Note: Also available from the "Opinion Journal" and Chrenkoff. As always, big thank you James Taranto and Joe Katzman for their support in publicizing the good news - and to all of you who read it, link it, and pass it on.
A few days ago, hundreds of Afghan leaders and some 150 foreign dignitaries, including the Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, got to witness a historic event; the swearing in of Afghanistan's first democratically elected president, Hamid Karzai:
Wearing a black lambskin hat and traditional striped silk coat over his shoulders, Mr. Karzai took his oath before the aging former king, Zaher Shah. The president himself then swore in his two vice presidents, Ahmed Zia Massoud and Mohammed Karim Khalili, who represent the two largest ethnic minorities, the Tajiks and the Shia Hazaras, after Karzai's own ethnic group, the Pashtuns.
"We have now left a hard and dark past behind us, and today we are opening a new chapter in our history, in a spirit of friendship with the international community," said Karzai in his inauguration speech, switching between Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan's two main languages.
The irony of the situation, if irony is indeed the correct word, is that the country that only three years ago was still ruled by the most dictatorial and backward of regimes can now claim to have one of the few democratically elected leaders in the whole region. Electing a president, of course, is only a start; great many challenges remain for this impoverished and war-scarred country. How much still remains to be done to improve security, eradicate the scourge of drugs, and rebuild the physical and human infrastructure should not blind us to how much has already been achieved in the three years since the overthrow of the Taliban regime - indeed, how much continues to be achieved every day throughout Afghanistan, for most part out of the media spotlight. Below is a snapshot of the past month's unsung efforts to face and meet the challenges.
- With the excitement of the presidential election now behind, Afghan authorities and political parties are starting to plan for the parliamentary election scheduled for April 2005. The biggest task will involve drawing up the electoral boundaries. In time for the election, Afghanistan's historical census is now near finish. This joint project between the Afghan government and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has so far surveyed 30 out of the country's 34 provinces, with work in southern Paktika, Zabul and Helmand, and the newly established Daikudni province expected to be completed over the next month. Good and accurate information, of course, is necessary for the planning of the parliamentary election:
There are a total of 249 posts in the new parliament. The provinces which have fewer than half a million population will be given nine posts. The provinces which have between half a million and one million people will get 15 posts. Those with between one and two million people will have 19 posts. The provinces with two to three million people will have 23 posts and those with more than three million will get 29 parliamentary posts.
- Meanwhile, an ambitious program is aiming to rebuild the country's devastated local administration:
The Afghan government has launched a new US $312 million project financed by international donors to centralise and equip the country's fragile district administrations...
The project, entitled the Afghanistan Stabilisation Programme (ASP), is expected to strengthen the authority of the central government beyond the capital Kabul.
"Maintaining proper administration and proper buildings and complexes in districts will bridge the gap between Kabul and local administrations,” deputy Interior Minister Helaluddin Hellal [said]... after launching the main phase of ASP...There are 364 districts in Afghanistan's 34 provinces and due to years of devastating conflict the local administrations do not have buildings and other necessary public utilities, Hellal said.
- According to the head of ASP, Abdul Malik Sediqi, "six districts have already been covered in the pilot phase and it is expected that 150 districts will be finalised by the end of next year." "We have $36 million in hand and if we obtain the required budget, ASP will take three years to cover all the districts of the country," says Sediqi.
- From political reform to spiritual liberation, the Afghans are finally free to celebrate and enjoy religion like it should be:
Three years after the fall of the hardline Taliban regime, residents of Afghanistan's capital are celebrating the Eid al-Fitr festival in upbeat mood...
Wearing a newly tailored traditional Afghan shalwar-kameez trouser suit, electronic engineer Qadratullah said the country was “reborn” when the Taliban were toppled in Kabul in November 2001 by a US-led military campaign.
"I am feeling quite good about what we have in this year's Eid. Compared to the past under the Taliban I feel that we have risen to heaven from the depths of hell,” added the 32-year-old as he marked the end of Ramadan.Under six years of Islamic fundamentalist rule, Qadratullah was lashed for failing to grow a beard and his wife was beaten for not wearing the all-enveloping burqa.
- The growth of the media is presenting many opportunities for Afghan women to reach out to each other:
Sitting around a table with their burqas (top to bottom covering veil) on chairs, Arefa Zareh, a school teacher and her fellow women were preparing to broadcast the first trial programme of Quyash (the Sun), a newly established local women's radio station in the northern city of Maimana.
Radio Quyash is now one of the four local women's radio stations and one of over 30 independent radio stations in the country. It counts as the only independent media outlet in troubled Maimana, the provincial capital of Faryab.The new station is expected to tackle the issues of poverty, illiteracy, forced marriages and the rule of the gun, which are among the major concerns of the local community in Faryab province.
- There are still numerous problems, like interference from local officials, or overcoming culture shock in the community, but the work of radio stations like Quyash is a good step forward for Afghan women: "Fawad Sahil, a radio programme manager for the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS), a Canadian NGO working on strengthening civil society and democracy... believes that establishing women's radio stations provides more women with the opportunity to become journalists, producers, technicians, fundraisers and decision-makers. In assuming these roles, they learn new skills, develop greater self-confidence and awareness, and become active participants in their own communities."
- And there is also a new radio broadcast for Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan: "The 10-minute-long programme, aired twice a week, tells Afghan refugees about the latest developments in Afghanistan, and provides updates on the [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme. UNHCR is producing the programme with Radio Pakistan to give Afghan refugees the information they need to make a decision on whether to voluntarily repatriate to their country." Meanwhile, as the refugees are coming back after years of exile, the UN is trying to help them rebuild their homes:
It is late autumn, but still mild enough for Akbar Nusrati to enjoy lunch in the garden of his newly reconstructed house. Until last month, this small patch of earth with its two apple trees was where Akbar, his wife and their three children ate, slept and washed - their only shelter a makeshift tent. With the frigid winter only weeks away, Akbar is grateful to be back in the home he and his family fled during Afghanistan's civil war 13 years ago.
Following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, hundreds of other families from the village of Qarabagh, 50 km north of the capital Kabul, have also taken the decision to return after years living as refugees in Iran and Pakistan. For most, what they found when they arrived was rubble...
