Badam, a Pashtun nomad, might have been the oldest voter in Afghanistan's recent presidential election. While birth records are sparse in his country, Badam's mother had once told him he was born in the year of "zeym" (the inundation), as 1894 is still remembered in collective memory - making Badam 110 years old.
"Badam is old enough to remember some of the crucial moments in Afghanistan's early twentieth-century history. During the reign of the modernising King Amanullah [1919-29], he fought under Khan Haji against British forces. 'At that time I was a handsome boy and I had the strength to fight against British,' he said.
"Now, by voting, Badam said he felt as if he had struck another blow for Afghan independence. 'I know it's not appropriate for my age, but I danced the Atan [a traditional Pashtun dance] today because it's one of the happiest days of my life,' he said."He said he could count such days on the fingers of one hand. 'The first was on my second wedding day, which was a love match, and the second was five years later, when I became father of a son,' he said. 'The third is today, when I decide my own destiny'."
Millions of Badam's younger countrymen - and women - shared that experience with him just over a month ago. After decades of war and oppression, which left one million dead, forced some five million to flee across borders, and utterly devastated and impoverished the country, the Afghans are finally finding some reasons to be happy. Largely out of the international media spotlight, Afghanistan continues to progress along the winding road to peace, freedom and democracy. Here are some snapshots from the past four weeks of that journey:
- The counting is now officially finished and Hamid Karzai has been declared the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan. "Showing 98.4 percent of the votes counted, the Web site of the UN-Afghan election commission said Karzai had 55.5 percent of the votes, 39 points ahead of his closest rival, former Education Minister Yunus Qanooni. An estimated 8.2 million ballots were cast in the historic vote Oct. 9, a turnout that U.S. and Afghan officials hailed as a nail in the coffin of the former ruling Taliban, whose threats to disrupt the election proved hollow."
- Karzai has been declared as duly elected on November 3, after having to wait for the results of an official investigation into the allegations of electoral fraud. The investigation found that the instances of fraud were only minor; "There were shortcomings, but they could not have materially affected the overall result," said Staffan Darnolf, a Swedish member of the a three-strong panel which examined the conduct of the election.
- You can find the details of Hamid Karzai's new cabinet here. Afghanistan's first democratically elected leader named improving Afghanistan's economy, ending corruption, and reducing drug trafficking as his top three priorities in office.
- Many factors accounted for the success of the election; the sheer determination of the Afghan people to make a fresh start, the security umbrella provided by the Coalition forces, but also the aid and support provided by foreign governments and organisations. USAID was the largest single contributor to that effort. Its $84 million meant that voter education could reach 1.3 million Afghans, large numbers of women were registered to vote, and 1,673 polling centers were monitored on the election day by 10,000 observers.
- Interestingly, Karzai secured around 80% of the vote among Afghan refugees still remaining in Pakistan. Of the 700,000 registered, 569,000 cast their vote. The refugees, meanwhile, continue to stream back into their homeland. 120,000 were voluntarily repatriated this year from the Pakistani province of Baluchistan alone, 375,000 from the whole of Pakistan since March this year, and over 2.3 million since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
- The success of the election bodes well for some previously troublesome parts of the country:
"American military and Afghan officials in [Sharan;] dust-blown town, capital of the remote border province of Paktika, say they are proud that the presidential election on Oct. 9 was peaceful here, with one of the highest voter turnouts in the country.
"Not bad, they say, for a province larger than Vermont that has been the most dangerous and inaccessible for American troops and even Afghan government officials for the past three years. Insurgents supporting the country's former Taliban rulers and Al Qaeda have carried out repeated attacks here, from their haven across the border in Pakistan's tribal areas."But now officials here say they are ready for the next project - local and parliamentary elections in the spring. 'If we keep the same cooperation and security as we had in the presidential elections, we can hold parliamentary elections,' Muhammad Gulab Mangal, Paktika's governor, said in a recent interview."
- Election was also a moral victory for women, providing them with an opportunity for a very symbolic re-entry into the Afghan public life:
"In three Afghan provinces - Faryab, Daikundi and Nuristan - more women than men turned out to cast ballots for president during elections October 9. According to official election results as of October 22, 53 per cent of voters in the central Daikundi province and 52 per cent in Faryab in the north were female. In Nuristan in the east of Afghanistan, 50 per cent were women, and Herat and Paktia were only one percentage point behind.
"Sadiq Mudabir, a member of the Afghan election commission secretariat, said both voter education and local customs contributed to a high turnout of women in some provinces. In Daikundi, he said, society is relatively open, and husbands encouraged their wives to vote. In Nuristan and Faryab, he added, civic education contributed to the high turnout."Mohammad Kabir Ranjbar, director of the Afghan bar association, said Nuristan had historically been a matriarchal society until the local population converted to Islam. Mothers were the head of tribes, and women performed most of the agricultural work. According to Ranjbar, since women in Nuristan are the main providers, they have more freedom and were able to participate more fully in the vote."
- It's only a start, of course, and a slow one; after all, in many areas of the country the women's turnout was very small, and in others, less than expected, but as Rome wasn't built in a day, neither will the Afghan democracy. The October 9 election provided a very good foundation stone, though.
- Already, Afghan women are flexing their political muscles demanding their own places of worship. Also, women singers are getting for the first time broadcasted on Afghan TV. Afghan women also continue to re-discover freedoms in other areas of life so long out of bounds for them:
"The first sign of change is a sign, posted on the brown mud exterior wall of Soheila Helal's house and garden to announce her private courses. When the Taliban controlled this western city, Helal had to teach in secret. Now she is free to advertise.
