and "provincial security forces seem incapable of controlling them."
Mir Alam, who after the Soviet withdrawal eventually became a commander in the Northern Alliance which fought the Taliban, "has been known as the major obstacle for implementation of the disarmament agenda," Hewad wrote.
"These militias have already become a big source of trouble for the local people," concluded Hewad. "If a real disarmament effort does not take place soon, before 2014, they can be considered a major threat to the security of the province after NATO's troop drawdown."
PLAGUED WITH PROBLEMS
Alarm bells have sounded before. A spring 2012 report called "From Arbaki to Local Police," by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and based on extensive field research, lamented that even the government's local police program – meant to absorb some militias – was plagued with problems.
Among them, on top of an illiteracy rate of more than 90 percent, were that a number of ALP had been in "illegal armed groups, arbakis, and the Taliban." According to the report, some local police recruits were "notorious for criminal acts," had "bad war records" and were "even serial killers. This makes people lose their confidence in the ALP and even in the government."
Militias in Kunduz are a step further down the accountability chain, and abuses have been widespread. The result has colored the view of locally-raised militias like that of farmers Mr. Yasir and Wasi. Before they took up guns as volunteers, they say, the principal at their local school was forced by Taliban threats to flee and the primary school – which doubled as a polling station during elections – was burned.
"We gathered up our guns and took them on, so now our presence has lowered insurgent activity," says Yasir. "Many times they were hurting people, so people got angry, many times they burned the school.... Now girls and boys go to school,"
Both men want the "illegal" militias to be disarmed, and "good" ones like theirs to be recognized for their work. They reckon there are 2,000 guns in their area, and 1,200 of those they consider to be arbaki. Officials have stated a figure of armed militiamen in Kunduz anywhere from several to ten thousand. "Every family has one gun," says Yasir.
"If the government trained the [good] militia, they could play a bigger role," says a veteran police trainer in Kunduz who asked not to be named for his safety.
"If they can get trained well, they can be very effective, because they are in all these areas," says the police trainer. He notes that two years ago, some districts were off-limits to government workers, though police and "good" militia deployments have since made them safer.
And yet this police trainer himself was forced to flee his home.
"I knew that one day a person would come and cause me trouble," he recalls. He brought all his family to Kunduz, the largest city in the province. "Sometimes I go back and walk on the land; other farmers are using it. This is common."
"The Mir Alam militia is much more problematic than a mafia – they are smuggling, kidnapping, and killing for more than business issues, but for tribes also," says Hewad of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Yasir and Wasi say those incidents should not be confused with the informal efforts of their arbaki militia.
"Most of us are farmers and live on our farms, nobody pays us," says Wasi. "Commanders with big groups take taxes from farmers; we don't do that. This is the reason they have a bad image, and made a bad reputation for all arbaki."
Afghans face winter risks
UN warns that more than two million Afghans are at risk from cold and malnutrition this winter.
Last Modified: 19 Dec 2012 08:31
More than two million Afghans are at risk from cold and malnutrition this winter.
The worst off are those who have fled violence and poverty and have found refuge in temporary camps across the country.
Last year thirty refugees, mainly children, froze to death in makeshift camps scattered around Kabul.
The UN has appealed for help but has only managed to raise less than half of the $448m it asked for.
Al Jazeera's Bernard Smith reports from Kabul.
Afghan girls killed in Nangarhar explosion
At least 10 young girls killed in explosion, while separate suicide attack in Kabul claims one life.
Last Modified: 17 Dec 2012 13:55
At least 10 young girls have been killed after an explosion in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, officials say.
The explosion occurred in the Charparhar district on Monday morning.
The girls, ranged between nine and 13 years of age, were gathering firewood outside the Dawlatzai village when the explosion took place, said Mohammad Seddiq, a local government administrator.
It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion.
Seddiq said that two other girls were seriously wounded in the explosion and were in critical condition at a local hospital.
Police are scouring the area for clues as to what type of explosive went off, Seddiq said.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the capital Kabul, a suicide bomber in a small truck detonated outside the entrance to a logistics company, killing at least two people and injuring 15 others, the interior ministry said.
Both of those killed were Afghan civilians, the ministry said. The injured included 13 Afghans and two foreign nationals.
The blast occurred in the Jalalabad Road area, where a number of foreign companies have offices.
