Afghanistan News and Views

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Afghanistan: There’s no hiding US failure in Afghanistan

Originalar ticle found on: Ground Truth

By Ben Brody on October 2nd, 2014

Blog: Troops who remain on the ground no longer try to sugarcoat the reality that the war has accomplished little of permanence.

Deep into the drawdown, fuel is no longer distributed to smaller bases by road — it is too dangerous and there aren't enough trucks. Two Chinooks at Kandahar Airfield prepare to deliver fuel containers to a small contingent of troops at FOB Apache in neighboring Zabul Province. (Ben Brody/GlobalPost)

Deep into the drawdown, fuel is no longer distributed to smaller bases by road — it is too dangerous and there aren’t enough trucks. Two Chinooks at Kandahar Airfield prepare to deliver fuel containers to a small contingent of troops at FOB Apache in neighboring Zabul Province. (Ben Brody/GlobalPost)

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — In ten years of covering the American military at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve become pretty used to the avalanche of Orwellian strategic messaging that comes with an embed. “Good news” is highlighted and discussed without context or sense of irony, “bad news” is excluded.

This last trip to Afghanistan was different. I was primarily there to cover the mechanics of the drawdown of troops, so of course the drawdown itself was presented as running along pretty smoothly. Fair enough. But this time there was no attempt to put the current mission into the larger context of a successful endgame. Even the military’s own messaging experts won’t touch a conclusion that absurd.

Iraq was always more saturated with strategic spin than Afghanistan, and no amount of unbridled optimism was ever considered unseemly or naive in the military’s eyes. I’ll never forget when a brigade commander told me that he expected his 4,000 soldiers to control Baghdad so thoroughly that no additional troops would be necessary at the end of his tour.

This was in January 2005, the insurgency in full swing, Sadr City boiling over. As the cradle of civilization burned, his media embeds were shown pointless construction projects and soldiers handing out Beanie Babies to children.

In Afghanistan, embedded reporters have been typically given more free rein, particularly during the 2009-2012 troop surge. At that time, it was easy to get to an isolated combat outpost and patrol alongside ground troops for weeks at a time. That brings its own editorial challenges, as reporters are expected to bond with troops through shared hardship, gradually nudging war coverage toward the positive.

Certainly, the story of the American war in Afghanistan has its positive aspects, but you can’t accurately tell the story of building a school for girls without putting it in the context of its tenuous lease on life and impending collapse.

As US troops leave their combat outposts, the Taliban is resurgent in a few key places and the Afghan Army is hard pressed in Helmand, the poppy-growing capital. Kabul is more dangerous for foreigners than ever, due to a new Taliban strategy of opportunistic assassinations. A few weeks ago, a US soldier momentarily stepped out of his armored truck to help a Kabul police officer direct traffic.

A Taliban fighter who happened to be nearby seized the moment, and stabbed the soldier to death before fleeing on a motorcycle.

Whether or not the Afghan Army can hold their ground against the Taliban in the Pashtun south, electricity is about to become a serious problem there with USAID’s failure to move the Kajaki Dam hydroelectric project forward. Kandahar City could be essentially without electricity from 2015 to 2018, according to the US military’s best-case-scenario projections.

The Taliban’s murderous goals and the continuing debacle of Kajaki, however, are relatively minor problems compared with the makings of a civil war that have been brewing over the presidential election. Afghanistan has been in a state of political and economic paralysis for the last ten months, as a tainted election threatens to draw at least four northern provinces into open rebellion against the central government.

The makeshift power-sharing solution, with Ashraf Ghani named president and his rival Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive, is a tenuous arrangement at best. Both men have different visions for Afghanistan, and it’s hard to imagine an era of compromise and consensus springing forth in Kabul.

Many soldiers and airmen I spoke with casually — at the chow hall, at the bazaar, waiting at the flight line — said they felt conflicted about the drawdown. They all see Afghanistan quickly descending into chaos as the Americans leave, perhaps even before, however they disagree about whether 50 or more years of occupation would fundamentally change anything about the place for the better.

“It’s rewarding to be able to say that we’re helping get NATO home,” said Maj. Chris Carmichael, whose unit is responsible for shipping the bulk of military equipment from Bagram Airfield to the United States. “But in my own opinion, we need to be here another 50 to 70 years. Look at South Korea and how they’re a major economic powerhouse now. How can you change a whole culture in 10 years?”

After 13 years of war, you’d be hard pressed to find a soldier who believes that a few more years of boots on the ground in Afghanistan would put the country on the road to stability, much less prosperity. Of course many young soldiers want to go out and fight there anyway, but that is not because they believe in the larger strategic gambit. Combat is the central rite of passage in America’s all-volunteer military culture, and an entire generation of soldiers before them have had that experience.

One clear winner has emerged from the murky, indecisive conflict in Afghanistan: the companies employing military contractors. Troop levels are a bit misleading, as they do not prescribe the number of contractors on the ground. At the end of 2014, Bagram Airfield will house approximately 5,000 troops, and 10,000 contractors.

President Ghani has signed a deal that permits 9,800 US soldiers to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, but soldiers already there say that number is arbitrary and that the military will hire as many contractors as they need to in order to accomplish the missions they prioritize.

Bagram Airfield is the nerve center for the military drawdown in Afghanistan, and the place where the most US troops will be stationed after 2014. The mechanics and machinery of the drawdown are impressive. The new hardened US headquarters buildings have an amazingly solid, imperious feel to them, as though they are meant to last forever as monuments to an occupation that transformed Afghanistan for the better.

They also feel more sterile than a building in Afghanistan has any right to be, insulated from both Taliban rockets and from the reality of the continuing conflict — as well as the country’s history as the graveyard of empires. The crumbling Soviet office buildings and aircraft hangars next door probably felt the same way 30 years ago.

Originalar ticle found on: Ground Truth

 

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On the Media, Afghanistan: Tech Rising – The Influence of Social Media and New Technologies in Afghanistan’s Democracy

Original article on: United States Institute of Peace

 

The U.S. Institute of Peace invites you to join a discussion on the evolving role of media and new technologies in Afghanistan’s democratic process. Experts from Afghanistan will discuss how new media and technology tools influenced the recent elections and how they can be used to promote better governance in the country.