"Nearly three years ago, days after the Taliban left the city ending almost six years of repressive rule, Helal was one of a host of women interviewed by The New York Times. They recounted lives cloistered and hopes curtailed through days that blurred to months, then years."In late summer, Helal and one other woman, Kobra Zeithi -- the two who could be traced -- were interviewed again, as the country prepared for its first presidential election. Zeithi works for Habitat, the United Nations Center for Human Settlement. Helal, in addition to her home courses, has returned to teaching at a government school, and to pursuing a university degree, activities that were forbidden for women under the Taliban."
- And on a much lighter note: "An Afghan woman, condemned in her homeland after appearing in a bikini in a Philippine beauty contest last year, rejoined the pageant Sunday as a judge, saying the controversy bolstered her advocacy for women's rights. Vida Samadzai, 26, was among 11 judges chosen to pick the winner in Miss Earth, an annual beauty pageant that promotes environmental protection, organizers said... 'It was really helpful by way of expressing my view to the rest of the world,' Samadzai, a women's rights activist, said of the attention she got after Afghan officials criticized her for becoming the first Afghan woman to take part in a beauty contest in three decades."
- In the media news, Afghan radio industry is experiencing a boom. Sanjar and Hugo are two of the industry's young pioneers:
"Sanjar wears a Backstreet Boys T-shirt, but he likes The Beatles. Hugo's next- door neighbours hold a disco every night at five. Times are changing in Afghanistan: as the first democratic elections conclude and a new dawn is promised, Afghans from all over the country are tuning into free radio. On the streets of Kabul, one is just as likely to hear Guns N' Roses as gunfire, and in a culture that has long regarded females as chattels, now women host chat shows. Significantly, it is Afghanistan's youth which is leading the way in this youngest of all democracies. And, through reconstructing the nation's ability to express itself, promising a more stable future. "Sanjar Qiam and Hugo MacPherson are two young men helping to foster this explosion in Afghanistan's radio. Both are university graduates, both were born in 1980, and both now work for Internews Afghanistan, a US-based international company establishing independent radio in the emerging democracy. But while MacPherson enjoyed a private education in Britain, and took a degree from a liberal university, Qiam's education was frequently interrupted by civil wars and the repression of the Taliban. He was not even born when Soviet tanks first rolled into Afghanistan, and has, like many other young Afghans, spent large parts of his life in exile."
- The growth of Afghanistan's free media is in no small part thanks to the support and work of organisations such as USAID. In addition to building legal and regulatory framework for the new media, USAID has so far
"[Established] 27 independent FM radio stations, including Arman FM in Kabul and Balkh, provincial community stations developed by Internews, women-run stations, and student-run university radio stations in Herat and Kabul.
[Distributed] 70,000 radios to vulnerable populations including women in remote areas across Afghanistan.[Provided] civic education and independent media coverage through support for 18 radio stations that reach over 8 million Afghans."
- Education of future Afghan journalists is high on the agenda: "The first colloquium of Afghan journalism professors began... Sunday October 17, at the Ministry of Higher Education in presence of representatives from all the existing Journalism Departments of Afghanistan - Kabul, Balkh, Herat and Khost. The purpose of the meeting is to outline the first Afghan Journalism Manual, which is expected to be published next year as an essential learning tool for students of journalism... The manual will be published in Dari and Pashto and will include high-quality, updated and practical teaching methodology to replace existing Soviet-style material."
- Afghanistan is also becoming connected to the rest of the world: "Afghanistan has become the latest link in NATO’s 'Virtual Silk Highway' - the project which provides high-speed Internet access to the academic communities of the Caucasus and Central Asia. On 10 October the first link was established between Kabul University and the Silk Highway’s European hub at DESY (Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron), in Hamburg, Germany. Kabul University is the leading academic research establishment in the country, and is home to 50% of the university students in Kabul. This new satellite link will mean that staff and students at Kabul University and seven other educational institutes in Kabul will have affordable access to the Internet. The costs associated with using alternative commercial Internet providers has made this out of the question for the academic community until now."
- Meanwhile, the latest craze to hit Afghanistan is a nice change from the past preoccupations and bodes well for the country's future:
"In Afghanistan, men used to use guns to appear strong -- now they flock to gymnasiums to worship at the altar of the latest craze, bodybuilding. Afghanistan’s tough guys used to wear beards and wool caps, study the Koran and fight mountain battles. These days an increasing number have waxed chests, cheesy grins and bulging biceps.
" 'People don’t want to fight any more,' says Temour Shah, a beefy 23-year-old, pumping weights under an Arnold Schwarzenegger poster at Gold’s Gym in central Kabul. 'They want to look healthy -- like in the movies.'"Bodybuilding is the new craze of postwar Afghanistan, particularly among young urban men. The number of gyms in Kabul has doubled to 46 in the past two years, while a further 30 are scattered across the country."
- One of America's favorite adopted sons continues to inspire people the world over: "The streets are covered with pensive images of the Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, an Afghan national hero. But inside the gyms, the governor of California is king. 'I studied Schwarzenegger’s career carefully,' says Noorulhoda Sherzad, a dentistry student and the current holder of the Mr. Kabul title. 'He achieved everything he wanted. I have dreams, too,' he said."