The help, which is provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has enabled more than 5,000 families in Qarabagh to repair or completely rebuild their homes. In the Shomali Plain, some 14,000 families have received UNHCR assistance and more than 300 water points have been established.The UNHCR investment in Qarabagh is a fraction of its nation-wide programme to assist the more than 3 million Afghans who have returned since 2002.
- Not just on the radio, Afghan women are also make progress in the arts community:
Barely three years ago, at a time when women in Afghanistan were not permitted even to leave their homes, the idea of a woman performing on stage - and in mixed company! - seemed inconceivable. Any woman who did so risked life and limb.
All the more astonishing, then, that a theater festival opening in Kabul will include a play written by a woman (a teenage schoolgirl, to be precise), with real actresses, about the brutal suppression of women under the country's now-ousted Taliban government.“To those people who want to keep us away from the stage, I say: You have no right to interfere,” says 16-year-old playwright/director Naseeba Ghulam Mohammed, whose “Toward Brightness” is among the plays women will perform during the eight-day national festival. “In Afghanistan today, men and women are equal.”
- Another report tells a story of Afghanistan's new star and the resurrection of the country's movie industry:
Two years ago, Marina Gulbahari was a street urchin begging for scraps from the tables of Kabul restaurants. If she was lucky, she might get a few crumpled notes or kebab leftovers wrapped in nan. If she was unlucky, the black-turbaned Taliban police would beat her. That was before she became the biggest name in Afghan cinema.
Now, after a stunning performance in last year's critically acclaimed film Osama, Marina, aged 14, has become the face of Afghanistan's resurgent film industry at foreign film festivals, hailed as a precociously talented actress with an exciting future whose natural ability is drawn from her traumatic upbringing amid war and turmoil.Her emergence is the most extraordinary story of Kabul's film-making renaissance. From being persecuted by the Taliban, who burnt all the film stock they could, directors are again making movies. A new generation desperately short of cash and equipment but not of enthusiasm is buzzing with projects and ideas, determined to create a uniquely Afghan creative film genre.
- But Afghanistan is creating even more female film-making stars: "When 14 young Afghan women started a video project in Kabul, secretly documenting the history of women under the Taleban regime, they never imagined how far their work would take them... Now the public television network in the United States, PBS, has bought the rights and will show the film on its 349 affiliated stations." And in a display impossible to imagine under the Taliban rule, "on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, hundreds of women rallied in the Afghan capital, Kabul, to promote their cause." Afghanistan, of course, remains a deeply conservative, rural-centered society and the struggle for equal rights and equal treatment still has a long way to go - at least, though, women can finally make a start.
- The education explosion continues throughout the country: " 'There has been a tremendous demand for education, since the rebuilding of Afghanistan began. It has continued to exceed all expectations.' says Keiko Miwa, an Education Specialist with the World Bank... based in Kabul. 'More than 3 million students enrolled in grades one to 12 in 2002, when only 1.7 million students were expected to enroll. In March 2003, the enrollment surpassed 4 million.' Today, more than 5 million students are enrolled in schools, according to Habibullah Wajdi. 'This is the most definitive expression for education in Afghan history'." Problems persist: security concerns are still keeping many girls away from school, and the growing demand for education puts strain on the existing resources, but the combination of enthusiasm at home and help from abroad is making a difference:
Since April 2002, the World Bank has committed US$317 million in grants and an additional US$441 million in no-interest loans, known as 'credits' for development projects in Afghanistan... In addition, the Bank is administering six grants, totally US$27.6 million from the Japan Social Development Fund and a US$1.5 million grant for training teachers from the World Bank Post Conflict Fund.
- Meanwhile, Afghanistan has been able to rediscover its once thought lost heritage:
More than 22,000 ancient cultural treasures from Afghanistan, feared lost or destroyed after decades of war and Taliban rule, have been taken out of dusty crates and safes in Kabul and inventoried for safekeeping, said a U.S. archeologist...
The objects, including 2,500 years' worth of gold and silver coins and ancient sculptures, represent a 'Silk Road' of goods once traded from China, India, Egypt, Greece, Rome and ancient Afghanistan.
“By the end of the Taliban's reign, most of us thought there was nothing left, just destruction and despair,” said National Geographic fellow and archeologist Fred Hiebert, who led an inventory project of the items.
Many of the treasures were once on display in the Kabul Museum, which was shelled several times and lost its roof and door. Inventory cards were lost by fire and neglect, making it difficult to track down any of the items.“This project has been an enormous boost for Afghanistan - finding the treasures intact and then working with the outstanding team to inventory each one of them, preserving our heritage for our children,” said Afghanistan's minister of information and culture, Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, in a statement released by National Geographic.
- Read also this story of Omara Khan Massoudi, the director of the Afghan National Museum, and his long-standing attempts to preserve Afghanistan's cultural treasures from destruction. "Massoudi said that plans are now under way to protect and catalogue the remaining inventory in the museum. Afghanistan's ministry of information and culture is now creating a computer database to record all the artefacts in the museum's collection. The registration process began at the end of April. To date, more than 22,500 of them have been recorded. Restoration of damaged artefacts is also under way. Massoudi said the ministry has repaired about 50 items. Experts from France and Italy are also aiding in the effort."
- There is even more good news on the cultural heritage front: "A collection of pre-Islamic wooden idols chopped up by the Taliban in 2001 in their drive for a pure Muslim state is back on display in Afghanistan after painstaking repair in a project financed by the Austrian government. The near life-sized idols, some bearing at least a passing resemblance to the mysterious stone statues of Easter Island, went on display this week at the Kabul Museum, which was badly ravaged in Afghanistan's civil war and Taliban rule until 2001." And there is also hope for a much bigger find:
French archeologists searching for the colossal Sleeping Buddha in Bamiyan province have uncovered what could be the long-missing statue's foot, raising hopes of a major new discovery from Afghanistan's ancient Buddhist past. Ever since the fundamentalist Taliban destroyed Bamiyan's 1,500-year-old Standing Buddhas in 2001 because they were 'un-Islamic,' attention has been focused on the hunt for the much larger Sleeping Buddha, described in the travel diary of the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuan Zang and depicted in cave paintings at the historic site in the Hindu Kush mountains west of Kabul.