Daoud Amini, the deputy police chief for Kabul, said the compound was used by Contrack, a Virginia-based company whose projects include fuel storage, air field construction and tanker facilities.
Large sections of the compound's exterior wall were blown apart and the roof of a building had collapsed. Twisted metal
from shipping containers that had been ripped open by the explosion littered the ground.
Baryalai, a security officer for the company, said the arm of the company that was attacked is building barracks and other facilities for the Afghan army
"There was massive destruction inside ... I was sitting behind my computer when it happened. I was not hurt but I saw many of my colleagues were injured,'' Bashir Farhang, an employee, said of the blast.
In a statement, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
"A suicide car bomber attacked an important American company which is involved in security," Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, said in a statement. "The company was under our surveillance for a long time and today we succeeded."
Saudi Arabia funding $100m Kabul mosque and education centre
Saudis move to bolster influence in Afghanistan with hilltop complex due to be completed two years after Nato withdrawal
Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul
guardian.co.uk, Friday 2 November 2012 16.14 GMT
Saudi Arabia is funding a $100m mosque and Islamic education centre in Kabul that will teach thousands of students a year and help bolster Saudi influence in Afghanistan as the west withdraws.
Work on the sprawling 30-hectare (75-acre) hilltop complex is due to be completed by early 2016, when Afghan security forces will likely be trying to hold off the Taliban with little Nato support.
"This Islamic centre has several aims, one is to ensure good relations between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia," said the acting Saudi minister of hajj and Islamic affairs, Dr Dayi al-Haq Abed.
Afghanistan's neighbours and allies have been jostling for power in the country for years; spending millions of dollars on aid, education, TV and radio channels.
Efforts to secure a stake in Afghanistan's future are intensifying with the 2014 Nato withdrawal deadline looming, and a presidential election to chose the first new leader in more than a decade set for April that year.
But Abed said the centre was a decade-old project conceived by Saudi Arabia's late King Fahd, not a hasty effort to bolster the Gulf state's role in Afghan affairs.
"It's not a political centre, its an independent centre," he told the Guardian. "This centre will never try to work against the interests of Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. It is firstly a place for prayer and secondly for education."
A university with a library, lecture halls, gym and dormitories for 5,000 students will sit on a hill overlooking Kabul, next to the tomb of the last Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah. The nearby mosque will hold up to 15,000 worshippers, making it one of the largest in the country.
Saudi Arabia has been one of the key players in the turbulent decades since the Soviet invasion at the end of 1979, influencing both religion and politics in Afghanistan.
The Saudis were a major funder of mujahideen in Afghanistan, sending millions of dollars to Pakistan-based groups to pay for weapons and other supplies. When civil war broke out it helped sponsor a peace deal, even bringing top Afghan commanders to Mecca to swear they would respect the agreement – although it fell apart almost immediately.
After the rise of the Taliban, Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries to recognise the hardline regime, but since its fall in 2001 it has remained a generous donor to the western-backed government of Hamid Karzai. More recently it helped lay the groundwork for efforts to negotiate an end to the war. Saudi diplomats have kept a lower profile than others though.
The new centre will likely have a large pool of applicants. Religious schools mostly funded by private individuals and Saudi institutions have spread the kingdom's strict Wahhabi branch of Islam inside Afghanistan and Pakistan – and all Afghans hope to travel there on the hajj pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.
The Afghan government has donated the land, and basic engineering work is already completed. A joint committee of Saudi diplomats and Afghan officials from the ministry of Islamic affairs will oversee the centre once it is up and running.
"Its a big achievement for the Afghanistan government and the ministry of hajj and Islamic affairs," Abed said, adding that he hoped it would pave the way for more Afghan students to further their education in Saudi Arabia.
Additional reporting by Mokhtar Amiri
Afghans fear being left out in the cold
Spectre of hunger and death looms as Central Asian nation prepares for harsh winter in the months ahead.
Ali M Latifi Last Modified: 28 Oct 2012 00:36
Dozens dead in Afghanistan Eid suicide blast
Bombing on first day of Muslim holiday leaves at least 41 dead outside mosque in northern province of Faryab.
Last Modified: 26 Oct 2012 18:14
Child marriages bind Afghanistan's progress
As UN marks International Day of the Girl, Al Jazeera speaks to Afghan woman forced to marry at age 11.