- The US ambassador to Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, sees a bright future for Afghanistan as an integral part of the broader region:
"Afghanistan’s transformation to a democracy will 'reestablish the country’s role as a land bridge connecting Central Asia, South Asia and Southwest Asia,'... Khalilzad said...
"The region is a 'historic and growing regional market with a total gross domestic product of four trillion dollars,' said Khalilzad... The Cold War, the India-Pakistan conflict, the Iranian revolution and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan have all 'sundered east-west and north-south lines of trade and communication,' he said, noting however 'these divisions are being overcome.'"Khalilzad said the United States and other donors were restoring the Afghan ring road and regional spurs that would create two north-south axes terminating at the Pakistan port of Gwadar and Iranian port of Chabahar facing the Arabian Sea. Planning is underway for rail and pipelines connecting Central Asia to South Asia and world markets through the Arabian Sea, he said."
- Some of that transport infrastructure is already subject to inter-governmental agreements:
"Afghanistan and Uzbekistan agreed... to push ahead with a mammoth road-building project intended to make their countries a lucrative trade link between Asia and the Persian Gulf. 'A unique opportunity has appeared for Afghanistan to serve as a transit country between South-East Asia and the Persian Gulf,' Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told journalists. "Meeting in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, Abdullah and his Uzbek counterpart, Sadyk Safayev outlined plans for Uzbek contractors to build a road across northern Afghanistan between the towns of Andhoi and Herat. The eventual aim - agreed last summer at a summit of Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan’s presidents - is to extend the road from Uzbekistan southwards through Afghanistan to Iran’s Gulf Coast, possibly supplemented by a railway. Uzbekistan has simultaneously been pushing for construction of a rail link eastward through Kyrgyzstan and deep into China in order to create a complete oil transit route between China and the Persian Gulf."
- Meanwhile, good economic times finally come to Kabul:
"For 25 years, a boom in downtown Kabul usually meant an incoming rocket and ensuing mayhem. Now, three years after the fall of the Taliban, some semblance of normalcy is returning to the capital, and a different sort of boom is capturing people’s attention -- an investment one.
"On its face, it’s not a boom most Westerners would recognize. Few streets in the capital are paved, and many are lined with garbage. Walls in western Kabul are still pocked with bullet holes, and the shells of bombed-out buildings stand testament to the post-Soviet civil war that nearly destroyed the city of half a million. Cars compete with livestock at some intersections, electricity is sporadic at best and the incoming rockets have not disappeared entirely."But for a city that has known little but war and political chaos for a generation, the sight of men rebuilding homes and dealerships full of shiny new automobiles are a welcome change from the recent past. And it’s a dramatically different climate from that in the other front of America’s War on Terror."
- Some 142 companies have been attracted to Afghanistan in the previous twelve months alone, bringing nearly $0.5 billion in new investment. Not surprisingly, in a country so devastated by war, a considerable proportion of the money is going into the construction sector.
- And just in case rapid development throws too many negative side effects, the Asian Development Bank has given Afghanistan a $450,000 grant to deal with air pollution in Kabul.
- But it's not just the national capital. John Daniszowski of the "Los Angeles Times" has recently visited another area of Afghanistan to see it thriving again:
"The Shomali Plain north of the Afghan capital, a 40-mile-wide plateau crisscrossed by ancient irrigation channels carrying water from glaciered peaks above, is a land fabled for lush vineyards and opulent orchards.
"But during the Taliban years, the region was systematically destroyed - its villages burned, its orchards chopped down, the irrigation systems dynamited - in a campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' in which the mainly Pushtun religious extremists of the Taliban regime targeted the half-million Tajik and Hazara inhabitants of the plain.
"When the Taliban was driven away in December 2001, only ghost villages were left. The road to Kabul was a tableau of destroyed tanks, broken bridges and ruined houses, the plain a uniform dusty brown littered with the stumps of trees."What a contrast, then, to visit the Shomali Plain today. The villages have sprung back to life. Refugees who fled the Taliban have returned from Pakistan and Iran to rebuild homes, wells and reservoir tanks are being dug, the markets are full of sheep and goats and piles of fruit, and children are going to school."
- Read the whole article; it gives a great summary of all the much under-reported things that are going well around Afghanistan, even if the progress is uneven across the country:
"Progress in Afghanistan is measured in inches, not miles. A freshly painted mosque, a newly drilled water well, pencils and writing tablets for schoolchildren mark major steps forward in Zormat and the many other frontier villages in Paktia province, near Pakistan.
"About 80 miles north in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, the advances are more visible, but extraordinarily modest by Western standards. New office and home construction is under way, electrical lines are being strung, and roads are being paved. Across this Central Asian country of mountains and deserts, there's nowhere to go but up...
"[The village leader] Khan remembers the days of the Taliban vividly. When they were in power, residents were forced to pay a hefty tax each month. The money was used to further the party's rigid ideological goals, he said.
"People were scared to come to the bazaar, making it difficult for businesses to survive. The Taliban turned Zormat's schools into 'madrassahs' that preached a radical form of Islam, Khan says."He is effusive in his praise for the U.S. military, which has helped Zormat begin to recover. Special forces teams patrol the area and work closely with Zormat's police force, providing equipment and training. The Afghan National Army maintains a steady presence as well."
- The challenges are daunting and Khan lists many of them, from the lack of teachers to security fears. But a good start has been made, and you can read on how the US Army personnel from the nearby Camp Vance are doing their bit to make a difference.