- The Afghans are also re-discovering some simple pleasures of life:
Through 25 years of war and drought, the hardy roses of Afghanistan never stopped growing. They climbed through the gardens of government buildings, the plush Kabuli villas of Arab fighters, and kept sprouting in the shattered remains of bombed homes long after their owners fled.
But with Taliban rulers busy fighting for most of the late 1990s, gardens fell into neglect and disrepair.In the waves of joy that flowed from the collapse of the hardline regime in late 2001, Afghans rediscovered their gardens and a revival of roses swept the capital.
- With the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban gone, Afghan people are free to indulge in other previously forbidden pastimes. From Kabul, this victory of the sporting spirit:
At a resort that became a battlefield, Afghans teed off... in their country's first open golf tournament in more than 30 years.
As is still the way in Afghanistan, the first shot of the day at the Kabul Golf Club went to the local militia commander, applauded by his men with shouldered Kalashnikovs.
But organisers say they hope their tournament, contested by 40 local caddies in a picturesque valley just outside the capital, will help bring a new era in which the only risks are from golf balls, not bullets, flying down the fairways.
The club describes itself as the best and only course in Afghanistan and promises “golf with an attitude”. Hazards are unorthodox, from the bombed out club house below the dramatic first tee on a ledge high up the valley, to the odd spent shell or scurrying lizard...A lack of water means there is not a patch of grass to be seen and the greens are actually 'browns' made from oiled sand, yet the course has become popular with a few dozen hardy souls among Kabul's 2,000-strong foreign community.
- Says a club pro, Mohamad Afzal Abdul: "We still don't have a proper green and we still need more facilities... Some of our international members have promised to help us reconstruct our greens and donate equipment." And a former refugee Zabir Sidiq, who is rebuilding a restaurant and nightclub overlooking the course adds: "In the past there was a lot of killing going on here... Right now we are trying to fix up this area and give people some hope to understand a better life." Any Western golfers who would like to help?
- It's not just golf, though: "Afghan Atiq Sikander only took up bowling two years ago, but he dreams of building a bowling alley in his war-torn homeland. 'People used to play bowling in Afghanistan in the 1970s, but after all that has happened, probably eighty percent of Afghans now have never heard of bowling,' Sikander said. Sikander, 30, is the first Afghan to compete in the 40th American Machine and Foundry Bowling World Cup, to be held in Singapore from December 5-12... Although he holds an Afghan passport, Sikander has lived in Bulgaria for the past 16 years after moving there from Kabul with his family... [Now] Sikander wants to bring his love of the sport to his native country. 'War destroyed us. The Afghan people are eager to learn new things, but they do not have the facilities. I'm sure they will like bowling if they have a chance to play,' he said."
- Lastly, if you want to put a human face on the opportunities that are now open to Afghan people, read this truly inspirational story from "USA Today"'s Walter Shaprio:
On a reporting trip to Afghanistan in December 2001, six weeks after the Taliban was routed, I met Jawad Sepehri Joya at a Red Cross rehabilitation facility in Kabul. Although he was just 16 and confined to a wheelchair because of polio, Jawad was not a patient. Instead, he was working at his part-time job programming computers for the Red Cross. And in near flawless English, this young man - who had never attended any school, who had been illiterate until 1998 and who had never left Kabul - earnestly confided that he wanted to go to college in America.
- Jawad is now attending Earlham college in Indiana on full scholarship. "Foreign students in America, particularly those few from war-torn lands, tend to be the children of privilege. But Jawad, the oldest of five, was instead shaped by Afghan adversity. His parents are illiterate Shiite Muslims, who moved to Kabul from the countryside after the 1979 Soviet invasion. His father, now retired, was a self-taught builder and architect. Nothing is more poignant than Jawad's story of how he contracted polio as an infant in 1986, long after this disease was eradicated in all but a few impoverished lands." Taken under the wing of an Italian doctor in Taliban-held Kabuk, Jawad was given clandestine lessons and taught himself computer programming. Now, a world away from the old life he "is taking chemistry and biology along with the required freshman courses at Earlham, [and] wants to be a scientist. But reflecting the forces that molded him, Jawad's conception of his future calling is characteristically expansive. As he stressed, 'I want to be a scientist who is very literate in social science, literature and art.' In short, a Renaissance Afghan."
- USAID reports on the latest successes in the work to establish sound, competitive economy in Afghanistan:
Privatization of State Owned Enterprises will soon begin and construction of three industrial parks is near completion. Other accomplishments include:
- Issuance of more than 6,000 Business Licenses and 13,000 Tax Identification Numbers in AfghanistanCustoms revenue generation figures indicate another significant improvement in Afghanistan's overall customs operations. Since March 2004, the beginning of the Afghan fiscal year, $76.4 [million] was generated in customs revenue - at a rate significantly higher than last fiscal year. Customs operations in Afghanistan are the largest contributor to the country's total domestic revenue Border operations are improving and progress continues with the commencement of Customs Mobile Units, which generate additional revenue.
- Relicensing of three State Owned Banks, licensing of three local banks, and the licensing of four Foreign Banks
- 80% of connected banks currently submitting daily reports
- International Fund Transfer payments total 4,012 transfers for the year...
- Speaking of banking, the Afghan authorities have issued a license for the establishment of an Iranian bank called "Aryan bank", soon to open office in Kabul (no neo-Nazi connotations there; Iranian people see themselves as direct descendants of the historical Aryan people of the second millennium BC). The number of foreign banks in Afghanistan has now reached eleven.
- Unemployment remains a big problem throughout Afghanistan, a legacy of widespread destruction, economic dislocation and illiteracy. To tackle this challenge, the International Labour Organisation will be opening new centers to assist job-seekers and provide training opportunities for those unqualified:
The first [Employment Services Centre] was established in the capital earlier this year. Nearly 1,000 job seekers and 300-350 vacancies have been referred to the centre in the first three months of establishment. 'Out of these we have confirmed about 10 to 15 percent placement which is not so bad in the beginning,' the [ILO]'s chief adviser noted. The other eight centers will be established in the next 12 months in major cities of the country. ESCs are also expected to create a database on training providers for those out of work.