Last Modified: 11 Oct 2012 11:40
As the United Nations marks Thursday as International Day of the Girl Child, the world body's focus this year has been on ending child marriages.
In Afghanistan, the practice is illegal under the law but still common. In one case, an Afghan woman in Kabul was forced into a marriage at the age of 11.
Al Jazeera's Jennifer Glasse reports from Kabul.
Afghan schools and clinics built by British military forced to close
Exclusive: UK spent millions on health and education centres that Karzai government can't afford to keep open
The Guardian, Thursday 27 September 2012 18.01 BST
Schools and health centres built by the British in Afghanistan as part of the military's counter-insurgency strategy are being forced to close down because President Karzai's government cannot afford to pay for them, the Guardian has learned.
Britain has spent hundreds of millions of pounds in the province over the last six years building and restoring services decimated by conflict and the years of Taliban rule.
But the Guardian has been told that a confidential report compiled this year warned that some of the buildings in Helmand were constructed without enough consultation with the Afghan government and without thinking through how they would be maintained.
Senior British officials in Helmand are working with Afghan ministers to identify the schools and clinics that are deemed "critical" and should remain open, while most of the rest could be phased out between now and the end of 2014.
The report made clear the British "had built too much" in the province, and that this was a consequence of the UK military trying to win "hearts and minds" among the populace.
It is not clear how many schools and clinics will be affected, but it is thought dozens are potentially at risk, particularly in more rural areas.
"Of course we built too much," said one official. "We didn't think about how the Afghans would pay for it. But it was understandable. Nobody is blaming the military. We wanted to show them what we could do for them, but without regard for sustainability."
The need to reduce the number of schools and clinics will be a bitter blow to the Afghans who have come to rely on them, and for the British civilians and soldiers who helped to build and restore them.
But though British officials fear the closures will overshadow some of the progress that has been made in Helmand, they also believe it would be better for Afghanistan if the cuts were explained and made sooner rather than later.
The head of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Helmand, Catriona Laing, admitted she is working with the Afghans to identify what should be retained.
The UK is pushing for services in important population centres, such as the capital Lashkar Gah and nearby city of Gereshk, to be kept open.
Those in areas further way from the central Helmand river valley – where security is more precarious – are more vulnerable to closure.
Laing, who is the most senior Nato civilian in the province, told the Guardian: "The key is that we are still here and we can still help the government think through which of those bits of infrastructure are really critical to maintain.
"Helmand is one of the biggest provinces, yet people are still willing to travel to receive better quality services. I think the idea that you need in every district centre, even the really remote ones, a school, a clinic, a justice centre … it's not all about quantity, it's much more about quality. My expectation is that there will be some consolidation. That is sensible to do. It will be much more important in some areas to maintain the service than in others."
Sir Richard Stagg, the UK's ambassador in Afghanistan, told the Guardian the overbuilding had been caused by a desire to show the Afghans "we were serious" about helping them.
"With the best of intentions, between the period of 2003-2008 we developed a very expansive view of how we could help Afghanistan, and many countries invested a lot in that mission. We focused on the physical and visible rather than the human capital which would manage the country in the longer term.
"The challenge for Afghanistan now is not a lack of roads and school buildings. It is a lack of capacity in its governmental structures in particular to run the country."
Laing, who has been in post for six months, has ordered a stop to further building projects unless she is convinced there is a proper long-term maintenance budget.
The need for cuts was underlined by the report, which was jointly commissioned by the PRT and the US General, Charles Gurganus, who was head of the military in Regional Command South West.
Written by members of the British government's Stabilisation Unit, it looked at all the work that had been completed in Helmand and the funds available to the Afghan government as it assumes responsibility under the 'transition' programme.
It concluded there is a "mismatch between the value of the assets and the Afghan government's ability to maintain them". The report highlighted the scale of development and how some of the projects were not adequately budgeted over the long term.
The British have help to build 270km (168 miles) of new road, and upgraded another 105km; the province now has 55 health centres – twice the number that were open in 2009. Fifteen comprehensive health centres have either been refurbished or rebuilt with money from the PRT. Eighty-six schools have restored and reopened since 2009, bringing the total to 164 across Helmand. Twenty-six new schools have been built.
