Afghanistan News and Views


Afghanistan tackles hidden mental health epidemic, by Sune Engel Rasmussen, Sept. 2, 2015, original
Dr Fareshta Quedees, project manager at the International Psychosocial Organisation in Kabul, at a training session for counsellors. Photograph: Sune Engel Rasmussen

Mohammad Qassem had been chained to a wall for 13 days. Locked in a tiny concrete cell with his hands and feet shackled, he had 27 days left before he would be declared healthy.

During that period, the keeper of the holy shrine where Qassem was held would feed him only tea, bread and black pepper, ostensibly to rid him of what his family said was insanity. Qassem, a former soldier who spoke hoarsely, with bursts of laughter, said he just had a hashish addiction. “When I don’t smoke hashish I want to kill all foreigners,” he roared, to giggles from a crowd of onlookers from the nearby village who had gathered at the cell entrance.

Related: Afghanistan growing more receptive on women’s rights, says British ambassador

For generations, the Mia Ali Baba Shrine, in a rural part of Nangarhar province, has been renowned for allegedly curing mental illnesses with forced asceticism and spiritual cleansing. “We leave everything to God,” said the shrine keeper, Mia Saheb. “The Earth and the sky have been made by God. God takes care of the patients.”

Qassem, meanwhile, showed off wounds where the chains had gnawed into his wrists. “They need to take me to the doctor instead of putting me in prison here,” he said. “They made me crazier by bringing me here.”

Fourteen years of violence have created a hidden epidemic inAfghanistan of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other war-induced illnesses. It is one of the most enduring damages wrought by the war – one few people understand, and fewer can treat. But a small army of therapists now seeks to change that. And they are led by a woman.

“We are in a vicious cycle of violence and trauma,” said Dr Fareshta Quedees, project manager at the International Psychosocial Organisation (Ipso) in Kabul and the driving force behind training 280 psychosocial counsellors who work across the country.

Half of the counsellors are women, a rare ratio for any profession in Afghanistan, and an acknowledgment that wives and families also suffer from trauma, despite often being removed from the frontline. Domestic violence, for instance, is rampant in Afghanistan, and is often unleashed by trauma.

“Women don’t necessarily face trauma directly but traumatised men are more violent, and that increases family conflicts,” said Fariba Amin from the provincial hospital in Zabul, who, along with dozens of fellow counsellors, had come to Kabul for a five-day training course.

A man chained beneath a tree, as treatment for his mental illness, on the compounds of Mia Ali Baba Shrine in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. Photograph: Rahmat Gul/AP

For women, she said, counselling is a rare chance to confide in someone. Afghan women are rarely asked about their hopes and dreams, let alone what burdens them. “That someone sits down and listens to the woman is a treatment in itself,” said Amin.

A UN-sponsored survey found that in 2005, 16.5% of Afghans suffered from mental disorders. The problem is likely to have grown since then.

The Afghan government has made tackling mental illness a priority and developed a national mental health strategy. All provincial hospitals now offer counselling. Counselling is free, and even available online.

Quedees, 35, discovered psychosocial counselling in 2004, while in medical school, during a stint as a translator for a foreign NGO. She found the therapy resonating with ideas she had harboured herself but never articulated. “I was the sort of person who always talked a lot about my feelings, and I remember my friends made fun of me,” she said with a smile.

But Quedees’s counsellors are working against long-held traditions and a culture of stigmatisation of the mentally ill. Faced with mental disorder, many resort to drugs or superstitious practices that often cause more harm than good.

Critics claim the treatment at shrines like Mia Ali Baba is a hoax, which sedates patients suffering from hunger and maltreatment rather than curing them. Still, locals maintain a strong belief in their healing powers. One of them, Nasibullah Subara, said the treatment had helped his nephew.

“Before, he didn’t sleep. He had a short temper and bothered his family. But now he doesn’t have those problems,” Subara said. The $20 cost of the treatment at the shrine is cheaper than medicine or a trip to the nearest hospital. As a result, the shrine’s 16 cells are often full.

Modern therapy is also at odds with the sense of privacy so paramount in Afghan culture. “Many people don’t like the concept of counselling. It is not appropriate in our culture to share intimate matters and family secrets,” said Fatma Dauladzai, a counsellor from Paktia province.

But while the idea of counselling has yet to take firm root, women, especially, are growing more receptive.

Wahid Nurzad, a male counsellor from Herat, recalled a group session for people who had experienced domestic violence, where one 35-year-old woman suddenly started crying: “When these tears of mine are falling, I feel lighter,” she had said. “I forget the suffering I have gone through.”


Afghanistan: Ahmed Rashid: Ghani is running out of options in Afghanistan,
Viewpoint, Ahmed Rashid, September 1, 2015

Image caption A wave of Taliban attacks and offensives have left the country reeling in recent weeks

Afghanistan is in dire crisis as the Taliban battle a weak government, and peace talks with the militants are put on hold, writes guest columnist Ahmed Rashid.

The Taliban have captured most of Helmand province, including for several days a strategic district headquarters, Musa Qala. They are growing stronger in the north and east holding more territory than ever before and mounting ferocious attacks in Kabul in which some 100 people have been killed in the past few weeks.

Talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban and Pakistan are at an impasse following the recent announcement of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in 2013. Afghan criticism of Pakistan for allegedly not reining in the Taliban is increasing daily.

President Ashraf Ghani’s approval rating has fallen from 50 percentage points to 38, while his partner in power Abdullah Abdullah’s ratings are even lower, according to Tolo news. The government is paralysed, apparently incapable of still filling empty slots in the cabinet, while key projects such as identity cards and electoral reforms are on hold and mired in controversy.

Image caption President Ghani’s popularity ratings are apparently in steep decline at the moment

The government has failed to tackle corruption or bolster the economy. There is large-scale capital flight, especially to the Gulf where many Afghans have bought houses. Afghans constitute the third largest group of migrants after Syrians and Iraqis trying to escape into Europe by land and sea.

The international community is delaying or withholding vital financial contributions to a government that has long run out of money. Some government salaries have not been paid for months.

Afghanistan’s army is heroically struggling to contain the Taliban and hanging on to district capitals but is incapable of going on the offensive or regaining lost territory. Officers are struggling to contain sizeable desertions from the army and police by refusing home leave. The casualty rates are the worst ever and according to US officers, “unsustainable”. The remaining US and Nato forces are expected to leave at the end of the year.

According to the New York Times, about 4,100 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed and another 7,800 wounded in the first six months of this year. That is 50% more than the same period last year. Meanwhile warlordism is back with a vengeance as leading figures from the 1980s jihad (holy war), including Vice President Rashid Dostum, Balkh province Governor Atta Mohammed Nur and others raise militia armies across the country.

The country’s best hope in years – opening talks with the Taliban – has been stymied by the leaking of Mullah Omar’s death. Pakistan and some Taliban leaders tried to keep it secret for unknown reasons until the news broke after the first meeting between the Taliban and Afghan officials in Pakistan on 7 July.

Image caption Peace talks have been suspended since Mullah Mansour (right) replaced Mullah Omar

Mullah Omar’s death has created a struggle for power within the Taliban and there is a growing conviction amongst many ordinary Afghans that Pakistan is trying to install its chosen favourite, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, as the new Taliban leader.

It also became clear that Jalaluddin Haqqani, a leading jihadi figure wanted for terrorism by the US and a major Taliban operative also died a year ago.

This lack of transparency has destroyed the trust between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In his opening address to the Taliban, Mullah Mansour took a belligerent stance, dismissing talks about peace as “enemy propaganda”. Before that he was seen as a moderate figure.

Meanwhile in Kabul, new anti-Ghani groupings are emerging, especially among those who resent the president surrounding himself with fellow Ghilzai Pashtuns.

In conversations with many Afghans over the last few months there seems to be a growing consensus that Afghanistan’s internal sovereignty is at stake and that the national unity government has not worked. Many feel constitutional changes are urgently needed in order to prevent the disintegration of the country, a coup by one or more warlords or a section of the army, or a power grab by disgruntled politicians.

One popular solution being hotly debated by Afghan intellectuals and politicians is for President Ghani to call an emergency loya jirga that would choose an interim government and president for a period of no more than a few months. Such a grand assembly would then initiate debate and pass constitutional and electoral reforms, as President Ghani and Mr Abdullah had promised to do when they were installed as joint power holders in the national unity government.

Image caption Afghan security forces are battling a resurgent Taliban after Nato combat troops withdrew

These reforms would introduce constitutional amendments to make the country a parliamentary democracy – something that the non-Pashtun groups and many urban Afghans have been demanding since 2001. These reforms could be coupled with a renewed attempt to bring the Taliban into talks or even encourage them to take part in the loya jirga debate. The Taliban have made it clear that they also want changes to the constitution.

Finally after the passage of new electoral laws that would eliminate vote rigging, and the issuance of new ID cards, the interim government would oversee fresh parliamentary elections. The newly elected parliament would then choose a new prime minister to lead the country and a president as head of state, after which the interim government would resign.

Ambitious and difficult though such a path may be, many Afghans are convinced that ultimately Mr Ghani has no choice but to radically shake up the system. If he takes such a risk then who knows – he may remerge as the winner once again.

Ahmed Rashid

  • Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist and author based in Lahore
  • His latest book is Pakistan on the Brink – The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan
  • Earlier works include Descent into Chaos and Taliban, first published in 2000, which became a bestseller

Afghanistan: What Could Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Death Mean for the Taliban Talks?, BY , July 19, 2015

Since he fled Kandahar on the back of a motorcycle, in December, 2001, Mullah Mohammad Omar, whom the Taliban he led called “Amir al-Mu’minin,” Commander of the Faithful, never appeared in public. If he was trying to elude pursuers, he succeeded: no one took up the U.S. on its offer of ten million dollars, under the Rewards for Justice Program, for information leading to his location or capture. He communicated publicly with his followers and the world only through statements issued twice a year, on the festivals of Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, at the end of the Hajj. Whether or not Mullah Omar wrote or approved these statements himself, they constituted the most authoritative statements of Taliban policy. The most recent statement, a few days before this year’s Eid al-Fitr, which fell on July 17th, attracted even more than the usual attention, as it endorsed negotiations to end the conflict in Afghanistan. Such talks had seemed to start at a meeting in Murree, Pakistan, between delegations of the Afghan government and the Taliban, on July 7th. But then, on July 29th, news filtered out from multiple sources that Mullah Omar had died more than two years earlier. So who was negotiating with the Afghan government and under what authority?The U.S. held intermittent meetings with the Taliban Political Commission from November, 2010, to January, 2012. Mullah Omar had reportedly authorized this political commission to carry out both international and domestic outreach when it was founded, in 2008. The Taliban suspended the talks in March, 2012, after U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales killed sixteen people in their beds, including nine children, in the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province, home to many in the Taliban leadership. An attempt to open an office for the political commission in Doha, Qatar, on June 18, 2013, and restart negotiations failed. When the Taliban displayed symbols of their deposed government at the inauguration, the United States asked Qatar to close it. The commission remained in Doha, however, working unofficially.