- And to spur the employment and economic growth through greater trade, the United States is pushing for the World Trade Organization to accept Afghanistan as a member.
- There is a lot of action on the transport infrastructure front to link Afghanistan with it neighbors. According to an estimate by the Pakistani Ministry of Roads and Transportation, some $2 billion will be needed to complete road and railway lines linking Afghanistan and Iran in the so called North-South transit corridor. The work on some key elements of the network is progressing well; the 122-km Dogharoun-Herat highway has already been completed and will be officially opened soon. Another highway, between Herat and Maimana will commence construction shortly.
- In another link, a 320-meter Milek bridge spanning the Iranian-Afghan border has been rebuilt at the cost of dlr 3 billion ($3 million) and recently reopened. "Eventually, if the road networks improve, this bridge will shorten the country's access to port by hundreds of miles," says former Afghan diplomat and politician from southern Kandahar, Abdul Jabbar Naeemi (600 miles, or 1,000 kilometers to be exact). Report notes that "Iran also paid 1.5 million dollars to build a four-kilometer stretch of road linking Zaranj to the bridge as well as Iranian road networks stretching south across Iran to the port of Chabahar." "This road will help the transportation of goods between Afghanistan's northern neighbours, Iran, and the subcontinent of India to the Persian Gulf and other Arabic countries," adds Afghanistan's reconstruction minister, Amin Farhang.
Although there is a road running from Kabul in the east of the country to the main southern city of Kandahar, before the bridge was built most of Afghanistan's trade centered on the western city of Herat.
That meant goods had to travel almost a full circle around the eastern edge of Afghanistan and back up to its western border in Herat before crossing to Iran for transport to the Gulf, or, be hauled south through Pakistan to Karachi.
If plans to build a multi-billion dollar ring-road come to fruition, that could change.A further 200 kilometers of roads connecting the border town of Zaranj to the town of Delaram in western Afghanistan's Farah province is being constructed with Indian government help to create a ring road circling the country.
- To help with the construction in the corridor, "the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved a loan package worth $301.2 million to improve road connections from Pakistan's Afghan border to the southern ports of Karachi... The project will improve access to the ports and the Pakistani market for landlocked Afghanistan and the republics of Central Asia... The project will upgrade 212 kilometres of provincial highways and about 700 kilometres of rural access roads. About 310 kilometres of national highways, including new access to Afghanistan, and infrastructure at two border points will be built or improved."
- The Asian Development Bank is also working to implement the proposed Customs Free Corridor (CFC) plan to promote regional trade between Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan: "During the first meeting of the working group representatives [of the] six nations discussed the idea of one customs regime for trade among [the group]... Pakistan is already facilitating trade to land-locked Afghanistan under the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA) and the launching of the Customs Free Corridor will further enhance the role in promoting trade with the said Asian countries. The bank is also financing different projects of roads for connectivity from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asian Republics (CARs) with the aim to enhance their volume of trade in the years to come."
- And to assist with the development of aviation infrastructure, "Afghanistan has been granted a $30 million soft loan from the Asian Development Bank to repair the war-torn country's regional airports... The concessional assistance will also include a staff training package for Afghanistan's Civil Aviation Center, which will produce about 180 graduates in two years."
- A major energy infrastructure project might finally be getting off the ground: "Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan will hold talks in January on constructing a long-delayed $ 2-2.5 billion pipeline to transport gas from ex-Soviet Turkmenistan, an Afghan official said on Wednesday. 'There are three problems to be addressed,' [said] Hakim Khan Taniwal, Afghan Labour Minister... 'Pakistan should say how much energy it needs. Afghanistan should look into the security of this pipeline. And Turkmenistan should confirm the reserves'." As report notes, positive developments across the region are making the pipeline more viable: "Hopes of stability in Afghanistan and signals from India this year that it might agree to import natural gas from nuclear rival Pakistan have revived interest in the project."
- There is also some valuable assistance from India to complete another major piece of infrastructure: "India Thursday selected state-owned Water and Power Consultancy Services Limited (WAPCOS) to complete the Salma Dam Project in Afghanistan. WAPCOS, a premier international organisation under the Indian ministry of water resources, will be required to complete the project within four years. The Indian government had last month sanctioned Rs.3.5 billion ($79 million) for reconstruction and completion of the project. When complete, the dam will meet the water requirements of Herat province and support a 42 MW hydropower plant."
- Speaking of water management, "the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved a grant package totaling US$1.96 million to prepare a project to boost integrated water resources management and irrigated agriculture development in Afghanistan:
ADB is contributing a grant of $1.2 million toward the $2.06 million total cost of the technical assistance (TA) and will administer a grant of $760,000 equivalent provided by the Government of Canada. The Government of Afghanistan will finance the remaining $100,000 equivalent. The TA and proposed project aim to improve water resource management at all levels in Afghanistan, from farm level to basin management. It will also rehabilitate, modernize and develop new irrigation and water resource infrastructure, lay the foundations of improved agricultural productivity, and ensure the integrity of watershed resources.
- Afghanistan's famous industry is planning to stage a comeback and regain the market share lost over decades of conflict:
After a three-decade absence, the annual Carpet Festival, celebrating what’s believed to be a 2,500-year tradition,has shown its colours again in the northern province of Jowzjan.
The festival, which was last held in 1974, returned to Jowzjan on November 22. It used to be held each autumn in either Jowzjan's Aqchah district or Andkhoi in neighbouring Faryab province, but was suspended during the years of fighting.Despite a driving rainstorm, more than 10,000 people came, including United States Ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad and Afghan commerce minister Mustafa Kazemi.