Though the building programme has transformed services in certain areas, British officials concede the UK tried to do too much, and that it took the counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine further than was intended.
Under COIN, the watchwords for winning the trust of the population are "shape, hold, clear, and build".
"We probably put too much emphasis on the build," said one official. "We should have involved the Afghans more than we did."
General Adrian Bradshaw, the most senior British officer in Afghanistan, defended the building programme. "It is pretty difficult to do counter insurgency without getting involved in nation-building. Because the one complements the other and we have to have a comprehensive approach.
"COIN campaigns are not won by military means alone. They involve economic, political and development activities that complement the military activity. It is entirely correct that we should have been involved in those things in addressing the insurgency. But I think it is very important to remain focused on the reason why we came here – to prevent Afghanistan ever becoming again a haven for al-Qaida international terrorists. That is the effect we have to deliver in the end, not the total defeat of the insurgency."
The priority for the PRT, which is part funded by Department for International Development, is to ensure Helmand's civilian infrastructure is made robust to weather the withdrawal of Nato's combat troops and civilian aid workforce.
Rather than building, Laing has ordered the PRT to focus on measures that make the Afghan government accountable. She also wants to protect and expand the role of elected local councillors – Helmand is the only province to have them.
So far, 432 British forces personnel and civilians have died while serving in Afghanistan, the vast majority of them since 2006, when the UK first set up base in Helmand.
In an interview with the Guardian a fortnight ago, the defence secretary Philip Hammond admitted he could not justify keeping British troops in Afghanistan for nation-building.
"I believe very clearly that if we are going to ask British troops to put themselves in the firing line, we can only do that to protect UK vital national security interests," he said.
"We can ask troops who are here to help build a better Afghanistan, but we cannot ask them to expose themselves to risk for those tasks."
'Afghanistan needs inclusive government'
Member of High Peace Counsel tells Al Jazeera that peace cannot come to Afghanistan without inclusiveness.
Last Modified: 26 Sep 2012 22:20
Return of the Taliban: Afghanistan takes control of Bagram's prisoners of war
America seized Bagram air base soon after the invasion. Yesterday it handed the site's notorious prison – and its 3,000 detainees – over to local forces. So is this just symbolic, or an important stage on the road out of Kabul?
A corner of the vast sprawl that is the Bagram airbase was handed over to the government of Hamid Karzai by the US yesterday in another major step in the process of "Afghanisation" and the West's exit strategy from a long war, which has been costly in lives and money.
The ceremony, on a hot and still day, was low key, attended by far more local officials than those from the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). The responsibility for 3,182 detainees would be transferred from the Americans, announced military police commander Safifullah Safi. Acting Defence Minister Enaytullah Nazari talked of his "happiness" at being part of a "glorious occasion".
The control of the prison at this base, 40 miles north of Kabul, had been, for a long time, a point of impasse over the long-term relationship between Afghanistan and the US, along with the issue of legal immunity for troops, a crucial factor in a longer-term presence of American forces beyond the end of combat role in 2014.
But the memorandum of understanding, which allowed the transfer, is not legally binding and there is friction between Kabul and Washington over its interpretation. Six hundred Afghan inmates held since the signing of the documents on 9 March are yet to be handed over to the Afghan authorities. President Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, insisted that "these people were being held illegally and contrary to the agreement".
Non-Afghan detainees will remain under the control of US authorities and their fate is yet to be decided. Bagram in many ways encapsulates the tribulations and triumphs of the West and other current interlopers in Afghanistan. It was built by the Russians and abandoned by Moscow as it pulled its troops back to a collapsing Soviet Union.
Small numbers of Pakistani troops, out of uniform, were briefly stationed there while destroying the ancient irrigation system of the Shomali Plain to halt an advance by the Northern Alliance against their client Taliban fighters. British troops, first sent in during the 2001 war, were at Bagram, which was soon under sole American control and the centre of Afghan operations, with a degree of success.
At the time, the Taliban were on the run and the warlords, including those from the Northern Alliance, the West's partners in the war, were resigned to losing their private armies and curbing their opium trade. Teams of intelligence agents from the CIA, MI6 and other Western agencies, veterans of the Mujahedin war against the Russians, were tracking down Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida, and Mullah Omar's Taliban leadership.