- To help Afghan women take advantage of new freedoms and opening economic opportunities, one Arizona businesswomen has started up this useful initiative:
"When Barbara Barrett visited Afghanistan earlier this year, she saw an emerging country a few years removed from the authoritarian rule of the Taliban. Barrett, one of the Valley's most influential leaders, also saw a country where women who once were oppressed and denied the right to go to school now had more freedom and liberties. That includes the ability to start their own small businesses and other economic enterprises.
"An idea hatched from Barrett's visit to Afghanistan that links women entrepreneurs from that developing country with one of the top business schools in the country. Barrett's brainstorm resulted in a partnership involving Afghan women entrepreneurs and Thunderbird, The Garvin School of International Management."A group of 15 Afghan women entrepreneurs will attend Thunderbird in January to learn how to set up small businesses back home. They will go to two weeks' worth of intensive classes at the Glendale school on how to set up a business model and plan, how to get financing such as micro loans, and how to find export opportunities for the United States and other markets."
- From previously underutilized human to previously underutilized natural resources: in future more of Afghanistan energy needs will come from renewable sources:
"[India's] Exide Industries is entering Afghanistan through the wind and solar energy route, a sector the company had entered two years ago. The entry has been fuelled by the insatiable appetite of the Afghans for Hindi films and the total absence of any power utility in that country...
"Exide's Afghan story began soon after the company participated in a Confederation of Indian Industries delegation to Afghanistan. 'Never before did we see an entire country run on petrol-driven generator sets,' says a company official. What was equally amazing was the huge popularity enjoyed by Bollywood in the erstwhile land of the Taliban. 'Their love for Hindi films is unparalleled. It was totally surprising to discover that they hankered after power primarily to watch TV,' said another senior company official. Anyone with a nose for business would have sensed an excellent opportunity to set up shop in the power sector.
"But how would one go about it, considering that the conventional channels for doing business simply did not exist? As the source said: 'There is practically no banking system in Afghanistan. We had no idea of how to do business in a country, which could not follow existing foreign trade practices.'
"But, of course, something had to be done. So, to test the waters, the company set up a 400-watt rooftop wind-solar hybrid power generation system in Kabul. Given that the average wind velocity in Afghanistan makes the country ideal for such systems to offer a dependable power supply, the Exide installation evoked a huge response."Today, the company has tied up with a local businessman to act as distribution agent, and on offer are 400-watt rooftop wind power generation systems, coupled with bigger installations of 1,000 watts and 3,200 watts (each is backed by a solar generation system), targeted at high net-worth or institutional customers. The trade is done entirely on the 'cash and carry' method."
- The company also supplies small "solar inverters" that provide enough energy to power TV sets. And in more renovable energy news, this time from the Tajik areas of Afghanistan: "The burial place of Afghanistan's greatest resistance hero [Ahmad Shah Masood] is a desolate, windswept hill deep in the Panjsher Valley. So windswept, in fact, that the Asian Development Bank is funding a study there into ways of harnessing the force that sweeps through the majestic valley to generate electricity. Tiny windmills spin atop a tall antenna, recording scientific data that is fed into a computer at the base."
- The Indian government, meanwhile, will finance the construction of a new dam near Herat, which will generate 42 megawatts of electricity for the local needs, provide local employment and help to satisfy water needs. The project is worth Rs 3.51 billion ($77.8 million) and will be finished within two years.
- Afghan agriculture is also set to receive a boost, with a $1.96 million grant from the Asian Development Bank to improve water management and help upgrade the country's irrigation infrastructure. "[L]ittle of the irrigation potential of the western basins in Afghanistan has been tapped, while the existing systems, which are centuries old, are in need of serious repair as decades of civil unrest have impeded routine maintenance and starved the sector of resources. Also, few modern regulating structures exist and the systems need to be rationalized to eliminate duplication or resources and increase the irrigable area." Meanwhile, a German group is working to help improve water availability in other areas of the country:
"German Agro Action is now working on the rehabilitation of the drinking water supply and irrigation systems in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan. This is aimed first of all at helping the local population and secondly improving the possibility of refugees and people displaced within Afghanistan to return to their homes. "180 wells are to be constructed and drilled in the three eastern provinces of Afghanistan. Each well will in addition be outfitted with a handpump. The advantage of handpumps is that they can be serviced and repaired by village inhabitants themselves."
- Animal husbandry is also in need of much help and Keith W. Prasse, dean of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, is currently organising assistance to revive Afghanistan's veterinary science education:
"In Afghanistan students can attend two existing schools of veterinary medicine or a veterinary science department in an agricultural college, but employment is hard to find for these students as well, Prasse explained.
" 'Afghanistan is literally rubble. They have one hour's worth of electricity per day. We were told that although their veterinary college was rebuilt and two labs constructed with the help of funds from Japan and Italy, the building has no furniture, nothing on the walls, nothing on the floors, no reagents, no instruments, no library, nothing,' Prasse said. 'According to some Afghan conferees, before the Taliban they had 75 faculty members. Today they have 10. The rest were killed in the wars. Yet they still have classes,' he continued."The Afghans are more advanced than Iraqi veterinarians with their planning, although they're starting from a lower level to reestablish veterinary education and services, according to Prasse. 'They know what they want, they know what their policies are, and they know where they're going - they're looking toward establishing free enterprise in their veterinary profession,' he said."