Along with the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Jim Dobbins, I met with Mohammed Umer Daudzai, then the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, on June 25, 2013. (I had been senior adviser to the SRAP since the late Richard Holbrooke, the first to hold the office, brought me on board, in 2009.) With the Qatar office closed, Daudzai offered some ideas on how to continue the search for a political settlement. A man with a trim beard and a mischievous sense of humor, he recounted his efforts to persuade the Pakistani military to arrange a meeting between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders in Pakistan.  The Pakistanis, he said, claimed they did not control the Taliban. Daudzai prodded them, saying that was too simple—There are some Taliban you don’t control at all and who hate you. There are some you can influence, even if they don’t trust you. And there are some Taliban you do control. At least, Daudzai asked, organize a meeting between the Afghan government and some Taliban you control. That seems to be what Pakistan did on July 7, 2015.

Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated as the second president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on September 29, 2014, after a disputed election that was resolved only when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a power-sharing agreement between Ghani and his competitor, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Ghani, who had left Kabul to study at the American University of Beirut and then Columbia University, where he earned a doctorate in anthropology, was a co-author of the book “Fixing Failed States,” which drew on his experience working at the World Bank and as a special adviser to the United Nations.

Ghani approached the challenge of peacemaking in Afghanistan as, first, an issue between states. “The problem, fundamentally, is not about peace with Taliban,” Ghani told an audience in Washington, D.C., in March, 2015. “The problem is fundamentally about peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He immediately set about shaping the environment for negotiations with Pakistan.

Ghani’s first two official visits were to the two countries with the most influence in Pakistan, having provided financial and technical assistance to the country’s nuclear-weapons program. Less than a month after his inauguration, he went to Saudi Arabia, which had been waging an internal war against Al Qaeda for ten years and sought to weaken it further by encouraging the Taliban to renounce its alliance. A few days later, he touched down in China, where the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region had been the site of terrorist attacks connected to a separatist movement, some of whose fighters received training in Pakistan and Afghanistan. China had subsequently come to regard the stability of Afghanistan as crucial to its internal security, as well as its economic future. The first wave of Chinese growth was based on labor-intensive exports from the Pacific coastal region, but as it slowed the leadership sought to invest in the central and western regions of the country, including Xinjiang. These landlocked areas could not develop without direct access to energy and raw materials, through routes that instability in Afghanistan or Pakistan could disrupt. At the end of the summit between Ghani and Xi Jinping, in October, 2014, China pledged to support an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace and reconciliation process.

Two weeks later, Ghani visited Pakistan, where he told Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif that it was time to end “thirteen years of undeclared hostilities.” He offered to address all the concerns the Pakistan military had about Afghanistan. Ghani would withdraw a request his predecessor had made for heavy weapons from India, and he proposed unprecedented transparency and cooperation between the two states’ military and intelligence agencies. He ordered the Afghan Army into battle against elements of the Pakistani Taliban that had taken refuge in Afghanistan, and he agreed to a long-standing Pakistani request for Afghanistan to send officer cadets to be trained at the Pakistan Military Academy, in Abbottabad. He also proposed establishing jointly operated border checkpoints, to promote the regulated movement of people and goods.

These concessions went far beyond what Afghanistan’s public, with its visceral distrust of and anger at the Pakistani military, was prepared for. As Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai has said, “People in Afghanistan believe that whoever launches attacks on the security forces, kills tribal elders, and burns schools has roots in Pakistan and they view this as an undeclared war.” Ghani needed equal concessions from Pakistan, including military and intelligence operations to blunt the Taliban’s planned spring offensive and put pressure on the group to negotiate directly with the Afghan government.

But the Taliban leadership avoided and delayed answering Pakistan’s request to enter into direct talks with the Afghan government. Its consistent position had been that it would enter into talks with “other Afghans,” including the government, only after completing confidence-building measures with the United States, including the official opening of the political office and the removal of the Taliban from lists like Rewards for Justice. Instead of complying with Pakistan, on April 24th of this year the Taliban announced its largest spring offensive ever, with no apparent opposition from Pakistan. Former President Hamid Karzai called Ghani’s proposed memorandum of understanding on intelligence cooperation with Pakistan “an atrocious betrayal of the people of Afghanistan.” Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and Army Chief General Raheel Sharif rushed to Kabul on May 12th in an attempt to halt the rapid deterioration of relations.

Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.) hastily did what Ambassador Umer Daudzai of Afghanistan had proposed back in 2013: it flew three former Taliban leaders under its control to Urumqi, China, the capital of Xinjiang. The three—Mullah Abdul Jalil, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Rahmani, and Mullah Abdul Razaq—had formerly served as deputy minister of foreign affairs, governor of Kandahar, and minister of the interior, respectively, but they had no connections to the Taliban Political Commission and no current influence in the Taliban hierarchy. On May 19th and 20th, with observers from the I.S.I. and China’s Ministry of State Security present, they met a delegation from Kabul. The Taliban were quick to disavow the meeting, posting an official statement on their Web siterejecting “rumors” that a “delegation of Islamic Emirate met with representatives of Kabul administration’s fake peace council in Urumqi city of China.”

Even as the I.S.I. put increasing pressure on the Taliban leadership in Pakistan to meet with the Afghan government, the Taliban’s official Pakistan-based spokesman reasserted, on June 24th, that the political office in Doha “is responsible for handling all the internal and external political activities related to the Islamic Emirate.” But the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, eventually felt the weight of Pakistan’s pressure and authorized senior Taliban leaders to meet with an official Afghan delegation, on July 7th, at the Golf Club, in the resort town of Murree, outside of Islamabad. The Afghan delegation was led by Haji Din Muhammad, a senior member of the High Peace Council. The Taliban present were Mullah Abbas Akhund, who headed the delegation, Abdul Latif Mansur, and Ibrahim Haqqani. Abbas and Latif Mansur were reputed to have belonged to the Taliban’s liaison committee with the I.S.I., while Haqqani represented a part of the Taliban that Admiral Michael Mullen, the American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had called “a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency” in Congressional testimony on September 22, 2011. No member of the Taliban political office attended. The meeting was chaired by a Pakistani diplomat, with observers from the top ranks of the I.S.I. and mid-level observers from the U.S. and China.

According to the Afghan and Pakistani governments, the two sides agreed on the need for confidence-building measures, and scheduled another meeting for after Ramadan. China, the U.S., and the U.N. described the meeting as a breakthrough, the first direct meeting between “authorized” delegations of the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Taliban spokesman based in Pakistan did not comment. Instead, the day after the meeting, the Taliban announced that the Political Commission had been granted “full capacity and agency powers” over negotiations. The commission then issued a tweet stating that it alone was authorized for talks, and had not met with representatives of the “Kabul administration.” In an interview with the pro-Taliban Pashto-language Web site Nun.Asia (Asia Today), the commission’s spokesperson, Naim Wardak, said that the Taliban delegates had participated in the talks as “hostages” of Pakistan. On July 9th, an article was published on the Taliban Web site, only to disappear four hours later. “When the dust settles,” it said, “the much hailed talks between Taliban officials and Ghani-administration officials in Islamabad will be revealed as nothing more than Pakistan delivering a few individuals from the Islamic Emirate to speak in their personal capacity.” The Political Office, too, wanted negotiations, but on the Taliban’s terms, and without the involvement of Pakistan.

For the first time the Taliban, founded to end factionalism, were speaking with multiple voices, some manipulated by Pakistan more obviously than ever. Since only the hidden Mullah Omar could settle which was the true voice of the Taliban, the question of his authority became pressing. Some Taliban leaders, notably Akhtar Muhammad Mansur’s rival Zakir, whom he dismissed as military chief in April, 2014, had for years contested Mansur’s claim to lead in the name of Mullah Omar. On July 1st, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which had long recognized Mullah Omar as its amir, issued a public statement asserting that Mullah Omar was dead and shifting its allegiance to the Islamic State. On July 23rd a Taliban splinter group, Fidai Mahaz, posted on Facebook that Mullah Omar had been killed by Akhtar Muhammad Mansur and Taliban finance chief Gul Agha Ishaqzai in 2013. Several Afghan researchers and journalists reported that “a majority of Quetta Shura members have demanded that Mansour should take their representatives to meet Mullah Omar,” to quell doubts about whether he is alive and in command; on July 29th, multiple reports from Afghanistan and Pakistan claimed that he died in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2013. The Quetta Shura reportedly was meeting to choose a successor, but it is questionable whether any successor, especially one chosen in Pakistan while the leadership is under such pressure from the I.S.I, would be accepted as legitimate.

Amid these controversies, Afghanistan and Pakistan appear to have tussled about the venue of the next meeting. A spokesperson for the Afghan High Peace Council announced that the next round of talks will take place on July 30th or 31st, probably in China, but ultimately Pakistan announced that it will be in Pakistan, on Friday, July 31st. Holding the talks outside Pakistan would make it much more likely that members of the Political Commission would attend, making the Taliban delegation more credible. That might be needed to deliver Ghani’s main objective, some kind of reduction in violence, such as a ceasefire. A ceasefire, even of limited duration, would enable Ghani to show Afghanistan’s war-weary but skeptical population that they will benefit from his concessions. The credibility of the delegation would make less difference if, as many Afghans think, the I.S.I., and not the Taliban leadership, controls Taliban military operations. In that case, Pakistan could deliver a cease-fire itself with the face-saving appearance of an agreement.

The death of Mullah Omar may allow Pakistan to put leaders it controls more fully in charge of the Taliban. It may also cause the Taliban to splinter. Some may stop fighting and enter the system, while others may join even more extremist groups, such as the Islamic State, and fight the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the two governments cannot gain the willing participation of most of the Taliban in the peace process, Kabul may demand that Islamabad use force to shut down whatever part of the Taliban’s military machine it does not control directly. But the Pakistani Army, which is already overstretched by its posture toward India, and by battles against the Pakistani Taliban, Baloch nationalists, and armed gangs in Karachi, will be reluctant to take on a battle-hardened Afghan group, some of whose members it hopes to use as future agents of influence.

These issues may at least temporarily draw the attention of high-level U.S. decision-makers back to Afghanistan, where they will find that they now need to coöperate closely with China. Till now, Washington has seemed stuck in 2009, entirely obsessed with troop numbers and timetables. U.S. mid-level officials have assisted and supported these talks, but at the highest levels the Administration still seems to view a settlement in Afghanistan as an exit strategy from an area where our interest is declining in step with our troop numbers. If the death of Mullah Omar draws high-level attention back to Afghanistan, Washington might realize that it is impossible to execute a “pivot to Asia” without continuing engagement in Afghanistan.


Afghanistan: It’s Not the Taliban — It’s the Islamic State, July 20, 2015
KABUL — Earlier this year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani persuaded U.S. President Barack Obama to slow the pace of a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from his country by citing the need to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban.