In 2003, the Bush administration's War on Terror, with Tony Blair following, moved to Iraq and so did large numbers of troops. Bagram emptied, the intelligence agents, with their deep experience of South Asia but not much of the Middle East, were sent off to hunt Saddam Hussein and the Baath leadership. The Taliban, fed and watered in Pakistan, moved back across the border into the security vacuum.
The recent history of Bagram is enmeshed in allegations of torture, with the detention facilities likened to Abu Ghraib in Iraq and to Guantanamo Bay. In 2005, a leaked US Army report revealed that military coroners had ruled that the deaths of two prisoners were homicides. Allegations of other abuse followed.
The handover comes as international forces are scaling down their presence. However, the central element of the withdrawal, Afghan forces taking over security, has itself become one of the most serious sources of concern for the West, with a seemingly unceasing death toll from Afghan troops turning their guns on their allies. A number of precautionary measures have been introduced, and the Americans have temporarily suspended their training of the Afghan Local Police, a tribal militia which had proved to be effective against the insurgents.
The Americans will retain use of Bagram, along with a number of other bases across the country, as part of a security agreement for another decade after 2014. The US is expected to provide air support to Afghan troops and, along with Britain and other Western countries, station special forces. The commitment, which was partly dependent on the prison handover, is viewed by Afghans – who fear an attempt by the insurgents to take over after the withdrawal of Western troops – as an insurance policy.
A report commissioned by the authoritative think tank, the Royal United Services Institute, said that the Taliban leadership might be prepared to negotiate a ceasefire and even accept continuing US presence until 2024 at five bases in the country.
The claims were made by current and former Taliban officials during meetings in a Gulf state. It appears, however, that the officials also said the Americans would be vastly limited in what they will be allowed to do – this would certainly not include carrying out more drone strikes inside Pakistan, which have resulted in the deaths of a vast number of insurgent leaders, including al-Qa'ida.
Some "moderate" Taliban leaders are said to have insisted that, once a peace deal was signed by Mullah Omar, even the hardline Haqqani network – which the head of the US military described as "a veritable arm" of the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI – would come on board. Its head, Jalaluddin Haqqani, can "become a kind of Nick Clegg to Mullah Omar's David Cameron", according to one Taliban official.
"However some in the insurgency will never give up, they are waiting for the coming of [the prophesied saviour of Islam] the Mahdi," said a long time Afghan watcher and academic.
"Nick Clegg versus the Mahdi, what a contest for the future of Afghanistan," said Jawad Mohammed Nasruddin, a political analyst in Kabul. "The reality is that neither the Taliban nor the West can believe they have won, but neither side believe they have lost, either. We have a long way to go yet before this is finished. What will happen at Bagram, will treatment of prisoners get better there just because Karzai's people have taken over? We shall have to see."
December 2001: Nato takes over the former Soviet airbase following the overthrow of the Taliban, using some of the spare hangars for a detention centre.
December 2002: Two prisoners, known only as Dilawar and Habibullah, die in the prison after being tortured. Several US soldiers are later found guilty of abuse but are punished by no more than a few months in prison.
June 2004: British resident Binyam Mohamed is interrogated in Bagram several times – with allegations that he was kept in constant darkness and bombarded with loud music – before being taken to Guantanamo.
July 2005: Four terrorism suspects escape from the prison by picking the locks on their cells and walking out under the cover of darkness.
April 2010: A BBC investigation claims Afghan prisoners have been abused in a "secret jail" at Bagram.
Kabul attack on female actors leaves survivors facing more 'punishment'
Killing and death threats reveal depth of Afghan society's prejudices against women
Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 6 September 2012 10.36 BST
Even after the taunts and threats for appearing on TV, and whispered criticism of "immodest" outfits, the attack on actor sisters Areza and Tamana, and their friend Benafsha, came as a surprise.
The trio were minutes from moving out of a neighbourhood in which conservative locals had made them feel unwelcome, walking to meet a minivan full of their possessions, when six men surrounded them in a lane, lined with high-walled compounds. They left Benafsha bleeding to death outside a mosque with stab wounds, and the injured sisters desperately seeking help.
"I didn't see the TV programme, I just heard the local boys saying that one of them played a role with boys," said Yaqin Ali Khalili, owner of a shop that the women frequented. "The hatred of the people here is the reason she was killed, I am 100% sure," he added.