Kabul Pilot Workshop-During Practice: Female trainer is directing the trainees about making social media account on facebook. Photo Credit: Flickr/Impassion Afghanistan

Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the use of social media and mobile technology has proliferated in Afghanistan and the impact on the democratic process has been astounding. There are now four telecom companies offering 3G services, boosting internet access through mobile broadband. In the most recent presidential election, all candidates used Facebook, and most had Ttwitter accounts. Social media allowed political candidates unprecedented access to young Afghans who make up 68%of the voting bloc. Mobile phone penetration is at 89% and allowed many observers to capture episodes of fraud, reducing corruption during the elections.

On Thursday October 16, USIP will host an event that will explore the evolving role of media, technology and data use in Afghanistan’s democratic process, particularly elections. Experts will discuss these topics and share important findings from a report summarizing community concerns in seven provinces around the 2014 elections and beyond.

Join the conversation on Twitter with #AFGNext.

 

Original article can be found at: United States Institute of Peace

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Afghanistan: Afghanistan – the largest refugee repatriation in the world

Original article on: Foreign Policy

The World Bank stated in a new report released on Monday, that 5.7 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan in the past decade (Pajhwok). According to the report, the return to Afghanistan is the largest refugee repatriation effort in the world. However, the report also notes that Afghanistan is the second-largest source country of refugees and that “large numbers remain forcibly displaced.”

Car bomb kills at least four in Helmand province

A car bomb killed at least four people on Wednesday when it exploded in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand district (Pajhwok, TOLO News). Omar Zowak, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said the incident occurred at 11:00 AM near the house of Abdullah Khan, a former district police chief; Khan was wounded in the blast. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Action commences on Kabul Bank investigation

Kabul police chief Lt. Gen. Muhammad Zahir Zahir announced on Tuesday that the city’s police have initiated arrests in the Kabul Bank investigation (Pajhwok). Zahir stated: “We have received a list of 19 individuals and two of them have already been arrested.” Sher Khan Farnoud, who was the founder and chairman of Kabul Bank, is reportedly among those accused.  Zahir’s statement follows newly inaugurated Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s direction last week to reopen the case. On Tuesday, Rahmatollah Nazari, Afghanistan’s deputy attorney general announced that the Attorney General’s office would reopen the case (TOLO News).

 

–David Sterman; October 8, 2014

Original article can be found at: Foreign Policy

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Afghanistan, Development: Less is More – International Intervention and the Limits of Afghan Growth

Original article found on: Heinrich Boll Stiftung

By Philipp Munch on September 17th, 2014

Construction workers at a roadside in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: Neelab Hakim. Creative Commons LizenzvertragThis image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

Construction workers at a roadside in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: Neelab Hakim. Creative Commons LizenzvertragThis image is licensed under Creative Commons License. 

Development projects and construction work around military bases make up an overwhelmingly large part of Afghanistan’s economy. With foreign troops withdrawing and declining aid, the country is looking for its future economic path.

Based on the financial scope, Afghanistan has clearly topped the list of recipient countries of international aid for many years now.[1] Since 2001, donors have been able to improve medical facilities and levels of education by a very considerable degree – to name but some of the most important accomplishments.[2] However, external funds make up an overwhelmingly large part of Afghanistan’s economic performance with little sign of self-sustained economic development.[3]

In addition, greater scrutiny reveals that those sectors of the Afghan economy that have been newly created or strengthened are tailored towards serving the conditions created by the international intervention. Above all, it is the construction and retail industries that have profited from the numerous development projects and military bases, with retail benefiting from the logistic needs of the intervention forces and the comparatively high spending power of those Afghans they employ. Afghanistan’s domestic agricultural production, on the other hand, has contracted.[4]

As a consequence it is to be expected that the sectors in question will collapse once the intervening forces have withdrawn. However, considerable parts of the population have become used to such standards of living. On top of that, the funds thus generated do prop up a political system that, until now, has prevented a relapse into large-scale civil war. Still, it is more than likely that the exceptionally high external subsidies will decrease in the long run, posing the question of how to achieve self-sustained economic development. As a first step I would like to sketch out the main reasons why this has failed to materialise until now – in spite of the unprecedented amount of spending. As a second step, and based on this, I would like to present a few possible attempts at a solution.

An overabundance of aid money

One of the main reasons Afghanistan lacks economic development certainly are its much cited “rentier state” features. The country’s most senior political actors are doing their best to skim off international funds and redistribute them to their camp followers via patronage networks. Funds provided by the donors are thus being turned into “rents” that subsidise parts of the population without ever being invested in profit-making businesses.[5] Although it is often claimed, this practice is not questionable per se, as these funds, however much misappropriated from the donors’ perspective, do still serve their purpose, that is, they create political stability that is much greater than anything witnessed during the 1990s.

Even when viewed from a micro-level perspective, it becomes obvious that the concern of the established political actors to keep the international subsidies alive is crucial in preventing the outbreak of widespread violence.[6] Clearly questionable however is the increased hoarding of international resources by some political actors who do not redistribute them to their clientele. Funds that are being invested in secure Dubai or transferred into Swiss bank accounts will not profit the country.[7]

Nevertheless, the many donors, too, will have to be investigated as possible culprits for the lack of economic development. The deluge of funds, unparalleled in the country’s history, has meant that Afghanistan’s currency is overvalued, something not apt to facilitate exports. As the donor countries’ organisations vie with each other for the most qualified sections of the labour force they are willing to pay inflated salaries. The most able Afghans are thus employed by foreign state and non-state organisations, a phenomenon only too familiar from other countries.[8]

Efforts to build up an effective Afghan administration are thus being hampered. On top of that, competition between international actors and their efforts to spend all budgeted funds within the respective fiscal year creates an overabundance of aid money. Accordingly, this has fostered a recipient mentality among Afghans, that is, a mindset that views international aid as the norm and any efforts to become autonomous or to preserve the achievements made as superfluous. The frequent donation of grain, moreover, has the effect that local agricultural produce is rarely profitable.