- As the report reminds us, "carpets are the country's third largest export after dried fruit and karakul, the lambskin used to make hats such as the one commonly worn by President Hamed Karzai. Over one million people are employed in the carpet industry in Afghanistan, including weavers, dealers, and businesspeople. Many of those involved in the carpet industry are of Turkmen ethnicity, and the majority of weavers are women." The challenge now is to regain at least some of the market which has been cornered by Turkish and Iranian producers. It will not be easy, but there are some successes already: "First, the US government agreed to import Afghan carpets without imposing import duties. And second, Ariana Afghan Airlines agreed to transport Afghan carpets abroad at cost," says commerce minister Kazemi.
- Tourism, too, is making a slow comeback. Afghanistan once used to be a large tourist attraction, but years of conflict have driven visitors away. "It is not a vacation spot for the fainthearted," writes one report. "Still, adventurous tourists are returning to this wild and exotic landscape."
Hessamuddin Hamrah, president of the Afghan Tourism Organization, is confident that foreign visitors will come back. But since the fall of the Taliban, his agency has hosted only 35 tour groups, comprising 247 individuals from around the globe, mostly from Western Europe and Japan. 'We hope a lot of tourists will come,' he said, 'because it's really important to us for economic revival.'
Admittedly, Afghanistan's reputation as a haven for terrorists - and as one of the most heavily mined places on the planet - has been a poor advertisement for tourism. “The news they hear from Afghanistan is bad,” Mr. Hamrah said. “But the security in Afghanistan now is not bad. ... We send groups out, they go there and come back very happy.”Lonely Planet, the bible of budget travelers, published a section on Afghanistan in the latest edition of its Central Asia guidebook - previous editions said simply: “Don't Go!” Other guidebooks plan to include information and advice about the country.
- In the previous installment of the series, I mentioned the efforts of San Diego Rotary Club that resulted in their home town becoming a sister city of Jalalabad. The mayor of Jalalabad Abdul Razzaq Arsalai is now visiting San Diego to thank for many initiatives that are currently helping his city:
Local group members have enlisted area schools and colleges to help Jalalabad schools, where teachers sometimes have no textbooks and base their lessons on decades-old notes... Rotary clubs in San Diego provided books and computers for Jalalabad's university, and an elementary school in the city has become a sister school to Doyle Elementary in La Jolla.
- Speaking of schools, read about this great initiative from Alaska and how it's making a huge difference for Afghan children, particularly girls:
When the United States began bombing Afghanistan in late 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, a father named Ayub Azizi cheered the invasion. His wife secretly taught their four daughters during the Taliban's oppressive reign, a time when girls were denied an education. But the end of restrictions didn't solve another problem: how to rebuild schools that had fallen into disrepair, if they existed in places at all, after a generation of warfare that started with the Soviet invasion in 1973 [sic].
Five young Americans, all in their early to mid-30s, responded by creating a non-profit organization, Solace International, that raises money to build schools for girls in Afghanistan. They found that their lack of bureaucracy helped them to be faster and more flexible in getting projects done.The group, which originated among a group of friends in Anchorage, Alaska, and uses Seattle as one of its bases, has completed six schools in less than two years at a cost of $25,000 to $30,000 each.
- Ray Riehle from Citrus Heights, California, tells me about the project he has been involved with lately:
My brother, Ed, is a career Army Offices. He has been deployed to Afghanistan and is now working for Central Command. He has spent quite a bit of time traveling around the country but in his 'spare' time, he is working with orphans. There are 768 boys in Tahai-Maskan, a home for boys aged 8 to 18. There are 177 girls and 380 boys in Allaudi, a boys and girls home for boys up to 13 and girls up to 16. The kids are very poor, but their prospects are getting better every day. Ed's section is running the program. He is the Officer in Charge and the soldiers who are working at the orphanages are all volunteers. They are assigned to CFC-A, Combined Forces Command Afghanistan, based in Kabul.
- When back in October Ray asked his brother if there was anything he could do to help the troops, Ed had other ideas - he requested clothes and shoes, linen and school supplies for the orphans, and asked for any help to raise funds to build a better orphanage. Ray has so far raised $4,000 and is looking for more help with this ongoing project. Visit the website if you can help (SOZO International is the aid organisation acting as a conduit for funding).
- Others are helping on a smaller scale. In Lompoc, California, Mary Younglove has reached her target of sending 20 boxes with school supplies and clothes to distribute to needy Afghan children through her son Chuck who works with the American troops in Afghanistan.
- It's not just the Americans who are giving a helping hand to people of Afghanistan. Throughout Canada, an organisation called Women for Women in Afghanistan is raising funds through pot luck dinners, mostly to assist women in refugee camps through education initiatives. In Britain, meanwhile, "Berkshire Community College staff and students in October donated ten large boxes of school supplies to a village school in Afghanistan. Part of the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation, these supplies are in memory of north county resident Peter Goodrich, who was in the second plane that crashed into the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001."
- You don't have to be a grown-up to be able to help, either:
While students were anxiously awaiting the end of the 2003-04 school year, two Bellevue girls were busy campaigning for donations to provide the one thing students in Afghanistan were in desperate need of - school supplies... In April, Meghan Frank, 13, and Mallory Ubbelohde, 13, from Logan Fontenelle Middle School, decided to prevent their classmates? school supplies from going to waste by coordinating a donation drive in their school, as well as other schools in the area.
- The idea to help Afghan children came to Meghan and Mallory while reading news stories about Afghanistan, cut out by Meghan's mother (Meghan's father, Capt. Kevin Frank, was stationed near Kabul). "The results were overwhelming, said Tracy Frank, Meghan's mom. The objective, when they started, was to send two shoeboxes worth of supplies. Just by word of mouth, things grew, and they ended up donating six boxes each for 12 Afghan teachers."
- Elsewhere, in New York state, another success story: "Build it and they will come. Short just $1,300, a local Sunday school class has raised enough money to fund a 'School of Dreams' for 100 children in Afghanistan. Students in the Lyall Memorial Federated Church Teen Sunday School are trying to wrap up the school fund-raiser, called 'School of Dreams,' which they began in the spring. The idea to fund a new school was sparked when the class looked through Christmas catalogs last year during one of its Sunday school classes. Teacher Maggie Blayney brought the catalogs for the class of 7th, 8th, and 9th-graders to hear what they would like for Christmas. Included in the assortment of department and clothing store catalogs was one called Samaritan's Purse. 'When I received it in the mail, it looked just like a normal catalog,' said Blayney. 'As the class flipped through the catalog, there was dead silence,' she said. Among things available for purchase was clean water for a family, hot meals for a week and farm animals. The class decided to build the school for $3,500, hoping to raise the necessary funds by Dec. 31. Blayney emphasized that participating in Samaritan's Purse was entirely the class's idea."