Word travels fast in Kabul, and in a couple of days other actresses were being intimidated. One prominent young actress, Sahar Parniyan, received death threats and has gone into hiding. On the rare occasions she still ventures out she has to wear the burqas she used to despise. "The threats were in calls at midnight, or 2am when I was deep asleep, using very bad words and repeating 'you will be next for assassination'," Parniyan told the Guardian in an interview at a secret location. "I cannot continue my life as an actress in Afghanistan, although I love my job. The Taliban are against women, but so are other groups … Afghanistan is not made for women, whether actresses or not."
The killing and death threats have fuelled fears that conservative pressures are shrinking opportunities for women in public roles.
Tamana had performed in the Emrooz television show, which sparked the most recent abuse, and her sister Areza had taken at least one small role, using the screen name Sadaf, in a popular satirical series, The Ministry, in which Parniyan also acts, according to its director. But although they survived the assault that killed their friend, they are now awaiting another kind of punishment.
After a few hours in hospital for treatment, they were taken to prison, where they face intrusive virginity tests and possible charges of prostitution or collusion in the attack. "We have already sent them to the forensic office to do an examination, to make clear whether these girls are having illegal relations with anyone," said prosecutor Ghulam Dastegir Hedayat, responsible for western Kabul, where the killing took place.
Acting is controversial for women in Afghanistan, tied up in many minds – as it once was in the west – with prejudices. "She was quite silent, but a good girl," Parniyan said of Areza, whom she met during filming for The Ministry. "In the eyes of society though, she was a bad girl, and I am a bad girl too."
Perhaps because of this, the sisters hid their part-time careers. "They told us they did laundry in the city. We didn't know they were actresses," said Nasreen Amaninejad, mother of the family who rented them the room in Karte Seh. But the three women were vulnerable without any known male relatives. The sisters are orphans from the north. Benafsha was divorced and had apparently severed contact with her birth family, and the one she married into. No one has been in touch about her death, police and prosecutors say.
"Women living in a house together without male relatives is very unusual and the police and neighbours all seem to imagine that in a situation like that they are running a brothel," said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. "We came across quite a few cases where behaviour that the police didn't approve of seems to have turned into a crime and a long prison sentence. And certainly any woman who is not under the control of or vouched for by a husband or male family member is deemed immoral."
The sisters, instead of seeing their attackers jailed, may face years in prison for "moral crimes". While police and prosecutors claimed the women were not attacked for being actors, they suggested the assault was prompted by their work and living arrangements. "The result of our investigation is that she was not killed because they work in television, the six people who killed her were threatening the group one or two days before with the aim of getting them to agree to illegal relations," said Hedayat, the prosecutor.
A senior police officer involved in the case also believed the women were probably attacked for refusing sex, and pointed to their lack of education as evidence they were prostitutes – even though he is a commander in a force where more than three-quarters of new recruits are illiterate. "To feed themselves they have to find money. Where do they get it from?" said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This wasn't a people's attack on them, it was just something between some groups and the women … when there is a request to the females and they refuse, this kind of thing happens."
Afghan civilians killed 'in Taliban feud'
Deaths of 17 civilians in southern Afghanistan may have been due to rivalry between Taliban commanders, officials say.
Last Modified: 28 Aug 2012 01:05
A group of 17 civilians - 15 men and two women - have been killed by the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, officials said.
Though initial reports of Monday's killings say the 17 victims were beheaded for taking part in a mixed-gender party in the southern Helmand province, officials now say the deaths may have been the result of a rivalry between two Taliban commanders over the two women in the troubled Musa Qala district.
"As a result of the two Taliban commanders clash, 15 innocent [civilians] were killed and after the killing of the civilians the commanders, as well, killed the two women for whom the Taliban commanders fought with each other," Helmand's Provincial Media Office said in a statement on Monday.
Al Jazeera's Jennifer Glasse, reporting from Kabul, says the Helmand provincial governor's office has told Al Jazeera that two Taliban commanders were engaged in a dispute over the two women at the time of the killings.
"There are conflicting reports, but what is not disputed is that the Taliban killed 17 civilians," she said.
A statement released by the office of Mohammad Gulab Mangal, the provincial governor, said the province's intelligence sources are currently investigating the details of the incident.