Counterproductive reforms

An equally decisive factor is the faulty sequence of developmental steps undertaken in Afghanistan. While it makes basic economic sense to build more roads, this also facilitates the influx of imported goods into a country without a domestic industry able to compete on international markets and lacking tariffs to protect it. Internationally sponsored education initiatives that have proliferated since 2001 are certainly well intentioned, yet without adequate jobs for graduates this will only fuel discontent.

Precisely this is what happened with Afghan education initiatives after World War II. Up until the 1970s government-affiliated client networks were able to absorb graduates, yet the rising national debt signalled the end of this system. Almost all the leading proponents of Jihadi organisations that began their uprising in 1975 or 1978-79 respectively belonged to this group of thwarted social climbers.[9] A similar dilemma arises from the fact that, since 2001, improved humanitarian conditions have enabled Afghan families to raise more children. Today the average age in Afghanistan is circa 15. Not least because this will exacerbate the problem of subdividing inherited estates, an issue already familiar from before the war, it is currently completely up in the air what employment opportunities there may be for the younger generation.[10] The consequence of such developments is instability, a situation hardly conducive to economic growth.

It can be argued, moreover, that many of the economic reforms favoured by the intervening powers since 2001, have been counterproductive. Mostly, they where based on neoliberal assumptions and other economic theories prevailing in the West, which view economic activity in ahistorical ways and without considering the actual power structures. This led to the expectation that a market with very few barriers would, by force of nature, create growth for all.[11] For Afghanistan the result has been that the overvalued currency along with a deluge of cheap imports has relegated formerly self-employed craftsmen into the ranks of day labourers.[12] Domestically the absence of a state monopoly on legitimate violence[13] and of a separation of powers between politics and economics, which gave rise to an unbridled market, have resulted in a few actors gaining economic monopolies.[14]

The dilemma of the donors

Solutions for the main obstacles identified in this paper have to be sought, above all, on part of the donors. They are faced with a dilemma: On the one hand, they will have to reduce their funding considerably, on the other, as seen with the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992, this may in no case be allowed to occur too rapidly. Historically, whenever one group of the Afghan populace has been dropped from the patronage network, the result has been conflict – and the same may be expected to happen again. Instead, aid funds should be cut gradually and slowly – and this process will have to go hand in hand with boosting Afghanistan’s economic performance.

In order to make such developments viable the country should be allowed to close its markets against imports. A reduction in aid will reduce the overvaluation of the Afghan currency, thus cutting labour costs. In addition, the international community should agree on measures to stop the flight of capital from Afghanistan – although this phenomenon is closely linked to the country’s “system of rents.” Consequently, this may only be effected through external supervisory measures that will erode Afghanistan’s sovereignty even further. According to international law such an intervention would be dubious as well as difficult to implement – and it would likely turn out to be counterproductive as it would further undermine Afghanistan’s already weak statehood.

The lack of co-ordination between development projects as well as the excessive amount of money poured into the country are both generated by the donors’ interest-driven policies, that is, the donors are unwilling to subject their measures to any kind of central authority and they are defending their sizable budgets, no matter whether they are helping the country or not. Thus, the lack of co-ordination between donors is not a question better fine-tuning, it is an expression of the actual power structure. As a consequence, it is anything but realistic to expect changes in the near future.

Read the original article on  Heinrich Boll Stiftung.

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Afghanistan, Development: Challenges around aid access in Afghanistan

By John James

Original article can be read at: IRIN

Photo: John James/IRIN Reaching the needy is a challenge

Photo: John James/IRIN
Reaching the needy is a challenge

DUBAI/JALALABAD, 9 September 2014 (IRIN) – Few issues get more attention nowadays in Afghanistan’s aid circles than insecurity-engendered restrictions on humanitarian access.

“In almost every district where security has been handed over from ISAF [NATO-led International Security Assistance Force] to Afghan security forces we’ve seen an increase in attacks,” Omar Hamid, head of Asia Analysis at IHS Country Risk, told IRIN. “The writ of the government to provide security to aid agencies is reduced and there’s a risk that the situation will only get worse as the political instability increases.”

Disputed elections and the imminent pull-out of ISAF forces is compounding an already difficult situation for aid workers.

“In terms of fragmentation [of the country], it’s getting increasingly similar to the 1980s and 90s,” said Arne Strand, from Norway’s CMI development research institute, the author of a recent Chatham House briefing paper on innovative aid delivery.

“More serious NGOs will probably remain: they have the knowledge and dedication of staff. But monitoring capacity will need a boost in the current environment. These direct links are vital, and a kind of control on your own staff – you need to have those kinds of control mechanisms.”

The evidence in this year’s Humanitarian Needs Overview is that areas with the greatest need often have the fewest humanitarian actors. With the overall aid package to Afghanistan anticipated to drop, this year’s tightly-focused humanitarian appeal for US$406 million (currently 56 percent funded) attempts to shift work towards the areas of greatest need.

Nuristan

The eastern province of Nuristan on the border with Pakistan is a case in point. State control is limited and there are few aid workers despite needs judged “high level” in nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and health, by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The infrastructure is poor with four separate valleys lacking direct road connections between them. Those roads that are usable can be blocked by snow for long periods in winter. International aid sometimes has to be delivered by donkey. Humanitarian convoys have been attacked, and the government’s disaster management authority, ANDMA, is “reportedly non-existent” on the ground, according to the OCHA overview.

The only international NGO with a stable presence in the area is the International Medical Corps (IMC), while the Afghan Red Crescent is the main local actor.

To face the future security challenges, analysts suggest a range of measures, from negotiating with a broader set of stakeholders, to using cash-transfer schemes, remote management, third-party monitoring, and having a greater tolerance for risk, allied with risk mitigation measures.

Talking to anti-government forces

With the withdrawal of international forces, more of the fighting is now between Afghans themselves. Security analysts predict that this will mean more intense combat, more casualties, and less access for humanitarians. Potential power vacuums after withdrawal may also increase criminality.

The mid-year Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict report from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan showed a 24 percent rise in civilian casualties on the same period last year.