- The aid package will be a collaborative effort between the University of Georgia, the University of Missouri and the University of California-Davis.
- While a lot of reconstruction work will bear long term fruit, many Afghans continue to be in need of more immediate assistance. The World Food Program, for example, continues with its valuable work to assist Afghanistan's neediest and most at risk: "The organisation, which has been running the programme since November 2003, oversees six centres in Kabul, which provide children with food once a month. Among them is the Aschiana Children's Centre, which delivers food to more than a thousand children. Teachers who work at the centre search the streets of Kabul to find children who are forced to work in order to make money for themselves or for their families. Many of them have lost one or both of their parents during the recent fighting in Afghanistan. Each month they receive 50 kilograms of wheat, two kilograms of pulse and two kilograms of oil. The centre also teaches children in fields such as calligraphy, embroidery and music. Children can also receive counselling to help them develop tools to re-establish their lives and build a future in their devastated country."
- Meanwhile, this Italian physician is providing hope for the victims of Afghanistan's many wars:
"Afghanistan is a country where the physical scars of war are all too apparent among the thousands of landmine victims who have lost arms and legs or both. But hope in the face of despair comes in the form of Italian physiotherapist Alberto Cairo and his team, who are helping these people to overcome their disabilities and fears of being 'written off' by society. "The Afghanistan orthopaedic project has six centres across the troubled country where it provides artificial limbs and physiotherapy for amputees and fits braces, corsets and orthopaedic shoes for those wounded in wars or by the deadly weapons left behind. The project was launched by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1988, and Alberto joined in 1990. Over the past 16 years it has helped more than 55,000 people."
- There is more to Cairo's work than just physiotherapeutic work: "A job centre has been launched to help people find work instead of begging - a trap that many disabled people fall into because they feel unemployable and can see no other way of making a living. Running alongside the job centre is a small bank which can offer loans to enterprising individuals, subject to them devising an appropriate business plan. In Kabul alone, 2,700 small businesses have been started as a result of the job centre. They also encourage disabled children to go to school or have lessons at home if they have a severe disability. Alberto insists on solely employing people with a disability."
- While Alberto Cairo is helping Afghanistan's disabled, this Californian dentist is trying to fill a big gap in Afghan medical care:
"Jim Rolfe has spent weeks and about $50,000 trying to fill a big void in Afghanistan. Now he is planning to set up his own clinic in Kabul. At 65, Jim Rolfe has been a dentist for a long time, but his practice in downtown Santa Barbara hardly prepared him for what he found in Afghanistan...
"Like numerous other medical professionals who pitch in at Third World clinics for brief periods, Rolfe wanted to spend a few weeks simply doing what he could. What he didn't count on was his spark of altruism turning into a full-fledged mission."So far, Rolfe has spent more than $50,000 of his own money to provide dental care in Afghanistan. What he has in mind, though, is far grander in scope than simply writing a check. Rolfe could be the only Santa Barbara dentist currently looking to buy land in Kabul. When he finds it, he will plunk down a used shipping container he purchased as the hub of his future clinic. He will rig it up with a generator and running water, outfit it with dental equipment, recruit U.S. professionals, train Afghan dental assistants, and, practically overnight, give Afghans in sore need of dental work an opportunity to get it."
- On a much bigger scale, the Japanese government and Japanese institutions of higher learning are also lending a hand: "The University of Tokyo will send medical experts to Kabul to train doctors and boost Afghanistan's ailing medical system... The university's International Research Center for Medical Education will hold courses in conjunction with the Kabul Medical Institute in a project aimed at injecting expertise into the war-torn country's neglected medical education system. Starting next year, the center will dispatch doctors to Kabul to provide classes focusing on primary care. The center has received a $900,000 grant from the Japan International Cooperation Agency for the project."
- The American Rotarians, meanwhile, are doing their bit to promote friendship - and provide assistance - by helping to make Jalalbad a sister city of San Diego:
"In 2002 a member of the Rotary Club of La Jolla and a local Afghan-American explored establishing a school in Jalalabad as a result of a fellow Rotarian's work with Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan. She learned of the refugees' desire for a school in Jalalabad, where they would be returning.
"The three Rotarians traveled to Jalalabad and were warmly received by government officials and citizens and were encouraged to develop the school. They also learned of needs at Nangarhar University, with its 3,000 students and 250 faculty.
"A Rotarian resident of San Diego County and friend of Jalalabad mayor initiated the idea of a sister city pairing. After being approached, the mayor of San Diego wrote a letter of invitation to the Jalalabad mayor, who responded enthusiastically. Committees formed in both cities in 2003 to develop the program."Finally, in March 2004, both committees met in Jalalabad. Approved by the International Sister Cities Corporation, the proposal was put forth to the San Diego City Council. The council gave final approval June 28, 2004."
- Still in the United States, Ghafar Lakanwal, an immigrant from Afghanistan, is working hard to build schools throughout his former homeland. He has founded Partnership for the Education of Children in Afghanistan (PECA) to provide underprivileged Afghan children with educational opportunities:
"PECA has already provided funding for one school, in Wardak Province. The school was damaged in mortar attacks by anti-government insurgents but PECA plans to repair and rebuild it, Lakanwal said. 'That school will be finished for the next school year, which will begin in March,' [Lakanwal] said. " 'Now we are raising funds for our newly adopted project, Da Doornamio in the province of Khost,' southeast of Kabul, the capitol - and Lakanwal’s hometown... Once finished, the Da Doornamio school will enroll as many as 465 girls and 950 boys from the region, Lakanwal said. In parts of the country, education for girls is still discouraged but the eagerness of people in Khost to educate both boys and girls illustrates their commitment to progress, Lakanwal said. 'For the first time in the history of the rural areas of Khost, people are eager to send girls to school,' he said. 'That is one reason I am so proud of them'."