But Ghani is now offering a new rationale for keeping American forces in Afghanistan, suggesting that the Islamic State — which has begun to make its presence felt with bombings mainly in the country’s east — poses a potential threat that must be confronted before it spreads.

In recent talks with U.S. military commanders, Ghani has referred to the Islamic State as an emerging danger. And he has tentatively outlined an idea that Afghanistan — with its battle-hardened security forces — could serve as a key long-term partner to stem the Islamic State in the region, American military officers told reporters Sunday.

By invoking the specter of the Islamic State jihadis, Ghani is providing both U.S. military commanders and Republican lawmakers who oppose the troop pullout with fresh political ammunition.

Opponents of the withdrawal have warned that leaving Afghanistan could produce a repeat of the disastrous experience in Iraq, where the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army suffered a humiliating rout at the hands of the Islamic State only a few years after American forces left the country.

Ghani floated the idea of his country serving as a bulwark against the jihadi group when he met with the U.S. military’s top officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who flew to Kabul on Sunday for talks.

“It’s [Ghani’s] view that, ‘Hey, look, I’m a willing partner in an area where you may not have willing partners,’” Dempsey told reporters traveling with him.

Ghani believes Afghanistan could support counterterrorism operations with the United States as part of “a South Asia hub, not just focused on Afghanistan but on the kind of threats that exist elsewhere in the region,” Dempsey said.

The concept was worth exploring, Dempsey said, as it recognized that the Islamic State presented a danger that transcended borders and could only be defeated through a “transregional” network of allies.

President Obama pledged in May last year to bring all 9,800 U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, arguing that Afghan security forces will be ready to stand on their own after a 15-year American military presence.

Obama then agreed in March to slow the pace of the troop drawdown after American commanders and Ghani appealed to the White House for a more flexible timeline.

But Ghani’s latest tack could force the White House to revisit its public explanations for the planned troop exit, which have been focused on the state of Afghan forces and the nature of the threat posed by the Taliban.

Instead of trying to rally support for a war that has been largely forgotten in NATO countries, Ghani’s reference to the menace of the Islamic State plays on the growing fears of Western governments about the daunting challenge presented by the group.

Since his election last year, Ghani has been welcomed with open arms by the Obama administration after years of frustration with his mercurial predecessor, Hamid Karzai. The new president, a U.S.-educated economist who worked at the World Bank, is viewed by Washington as a key figure capable of steering Afghanistan toward a stable future.

The president’s decision to allow the U.S. contingent to remain at nearly 10,000 troops this year was meant to give Ghani some breathing room as he tackled a host of challenges — from widespread corruption to a dysfunction economy — after his inauguration in September.

White House officials have yet to cite the Islamic State’s nascent activity in Afghanistan as a reason to change course, saying that Obama still plans to pull out American forces before the end of his presidency, except for a small contingent of several hundred troops that would be attached to the U.S. embassy.

However, a senior Obama administration official told Foreign Policy that the United States is aware of the presence of “[Islamic State]-affiliated militants in Afghanistan, and we are monitoring closely to see whether their emergence will have a meaningful impact on the threat environment in the region.”

Ghani’s warnings about the Islamic State could open him up to accusations that he is hyping up the security risk merely to obtain an extension of the U.S. military mission. But the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, told reporters at a briefing Sunday that he takes the threat from the jihadis seriously.

Campbell, who advocated successfully along with Ghani for slowing down the tempo of the drawdown several months ago, is due to issue a recommendation to U.S. military leaders and the president about troop levels later this year.

Campbell said he would take Ghani’s views — and the threat posed by the Islamic State — into account as he draws up his assessment. And he raised the possibility that a proposed civilian-led NATO mission now under discussion could require a U.S. military contribution.

Ghani has discussed the security situation and the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan with Obama via video conference, Campbell said.

“He told the president he knows the promises [Obama] made to the American people, and he doesn’t want to violate that, but conditions here have changed,” Campbell said, recounting Ghani’s remarks.

Ghani envisages Afghanistan forging a cooperative military relationship with the United States based on combating regional terrorism threats, Campbell said.

U.S. officials are still struggling to obtain a clear picture of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which is much smaller than the entrenched Taliban insurgency. While concerned about the group’s presence, officials are not yet ready to say the Islamic State has gained a major foothold.

Having seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria last year in brutal campaigns marked by atrocities, the Islamic State announced its presence in Afghanistan in January, and it remains unclear how much of a danger the group poses to the country.

Campbell, echoing the view of U.S. intelligence agencies, said most of the militants declaring allegiance to Islamic State are former Pakistani Taliban insurgents who have “rebranded” themselves after becoming disaffected with the Afghan Taliban.

The Pakistani Taliban’s shift in allegiance to the Islamic State comes just as Afghan Taliban leaders entered into a round of peace talks with Kabul this month for the first time. The peace overtures had angered Pakistani Taliban militants, who favor an aggressive campaign of violence against the Afghan government, according to U.S. military officers.

Suicide bombings and other attacks linked to the Islamic State have occurred mainly in the provinces of Nangarhar, Faryab, and Helmand, with fighting breaking out in some cases between the Afghan Taliban and Islamic State militants, Campbell said.

The Islamic State jihadis “are not an existential threat to Afghanistan at this point,” Campbell told reporters. “Could they become that down the road? I don’t know.”

The contingent of U.S. troops still in Afghanistan is primarily focused on advising the country’s security forces and providing logistical help as well as intelligence from surveillance aircraft. About 3,000 U.S. Special Forces and other troops continue to carry out counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and — more recently — Islamic State militants. A U.S. drone strike took out the purported leader of the group in eastern Afghanistan earlier this month.

It remains an open question how the Afghan army and police will fare once American troops depart from the country.

On the battlefield, the Afghans — particularly police units — are suffering heavy losses. Casualties have soared 60 percent compared to last year, with 4,700 killed and 7,800 wounded so far this year, according to figures from the U.S. military.

The Afghan president has said the country’s security forces are holding their own against the Taliban. But starting with a visit to Washington in March, Ghani has voiced growing alarm over the Islamic State, blaming a number of deadly attacks on the group.

Ghani has warned that the jihadis are spreading their tentacles into the country and will only be defeated by a concerted international front.

Speaking to a crowd in April in the northeastern town of Faizabad, Ghani said: “If we don’t stand on the same line united, these people are going to destroy us.”

0, July 17, 2015

The young people sent back to Afghanistan

Many unaccompanied children who have fled Afghanistan and had their asylum claim rejected in the UK are given until they are 18 before being sent back. For the past seven months the BBC has followed some of these young men. They face life in an unfamiliar and dangerous country, write Chris Rogers and Sue Clayton.

Najib makes his way nervously through the streets of Kabul. At 20, he is alone in one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

On every corner heavily armed solders guard communities and government buildings. It is a city on the edge – there has been a surge of Taliban attacks in Kabul in recent weeks. “You can see it’s dangerous,” he says as army helicopters fly low across the city skyline, “It is getting worse here. There are bombs and explosions everywhere.”

As an Afghan, you might expect Najib to be used to the Taliban violence, but the city is as strange to him as it would be to any foreigner.

Najib in Kabul

He spent much of his childhood in the UK. Originally from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, when his father and brother went missing his mother arranged for him to be got out of the country by agents. He spent months on the journey including walking through the mountains between Pakistan and Iran.

But Najib was deported by the Home Office back to his country of birth two years ago.

“I don’t belong here, I wasn’t educated here and I don’t know the culture. Britain is my home,” he says in a strong Midlands accent. Najib still sports a hairstyle that wouldn’t be out of place on David Beckham and is wearing a trendy shirt, jeans and trainers.

He couldn’t look more British, but he says that is a problem. “The Taliban attack the West here, people who work for the British government or even people who just come from Britain and America, It is dangerous here.”

He looks on at the hopelessness around him – dozens of war widows are begging for money and food on their knees, while gangs of young Afghan men scrape a living offering their labour on street corners. There is 40% unemployment in a country struggling to recover from an endless war, and Najib wants out.

“I will leave Afghanistan and go to another country as a refugee,” he says. “There is nothing for me here. Even if I get sent back I will just keep trying to leave Afghanistan.”

Najib later jumps on to a bus out of Kabul with just a rucksack of belongings. He is heading to the border and plans to make his way back to Britain with the help of traffickers. It’s the same 4,000-mile journey he made as an 11-year-old boy.

Since 2006, 5,500 unaccompanied Afghan children have reached the UK and claimed asylum. More than 80% of those who claimed persecution by the Taliban had their cases rejected.

The military attend an incident in a Kabul street

But rather than send them straight back, the Home Office offers them a temporary life in Britain, usually with a foster family until the age of 18, when they must leave the country voluntarily or be deported.

The vast majority of the Afghan children who come to the UK are male. Families believe their daughters are too vulnerable to be sent alone on the path to Europe.

Najib spent most of his childhood in Southam near Leamington Spa with foster parent Linda.

“It was wrong to send him back, they are just pawns in a political process,” she sobs as she flicks through an album of photos showing Najib’s first day at the local school and the Christmases and birthdays they shared together. “He is a number so that anybody who wants to get political gain can say, ‘We have sent this many people back’.

“How can they justify sending someone to a country they hardly remember when they have made a life for themselves here?”

A necklace given to Linda by Najib

Another former child asylum seeker placed in Linda’s care faces deportation any day now. Faisal, now 19, can appeal against his deportation, but he is taking no chances after seeing what became of Najib. He has been in the UK since he was 14.

In a tower block several miles from his foster home, Faisal is making a bed on the floor of a friend’s flat. He has gone on the run, moving addresses every few days. “I’m so scared the Home Office are going to pick me up,” he says as he heads out on to the balcony, scouring the streets below. “I check for them every 20 to 30 minutes during the night. Early in the morning I’ll leave and go and sleep somewhere else.”

According to research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Home Office has deported more than 600 failed child asylum seekers to Afghanistan since 2011. Nearly 500 more are earmarked for removal. Yet the government advises its own citizens not to travel to Afghanistan because of the threat of terrorism and kidnapping.

In a statement, the Home Office says it is proud of its history of giving asylum. “Where people establish a genuine need for protection, or a well-founded fear of persecution, refuge will be granted. Every case is carefully considered on its individual merits.”

Refugee campaigners accuse the Home Office of effectively warehousing Afghan children – dismissing their claims of persecution in Afghanistan with the sole intention of deporting them when they become adults – to keep migrant numbers down.

Juliette Wales, of Kent Refugee Network, has tried to help hundreds of young Afghans appeal against their deportation. “It’s tragic to see these kids who believe they are safe, working really hard and going to college, turn 18 years old and turn into the state they turn into, it’s a waste of life.”

Many of the former child asylum seekers we met are convinced they will be killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, but their greatest fear is often losing the life they have made for themselves in Britain.