“This year has been one of the worst since the conflict started: It’s definitely not getting better, and that’s obviously a concern,” said Alexander Buchmann, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Afghanistan. “Access is not improving for patients needing to get to health centres or for aid actors to get to those needing help. What is clear is that things are not getting better and at best things have stabilized at a very high intensity of violence.”

Where local power holders are anti-government actors, humanitarians find themselves in a difficult position – do they negotiate and risk the ire of the state? Discussions and even agreements with such groups can inadvertently mean giving them legitimacy.

“We need to be thinking ahead and talking to the other side,” one international aid worker, who asked not to be named, told IRIN in the eastern town of Jalalabad.

While large humanitarian organizations may have the potential to reach out to key leaders, that is not something that is possible for all, especially with shifting leadership structures. “It’s not realistic for [a] small organization to go to Quetta [in Pakistan, an important base for the Taliban leadership],” said a protection specialist in Kabul. “Anyway, lower level commanders are not necessarily in contact with the overall leadership. Showing a letter from [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar might not even go down too well with these guys.”

Anti-government forces are not necessarily opposed to humanitarian interventions, especially in particular sectors like health.

“We talk to all parties to the conflict and try to guarantee safe access for patients,” said MSF’s Buchmann. “There’s a general acceptance of the idea, but it varies on the ground in the application.” MSF has long-standing projects in places like Helmand, but Buchmann says the key challenge is getting out of provincial centres to address needs in distant districts.

Many provinces contain a shifting scene of local warlords, commanders and tribal alliances. Nuristan itself has 7-8 separate armed groups with different agendas. This is where the knowledge of local NGOs can be particularly useful. Muslim NGOs are also seen as a possible way to gain greater acceptance for humanitarian work.

But aid workers stress that it is not just about educating people on humanitarian principles; you need to also show that you can deliver. “Services buy access”, one aid worker told IRIN in Jalalabad.

Working with communities

Communities and their leaders have long been a favoured route for gaining access.

“People ask us how we manage to work in areas that are not nominally under government control,” said Nigel Jenkins, former country head at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has run programmes in the country since 1988. “The simple answer is through community acceptance. In this country, people very much work on trust, on memory, on history and it takes a long time to build up a relationship with a community.”

IMC’s Country Director in Afghanistan, Giorgio Trombatore, recommends hiring community-based staff with outstanding reputations and avoiding unnecessary branding. “The local community or shura must be involved or consulted at every stage of the humanitarian work being done in the area, bridging the role between NGO/humanitarian organizations and non-state actors to prevent any potential misunderstandings or misbeliefs about what is being done,” he said. “All the amendments or potential changes in the given set programmes must be thoroughly discussed and conveyed within the community.”

The flip side of building strong community relations though is that this may lead humanitarians to work where they have relations rather than where the needs are greatest. It is clear that building community understanding and support takes time.

The European Commission’s aid body ECHO is involved in a number of projects to boost access, something that can be difficult for NGOs to dedicate resources to under normal short-term project funding.

“Access is something that is difficult to measure – not like counting shelters constructed or hygiene kits distributed,” said Danielle Moylan, protection and advocacy manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “It’s an extremely long-term project, but rolling out projects is proof that access works.”

“This year has been one of the worst since the conflict started: It’s definitely not getting better, and that’s obviously a concern” NRC have been working in Kandahar for 18 months – setting up, just as many agencies were leaving. This week they start a new push to work on rural projects in Faryab Province.

“Recruiting people from villages in Faryab where we want to work, is a big element of gaining acceptance. We also empower all our 500-plus national staff so everyone knows what we stand for. That has an incredible benefit for community liaison,” said Moylan.

Some groups, like the International Committee of the Red Cross, have long worked with armed groups and also wider community leaders to spread the word about international humanitarian law and protection issues. These are long-term efforts, which, when successful, build acceptance of aid work.

New methods

Technological developments do potentially open up some new avenues for aid workers to manage a lack of aid access.

As US troops pull-out, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is reportedly looking for bids on a five-year monitoring contract, potentially worth up to $170 million, to keep an eye on aid projects after the drawdown using a range of tools including smartphones and GPS technology.

Mobile phones are increasingly widespread in Afghanistan, with network coverage increasing as well. In 2010 USAID estimated 61 percent of the population had access to a mobile phone. Communication, photographs and even GPS are all possible on relatively cheap devices.

The World Food Programme’s Beneficiary Feedback Desk, allows beneficiaries to call into a hotline to report issues with aid delivery.

Nevertheless aid workers or their partners could also face the risk of appearing to be spies as they carry out their monitoring work. And technology rarely provides a complete solution. Network coverage is still patchy, and mobile phones are largely in the hands of men, and also under shifting ownership.

“You need to have a combination of solutions – mobile phones won’t solve everything but it can provide a record,” Strand told IRIN. “It’s a kind of add-on to the documentation, and also a way to set-up complaint mechanisms. But you still need physical visits. You need to sit and drink tea.”

The idea of remote management of projects is seen negatively by many in the humanitarian community. According to a January 2014 report by the Afghanistan Public Policy Research Organisation (APPRO), “most [international NGOs] recognize that remote management cannot be a permanent substitute for ongoing onsite management because the quality of the work would very likely suffer.” Corruption is seen as a significant risk when working without an on-the-ground presence.

An older technology, radio, is seen by many as the most useful channel for communication with communities, and NRC have a long-running project supporting a popular radio drama that explains humanitarian work.

Approach to risk

Greater risks around humanitarian access mean risk assessments become far more important, according to the Chatham House briefing.

This is something underlined by the head of OCHA in Afghanistan, Aidan O’Leary, who writes that “Humanitarian agencies need to build a culture of ‘how to stay’ as opposed to ‘when to leave’, allowing actors to take acceptable risks when these are warranted and using creative approaches to reduce risk.”

The setting up of the Common Humanitarian Fund this year has helped encourage humanitarian actors to move into key areas where access can be difficult – funding frontline healthcare, evacuating civilians, and providing basic health and nutrition services in contested areas. A humanitarian risk management unit was also established this year to better identify risks and put in place mitigating measures.

The humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, Mark Bowden, says he believes progress is being made on access, pointing to the absence of attacks on health centres during the presidential election, despite the controversial use of several as voting centres.

“It’s a tangible aspect of what I think is better recognition. We still don’t have anything like free and open access from either side. But there’s a feeling that we’re moving forward on this issue, and that legitimate humanitarian actors are being recognised,” he said.

For long-term actors in Afghanistan, the concern is that the easiest response to access problems will be to abandon difficult zones for the relative safety of urban programming and informal slums.

There is no magic bullet that fits all agencies. Instead, humanitarian actors need to each develop their own access strategies in line with their operations and dynamics, says ECHO’s Luc Verna. Support from NRC helps actors to share strategies and learn from others.

“Access is also about having flexibility without putting staff at risk; acting where possible, withdrawing when you need to,” said Verna. “It’s about not putting staff at risk simply to go where no one else is.”

By John James

Original article can be read at: IRIN

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Afghanistan: Kabul Program Highlighted in AWWP Documentary

Read the original post on the AWWP Summer 2014 Newsletter.

Kabul Program Highlighted in AWWP Documentary, Alex Footman Films AWWP Workshop in Kabul

Documentary filmmaker Alex Footman completed a short film highlighting the work of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project in Kabul. Footman, along with his production assistant, Ellie Kealey, has done several projects in Afghanistan, using his filmmaking expertise to connect people to one another by sharing the wealth of stories he finds in his travels.

The documentary will be available on Vimeo through August. After that, it will be available for use at AWWP events. To access the video now, visit AWWP’s Vimeo Page — let us know what you think!

To learn more about AWWP check out their website here: http://awwproject.org/

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Afghanistan: Kabul cafe is a front line in a war over culture and social mores in Afghanistan

washingtonpost.comby Pamela Constable, Aug. 14, 2014

 In one curtained room, half a dozen young men and women huddle on cushions, smoking hookahs and chatting. In the next, a troubadour strums a guitar and sings protest songs for a party of high school soccer players. In a cubicle between, customers take turns kneeling to say their prayers.

Welcome to Kabul’s Art Cafe and Restaurant, the latest front line in a seesawing urban culture war between a post-Taliban, Internet-savvy generation that wants to push the limits of democratic freedom and a deeply conservative Muslim establishment that is determined to preserve its traditions — especially the segregation of the sexes.

The Art Cafe is one of a cluster of hip hangouts that have opened in a busy commercial section of west Kabul in the past year, attracting a mix of students, artists, journalists and other young sophisticates. Police have kept a watchful eye for alcohol and other infractions, but until last week, there had been no serious confrontations.

Then, at 4 p.m. on Aug. 9, a squad of police burst into the cafe with guns drawn and started grabbing and shoving people. According to the co-owner and several witnesses, they shouted sexual insults at some of the women and hustled some of the men off to police headquarters, where their long hair was cut off — a punishment once meted out by the Taliban religious police.

“We asked them why they were doing this, and they said they had orders to round up the rabble around the city,” said Hassan Fazili, a partner in the cafe. “I’m an artist and a filmmaker, and we have an open atmosphere here, but we are doing nothing wrong. We do not allow alcohol or weapons. We are all Muslims. And we are definitely not rabble.”

Duniya Sadeqi, 29, an actress, said she had gone to the cafe that day to meet a friend who was making a documentary. During the raid, she said, the police punched and cursed her. “They said, ‘You are a whore, or you would not be in such places,’ ” she recounted Wednesday, dressed in a pink head scarf and long black dress. “I was very scared.”

But if the city police were trying to enforce an obsolescing moral code, their superiors at the Interior Ministry were apparently embarrassed by the incident. After complaints from civic groups, Afghan news outlets reported that some of the officers involved were arrested, and Wednesday, a delegation of ministry officials visited the cafe to work things out.

“It was all a misunderstanding,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as he left the premises surrounded by half a dozen police guards. Repeated efforts to reach officials and spokesmen for the Kabul police were unsuccessful.

The misunderstanding, though, runs much deeper than ham-handed police vigilantism. The collapse of the Taliban in 2001 and the advent of Western ideas, aid and technology have opened an isolated Islamic society to the modern world. The impact has been especially pronounced in the capital and other large cities, with colleges and jobs for those who learn English and computer skills.

Conflict has been inevitable, often between parents and grown children who seek to marry for love, try to date or simply want to spend time in a mixed-gender environment — all of which are strictly prohibited by Afghan social and religious codes. Muslim clerics often warn of the dangers of Western influence on the young.

“We are extremely concerned about the spread and infiltration of foreign culture in our society,” said Enayatullah Balegh, a member of the national council of Muslim clergy. “There is a big distinction between Islamic culture and others in the way we dress and interact with each other. Islam favors modern development and science but not immoral and corrupt behavior.”

In rural areas, families and tribal elders have continued to keep a tight rein on the behavior of the young, especially in conservative southern regions. In several recent high-profile cases, strong local support forhonor killings, and other punishments against girls who elope or are raped, suggests that rigid traditional mores are reasserting themselves as Western troops, civilians and influence start to withdraw.

But in large northern cities such as Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif, many young people have found sanctuaries such as the Art Cafe where they can talk, flirt and express themselves freely about politics and social change as well as love.

On Wednesday, Naser Royan, 27, held a young audience spellbound as he sang a series of original folk songs to an urgent guitar rhythm. One ballad beckoned listeners to visit the “reality” of Afghan life occurring under city bridges where opium addicts gather. Another was about a girl in Italy who was killed protesting against injustice.

In the hookah room next door, young men and women sat close and laughed with a carefree intimacy that would have shocked many older Afghans. Yet they all described themselves as observant Muslims, and most of them periodically left the room to pray.

“We come here because there is a new level of freedom. We all want change, but only within the Islamic framework,” said a 21-year-old law school student who gave her name as Attiyah and who was texting on her iPhone between puffs on a tall glass pipe.

But there is another dimension to this trend that highlights the differences between ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan. In Kabul, places such as the Art Cafe are confined mostly to the city’s western district, a redoubt of its Shiite Muslim and ethnic Hazara minority; both Herat and Mazar-e Sharif have large Shiite populations.