- Speaking of Afghan schools, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and others are helping Afghan kids become more active:
"UNHCR, in cooperation with the Afghan national Olympic Committee, arranged to give out a large number of sporting goods - including soft balls, soccer and volley balls - to the children of Mirbacha Khan and 12 other schools in the Shomali Plain in late October. The area is home to a large number of returning refugees, and an official of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation thanked UNHCR for organising the distribution. "The items were donated by Sporting Goods to Go!, an international consortium of sports manufacturers, national Olympic committees and leading non-governmental organisations dedicated to promoting access to competitive sports and recreational activities for children in developing countries."
- As Stig Traavik, advisor to the Afghan Olympic Committee says, "Children everywhere in the world should be encouraged to take part in sports, and it is especially important here in Afghanistan, where for so long children were deprived of so much."
- Lt Col Jerry Law recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan where he was part of a 100-member Provincial Reconstruction Team. His impressions seem to be common among those serving in Afghanistan:
" 'This was a very gratifying mission,' Law said. 'We had a very accepting population.' Afghan people hunger for change, he said. 'They are eager for democracy,' Law said. 'They've been in political strife for 25 years.'
"Law serves with the Army Reserve Civil Affairs Brigade in Portland. 'In my particular business, we're not into fighting, we're into fixing,' Law said. The Civil Affairs Brigade is made of senior military personnel who also have civilian careers, he said. Lawyers, teachers, police officers, even elected officials serve with that brigade, lending a vast array of know-how to reconstruction efforts in foreign lands. 'We bring civilian skills with us,' Law said.
"Law has construction experience and is a licensed water purveyor – which came in handy when building sewer facilities in Afghanistan. He also worked in schools, where he saw changes in education first hand. More Afghan children than ever attend school right now, he said. 'They're so eager for education, teachers (will) even teach outside, under a tree,' Law said..."Mostly Law encountered people open to change. "I thought they were very accepting of worldly change,' he said. 'They're very appreciative of the American culture. Ninety percent of the time we had great relations with everybody.' Law loved being able to see change unfold before his eyes. 'You can see cause and effect,' he said. 'You get a good return for your investment'."
- And so the involvement of the Coalition troops in delivery of humanitarian aid continues, even if that ruffles the feathers of some Non-Government Organisations, which claim this blurs the line between civilian volunteers and the military and therefore puts the former at greater risk from Taliban attacks. The troops aren't quite buying this argument: "We must, to win the war here, gain the trust of the population. And so, while we are trying to foster security for this country, we are also using construction to gain the trust of the civilian population," says Marine Colonel Gary Cheek, whose troops are involved in many projects in the Khost area. "Would you have us stop doing all reconstruction and just leave it to the NGOs which are wholly under-funded? I don't think it is unfair to say they are less efficient. We tend to be very mission-focused in the military. We get it done as quickly as we are able to," he adds.
- It's not all schools and health clinics; the Coalition troops are also doing valuable work on the ground by building the infrastructure for the new Afghan security forces:
"Building modern-day facilities for the newly trained Afghan National Army has become a primary mission for the Afghanistan Engineer District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"Supporting Combined Forces Command Afghanistan's efforts to win the war on terror, the Corps is shepherding a comprehensive infrastructure program for the reception and training of recruits, and subsequent stabilization of up to 70,000 ANA soldiers. Sites now being built and those completed since the start of the program provide facilities for 56,000 troops, at a cost of $575 million."The program, which began in 2003, includes construction, rehabilitation and refurbishment of barracks, dining facilities, administration centers, clinics, motor pools, training ranges and support facilities. It also includes building a military hospital, military academy, entrance processing station, and training center. United States, Taiwan and the United Kingdom have funded the program to date."
- Here's more information about the construction program: "American engineers in the Kabul area used U.S. military facilities as a blueprint to build three barracks that will house 15,000 Afghan soldiers from the Afghan Army Central Corps. Overall, the Corps of Engineers has overseen the construction of 302 major structures in Afghanistan, including 186 barracks buildings, 22 administration buildings, four dining facilities and 89 support facilities, [Army Col. John O'Dowd, commander of the Afghanistan Engineer District] said. Each facility is designed and built with Afghan culture and customs in mind. For example, O'Dowd explained, the newly constructed Afghan dining facilities feature wood-burning stoves and tea-preparation stations. Also, each installation will have at least one mosque on site."
- In a country which decades of conflict left strewn with countless weaponry and unexploded ordinance, the troops are also working to destroy this deadly legacy. Petty Officer First Class Michael Englert, along with three other Navy explosive ordnance disposal technicians (EODs), assists the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. Recently, "the EODs located 14 caches and destroyed 1,713 ordnance items, eight IEDs, 149 weapons and 51,630 rounds of small arms ammunition."
- Afghanistan is also the most heavily mined country on earth, resulting in 200,000 mine-related deaths and injuries over the past two decades. A of Brainerd and Company B of Mankato of the U.S. Army Reserve's 367th Engineer Battalion and other 8,000 foreign specialists are trying to eliminate this scourge. The progress is being made: prior to 2003, around 150 people a month were being killed or injured by mines - in 2003, that number dropped to 60. But it's still too much.