Nasser in his rented room on the outskirts of Kabul

Nasser, 23, says he enjoyed a typical British upbringing in North London for eight years. He had a girlfriend, a network of friends and had completed his studies.

When we found Nasser in a small, dirty, rented room on the outskirts of Kabul, he had been deported just four days before. “I am not happy here. I feel like I am going crazy here. What am I doing here?” he asks, clearly shell-shocked to be back in a city he hasn’t seen since he was 11.

He says that in the chaos of war he lost touch with his family. “What am I going to do here by myself, alone?” he says.

He is terrified and hasn’t left his room since he arrived. “In this country how am I going to make a life? I can’t go outside. I can’t go outside in case of a bomb by the Taliban, and I am scared something is going to happen. This is our life, and it’s not a life.”

The Home Office does not monitor what becomes of deportees once they arrive in Kabul, but human rights campaigners do. According to a study of 200 failed child asylum seekers, they tend to turn to two options – escape Afghanistan by fleeing back to Europe, or escape reality by taking drugs.

Under a notorious bridge on the River Kabul, where a community of around 300 heroin users live in stream of rubbish and sewage, we find 23-year-old Ahmed. He claims he lived in Manchester for eight years – he’s been back in Kabul living with his mother for 18 months.

“This is not a situation I am proud of. Today I promised my mother this would be the last day I take drugs,” he say. But he admits it’s a promise he has made many times.

Community living under the bridge on the River Kabul

“It eases the pain, this is my escape, I had a life in Manchester, but not here. I pray to God to get me out of this situation.”

His thin, dirty face and soulless eyes suggest months of drug abuse, and he’s not ready to quit escaping reality just yet. He waves goodbye as he makes his way back under the bridge for his next hit.

Chris Rogers reports for Our World: Deported to Afghanistan broadcast on the BBC News Channel on 18 and 19 July at 21:30 GMT. It will also be broadcast on BBC World News on 17 July at 23:30 GMT, 18 July 11:30 and 22:30 and 19 July at 17:30. You can catch up via the BBC iPlayer

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Almost 1,000 civilians killed in Afghanistan conflict during the first 4 months of this year

UN News Center, 8 June 2015 – The conflict in Afghanistan is resulting in thousands of people being killed or wounded, forcing families to leave their homes and seek refuge in neighbouring communities, according to Mark Bowden, the UN Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative in the country.

“As of 30 April, 1,989 Afghans were injured as a result of the conflict and 978 Afghan civilians killed, throughout the country,” Mr. Bowden said on Sunday, noting that the number of wounded at the Emergency Hospital in Kabul illustrates the devastating impact of the conflict.

“The doctors there told me that they are seeing a 50 per cent increase in the number of civilians injured this year compared to the same period last year,” he noted.

Speaking at the Second Independent Media and Civil Society Forum in Kabul, the UN envoy, who is also the deputy head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said the intensifying conflict in 2015 is taxing humanitarian capacities.

“At this period of increased need, it is particularly disturbing to note that humanitarian aid workers are increasingly becoming targets themselves,” he said, while calling attention to the crucial role civil society plays in holding non-state actors accountable for their actions.

“It is through its engagement with the media that civil society can advocate more strongly about the conflict and the resulting humanitarian situation,” he stressed. “The relationship between civil society, media and humanitarian action is strong.”

UNAMA is mandated to support the Afghan Government and relevant international and local non-governmental organizations to assist in the full implementation of the fundamental freedoms and human rights provisions of the Afghan Constitution and international treaties to which Afghanistan is a State party, in particular those regarding the full enjoyment by women of their human rights.


Afghanistan: Progress Reported on Women’s issues in Informal Afghan-Taliban Talks, by Rod Nordland, 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Two days of informal talks between Afghan government and Taliban representatives produced a series of agreements that, while not binding, raised the prospect of advancement in Afghanistan’s long deadlocked peace process, judging from a summary of the talks released by the organizers on Monday.

Both sides agreed that the Taliban should open a political office in Doha,Qatar, which would serve as a place where future negotiations might take place; the government of Afghanistan had previously opposed that. Both agreed that the Constitution of Afghanistan was up for discussion; that had once been a so-called red line for the Afghan government.

The Taliban signaled that they might be willing to drop their demand that all foreign troops, such as the residual American and NATO force of 13,000 trainers and counterterrorism troops, would have to be withdrawn before peace talks could take place.

“In general, the peace process should be speeded up!” read a summary of the talks issued by the Pugwash Conferences, the international organization that hosted them in Qatar on Saturday and Sunday. “Some would welcome the possibility of talks between the Taliban and the government.”

The Taliban also joined with Afghan government figures in committing to education for women, which the Taliban had mostly stamped out during their years in power.

“The value of education for both men and women was underlined by everybody,” the Pugwash summary of the talks said. Pugwash, a Nobel Prize-winning organization that promotes world peace, has hosted several conferences involving indirect talks between the Afghan parties, known as “track two” talks.

This was the first one, however, in which the parties seemed willing to publicize their points of agreement.

While everyone involved emphasized that the talks were among individuals and represented their personal opinions, those present included leading figures from the Taliban ranks, as well as important government officials and allies.

In a separate statement, the Taliban denounced the American role in the country and demanded a withdrawal, but did not appear to make that a precondition for peace talks, as they often have in the past.

“Peace cannot be achieved just in talks and slogans,” the Taliban statement, posted on the group’s website, read. “There is a need for determination and good intentions.” They also appeared to dismiss a role for Pakistan in future talks, criticizing “peace talk offers that are usually made to neighboring countries.”

Pakistan has long allowed the Taliban’s senior leadership to take refuge on its side of the border and has been wary of peace overtures that its government does not control.

“Everybody agreed that foreign forces have to leave Afghanistan soon,” the summary of the talks said. But it added, “Some expressed concern that there should be an agreement among Afghan political forces before the departure of the foreign forces.”


Afghanistan Reconstruction: Fact vs. Fantasy

John F. Sopko , Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City , May 5, 2015

Full Speech


For both humanitarian and national-security reasons, the U.S. mission to reconstruct Afghanistan is critical. And with $15 billion currently awaiting disbursement, with billions more to follow, there is both need to improve the effectiveness of the effort, and time to make a difference in the outcome.

We must not kid ourselves about Afghanistan. It will be a long struggle. Defeating a determined insurgency, improving health and education, altering attitudes toward women, reducing corruption, and building governmental competence are not casual, short-term undertakings. Impatience driven by temperament, election cycles, or fiscal-year budgeting can only impede progress.

We can also safely say that the struggle in Afghanistan won’t be shortened, much less won, by official happy talk and cheerleader-style press releases. Improving the likelihood of mission success requires, as a start, accurate, verifiable, and pertinent data-accompanied by a recognition that some key indicators require subjective evaluation by experienced and independent observers in the field. Let me emphasize the independence issue. Poor data and disregard of nonquantitative assessments that is biased by self-interest and turf protection can only lead to unrealistic judgments, unjustified hopes, and outright fantasies with no link to reality.

The 19th-century American humorist Josh Billings said, in the manner of Socrates, “I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.”[28] SIGAR’s clinical examination of American reconstruction operations in Afghanistan has persuaded me that we know a lot more than nothing, but a lot less than we think. Budgeting, planning, oversight, course corrections, and decisions to adjust the targets, duration, and intensity of U.S. efforts there all require reliable information. At the moment, that is all too often a scarce commodity and, accordingly, our programs as we go forward may be based more upon fantasy than reality.

SIGAR will press on in the years ahead to carry out its assignment of pinning down facts; calling out fluff, felonies, and fantasies; and recommending improvements. We welcome your interest and support in that mission, as I welcome your comments and questions. Thank you.


Afghanistan: Meet the Afghan Photographers Telling Their Country’s Stories

Original article found on: TIME

Laurence Butet-Roch on May 1, 2015

With the strengthening of Taliban’s hold on Afghanistan in the 1990s, came the end of a long photographic tradition. At the turn of the 20th century, the ruling royal family practiced photography as a hobby, and a serious one at that. Habibullah Khan, the Emir from 1901 to 1919, set up a studio in the palace while organizing competitions and exhibitions. Decades later, box cameras had made their way into the streets, popularizing the postcard-format family portrait. Yet, today, an entire generation is left without pictures of their youth, let alone a visual history of their nation.

“A country without photographs, is a country without identity,” says Najibullah Musafer, a photojournalist who took great risks to document his homeland despite the prohibition. After seeing b-roll from Afghanistan that challenged their perceptions of the war-torn region, Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, two American filmmakers, felt it necessary to connect with storytellers from the area committed to sharing more nuanced accounts of their country. Their curiosity prompted the documentary Frame by Frame.

The cast is composed of photographers that distinguish themselves not only by the compelling nature of their work, but also by their enthralling personalities. Beside wholehearted and wise Musafer, considered the grandfather of modern photojournalism in the country, there’s the trailblazing, industrious and thoughtful Farzana Wahidy, her calm and astute husband Massoud Hossaini, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, and Wakil Kohsar, the soulful up-and-comer.

“At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of a movie,” says Wahidy. “At the time, I was trying to keep a low profile, mainly for security reasons and so that I could continue to do my work with as few hurdles as possible. But when I saw that they were going ahead with it, and with three men, I felt it was my duty to be in it.” The documentary makes clear how difficult it can be for her to gain access, especially given that photographing women, which she’s specialized in, remains highly taboo.

As the camera follows the quartet in their daily lives, and as they share stories from their past — the very stories that inform their gaze and shape their voice — a larger layered narrative emerges; that of a disrupted nation.

“Originally, we thought it would be a short film,” says Bombach. “But, as we were conducting the interviews, the complexity of what was happening, of what each photographer was going through, the heaviness of their past and how that affects how they shoot now, it became clear that it needed to be a feature length that would use human narratives to give a much better sense of what’s been going on in the past thirty years.”

Take Kohsar. As he shares memories from his childhood – fleeing Panjshir and seeking refuge in Iran – the plight of Afghan refugees under the Taliban regime comes to light. The footage of him working offers glimpses of issues such as the prevalence of drug addiction and of political disillusion. And, his struggle with an official who suggest that he takes a staged photograph of voters getting their election card – rather than allowing him in – is telling of a country where misinformation is widespread.

“I hope that an audience gets to see what it means to be a storyteller, to be seeking truth when people are putting barriers in front of you, to uphold your responsibility to your craft no matter what’s thrown your way and to seek beauty and justice through photography,” says Scarpelli, who was greatly inspired by how much humanity is bursting from each and every one of the protagonists’ images.

Frame by frame, these four photojournalists, as well as their colleagues, are building an indispensable visual history of these tumultuous times. “Afghanistan is in a very particular and uncertain place right now. Everyone is holding their breath,” says Scarpelli, echoing Hosseini’s worries, expressed in the documentary, that the world might forget Afghanistan again. Frame by frame, the movie reminds us why we should not.

Frame by Frame‘s international premieres is this week at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival.