The Hazaras, often regarded as inferior by other Afghans, tend to be more liberal and worldly than the Sunni-majority Tajiks and Pashtuns, in part because many were exiled and educated in Iran during Afghanistan’s years of conflict. Some of the cafe customers said they were born in Iran and came back with their families after the fall of the Taliban; many attend Shiite colleges in the city.

During a decade of Western-backed democracy, this group has been able to flex increasing political and cultural muscle, but activists worry that these gains could be lost as the protective international presence here diminishes.

“Some authorities think if democracy grows, society will escape the bound of our religion,” said Salman Dostzada, a political activist who protested against the cafe raid. “Our society has begun to liberalize in these years, but the cost is already too high.”

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Afghanistan, Media: Oral Stories Project – Afghan Women’s Writing Project

I Just Keep Delivering

Illiterate Afghan Women Get in a Word on Pregnancy & Childbirth

Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, according to the World Health Organization, whose statistics show one in 11 Afghan women die of causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Who’s to blame? In a mix of poverty and cultural tradition, girls marry and give birth too young. Family planning is rare. Access to doctors and public health facilities is minimal at best, and non-existent in rural areas.

Don’t miss these ten interviews with illiterate Afghan women by writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.  Ten short pieces that enable western readers to hear the womens’ first-hand thoughts on family planning and pregnancy. Read all of them and share with your friends!

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Afghanistan: Afghan war inflicting devastating toll on civilians – U.N.

Source: Reuters – Wed, 9 Jul 2014 08:23 GMT, Author: Reuters

People look at a cracked side window of a bus which was damaged at bomb blasts in Kabul June 6, 2014. AbREUTERS/Ahmad Masood

  
Afghans receive food charity during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Jalalabad city July 8, 2014. REUTERS/Parwiz
By Maria Golovnina

KABUL, July 9 (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s war is inflicting an increasingly devastating toll on the civilian population, with the number of casualties rising by almost a quarter in the first half of this year, the United Nations said in a report on Wednesday.

U.S.-led forces are gradually withdrawing from military bases scattered across Afghanistan after 12 years of war against Taliban insurgents, contributing to deteriorating security, with civilians bearing the brunt of the violence.

The U.N. report comes out as a political crisis unfolds in Afghanistan, threatening civil unrest on top of the insurgency as supporters of the two presidential candidates go head-to-head over the result of a presidential run-off.

Preliminary results announced on Monday gave Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, 56.44 percent in the run-off on June 14, but his rival Abdullah Abdullah immediately rejected the outcome, saying the vote had been marred by widespread fraud.

Abdullah’s supporters rallied in Kabul on Tuesday, demanding he form a parallel government. Washington responded forcefully, warning it would withdraw financial and security support from Afghanistan if anyone tried to take power illegally.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said ground combat was the leading cause of conflict-related deaths and injuries to Afghan civilians, with child casualties more than doubling in the first six months of 2014.

It said two-thirds more women were killed and wounded in ground combat compared with the same period of 2013.

“The nature of the conflict in Afghanistan is changing in 2014 with an escalation of ground engagements in civilian-populated areas,” said U.N. Special Representative for the Secretary-General in Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, Jan Kubis.

“The impact on civilians, including the most vulnerable Afghans, is proving to be devastating.”

It said that from Jan. 1 to June 30 it documented 4,853 civilian casualties, up 24 percent from the same period in 2013. The death toll included 1,564 civilian deaths, up 17 percent, and 3,289 injuries, up 28 percent.

Total child casualties jumped 34 percent to 1,071, including 295 killed and 776 injured, while total women casualties increased 24 percent to 440, it said.

The period has seen more fighting in densely populated areas as foreign forces pull out from most regions, with injuries caused by mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire jumping dramatically in the first half of this year.

The rise in casualties comes despite repeated promises by the Taliban leadership not to target civilians. Yet, the report said the Taliban carried out 69 attacks deliberately targeting civilians, including tribal elders and government officials.

“In 2014, the fight is increasingly taking place in communities, public places and near the homes of ordinary Afghans, with death and injury to women and children in a continued disturbing upward spiral,” said Director of Human Rights for UNAMA Georgette Gagnon.

“More efforts are needed to protect civilians from the harms of conflict and to ensure accountability for those deliberately and indiscriminately killing them.” (Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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Afghanistan: 36 Years of Turmoil in Review

Thomson Reuters Foundation, Updated: Tue, 20 May 2014

IN DETAIL

Afghanistan has experienced more than three decades of conflict, and fighting is still raging in much of the country.

The country is the source of nearly a quarter of the world’s refugees and, although millions have returned home since 2002, about 2.5 million are still living as refugees, most of them in Pakistan or Iran. Another 620,000 people are displaced within Afghanistan.

U.S.-led troops ousted the Taliban in 2001 after they refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader behind the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

But violence has surged since 2006, with the Taliban fighting a guerrilla war in the south and east and carrying out high-profile suicide and car bombings across the country.

The Taliban regrouped with the help of safe havens across the border in Pakistan and money from drug lords.

Billions of dollars have been poured into rebuilding the country since 2001, but corruption and the lack of security have hampered development and been a source of frustration to many Afghans.

Aid agencies struggle to access most of the country, especially rural areas where the needs are greatest.

Although nominally women have recovered many of the rights lost under the Taliban, a combination of tribalism, poverty and conflict make the exercising of those rights a significant challenge.

SOVIET INVASION

At the crossroads of regions and empires, Afghanistan has been subject to periodic intense foreign interest for centuries.

In more recent history, a Soviet-backed communist government seized power in 1978, sparking a number of uprisings around the country as it tried to impose radical social reforms. Deteriorating security and a coup by another communist faction precipitated the Soviet invasion at the end of 1979.

Villages were bombed and thousands of civilians arrested and tortured during the occupation.

Religious fighters, or mujahideen – covertly funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia – formed the backbone of the resistance to the occupation.