- In addition to official humanitarian actions, the American troops continue with their own private initiatives to help the people of Afghanistan. The 325th Medical Unit, for example, is distributing supplies in their area of operation: "Independence City Hall is still accepting items to send to the troops and the children they are caring for in Afghanistan. The medical personnel pass out items like pencils and notebooks to children in new schools, things that people in the free world may take for granted." See the story for details, if you can assist.
- Maj Gregory Bramblett of Sioux City, Iowa, the U.S. Army's only ophthalmologist in Afghanistan, in addition to helping Afghan people with their eye problems has also organised his friends and relatives back home to send dozens of pairs of shoes for Afghan children. As he told his family: "You can forget about the candy; just send some shoes to the kids."
- And soldiers from the Minnesota-based U.S. Army Reserve's 367th Engineer Battalion at Bagram Air Base near Kabul have adopted an Afghan village - the activity that military units in Afghanistan are encouraged to undertake with permission of their commanders. The troops now regularly visit the nearby village and distribute school supplies and other goods.
- For a lighter moment, the troops are planning to participate in an Afghan shadow of a famous American sporting event:
"For the troops of 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment 'Bobcats' of the Hawai'i-based 25th Infantry Division, a 26.2-mile run on a dusty airstrip in the heart of Taliban country sounds a lot like paradise these days...
"[Capt. Mark] Hurlburt talked about the battalion's plans for a satellite Honolulu Marathon via satellite phone just hours before he was to depart on an extended mission 'to look for bad guys.'
"A battalion signal officer with the Bobcats, Hurlburt is helping coordinate the run at Firebase Ripley in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. He hopes the race will run as close to Dec. 12 as possible. Registration has been going well, with more than 100 troops and civilians from around the country already committed." 'There are a bunch of guys here who have done the Honolulu Marathon,' Hurlburt said. 'We just want to be a part of it again. It would make us feel a little bit of home'."
- Elsewhere in Afghanistan, US troops run a half-marathon - on treadmills.
- Attacks from Taliban and al Qaeda remnants continue sporadically throughout Afghanistan, but the tide is widely thought to have turned against the insurgents.
- Other Coalition forces are expanding their presence to supplement the American strategic footprint: "NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Thursday that the alliance plans to keep its military mission in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future and expand the deployment 'to the west (of Afghanistan) up to Herat'." Turkmenistan will provide assistance and cooperate with NATO in areas such as transit support.
- The new Afghan armed forces, meanwhile, are growing in size and stature:
"The new Afghan army is winning the support of the population and is capable of tackling a lingering insurgency by remnants of the ousted Taliban regime, the U.S. general in charge of its training said... Major General Craig Weston, commander of the U.S. Office of Military Co-operation - Afghanistan (OMC-A), told a news conference in the capital that the 17,000-strong force was winning hearts and minds and the fight against the Taliban...
"Nearly three decades of conflict had reduced much of the Afghan army to a ill-disciplined rabble, and the central government has had little sway over the sizeable militias formed by regional commanders and warlords -- who depend on ethnic loyalties and in some cases money from drug running."But a program to disarm the militias and form a national, unified army has so far proved a success. Some 23,000 militia fighters have been disarmed and more than 2,800 heavy weapons -- two-thirds of those estimated to be in the country -- are now under the control of Afghan army forces."
- Professional recruitment, needless to say, is the key to the growth of the Afghan army:
"The third and probably last class of the Afghan Recruiting Academy walked across the stage Oct. 31 as 93 new recruiters received their graduation certificates.
"During the ceremony, the commander of the Afghan National Army Recruiting Command, Maj. Gen. Aziz Rahman, congratulated and challenged the group. 'You are the best selected officers of the ANA, and you have to recruit the best soldiers for the ANA,' Rahman said.
"There are now 17,000 soldiers in the ANA, representing every ethnicity and province. Currently, the recruiting rate will meet the Bonn II treaty goal of 70,000 soldiers four years earlier than the original date of 2011, according to ANA officials.
"With this class adding to the numbers, there are now 263 recruiters. They will be assigned to the 19 existing National Army Volunteer Centers across the nation. Eventually they will man 35 such centers, one in every province of Afghanistan, except for Kabul Province, which will have two."With the addition of about 50 civilian positions, the goal of filling the ANA Recruiting Command’s 327 slots is almost complete. The Afghan trainers will train the last few recruiters on a one-on-one basis."
- Speeded up training will be another key to the growth of the Afghan security forces:
"The United States is trying to fast-track Afghanistan’s objective of having a 70,000-strong army within five years, the American envoy to Kabul said on Friday. 'We are looking at how ... to get to the 70,000 (target) as soon as possible,' Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said. 'The current plan is to get there in five additional years. We could do that at a faster rate. We are looking at that.' The Afghan army is more than 15,000 strong today while the police force has more than 30,000 trained personnel, according to the envoy. "Khalilzad said German-led efforts to train Afghan police personnel would also be stepped up, based on lessons learned in Iraq, where training of local policemen was being boosted. Last year, 20,000 Afghan police personnel were trained and 'we are looking at ways to make that police training programme into an effective programme'."
- As Khalizad says, "Our preferred approach is to get the Afghans to stand on their own feet as soon as possible."