Laurence Butet-Roch is a freelance writer, photo editor and photographer based in Toronto, Canada. She is a member of the Boreal Collective.

Original article found on: TIME


Afghanistan: Thirty-Two Photos of the New Afghanistan

Original article found on: Global Voices

By: Aaquib Khan on March 3rd, 2015

Indian photo-journalist Aaquib Khan arrived in the rapidly changing Afghan capital Kabul in 2014. He shares some of his pictures and his insights with us in this post. 

Afghanistan is widely seen as a country torn between bullets and religious bullies, a no woman’s land, a pre-modern place where neither young nor old can have hope for a better future. The image in my mind was no different, until I landed in the country’s capital, Kabul last year.

Though much of the Kabul’s imagery conformed to my understanding of the country, there were many other moments that cameras rarely capture. Old and new, traditions and modernity, are locked in a struggle. Afghans, slowly and steadily, seem to be the winners.

Kabul is a place of hope, aspiration, warmth and hospitality, all of which shine through when Afghans saw my blue passport. ”Oh, you are Indian? I love Indian movies!”

Posters of Indian film stars decorate the country’s music shops. There is a mall named after Delhi’s famous Select City Walk. Alumni of Indian universities in the metropolises as well as small Indian towns bump into you on the fringes of crowded market places.

Afghanistan is far from monolithic. Walking beside burqa-clad women are schoolgirls strolling to school. Young women on their way to university, while CDs and DVDs of Bollywood and Hollywood movies can be heard playing in the background, a far cry from the blanket bans on entertainment of the Taliban period. In the land where the Taliban brought down the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan, mannequins in Kabul’s shop windows don extravagant bridal wears.

Then there are the competing mobile service provider advertisements, FM Radio stations, 24-hour TV Channels, numerous talk shows discussing women’s rights. There are hookah bars, where hookah and coffee is served. No women or alcohol, but plenty of young men dancing to loud music.

Vehicles honk past you and leave you in a trail of dust. Afghans complain of increasing pollution in Kabul. Security personnel man the streets, helicopters hover over pedestrians.

Amid the exuberance, there is apprehension: what will happen when the remnants of the US army finally withdraw? But young Afghans believe their country is gathering strength after decades of weakness and division.

They shout a slogan which translates as: “One Afghanistan. No Tajik, No Hazara, No Pashtun”.

Original article found on: Global Voices


Afghanistan: Teach Men that Education is not a Threat

Original article found on: Skoll World Forum

By: SAKENA YACOOBIFounder & CEO, Afghan Institute of Learning

December 26, 2014


Many in the international development community focus on the education of women and girls, sometimes to the exclusion of educating men. While I believe it is vital to educate women and girls, I also believe it is a mistake to leave men out of the process.

My father was a successful businessman, well respected in the community. Though he was illiterate, he insisted that his children attend school. As the eldest child, I began learning to read at a local mosque. Soon, I was attending school.

I loved learning. After high school, I had the opportunity to attend a university in the United States, and my father was my biggest supporter. Though he was not what most people would think of as “educated”, he was knowledgeable, wise, very open-minded, and a just and honest man; because of this he was often chosen to mediate disputes.

After completing my studies in the U.S., I returned to work with my people in the Pakistan refugee camps. I found my people struggling with a lack of education, knowledge, wisdom and open-mindedness. Years of war had devastated our culture and torn apart the education and health systems, leaving people unable to adequately care for themselves and their families. The only thing they knew was survival and war.

Helping Afghans improve their lives through education

Working with refugee camp leaders, we began to train teachers and establish schools for boys and girls. I founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) and began supporting secret home schools for girls inside Afghanistan. Once the Taliban fell, we were able to operate openly and began working closely with communities to establish Learning Centers for women and older girls.

Our goal is to help Afghans improve their lives. In our schools and centers, students not only study the established curriculum, they also learn critical thinking skills, open-mindedness, wisdom and ethics – all qualities that my father, an “uneducated” man, had in abundance.

My father’s insistence on education forever changed the course of my life, and so I believe that a well-rounded education is the best way to improve people’s lives and to make lasting change for everyone – women, girls, men, boys, young, old. Educated, wise women help their families financially and raise educated, wise children. Educated, wise men do not abuse women or children and recognize the worth and value of women and children.

Boys demand education too

Let me tell you a story. One day in early 2002, I went with my female staff to visit one of our Women’s Learning Centers in rural Kabul. Suddenly a group of teenage boys with weapons appeared, blocking the road.

Our driver stopped the car and asked what they wanted. Pointing to me, they said, “We want to talk to her.” Although my heart was pounding, I opened the door, got out of the car and asked them what they wanted. Their leader said, “Every day we watch your car come and visit your centers for women and girls. They are learning to read. What about us? We have been fighting and living in caves since we were little boys. Now we are too old for school, but we want to study. What can you do for us?”
At the time, we only had funding for females, and I had no idea where to find funding for boys education, but I said, “Give me a week.” They said, “We will be waiting.”

I went back to my room, praying and wondering what to do. Suddenly my phone rang. It was a donor who was very supportive of our work. Listening to my voice, she asked, “What is wrong?” I told her. She said, “Start your center for boys. I will find the funds.”

And she did. Those boys went to school, studied hard and also learned about human rights, cleanliness, manners and ethics. Their parents were so happy! Soon they were able to transition into regular school.
All graduated from high school. Many went on to university or to study computers. Then and now, they have made sure that AIL has no security concerns in their communities. Today their daughters are going to school.

Open minds will make lasting change

There are those in Afghanistan who do not want women and girls to be educated. If we are to make lasting change, we need to open the minds of all who are still ignorant. They need to see that an educated girl or boy is not a threat to their culture, but is someone who will help to improve the whole community.

The women who come to our centers feel the same way. Men and boys need to be educated, not ignored. They need to be included in workshops and seminars with women and girls so that they can listen and exchange ideas and know that education is not a threat to them but is something that improves the lives of everyone.

Original article found on: Skoll World Forum


On the Media, Afghanistan: Reporting open data in Afghanistan

Original article found on:

By: Catalina Albeanu; February 18, 2015

Credit: By Jorge Franganillo on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Credit: By Jorge Franganillo on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“A lone man data journalist is not very tenable anywhere, let alone in some developing countries and conflict environments.”

So says data journalism adviser Eva Constantaras, who has been running data journalism workshops for local media in countries such as Afghanistan, as part of her work with the NGO Internews.

One project developed after Internews’ workshops is an investigation into Afghanistan’s drug trade by Rohullah Armaan Darwish, an investigative reporter at PAYK.

The first story in the series, looking at the country’s opium eradication programme, was published last week.

Constantaras told part of Internews’ aim is helping media outlets in developing countries make the most of open data movements and platforms that are being set up, and also prepare for digital conversion.

She said the combination of low data literacy and an independent media landscape that’s not fully established yet means citizens in countries like Afghanistan are not demanding data driven stories from news outlets.

The workshops in Afghanistan were set up with the aim of getting journalists “more engaged in the accountability and transparency process,” and to showcase tools they can use to tell stories with data.

Internews works with journalists who want to explore subjects in-depth and who usually have a history in feature writing or investigations, said Constantaras.

She added that the best data journalists aren’t necessarily those who “are very good at math”.

“Really they might have never heard of data journalism but they’re already looking for the tools for actual quantifiable information about a sector or about a subject,” she explained.

Constantaras highlighted the language barrier as one of the main challenges journalists in Afghanistan face when working with data. There is a “crazy level of linguistic isolation,” she said.

“I’m not talking about they can’t code in Python. [With] most tools, the menus are in English. Even if the data is about Afghanistan, the data is still in English.”

Even if the data is about Afghanistan, the data is still in English
Eva Constantaras, Internews
She explained that even in the case of survey data where the questions were asked in the local language, the results are often translated into English before publication.

As most Afghani journalists do not speak English, she said, tools highlighted during the workshops include Infogram and Excel, whose menus are available in local languages, while Google Translate features heavily in their work.

Most data scraping programmes are also designed to work in English, she added.

While investigative or data-driven stories are published from Afghanistan, they are more likely to appear in English, targeted at an international audience.

But stories such as the drug trade investigative series address angles that would interest an Afghan audience, said Constantaras.

They are also designed to present a story in an accessible format – usually in print or on the radio, she explained.

She added that quality data-driven stories increase a media outlet’s credibility and reputation.

“Open data is a really new concept in Afghanistan. Can we channel that through trusted information channels, so through radio and some print [outlets] in Kabul, and have people access that information and make better decisions and be more aware of what the government is doing?”

While the workshops run by Internews cover tools like Infogram, which enables users to embed interactive graphics into online stories, Constantaras said reporters often save their data visualisations as static images to be published in print.

“That’s how people are consuming their news,” she said.

“[But] we also want them also to know how to make interactive data visualisations. It will just make them more competitive when digital conversion does happen.”

Original article found on:


On the Media, Afghanistan: Violence, threats and insecurity – The challenges of reporting in Afghanistan

Original article found on: IFEX
By Alexandra Theodorakidis
5 December 2014
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
This statement was originally published on on 1 December 2014.


Violence against journalists in Afghanistan has been steadily increasing in 2014 with the withdrawal of foreign troops and a decrease in international aid. Five journalists were killed in the first four months of 2014. As control over Afghanistan’s national security transfers from international to Afghan forces and peace talks continue with the Taliban, there has been some uncertainty as to what will happen to the media and free expression in the country, especially as it underwent presidential elections.

CJFE’s 2014 Tara Singh Hayer Award winner Kathy Gannon was one journalist caught in the crossfire. She and her longtime friend and work partner, photographer Anja Niedringhaus, were covering the run-up to the elections in April 2014 when an Afghan police officer suddenly opened fire into the back of their vehicle. Niedringhaus was killed instantly, while Gannon was severely injured.

The latest upsurge in violence against journalists follows a short period of opening and development in the media. Pre-9/11 Afghanistan under Taliban rule had restricted access to independent media, both local and international. There was one Taliban-controlled radio station, used for state announcements and religious proclamations. Things began to change after the US invasion of Afghanistan that saw control lifted from the Taliban and transferred to an ostensibly more democratic system. In 2014, there are “175 FM radio stations, 75 TV channels, four news agencies, and hundreds of publications, including seven daily newspapers, Internet cafés in major cities and mobile phones in the hands of about half the population of 29 million people.”

While Afghan journalists have made great strides in establishing media outlets and providing Afghans with comprehensive coverage of local and national events in recent years, there are still many challenges being faced by local and foreign journalists alike, namely, harassment, threats and lack of support from government authorities.

Afghanistan currently ranks sixth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Global Impunity Index. According to CPJ, fatalities are higher among foreign journalists than local journalists. Many Afghan journalists have been specifically targeted, kidnapped or intimidated by the Taliban, local warlords and on occasion by Afghan government or security officials. The situation is particularly bad if they are associated with Western media, which is being increasingly smeared by the Taliban and similar armed groups. Nai, a non-profit organization supporting open media in Afghanistan, reports 52 incidents of violence against journalists so far this year.