- And the young Afghan boy, whom you might remember from previous installments, Djamshid Popal is almost ready to return home after his successful life-saving heart surgery and recuperation in Canada.
- One of the most important, if rarely appreciated, legacies of the foreign troops' stay in Afghanistan will be their effort to clean the country from the deadly legacy of past conflicts. To help them remove Afghanistan from millions of pieces of unexploded ordinance, the troops will soon have the helping hand - or arm - of 100 Talon robots. But not all assistance is so high tech: "They walk into minefields armed only with their noses and the promise of a good chew toy. They're undeterred by the junk that litters their work area. They go in unprotected. They have no Kevlar helmets or life-saving flak vests. The 19 mine-sniffing dogs that serve at Bagram Air Base probably don't realize how much the soldiers of the U.S. Army Reserve's 367th Engineer Battalion have come to rely on them." Dogs are a God-sent in this task, since they are able to sniff out explosives and don't get false alarms unlike metal detectors which react to any metal.
- In a country where health care system is only now starting to be rebuild, the military personnel is still playing an important role in providing medical assistance to Afghan people. These are people like Staff Sgt. Anthony Koertner, a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, who is serving as a nurse with the 325th Field Surgical Team. "We provide care to local Afghan nationals and our soldiers... The majority of what we see is mine blast injuries, but we see pretty much everything you can think of," says Koertner.
- But Afghanistan's culture and religious tradition mean that some of the American service personnel have a very special niche to fill: "At her base in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, Army Capt. Nicole Powell-Dunford is a flight surgeon, the person to go see if you are on flying status and feeling ill. She also relishes the chances she has to get off base and care for the people who live in the villages where the old ways and traditions endure. As a result, because she is a woman, she is the only doctor some Afghan women get to see."
- In the end, the reconstruction of the country will have to be a joint effort, and the troops are increasingly helping the Afghans to help themselves. "When we first arrived in Afghanistan, the people in the village would constantly come to us asking for schools and other projects to be done. Then we would take the request and make it happen," says Army Sgt. 1st Class Edith Horn, a member of the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion and head of the Khowst Civil Military Operations Center.
Now, the CMOC is helping the people understand how to use tools in place throughout the country for those kinds of requests. The Afghan government is made up of ministries and departments that handle everything from road construction and repair to medical facilities and schools. “While most CMOCs and (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) are still handling the requests themselves, the people of Khwost are learning to rely on their own government,” [Horn] said. The process was slow to start, but now it has taken hold and the people seem very happy with the help and support they are receiving from the CMOC team.
- The troops are also reviving the "adopt-a-village" program: "Afghan children and adults swarmed Airmen bearing gifts recently, marking the revival of Bagram Air Base's adopt-a-village program. To create more room for the almost daily arrival of clothing, toy and school supply donations from people worldwide, the program restarted with three distribution missions in two days. With eight pickup trucks loaded with goods, Airmen convoyed to the mountain villages of Kharoti and Dorani, and to the town of Jangadam on the first day, and to the nearby town of Hasankheyl on the second day. Donations included 50 bags of clothing, a pallet of drinking water, 40 personal hygiene kits, 25 blankets, and enough notebooks, pencils, pens, crayons, glue and teddy bears for more than 100 children."
- On another occasion, "about 90 orphaned children stared at the soldiers who arrived from Bagram Air Base to make their coming winter a little easier. Separated into groups of girls and boys, the children of Parwan Orphanage in Charikar stood quietly in neat rows from smallest to largest. The soldiers moved among them, guessing their foot size and handing them each a new pair of shoes wrapped in plastic bags to keep out Afghanistan's endless dust. The 450 pairs will replace their worn-out, ill-fitting shoes and sandals before the Afghan winter hits with temperatures that can dip to 15 below zero." Case-by-case basis humanitarian aid is necessary, as Lt. Col. Lisa Bailey, a Dallas native, observes, "but there also must be long-term, sustainable work." Read the whole article on how the troops are trying to help via 14 Provincial Reconstruction Teams across Afghanistan.
- And the troops are also trying to help through sport:
With a final score of 3-1, the Parwan youth soccer team recently defeated its coalition visitor, Team Eagle, at Parwan's home field in Charikar village. After 60 minutes of 'futbol,' the crowd of nearly 1,000 cheered and rushed onto the field to congratulate the home team on a solid victory.
But a victory wasn't the only thing solidified with the match-up between the coalition team and its central-Afghanistan hosts. The match reinforced the coalition's good intentions and the progress that allowed personnel to spend a peaceful morning playing soccer in the local community.“It was beautiful. In the future, I hope this can happen again,” said Wahid Qanit, a youth soccer coach and interpreter for base operations on Bagram Air Base. And with all that is planned for the future, it should happen again. “I wanted to use soccer as a medium to reach out to the local community,” said 1st Lt. Joshua Walters, 2nd Battalion, 265th Air Defense Artillery Regiment and base operations intelligence officer. Walters also is a full-time high school soccer coach in his hometown of Tallahassee, Fla. “The idea is to use soccer to reach out to the youth,' he said. 'They are the ones who will be making decisions about the future of Afghanistan pretty soon.”
- Of course, it's not just the American troops helping the Afghan people - increasingly, the Afghan troops are playing an important part in the Coalition, and they, too, are starting to bring assistance to their own people:
Afghan National Army soldiers with the 3rd Brigade from Pol-e-Charkhi are learning to appreciate what it means to do a little extra for their fellow citizens... One way they are doing this is at the Kabul Children's Hospital. The ANA's 3rd Brigade is sponsoring the hospital through many projects intended to get the hospital in better shape and enabling it to provide enhanced support for local children.