- To accommodate the growth of Afghan security forces, military infrastructure continues to expand around the country. Most recently, the Paktia National Army Volunteer Center opened in Gardez, coinciding with the opening of the first Afghan National Army Intermediate Recruiting Battalion headquarters next door. As the report says: "Two grand openings. Two ribbon cutting ceremonies. Two flag raisings. And, two sheep sacrifices for good luck."
- It's not just training and equipping the Afghan Army; the American experts are also helping to improve border security:
"Patrick Fine, Afghan mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), sees his work in Kabul as a partnership with the Afghan central government.
"Fine is working closely with the Afghan Finance Ministry to improve its customs services and to bring about fiscal and administrative reforms. On 16 October, in one of the more visible signs of U.S. cooperation with Afghan customs agents, Fine presented the Finance Ministry with the keys to 15 new patrol trucks and three new minibuses...
"[T]he gift is the second consignment of patrol vehicles given to the customs service by the U.S. government agency in the past six months. USAID also provided 20 pickup trucks last April."Deputy Finance Minister Jelani Popal says the April gift gave customs agents the mobility to stop truck drivers from Pakistan who were avoiding customs taxes at the Torkham border crossing in eastern Afghanistan. As a result, he says many more drivers now pass legally through customs houses and pay their required duties on items like textiles and livestock."
- Since January 2004, the Americans and the Germans have also trained more than 29,000 police: "The training was done in the capital of Kabul and at State Department-built academies in Kandahar, Konduz, Gardez, and Mazar-i-Sharif. Two more academies are being built in Bamiyan and Herat."
- The last few weeks have witnessed a first in direct regional military cooperation:
"Afghan, Pakistan and U.S. soldiers joined efforts to defend the Afghanistan town of Shkin when it came under rocket attack Nov. 3. Soldiers from these three nations conducted a coordinated attack against militant forces in the border region between Shkin, Afghanistan, and Wana, Pakistan. "Shkin came under fire from anti-coalition forces operating near the Afghan/Pakistan border region late Wednesday night. Having a better view of the target area from their border checkpoint in Pakistan, Pakistani soldiers adjusted U.S. artillery counter battery fire for the Afghan and U.S. forces on the Afghan side of the border. This was done using U.S. PRC-77 radios that were transferred to the Pakistanis just two days prior."
- This comes as Afghanistan's President-elect Karzai and Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf promised closer cooperation in the fight against terrorism during a recent visit by Musharraf to congratulate his Afghan counterpart on his election.
- The military action along the Afghan-Pakistani border seeks to capitalise on the growing anti-Taliban mood in this previously very hostile area:
"According to [Col Gary] Cheek, the balance of local support started to tip against the Taliban late in 2003. The trend accelerated in the weeks following the presidential election. Perhaps the clearest indicator that Taliban support is evaporating is the fact that locals are increasingly willing to provide information to the US military and Afghan government, Cheek said. " 'There is a growing sense of Afghan nationalism among the Wazirs on the Afghan side, and, in Khost, we are successful in getting more cooperation from the locals. Attitudes are changing,' Cheek said. 'There has been a dramatic change in the past year,' Cheek added. 'We operate to win the confidence of local residents and we come in with offers of education, reconstruction and a better life for their children. It is easy to counter the Taliban’s message, which is based on threats and violence'."
- The US and Pakistani troops are now engaged in a "hammer and anvil"-type operation to trap and destroy the insurgents along the border.
The authorities are also making a start in elimination of the scourge of illicit drugs:
"Afghanistan’s provincial security chiefs must tell poppy growers in their districts that planting poppies this season is against Islamic law and the next crop will be targeted for eradication with no compensation being paid to farmers. Minister of the Interior Ali. A. Jalali hosted a counter narcotics seminar with all provincial security chiefs in Kabul on Monday, Nov.01 at the Ministry of Interior. The Minister was joined by senior government officials involved in the counter narcotics campaign announced by President-elect Hamid Karzai. " 'Growers must not plant poppies this year,' Minister Jalali warned the officers. 'Security officials must return to their provinces and tell growers that cultivating poppy is against Islam and beginning this year we will eradicate and not compensate you for your crops,' he urged."
As William Safire wrote recently in the "New York Times", "[g]ood news is no news. That's why the most historic development of this news-drenched year has not been on front pages and hasn't led TV newscasts." Safire sums up the recent successes in Afghanistan:
"Against all dire predictions and threats from terrorists, Afghanistan - breeding ground of Al Qaeda under the medieval rule of Taliban fundamentalists - has just held the first presidential election in its bloodstained history.
"The winner was Hamid Karzai... A bigger winner was the Afghan people... The biggest winner of this unfettering event is the cause of democracy in the world, and especially in this region, which much of the West assumed was too culturally backward to express a longing for freedom."We should not be so wrapped up in our own political campaign to fail to recognize the power of this message: if the loosely connected Afghan tribes can do majority rule and minority respect, so could the more literate Iraqis, numerous Egyptians, rich Saudis and misled Palestinians."
The slow but steady resurrection from the ashes of the Afghan phoenix is a victory enough for the long-suffering people of Afghanistan, as well as to the Coalition countries supporting them in their march towards peace and normalcy. Should a spark from Afghanistan's ashes jump the borders and ignite the democratic fire throughout the wider region a local victory might turn into one for the whole humanity.
As always, if you have tips for future editions, please email goodnewsafghanistan “at” windsofchange “dot” com.