British-Swedish journalist Nils Horner was killed in March 2014, targeted while reporting on a suicide bombing that had occurred earlier in the year in Kabul. A Taliban-splinter group claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that Horner was not a journalist but a spy working for MI6. However, there is no concrete evidence that this group actually carried out the murder. Cilla Benkö, the director general of Horner’s employer Swedish Radio, said that Afghan authorities have not been very active in seeking the actual perpetrators of this crime, likely because Horner was a foreign correspondent.

Journalists not only face threats and attacks from terrorists but also intransigence from government officials who are uncooperative and withhold access to information. Authorities have been known to make threats in order to deter journalists from pursuing a story. The situation is even worse for women who are still largely underrepresented in the Afghan media.

According to a female journalist who heads a radio station in Balkh province, being a female journalist is particularly challenging. They face sexual harassment and threats from officials, strangers and sometimes even family members. Cultural constraints on women in Afghanistan often restrict them to work inside the office, instead of venturing out to do field work. In many places in Afghanistan, the idea of women undertaking public roles and working is considered taboo. Additionally, there is pressure on women working in the media from family elders to quit their jobs in order to avoid wider repercussions for the entire family, or because they view the career as unseemly. Lack of training and resources for women in the media is also a serious issue.

In September 2014, Palwasha Tokhi Meranzai, a female Afghan journalist, was killed inside her home by an unknown assailant. She had received a death threat relating to her reporting about a month before her murder; despite evidence that the motive was tied to her profession, Afghan security services persist in treating it as a robbery.

Since early 2013, press freedom organizations have noted a decrease in the number of women currently working as journalists in Afghanistan due to the culture of fear created by religious militants such as the Taliban and related organizations. Shaffiqa Habibi, director of the Afghan Women Journalist Union, told CPJ in 2013 that she estimated that 300 of the 2,300 professional female journalists had stopped working out of fear for their personal safety.

While there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future of a free press in Afghanistan and the safety of journalists working in the country, many are taking steps to ensure they will be safe in their work. In August, 20 female journalists in the northern province of Jawjzan formed the first union of female journalists in Afghanistan. The union aims to promote women’s rights in the region and provide training and support specifically geared to women in the field. Similar unions have been established in other provinces across the country.

There is also evidence that the current Afghan government might be softening towards journalists; a New York Times correspondent, expelled from Afghanistan earlier in 2014 over a story he wrote on the presidential elections, was recently allowed to re-enter the country. Matthew Rosenberg was told to leave Afghanistan by the administration of former President Hamid Karzai after he penned an article stating that a group of government officials had formed an interim government in the hopes of seizing power during the election’s stalemate.

On October 5, Mohammad Daoud Sultanzai, an adviser to newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, said in a statement that if a journalist has a credible source for a story, they should be allowed to write it, as per the law. Although there has been a spike in violence over the last year towards journalists working in Afghanistan, there remains cause for optimism that the country can continue to develop a strong independent press. If the current government continues its commitment to protecting the rights of journalists and freedom of the media, Afghans may be able to avoid returning to the oppression and censorship they experienced under Taliban rule.

Alexandra Theodorakidis is a former CJFE intern and current freelance journalist based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @AlexandraTheo.

Original article found on: IFEX


Afghanistan: Afghan women’s voices must be heard to build a better country

Original article found on: The Guardian 

By Samira Hamidi*; 11/21/14

*Samira Hamidi is the former director of the Afghan Women’s Network in Afghanistan

 ‘We have failed to address why men and women are not considered equal citizens in most of the country.’ Photograph: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

‘We have failed to address why men and women are not considered equal citizens in most of the country.’ Photograph: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

“This is your world, shape it or someone else will” – Rula Ghani, Afghanistan’s first lady

I recently attended a programme launch for women’s empowerment where Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, was the keynote speaker. She ended her speech with the powerful statement above that inspired many of us there.

However, it made me think. In the real world of Afghan women, how many are able to do this? How many have real opportunities and support for this from male family members and colleagues?

Women’s participation in and contribution to Afghanistan have improved. It is always pleasing to read how women’s rights have been boosted in Afghanistan in education, health and government. It is also very positive tha one of the reasons for the presence of the international community in Afghanistan is to address women’s rights. But this progress has been limited to the big cities where people are fairly well educated and understand the concept of women’s rights. We have failed to address why men and women are not considered equal citizens in most of the country.

The London conference on Afghanistan, on 4 December, is considered an important opportunity for both the Afghan government and international community to discuss their mutual commitment and collaboration after this year, when the majority of US and UK troops leave. While it is encouraging that the UK government will host civil society, including a side event for women, before the conference, there is little information on how many women will be involved in the official delegation of the Afghan government. Discussions and negotiations over the final communique are under way, yet women’s groups within the government and the women’s movement have not yet been consulted. There is also limited information on the Afghan government’s priorities for this conference.

In the past 13 years, women’s representation has been limited. Despite three female ministers in the cabinet, 27% in the parliament and senate, nine women in Kabul’s high peace council and two to three per province in 31 provinces, women’s participation is rarely seen in important national discussions, decisions, authority and leadership. Women in these positions have failed to fully address the needs of other women.

The international community, particularly the UK government, has played an effective donor role to support women’s rights in Afghanistan. So far, the funding has supported the implementation of short-term projects by women-led organisations, but the absence of meaningful political and diplomatic pressure on policymakers to ensure women’s equal participation has always been felt.

It is promising that the UK Department for International Development (DfID), with the support of the UK-based British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group, plans to bring 50 civil society representatives to the London conference. But the women’s rights agenda seems to be missing. Past experiences have shown that the civil society delegations usually have a broader agenda to lobby for, which could see women’s concerns left to one side. As an activist, I was disappointed to hear that the visa applications for the women’s delegation – which had a specific agenda to discuss women’s concerns and recommendations – was not supported by the organisers.

Where both the Afghan and UK governments have priorities under their national action plans on women, implementation of these plans is a challenge. When female leaders are not engaged in national discussions and decisions, where international supporters do not prioritise women’s rights as per their commitments, it clearly shows a lack of interest and political will to address women’s rights.

We still hope to see a good representation of women in the Afghan government’s official delegation at the London conference. The UK government as co-host must ask for the meaningful participation of these women, a specific women’s rights event where they can make recommendations, and for these to be included in the final communique.

Afghan women have the ability to think about their country’s development, contribute to it and lead positive change. Women should be given an equal opportunity to make a better Afghanistan.


Original article found on: The Guardian 


Afghanistan: Life in Kabul – Will Afghan women finally stop being seen as a freak show?

Original article found on: The Telegraph

By Heidi Kingstone, 7 Nov 2014

Heidi Kingstone spent four years uncovering the lives of Afghanistan's women Photo: REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Heidi Kingstone spent four years uncovering the lives of Afghanistan’s women Photo: REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

This is one of my clearest memories of life in Kabul.

The year was 2007, I had just arrived in the city and spring had come early. The sun shone and women swam in the cold water.

Men and women wearing bikinis lounged by the poolside, swam in the cold water and drank Martinis, inside the large compound that welcomed foreigners, but banned Afghans.

But just outside, past the secured parameter, women enveloped in blue burqas gingerly navigated rocky and unpaved roads, bound by harsh centuries’ old traditions where even looking at a man could result in death.

The contrast couldn’t have been any starker. It’s just one example of the jarring realities of life inside the ‘Kabubble’.

I’d travelled to Afghanistan to uncover life in one of the most turbulent corners of the world. In the four years I was there, I visited air bases and brothels, saw friends kidnapped and witnessed suicide bombings. I interviewed people in all the different corners of this mysterious place, from gunrunners to warlords, fashionistas to powerbrokers.

And, as a passionate advocate for women’s rights, I wanted to gain an understanding of how women lived and functioned here.

Back then even Hamid Karzai’s wife, Zeenat, a gynaecologist, was rarely seen outside the presidential palace.

But, fast forward to this September, when the new Afghan leader, Dr Ashraf Ghani, praised his wife, Rula, in public – where she sat prominently beside him. The new First Lady intends to be an advocate for women’s rights during her husband’s term. To many, it looks like the long awaited new dawn.

Rula Ghani, left, with her husband, Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani

Rula Ghani, left, with her husband, Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani

Women’s rights in Afghanistan have long been contested ground.

In the Twenties, King Amanullah planned for the emancipation of women – something that was considered so radical it ultimately led to his abdication. Educating girls formed part of the original Nato-Isaf mandate when forces entered the country in 2001. And women’s rights were later enshrined in the new Constitution – but they remain as fragile as the political situation. Insecurity in several provinces has already forced girls to abandon their education.

Just a few days ago, the UK ended 13 years of combat operations in Afghanistan and the last troops left Camp Bastion.

In a conservative country, where many still oppose women having any role outside the house, progress is dependent on international financial aid.

This is already drying up. Women fear losing the small gains they have made (although it was urban middle-class women, rather than poorer families in rural areas, who benefitted).
No wonder many are hoping that Rula Ghani’s entrance into the public sphere will lead to change, and a higher status for women.

But there is no magic wand. Afghanistan has the dubious distinction of coming top of countries voted worst in which to be a woman. Domestic violence is endemic, and the majority of women are illiterate.
That is what drew a huge number of people, like me, to venture to Afghanistan: a desire to help such women.

Over the last decade, gender development programmes have mushroomed: women have been employed in NGOs; received scholarships; worked as cleaners, worked as administrators; taken part in a variety of small projects in the home, or in workshops – bringing in extra cash and small moments of independence.

Many Afghan women are illiterate. Photo: EPA/NAQEEB AHMED

Many Afghan women are illiterate. Photo: EPA/NAQEEB AHMED

But there is also a sense, sometimes, that our view of Afghan women is a bit like a modern day version of the circus freak show.

In the northern part of the country, I once interviewed a very old woman who had one tooth and long grey plaits that poked out from her headscarf and hung down her back.

The fierce Afghan sun and a long hard life had weathered her skin. We spoke through a translator. She had been a beneficiary of a small project that improved the quality of the fruit and vegetables she grew in her garden and sold at market.

It was low-tech stuff – just some kit to keep insects from eating the produce. Of course, I remember her smile when she talked about the impact this had made on her life. But what I really remember is her words when she told me how she’d learnt that women could work outside the house and had value.

So, was Britain’s endeavour worth it for women? Yes and no.

We built a false economy, inadvertently made many corrupt people rich, and made many promises we couldn’t keep – not least changing the lives of women.

The narrative on Afghanistan is changing here – as is the collective feeling about involvement in far off places we really know nothing about.

“There is a frantic scrabbling for some kind of legacy of success amongst the senior British military,” says Frank Ledwidge, author of Losing Small Wars – about military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They realise that their spinning and lying is going to catch up with them. The line now is ‘Helmand may be a mess, but at least the rest of the country has not descended into total chaos’.