While the personnel at the field hospital help Afghan nationals who have been injured, they have offered a helping hand in other ways as well. One of the doctors at the hospital is working with local officials to help them improve their local healthcare system. Hospital personnel also work with patients as they come in to teach them better health habits. They've also helped children at school. “One of the things that I like is adopting a village,” Koertner said. “As far as schools go, the only requirement is they have their own pen and paper.” Hospital personnel help gather necessary school supplies, and also give donations of clothing to local children.
- Afghanistan's militants are suffering a decline; according to security experts the Taliban still pose a threat and continue to enjoy some support in the ethnic Pashtun areas of the country, but "the Taliban movement suffered a serious psychological and military setback after failing to disrupt Afghanistan's presidential election... Experts said the movement was beset by leadership rivalries and internal divisions after a year of revived strength and cohesion. They also said the Taliban was increasingly being squeezed by a new Pakistani military offensive along the border, where many Taliban renegades were believed to be hiding... There are growing signs of a serious, three-way split within a once hierarchical movement dominated by a single religious leader."
- There are signs that at least some Taliban members are ready to take up the US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad on his offer of amnesty:
The US-led military in Afghanistan... said it had been contacted by Taliban members willing to lay down their weapons following an arms-for-amnesty offer by the US envoy to Afghanistan. US military commanders operating in south and south-eastern Afghanistan have been contacted by Taliban declaring their desire to “join the peaceful political process,” US-led military spokesman Major Mark McCann, told a news briefing in Kabul... He also said there had been “contacts with senior (provincial) government officials and military representatives here in Kabul.”
- While the efforts to combat the Taliban remnants continue, on a parallel track to make Afghanistan a safer and more secure place, the disarmament program is also moving ahead: "The multi million-dollar Afghanistan New Beginning Programme (ANBP), the official name for [the UN-backed Disarmament Demobilisation and Reintegration], is designed to disarmed more than 50,000 former fighters. So far, 22,000 members of Afghanistan's dozens of militia forces have returned to civilian life since the process begun in October 2003." Commander Zalmai, or Toofan (Storm) as he is also known, is one of the twenty success stories of the program recognized by the United Nations:
The commander, who was one of the most powerful warlords in Kabul, with more than 2,000 troops at his disposal, now leans more towards economic development than battling rival militias. 'I am thinking of creating a paper factory in Kabul, we need a lot of paper for school text books and it will be good business,' said Toofan.
He had been studying business when he left university to fight to remove the Soviets more than 20 years ago. He was also involved in the civil war during the 1990s and at one time controlled much of the suburbs south of the capital. The 50-year-old also played a role in ousting the Taliban as one of the leading Northern Alliance commanders...“All of my soldiers have been disarmed, so now I have no armed men except my bodyguards,” he said, adding that now he needed professionals to help him set up a factory. “Not all of the commanders are bad guys, we are very elegant and will prove our talent in the rehabilitation of Afghanistan as well.”
- On a smaller scale, disarmament touches many others and changes lives throughout the country:
Eight-year-old Mohammed Imran thinks Jaweed, the local shopkeeper in this eastern Afghan village is “cool” because his shop is full of sweets. “Uncle shopkeeper is a cool man -- he has got lots of candies,” Mohammed told AFP as he hung around outside the store. But it wasn't long ago that local children were scared of Jaweed and people insulted the 28-year-old for being a gun-toting militiaman -- one of around 60,000 fighters loyal to local warlords and commanders across Afghanistan.
Jaweed is one of almost 25,000 fighters who have laid down their weapons as part of a UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration program which was launched in Afghanistan last May and is almost at the halfway point. After more than two decades of war, the country is awash with weapons and privately disarmament staffs think there may be as many as five guns per militiaman, most of whom owe allegiance to local commanders.
But while only 25,000 guns have been collected, officials from the program hope that if they can break the link between local commanders and their poorly paid fighters and offer people an alternative livelihood, many like Jaweed would jump at the chance. “I'm happy with my new life -- very, very happy,” he said at his booth-like shop in Khushgunbad village some 15 kilometers (9 miles) northeast of Jalalabad, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province.The ex-fighters are given the choice of working in agriculture, training for the police force, national army or de-mining, or setting up a small business like the shopkeeper, who said was sick of toting a gun for a living. “I was tired of weapons, I wanted something different so I decided to become a shopkeeper,” said the ethnic Pashtun, who has fought to feed his family for more than a decade.
- You can also read an interview with Bubany Khairandesh: "[She] became a shopkeeper after a two-week business-training programme within the DDR process. The 35-year-old mother of five, who had worked as a military officer for more than 10 years in different Afghan army regiments, counts as the first female disarmed combatant." As Bubany says: "Being a female combatant is not very common in this country, also being a businesswoman is something very challenging in the conservative Afghan society. I personally enjoy having a challenging job."
- Over just one weekend, a fortnight ago, some 588 fighters gave up their weapons as part of the "New Beginnings Programme." The total of disarmed militiamen now stands at 26,569.
- The process of disarmament and "de-warlordisation" is already having positive security and economic effects throughout Afghanistan's regions:
In northern Afghanistan, the national highway police are now manning security checkpoints once operated by armed militias controlled by of local commanders. The change has come as a big relief to those who regularly travel by road here.
For years, travellers not only had to pay out 'fees' levied by the militias, but also faced the risk of being accosted and robbed - even beaten or killed - when they drove along the major highways between northern cities. But now uniformed members of Afghanistan's central police have replaced the militia gunmen, whom drivers referred to as “highway bandits”.
Sarajuddin, driving a Toyota Corolla, said he has travelled the main road from Mazar-e-Sharif to Sheberghan for the last 13 years. He said motorists were regularly charged illegal 'road taxes' during the day - and ambushed and robbed by night - at checkpoints run by gunmen. “Those who controlled the checkpoints taxed passengers and drivers under pretexts such as ‘chai puli’ [tea money], ‘jeb kharchi’ [pocket money] and lunch costs, and if someone didn't pay, he would be beaten and robbed,” said Sarajuddin.