Series of attacks
The reports of the civilian deaths come hours after 10 Afghan soldiers were killed when Taliban fighters are said to have stormed an Afghan army checkpoint in the province's Washir district.
Another four soldiers were wounded in that attack.
There are also reports that five soldiers went with the Taliban after the attack to the Guzran area checkpoint. It is not clear whether those five soldiers were taken as hostages or are infiltrators allied with the group.
The Taliban have claimed to have at least one insider in that attack, our correspondent said.
In another attack in the country, this time a so-called "green-on-blue" attack, two NATO soldiers in the eastern province of Laghman were also killed on Monday after an Afghan soldier shot at them.
"A member of the Afghan National Army turned his weapon on ISAF forces, killing two ISAF service members in [eastern] Laghman province today," a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan told the AFP news agency.
The soldier in the Laghman attack was killed by return fire.
There have been a total of 42 deaths attributed to such attacks in 2012.
Afghan civilians still targets
The number of Afghans being killed has fallen in 2012 compared to last year, the UN says this is still too many.
Last Modified: 12 Aug 2012 04:07
As the exit date for Western combat forces nears, their challenge will be to keep up the training of Afghan fighters amid a climate of growing suspicion.
It is not just the security forces who are being targeted. Civilians are also being attacked.
Al Jazeera's Jennifer Glasse visited one family that has witnessed loss firsthand.
Six US soldiers killed by Afghans
Troops were shot dead by locals including a police chief and his men as attacks on Nato troops by 'allies' increase
Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 11 August 2012 14.17 BST
Six US soldiers were shot dead on Friday by Afghans, including police, in southern Helmand province – a grim reminder of the growing threat foreign forces face not just from the Taliban but also from their supposed allies.
It was the bloodiest single day for foreign troops in the province since six British soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in early March.
Three US Marine Corps special operations troops were shot dead in the early hours of Friday morning in Sangin district, a northern corner of the province that has seen heavy fighting. The killers were an Afghan police commander and some of his men, who had invited the US officers to join them for a meal and to discuss security, Afghan officials said.
Then in the evening, an Afghan man shot dead three other foreign soldiers who worked on a joint base with him, the Nato-led coalition said. It does not reveal nationalities of soldiers killed during operations, but Afghan officials said the men were from the US.
"The attack happened in police headquarters of Garmser," said Daoud Ahmadi, spokesman for the provincial governor, referring to a district about 40 miles (60km) south-west of the provincial capital. One other foreign soldier was also injured, he added.
The Taliban has claimed reponsibility for the attack. "Last night after prayer time around 9pm, they were just coming out of the mosque, and a policeman opened fire on the Americans outside the district police headquarters," said Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi.
The shooter has been arrested, Nato said, but added that he was not wearing a uniform at the time of the attack, leaving open the possibility he was a civilian employee on the base. But Farid Farhang, spokesman for the provincial police chief, said the man was from a much-criticised auxiliary police unit, usually trained by special forces. "All I know is that he was from the Afghan local police," Farhang said, adding that an investigation was underway. The attacks were the third and fourth times in less than a week that Afghans have turned on their mentors or colleagues.
On Tuesday, two Afghan soldiers killed a US soldier and injured two others in eastern Paktia province, and on Thursday two other Afghan soldiers opened fire on a group outside another base in the east, although the only person killed was one of the shooters.
So far this year 37 soldiers and military contractors have been killed in 27 such attacks, far outpacing the toll in 2011. They have become such a commonplace threat that some foreign units are watched by armed "guardian angels" from their own ranks.
In a sign of growing concerns about the frequent shootings, President Hamid Karzai issued a rare condemnation of the deaths of foreign soldiers, and ordered an investigation into shootings in Helmand and Paktia. "The enemy who does not want to see Afghanistan have a strong security force, targets military trainers." Karzai said in a statement that also described the shooters as "terrorists in Afghan security uniform".
Nato commanders argue that the attackers account for only the tiniest portion of security forces, now more than 300,000 strong, and say many are driven by personal grudges rather than loyalty to the Taliban or other insurgent groups. But the shootings are disproportionately damaging to morale on the critical mission to train the Afghan police and army as foreign forces head home.
Two British soldiers were also killed within the space of 48 hours in Helmand this week. Their deaths bring the number of UK soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001 to 424.