“What kind of success is that? How was that worth 453 lives and £40 billion?”

British troops in Afghanistan. Photo: Christopher Pledger/The Telegraph

British troops in Afghanistan. Photo: Christopher Pledger/The Telegraph

The place that I called home for more than a year is fast disappearing.

Against a backdrop was war, the fabulous Kabubble offered a great network of fascinating people, crazy parties, bizarre occurrences and Afghan hospitality. It was a country at the crossroads of history. My book, Dispatches from the Kabul Café, chronicles this era from the perspective of an expat (me). This was a unique moment in time; where restaurants, five-star hotels, bursts of artistic creativity and hope flourished side-by-side with death and a pervading sense of imminent doom.

That has already started to fade. Friends and colleagues have left, including myself, moving on. Others were murdered by the Taliban. But I think we all treasured our time there.

Afghanistan takes hold of the soul.

Journalists are programmed to be cynical, often for good reason. There was so much hope in the beginning but Afghanistan has proved a tough country to change, despite its many wonderful young and educated people who are working for a better future – especially for women.

Can Mrs Ghani help? That remains to be seen.


Original article found on: The Telegraph


Afghanistan, Development: Pentagon’s Economic Development in Afghanistan ‘Accomplished Nothing’

Defence News, Nov. 18, 2014 – 03:45AM   |  By JOE GOULD   |

An Afghan construction worker makes concrete tubes on the outskirts of Kabul. A U.S. inspector general is investigating Pentagon reconstruction efforts in the country. (WAKIL KOHSAR/ / Agence France-Presse)

WASHINGTON — The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) says he is investigating the Pentagon’s efforts to spark that country’s economic development, which cost between $700 million and $800 million and “accomplished nothing.”

SIGAR’s chief, John Sopko, told reporters Tuesday, that the agency has opened an “in-depth review” into the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), a Defense Department unit aimed at developing war zone mining, industrial development and fostering private investments.

“We have gotten serious allegations about the management and mismanagement of that agency, as well as a policy question about what they were doing and whether they should have existed,” Sopko said.

More broadly, Sopko faulted the US government’s economic development efforts in Afghanistan as “an abysmal failure,” saying it lacked a single leader, a clear strategy or accountability. An avenue of inquiry for SIGAR’s investigation into TFBSO could be Afghanistan’s underdeveloped mining industry.

“We have seen hit-and-miss efforts to develop the [Afghan] economy,” Sopko said of the US. “You, the development experts, should have had a plan to develop the economy and you haven’t, so now we’re stuck.”

Untapped mineral wealth in Afghanistan is estimated at $1 trillion, but Sopko noted that Afghanistan has only recently passed mineral laws and legal gaps make investment unattractive. Critics say the law lacks transparency regarding contracts and ownership, and strong rules for open and fair bidding.

The task force did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sopko has said the US’ unprecedented $120 billion reconstruction investment there is at risk because Afghanistan is rife with corruption and lacks the security, technical prowess and economic health to sustain much of the work the US has done. He cited the case of $486 million the Defense Department spent for 20 G222 transport planes intended for the Afghan Air Force that sat idle in Kabul before they were sold for $32,000 and scrapped.

While the perception on Capitol Hill is that the US commitment is over, Sopko said, it has promised a decade of funding in its bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan.

“We need to make a commitment there because they can’t afford the government we’ve given them, and if our intended goal was a government that would keep or kick the terrorists out, we’re going to have to fund it,” Sopko said.

Afghanistan’s domestic revenues do not cover its total public expenditures, 90 percent of which are funded by the US and international partners, according to a report last year from another government watchdog, the Government Accountability Office.

Corruption continues to feed the insurgency and drain the economy, Sopko said, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s focus on anti-corruption and regaining money from the 2010 Kabul Bank failure are positive signs. Sopko was optimistic for freedom of movement and better security within 10 years.

“It is better, but the question I’m asking is, ‘Could it have been better,’” he said. “This is the most money we have spent on reconstruction of a single country in the history of our republic. Shouldn’t it have been better?” ■



Afghanistan, Development: The West Made Lots of Promises to Afghan Girls, Now It’s Breaking Them

Original article found on: The Daily Beast

By Heather Barr, 10/20/14

One reason given for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was to educate girls. But as the Western military shrinks there, so does the funding for those schools.

Shah Marai/AFP/Getty

Shah Marai/AFP/Getty

KABUL, Afghanistan — The girls of Afghanistan have been betrayed. When Taliban rule ended almost 13 years ago, international donors rushed in to promise that young women would no longer be denied an education. Western governments spent a decade patting themselves on the back for what they touted as exceptional work supporting schools for the beleaguered girls of Afghanistan. They talked about bringing women out of purdah, literally as well as figuratively, so they could help their families and their country to prosper.

But the closing of one school after another exposes the hollowness of those promises. In fact, the state of education in Afghanistan is still so shaky that only about half of Afghan girls manage to go to school, and those numbers are set to decline.

In the volatile southern province of Kandahar, for instance, an innovative school for teenage girls will soon close its doors. The Kandahar Institute for Modern Studies, established in 2006 with funding and encouragement from the Canadian government, has run out of donors. And it is only one of a number of Afghan schools to face the budget axe swung by distant governments and cost-cutting politicians.

Other schools have been shuttered because of attacks and threats stemming from the war that continues to engulf the country. In July, girls’ schools closed in one entire district, depriving 40,000 girls of education.

The website of the U.S. development agency proudly proclaims, “In 2013, one million Afghan learners are enrolled in schools with USAID assistance, and over 5 million primary grade students benefitted from USAID assistance.” But in January 2014, the U.S. Congress cut the U.S. government’s allocation of development aid for Afghanistan by half.

Then there’s the United Kingdom. “We agree that expanded access to good quality secondary education that produces skills for employment is essential for Afghanistan’s future prosperity,” the British government wrote in 2013. Yet in a 2012 report the U.K. government had already decided that it had “built too much” in terms of schools and health clinics in Afghanistan and that only “critical” facilities would remain open.

“The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” said Laura Bush, wife of then-U.S. President George W. Bush.
Getting Afghan girls into school wasn’t just a benign-but-unintended by-product of the international military intervention in Afghanistan. Soon after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. and the invasion of Afghanistan, world leaders explicitly cited the extreme oppression suffered by women and girls under the Taliban as a justification for the operation.

“The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” said Laura Bush, wife of then-U.S. President George W. Bush, in November 2001, giving the weekly presidential radio address in place of her husband.

“The women of Afghanistan still have a spirit that belies their unfair, downtrodden image,” said Cherie Blair, wife of then-U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, also in November 2001. “We need to help them free that spirit and give them their voice back, so they can create the better Afghanistan we all want to see.”

But today, as crises in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and West Africa compete for attention, Afghanistan is not even yesterday’s news—it’s last year’s news. Journalists are leaving Kabul, embassies are downsizing, and donors are quietly and drastically scaling back.

“How’s it going?” I asked a friend who runs aid programs at the U.S. embassy in Kabul not long ago.

“Oh, you know,” he said. “Just shutting things down.”

Military disengagement from Afghanistan is advancing; the newly signed Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. and Status of Forces Agreement with NATO pave the way for a continued, but very limited, international military involvement in Afghanistan.

Donor involvement is more important than ever, however. President Hamid Karzai handed over to Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, not just the reins of power but also a badly overdrawn checking account. Ghani’s government has been forced to seek a $537 million bailout from donors just to continue paying civil servant salaries. There are hopes that this new government, fronted by Ghani, a technocrat who was formerly Afghanistan’s finance minister and spent several decades with the World Bank, will bring much-needed fiscal stability to the Afghan economy. But that won’t happen tomorrow.

Afghanistan will have to pay for its own schools one day, and one hopes it is moving in that direction. But it can’t possibly do so right now. The ones who will pay first and worst are the country’s girls as they slide back toward the devastation of illiteracy.

A November donor conference in London will bring together all of Afghanistan’s donors to take stock of commitments made at the 2012 Tokyo Conference and to craft a new partnership going forward. Donors should come to the conference mindful not just of commitments they have made to the Afghan government, but also the solemn pledges they first made to support Afghan women and girls in 2001, and have made over and over since then.

Earlier this month, after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two children’s rights activists, Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Yousafzai, a 17-year old from Pakistan, would be travelling to Canada to accept honorary Canadian citizenship, an honor only five others, including Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, have ever received. U.S. President Barack Obama was quick to congratulate the Nobel winners as well, saying, “As we celebrate their achievements, we must recommit ourselves to the world that they seek—one in which our daughters have the right and opportunity to get an education; and in which all children are treated equally.”

That’s what Afghan girls want. And that’s what the countries that marched into Afghanistan 13 years ago promised them. This is no time to break that promise.

Original article found on: The Daily Beast


Development, Afghanistan: Afghan malnutrition – the search for solutions

JALALABAD, 11 November 2014 (IRIN) – Abdullah’s wails of pain are punctuated only by his rasping cough. His arms bound to his body, he is five months old but weighs just 3.2kg, lighter than some newborns. In the next bed, three-month old Shukoria looks withered and worn, her face wrinkled and pained.

Both are suffering from malnutrition, which affects more than 40 percent of Afghan children, killing thousands every year and leaving millions with permanent disabilities.

“Malnutrition is the main reason for deaths of children under five in this province,” Homayoun Zaheer, head of the Jalalabad hospital, said, pointing to the children.

A government-backed report highlighted the extent of malnutrition in the country, yet experts say efforts to tackle the problem are hampered by cultural norms, shrinking health budgets and the short-term nature of aid donations.

Slow starters

While Afghan malnutrition rates have long been high, until recently they had, many aid workers agree, been something of a hidden problem as there was – and still is – a lack of evidence about the scale of the problem.

The issue was therefore often neglected when aid was doled out. Since 2007 the country has been the world’s leading recipient of development assistance as a percentage of its national income, with US$6.2 billion in 2012 alone. Yet that spending has focused on governance and security, and while new health infrastructure has been created, the extent of malnutrition has received little study.

Franck Abeille, country director at Action Against Hunger (known by its French acronym ACF) said that in the early years after the 2001 US-led invasion there was little focus on malnutrition. “ACF, for example, hardly worked on nutrition from 2003 up until 2006-07,” he said.

The most recent National Nutrition Survey – the first in the country since 2004 – released late last year, showed that over 40 percent of Afghan children under the age of five suffered from permanent stunting as a result of malnutrition, while 9.5 percent of children suffered from wasting.

The number of children with severe acute malnutrition had more than tripled from 98,900 in 2003 to 362,317, while the estimated number of pregnant and lactating women requiring nutrition interventions had nearly doubled to 246,283. Acute malnutrition typically kills more quickly than chronic malnutrition, which is the world’s leading cause of preventable mental disability.