The Afghan jihad, or holy war, became a cause for Muslim warriors from around the Islamic world. The future al Qaeda leader bin Laden was among them.

The Soviets withdrew in 1989, leaving behind the communist government of President Mohammad Najibullah. Stricken by defections, Najibullah’s government collapsed in 1992, and he eventually took sanctuary at a U.N. compound in Kabul, where he was hanged by Taliban forces four years later.

A mujahideen government was established in April 1992, but it was riven with factional rivalry, and the country disintegrated into civil war during which at least 40,000 people were killed in Kabul alone.

THE TALIBAN

The power vacuum allowed the Taliban, a militant student movement that grew out of hardline religious schools in Pakistan, to take the southern city of Kandahar in 1994 and Kabul in 1996.

The regime, which adhered to a strict interpretation of Islam, barred women from most activities outside the home and ruled they must wear a head-to-foot burqa in public and be accompanied by a male relative. Many women still wear the burqa.

Bin Laden and al Qaeda relocated to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s after being forced to leave Sudan. They based themselves around Kandahar.

The Taliban provoked international condemnation, particularly over their treatment of women. Only three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – recognised them as the legitimate government.

In 1999, the United Nations imposed sanctions to force the Taliban to turn over bin Laden, who was wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania.

THE NORTHERN ALLIANCE

Throughout the Taliban’s rule, fighting continued between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. The Alliance was made up of ethnic Tajik-dominated groups who had united to fight the Taliban.

Two days before al Qaeda launched its Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., a leading member of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was killed by suicide bombers posing as journalists. Al Qaeda members were believed to have carried out the assassination to curry favour with the Taliban.

The United States launched bombing raids on Afghanistan in October 2001 after the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden.

With U.S. help, the Northern Alliance took the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, then Kabul. The rest of the country swiftly followed.

It is believed bin Laden fled to Pakistan when U.S. and Afghan forces captured his main base in the Tora Bora mountains of eastern Afghanistan in late 2001. Many other al Qaeda militants also fled to Pakistan.

2001 AND BEYOND

At the end of 2001, members of the opposition and international organisations gathered in Germany and drew up the Bonn Agreement, which provided a political roadmap for Afghanistan and a timetable for reconstruction.

Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun born to the Popalzai clan – a sub-group of the royal Durrani tribe – was chosen to head an Interim Authority. He was later installed as president and won an outright majority in the first presidential election in 2004. Parliamentary elections were held the following year.

Presidential elections in 2009 – a key milestone for peace – were plagued by violence, widespread fraud and low turnout. Karzai won, after his main challenger Abdullah Abdullah pulled out saying a planned runoff vote was not going to be free and fair.

Parliamentary elections in 2010 were calmer.

Presidential elections were held in April 2014, the same year all foreign combat troops are due to leave the country. The Taliban stepped up attacks ahead of the polls and threatened to disrupt the elections. But, on the day, there were fewer attacks than feared, and less fraud than in 2009.

A run-off vote between two candidates – Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani – will be held in June. Under the constitution, Karzai was not allowed to stand in 2014.

Tribal leaders in Kandahar – the birthplace of the Taliban insurgency – say the insurgency has been stoked by the growing wealth and power of Karzai’s family during his 12 years in office.

The government’s authority remains fragile and violence has soared. Militants have crossed the border from Pakistan to join the ranks of the Taliban fighters, who are staging increasingly sophisticated attacks, including multiple roadside bombings and complex ambushes.

Taliban numbers swelled from 7,000 in 2006 to roughly 25,000 in 2009, according to a 2009 U.S. intelligence assessment. More recent estimates vary from between 20,000 and 35,000.

U.S. President Barack Obama decided to send additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009, boosting the total number of foreign troops to about 150,000. Most of the new U.S. troops headed south to the heart of the Taliban insurgency, where British, Canadian and Dutch soldiers did not have enough strength to keep hold of ground they captured.

NATO leaders began transferring responsibility for security to Afghans in 2011. The Afghan army took command of all military and security operations in June 2013.

Foreign troops work with the Afghan National Army, which was about 183,000 strong in June 2013. The Afghan national police force numbered about 150,000.

More than 13,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed in the past 13 years, according to Afghan government statistics. Although there is no year-by-year breakdown in the figures, most are likely to have been killed in the past three years when Afghan forces grew in number.

Since 2009, when the United Nations established an electronic database to record civilian casualties, more than 14,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict.

The high number of civilian casualties angered Karzai and weakened public support for the continued presence of foreign troops.

Relations between Kabul and Washington were also strained over a string of incidents involving U.S. forces in 2012, including the massacre of Afghan villagers for which a U.S. soldier was jailed for life in 2013, and the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran.

Some of the most daring, complex attacks in Afghanistan have been blamed on a militant group called the Haqqani network, which operates in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and is allied with the Taliban.

The Haqqani network fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, with support from Pakistani, Saudi and U.S. officials. The Haqqanis view part of southeast Afghanistan known as “Loya Paktia” as their rightful homeland.

Since early 2011, the U.S. government has been seeking to hold peace talks with the Taliban, but it is unclear whether the militants are cohesive enough to agree on a joint diplomatic approach to the talks.

In May 2011, bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces in northwestern Pakistan. By then, al Qaeda’s influence on the Taliban had greatly diminished.

NATO plans to keep a small military training and support mission in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, which the Taliban says is an encroachment on the country’s independence.

Western officials say that the exit of most foreign troops will remove one of the Taliban’s main recruiting tools.

GOING HOME

Millions of Afghans fled to neighbouring countries during the years of conflict, and the Taliban’s fall triggered one of the largest and swiftest refugee repatriations in the world.

Since 2002, Afghans have been streaming home, mostly from Iran and Pakistan. More than 5.7 million Afghans have returned to their country, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR). Another 2.5 million refugees and many undocumented Afghans were still in Pakistan and Iran in 2013, and further afield.

Pakistan and Iran have said they want the remaining Afghans on their soil to go home.

The number of people displaced inside Afghanistan is about 620,000, according to UNHCR. However, this is a conservative estimate because it is impossible to access and collect information in many areas.