“We didn't mind paying those taxes, but the most frightening thing was that the armed men who controlled the checkpoints by day became looters at night... and they would even kill someone if they didn't like him. For all those reasons, I haven't driven at night for the last few years.”For Sarajuddin, the deployment of national police meant that “last week I travelled safely with four passengers during the night.”
- As the Taliban threat recedes and the influence of private militias slowly wanes, the building of the national security forces continues apace. According to Bob Sharp, Chief of Staff of Office Military Cooperation in Afghanistan, the Coalition forces and the local authorities are on schedule to create the Afghan armed forces of some 70,000 soldiers by 2007: "There are almost 18,000 soldiers in the ANA. More than 15,000 trained soldiers in the field and about 3,000 in training... Of those 70,000 troops, 43,000 will be the ground combat forces and the rest will comprise the sustaining institutions such as the Recruiting Command, the Logistic Command, the Air Corps, etc."
- Here's a story of one American serviceman involved in the effort:
Kirk Kobak took his turn as a volunteer assistant soccer coach at Prairie and Fort Vancouver high schools 12 years ago, but his biggest coaching job ever was in Afghanistan.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Kobak and three other U.S. soldiers worked for eight months this year training dozens of Afghan soldiers to be army recruiters. They set up a recruiting system that has built the three-year-old U.S.-backed Afghan National Army from 7,000 soldiers in March to 17,000 now. Afghanistan's goal is 70,000 troops by 2007.
Kobak said his four-man team worked 61/2 days a week training 263 recruiters and assigning them to 19 National Army Volunteer Centers across the nation. The goal is 35 recruiting stations, one in each Afghan province.“It was the greatest experience in my 21 years in the Army,” said Kobak, 39, who returned from his volunteer tour in Afghanistan to his Vancouver apartment just before Thanksgiving. “If I had it to do over again, I'd volunteer again,” he said. That's despite sandstorms, 120-degree heat, and rocket-propelled grenades frequently flying over the compound where he worked and exploding nearby. “It was like walking into a pizza oven,” said Kobak, who now works as an Army recruiter in Portland.
- Kobak's superiors were suitable impressed with his effort at to build the recruiting service for the whole of the Afghan army - he has since been awarded the Bronze Star. And speaking of the goal of 35 recruitment stations, the most recent one to open was one in Herat.
- With the Taliban and al Qaeda threat diminishing over time, more attention is now being given to other security issues in Afghanistan: "The Bush administration has devised a more aggressive counternarcotics strategy aimed at greater eradication of poppy fields, promotion of alternative crops and prosecution of traffickers. The plan, a mix of stronger carrots and sticks, attempts to bring more coordination, more money and more muscle to Afghan and international programs launched over the past three years that have not made much of a dent in the lucrative drug business."
- Other foreign assistance for the anti-drug campaign is starting to flow into Afghanistan, with Canada, Australia (the third largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan with its A$83 million [$60 million] contribution so far), and Great Britain providing help. Great Britain is expected to provide $960 million over five years (until 2007 on the Afghan counter-narcotics efforts, and has already been instrumental in establishing the Counter-Narcotics Police of Afghanistan.
- On a smaller scale, "Britain has pledged more than £3,5 million [$6.7 million] for a project to help Afghan farmers grow alternative crops in place of opium poppies, a UN agency said today. The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation said the project will encourage the production, marketing and processing of crops, including vegetables, nuts and dried fruits."
- Dr Iain Wright, the chief executive of the commercial arm of the Macaulay Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, an expert on agricultural land use, is touring Afghanistan "to meet partners in a pioneering project aimed at identifying a range of viable livelihoods for farmers in the country's poorest rural regions." In order to convince farmers to replace opium growing with legal agricultural use, Dr Wright is suggesting alternatives such as cashmere goats, which can bring quite significant financial returns.
- Afghan farmers are also encouraged to replace opium poppies with roses and "distil rose oil, a key component of perfume, by planting 40,000 Bulgarian rose plants. The oil-producing species were brought from Bulgaria by the German non-governmental organization Agro Action and the United Nations Development Program last month."
- In other recent security successes throughout Afghanistan: the arrest by Afghan police of 16 suspected Taliban militias accompanied by the seizure a large amount of arms and ammunitions in central Afghanistan during the Eid festival; turning in by Afghan civilians of a weapons cache near Shkin; and the find of a giant arms cache by Romanian troops (four cannons, 98 grenade launchers, and dozens of machine guns and rifles, found in two containers buried underground).
- And in recent security successes in neighboring Pakistan, which will have positive impact on Afghan security: the Pakistani armed forces have killed around 40 militants and demolished terrorist hideouts in an offensive along the Afghan border; meanwhile, "thousands of Pakistani troops backed by helicopter have succeeded in bringing all inaccessible areas of South Waziristan tribal area under its control in the ongoing operation against Al-Qaeda linked terrorists"; and the troops have dismantled a terrorist training camp and seized 1,700 kilograms of explosives and large quantities of arms in southern Waziristan, near the Afghan border.
- The US has also donated some valuable equipment to help Pakistani security forces track down terrorists in the border region: "the equipment delivered on Tuesday to the Frontier Corps manning the Pak-Afghan border includes 68 spotting scopes, 74 hand-held Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and 200 bullet proof vests."
As Afghan daily "Hewat" commented upon the presidential inauguration, "Hamid Karzai took the oath of allegiance yesterday as a president who entered the palace through the nation's direct vote, instead of via cannons, tanks, coups and uprisings. This was truly a great national festival. This was a festival of renewal of our strong national determination. This was a festival of a new chapter in our history. This was the festival of the renewal of the international community's solidarity and support for the Afghan nation."
This is only the beginning of the journey. Let all of us in the West, leading safe and comfortable lives which allow us to take so much for granted, don't disparage the little things that are today taking place on the other side of the world; a song that can now be sung, a girl who can go to school, a joke that can be told, a country road being build - or indeed a rose smelled again. These things may not sound like much to us, but for the people of Afghanistan they are all small steps leading them towards a better life and a normal future.
As always, if you have suggestions for the next part, please email goodnewsafghanistan "at" windsofchange "dot" net.