Budget issues

The survey, coming alongside other new evidence, has helped prompt both the Afghan government and the UN to commit to focusing their resources on malnutrition, with the problem to be designated one of the three key priorities of the forthcoming Common Humanitarian Action Plan for 2015.

Yet the drive comes at a time when health resources are being squeezed. Under the country’s Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS) healthcare system, international NGOs act as contractors to take on the basic provision of health services in a given district. As the Afghan government has faced financial cutbacks the BPHS budget has decreased, undermining malnutrition outreach programmes. In one province, the monthly budget per patient for all services dropped from 7 euros up to 2013 to 4.7 euros per patient per year in 2014, according to a report from ACF.

“The contract has a set amount of money per patient and the nutrition amount is too small to be useful as it doesn’t allow for any outreach work to take place,” Mark Bowden, the UN Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and the Humanitarian Coordinator for the country. “So essentially nutrition has been ignored within the health system.”

Towards solutions

While all sides now agree on the severity of the malnutrition crisis, the solutions are less agreed upon.

Claude Jibidar, country director at the World Food Programme, said that one route he was pushing for is to fortify wheat – the staple of the Afghan diet – potentially with government subsidies.

“A lot of the micronutrient deficiencies would be immediately dealt with,” Jibidar said. “You fortify with a pack of minerals and vitamins [dealing with] anaemia, iron, vitamin A and vitamin D deficiencies.”

“To address the causes of malnutrition. the first [priority] is culture change – to change the mindset of people towards breastfeeding their children.”

“People say it has an effect on the price – I am told it would cost about $4-5 dollars additionally per kilo. Even if it is 10 times that the benefit is worth it,” he added.

Yet such a scheme, while potentially making older Afghans healthier, would only have a limited impact on the youngest.

Hamza Atim, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) medical coordinator for Boost Hospital in Lashkar Gar – in the contested Helmand Province where acute malnutrition is among the highest in the country – pointed out that many Afghan communities do not have a culture of breastfeeding their newly-born children.

Abeille pointed out that this can lead to stunting. “When a child is born, the first milk from the mother. is really the first thing the baby needs,” he said.

“We treat children who are acutely malnourished in hospital – but this is only addressing the symptoms of malnutrition,” Atim said. “If you need to address the causes you need to do a lot of things but the first [priority] is culture change – to change the mindset of people towards breastfeeding their children.”

“Breastfeeding will stop children from getting a lot of illnesses. But this has gone on for generations, so it is a hard sell to address.”

In Jalalabad, Zaheer said they had launched education schemes for the local population, including group sessions in which mothers are taught about health schemes, but admitted many women, particularly those in rural areas, cannot afford to come every week. “Poverty is the key issue here. Poverty and ignorance – it can be a vicious cycle,” he said.

Bowden, the humanitarian coordinator, agreed that more education schemes are needed. “The highest rates of malnutrition correlate to the highest rates of female illiteracy and lack of female education.”

From humanitarian to development

A shift in attitudes on malnutrition may also help. While emergency humanitarian actors have prioritized acute malnutrition, development agencies are needed.

“You have figures for acute malnutrition that are above emergency levels – which is why we treat it as a humanitarian issue – but there are also major issues of stunting, which is largely a development issue,” Bowden said.

Abeille echoed a number of other actors calling for long-term development funding to tackle the root causes of malnutrition.

“When you meet donors they say: ‘one year is perfect, let’s move forward.’ When you suggest three or four years they say: ‘I am not sure we can find the funds.’ So next year we come back with the same problem.”


Afghanistan: Climate change – Afghans on the front line

Original article found on: IRIN – Asia

By Joe Dyke


Naim Korbon is rebuilding his home after devastating floods (Photo: Joe Dyke/IRIN)

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, 4 November 2014 (IRIN) – In northern Afghanistan, the residents don’t often use the phrase – most don’t even know it. But as they describe how increasingly extreme weather patterns are making their lives harder every year, they map out many of the symptoms of climate change. As a new UN report warns that “irreversible” climate change is affecting more people than ever, these Afghans are on the front line.

Naim Korbon says he is 90 years old, though he admits he does not really know. Either way he is too old to be carrying cement. Yet in the northern Afghan village of Rozi Bay in Balkh Province, he and his extended family are rebuilding their homes.

Earlier this year his life’s work was destroyed as vicious floods cascaded through the area. It was, local experts say, the worst to hit the region in 42 years. Nearly half of the village was swept away, including Korbon’s home. All down his street buildings – many of them over 50 years old – are slumped; roofs sliding off, surrounded by piles of debris. “We will rebuild it all better than before,” Korbon said, picking up his shovel.

A young boy sits in front of his partially destroyed home (Photo: Joe Dyke/IRIN)

A young boy sits in front of his partially destroyed home (Photo: Joe Dyke/IRIN)

Floods are not the only weather making the residents’ lives harder. In the nearby village of Baghacha Khan Mula local representative Abdul Jalote Mufakar pointed at the barren earth with a sense of resignation. “In recent years, there are no crops. Only almonds grow any more,” he said.

This pattern of long droughts, poor harvests and flash floods has been a growing trend for the people of northern Afghanistan, with experts largely in agreement that the climate is becoming more extreme. A new report identified Afghanistan as one of 11 countries globally at extreme risk of both climate change and food insecurity.

One trend is for late, harsh cold snaps that can mean snow and sleet hit just as crops and fruits are blossoming, killing the produce. “Every year the cold season comes later and stays later,” Mufakar says.

Such cold snaps also help make the floods more intense, Andrew Scanlon, country director of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), explained: “If you are getting late snow it is warmer and melts faster. If you get snow up to April, it is not very consolidated and it melts in May; whereas if you get snow in February or March it packs and lasts all the way through until August.”

High risks

Scanlon estimates that since 1982 temperatures in northern Afghanistan have risen about 0.8 degrees per decade, though he accepts that the data is not reliable enough to know for certain.

These changes have coincided with, and partly led to, increasing poverty for the residents in Balkh. In the 1970s, the average Tajik family (the majority ethnic grouping in the area) in northern Afghanistan had 100 goats, one cow and two oxen, according to a report by the NGO Action Against Hunger. Today, it is seven goats and less than one cow or ox per family.

“Among the crops that may benefit is exactly the one that the Afghan government and the foreign forces are seeking to fight – opium poppies.” While three decades of war has been the primary driver of this gradual slide into poverty, the changing climate has also played a role. “Most people here are farmers. In the past we used to have a lot of livestock but after several years of drought, we had to eat the animals,” Mufakar explains.

Mohibullah Niazi, senior shelter technical officer at the north Afghanistan branch of the Norwegian Refugee Council, says the climate may have reached a tipping point.

“People are experiencing flash flooding, river flooding, landslides [and] avalanches in [the past] three years, [the likes of which] they had not experienced in past 56 years.

Adapt or die

Adjusting to such a situation requires radical thinking. Scanlon said there was a push from the UN, civil society, NGOs and local Afghan groups to encourage the nascent Afghan government towards a larger programme of what is called watershed management.

This would include more schemes to protect individual towns like Khulm in Balkh Province. The town has been spared some of the worst flooding in recent years following the creation of a watershed project designed by the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Three dams harvest the rain and floodwater, while two reservoirs feed a drip irrigation system – helping water 150 hectares of land planted with trees. This also leads to more stable earth, reducing the risk of flooding.

Other adaptation mechanisms are being employed as well. To reduce the flood risks, houses built to government standards are required to have stronger foundations, while expensive burnt bricks are used wherever possible to reduce the risk of collapse.

A March 2014 Afghan government planning document seen by IRIN also highlights the need for farmers to shift the crops they produce.

The long drought that followed the floods has left the earth parched (Photo: Joe Dyke/IRIN)

The long drought that followed the floods has left the earth parched (Photo: Joe Dyke/IRIN)

“Whilst certain crop species may actually benefit from carbon enrichment and increased temperatures (e.g. wheat, which may experience an expansion of its growing season), it is likely that the increase in intensity and duration of both droughts and floods will significantly decrease the productivity of most species,” the document said.

Among the crops that may benefit is exactly the one that the Afghan government and the foreign forces are seeking to fight – opium poppies. The US government has spent $7.6 billion in the past 13 years trying to tackle poppies, which form the basis of heroin, according to a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Yet in recent years there has been a resurgence in cultivation, partly as poppies require less water than other crops.

“More water intensive staple crops will become less attractive to farmers, with a likely increase in the attractiveness of those that are more drought hardy, including opium poppy,” Niazi said.

Part of the issue is that villages like Rozi Bay cannot do it alone. Most areas affected by flooding are downstream, but the problems start far higher at the source of the rivers. “People start to do protection work in the lower catchments to protect the [populations] but you have to really start way back up in Badakhshan where the problems are emanating from,” said Scanlon, referring to the northern mountainous province.

Scanlon said that only in recent years have the reporting mechanisms in the country been strong enough to start to build up the country’s meteorological data, enabling better understanding of environmental change. UNEP, along with the Afghan government and other partners, is in the process of establishing a national environment data center. This, he said, is beginning to enable them to develop a bigger picture of the challenges with the aim of establishing better early-warning systems among others. “We need to embrace complexity and then come up with solutions for complex situations,” he said.

While he was careful not to talk about specific towns, Scanlon suggested that a debate needs to be had about whether it is feasible to keep rebuilding in areas that are likely to see yet more extreme weather in the coming years. It could, he posits, be better to move communities on to higher regions rather than continue to invest in rebuilding those in flood-prone ones.

But in a region where attachment to land is incredibly high, any such moves are likely to face fierce resistance. Mufakar tells a cautionary tale of one man who left his village after the floods to seek a new life in the state capital Mazar-i-Sharif. “When I see him now he just cries – before he had land, now he has nothing,” he said.

And back in Rozi Bay, Korbon, too, has little time for such pessimism in the face of climate change. Pointing to newly built foundations and burnt bricks, he is confident the problem is dealt with for good.

“We borrowed more [than the NGO gave us] so we only have to do this once, never again,” he said. The meteorologists may not be so sure.

Original article found on: IRIN – Asia


Afghanistan: Afghanistan’s first lady to focus on humanitarian assistance


Original article found on: Khaama Press

By KHAAMA PRESS – Fri Sep 26 2014, 12:22 pm



Afghanistan’s first lady Rula Ghani Ahmadzai will focus on humanitarian assistance after Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai takes office as the new president of Afghanistan.

Dr. Ashraf Ghani said his wife will start charitable works for women and children and internally displaced individuals who are in need of assistance.

Shukria Barekzai, a member of Dr. Ghani’s camp, said the decision by Afghanistan’s first lady is a good news for women and children who are in need of support and assistance.

Barekzai said Rula Ghani was involved in humanitarian assistance activities in the past as well but she will double her activities after her spouse takes office.

The presidential inauguration for the president-elect of the country is expected to be organized on coming Monday.
Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was declared the president-elect by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan earlier this week.

The announcement was made following the conclusion of an agreement between Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah for the formation of a national unity government.

Original article found on: Khaama Press

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