The majority have fled their homes because of clashes between NATO-led troops and Taliban-led insurgent groups in the south, southeast and west of the country, IDMC said. Natural disasters and local conflicts, such as land disputes, have also displaced people.

Rural areas are increasingly insecure, forcing many returning Afghans to migrate to towns and cities.

Many also face the risk of landmines and unexploded ordnance left behind from years of war. Hundreds of civilians are killed or injured each year, most of them children, according to Landmine Monitor. Many of the mines are near roads, health facilities, camps for the displaced, airports, bridges and irrigation systems, U.N. Mine Action Service says.

The contamination poses a formidable challenge to the country’s social and economic reconstruction.

RECONSTRUCTION HURDLES

Billions of aid dollars have poured into Afghanistan to help rebuild the shattered infrastructure and economy. Afghanistan depends on aid for most of its spending.

International donors provided $35 billion in aid to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2010.

And, in 2012, major donors pledged another $16 billion in development aid through 2015, in an attempt to prevent it from deteriorating further when foreign troops leave in 2014, but demanded reforms to fight widespread corruption. The aid was tied to a new monitoring process to help prevent money from being diverted by corrupt officials or mismanaged.

While strides have been made in improving access to education and health care, less than a third of the population of 33 million is literate and the average person earns only about a $1,000 a year, according to the U.N. Development Programme.

Much of the donor money went back to donor countries, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief and Development (ACBAR) alliance of aid agencies said in a March 2008 report. An estimated 40 percent of the $15 billion spent in aid between 2001 and 2008 was returned to donors in corporate profits and consultant salaries, the report said.

And whereas spending on aid by all donors between 2001 and 2008 amounted to about $7 million a day, the U.S. military spent some $100 million a day fighting Taliban insurgents, ACBAR said.

The United Nations launched a $4 billion development plan in October 2009, to run from 2010 to 2013. This U.N. Development Assistance Framework covered governance, peace, agriculture, food security, health, education, water and sanitation.

Afghans rank insecurity, corruption and unemployment as their top concerns, according to a 2013 survey by the Asia Foundation.

CORRUPTION

Reconstruction efforts have been dogged by allegations of corruption and waste on the part of the government, aid agencies and contractors.

Public sector corruption is rife and Afghanistan, along with Somalia and North Korea, are considered to be the most corrupt countries in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Government officials and international aid workers have been accused of stealing money or taking bribes. Some companies that won contracts to rebuild the country have been accused of delivering shoddy roads, hospitals and schools or even nothing at all.

Corruption and cronyism are among the main gripes of ordinary Afghans.

Many also complain that parliament, which is supposed to voice their grievances and keep the government in check, is made up mainly of ex-warlords and powerbrokers who use their position to serve their own interests.

Karzai has accused the international community of helping to fuel corruption and has asked foreign donors to stop awarding massive reconstruction projects to contractors linked to senior officials in his government.

Donors spend most aid money outside state channels to avoid it being siphoned off by corrupt officials. But they have done so without telling the Afghan government how and where the funds were being spent. Critics say this undermines the government’s authority, and complicates planning and coordination between donors and provinces.

In July 2012, donors agreed to channel more through the Afghan government, if the government made progress in fighting corruption and improving governance.

That same month Karzai issued a decree to begin implementing the reforms. He ordered all ministries to take steps to cut down on nepotism and corruption, and directed the Supreme Court to accelerate investigations already under way. In September, he dismissed five governors and changed leading positions in nearly a third of the country’s provinces.

Real and suspected waste and misspending turned parts of the Afghan population against aid workers, with their relatively large salaries and expensive cars, according to local independent watchdog Integrity Watch Afghanistan.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

Civilians have borne the brunt of years of conflict and underdevelopment. Thousands are killed every year and millions have been displaced. An estimated 36 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line, and nearly 60 percent is chronically malnourished.

The Taliban insurgency has forced many schools and health clinics to close.

Natural disasters also affect tens of thousands of people every year, including earthquakes, frequent floods and  drought.

Humanitarian needs increased in 2013, mainly because of the worsening conflict, and U.N. experts say the needs are likely to rise even furtheras a result of the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014.

At the same time access to the most vulnerable has fallen because of a rising number of attacks on aid workers and offices.

Aid agencies rely on air services to reach people in remote or insecure areas. More than 160 organisations use the U.N. Humanitarian Air Service, which has two airplanes and a helicopter, to transport aid workers and supplies.

Some Afghan non-governmental organisations and movements, including the Afghan Red Crescent Society, have greater access than international NGOs.

There are reports of growing numbers of people displaced and some 5.4 million people have extremely limited access to health care. The number of civilians wounded rose 77 percent in 2013 compared with 2012, most of them in the south.

Aid agencies are particularly concerned about people in the country’s Hilmand, Kunar, Badghis, Nangarhar and Ghor provinces, where the needs are greatest and access is limited.

Some aid has been channelled through Provincial Reconstruction Teams run by foreign troops, and many aid agencies have used armed convoys to move around. As a result, aid workers are seen by the Taliban and other armed groups as being an extension of NATO forces and therefore seen as legitimate targets. Scores of aid workers have been wounded, kidnapped or killed.

Violence is not the only threat to life. Children die of easily preventable diseases, and malnutrition. Afghanistan is one of three “polio endemic” countries with most cases in the turbulent south, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Tuberculosis is another major public health challenge. Experts say women in particular suffer high rates because they tend to spend most of their time indoors and have less access to medical care than men do.

The results of the Afghanistan Mortality Survey 2010, released in 2011, raised major questions among health experts about the reliability of data both past and present for maternal and infant death rates, and average life expectancy.

For example, the survey concluded that average life expectancy is about 60 years, compared with previous estimates of 49 years.

The survey was carried out by the Afghan government and U.N. World Health Organization.

DRUGS

Afghanistan produces 74 percent of the world’s opium, the United Nations says. The Taliban, which banned cultivation during their rule, are now exploiting the trade to fund their insurgency. The majority of poppy fields are in the country’s south and southwest where the Taliban are most active.

One of the main tools in combating the narcotics trade involves fostering alternative livelihoods. The idea is to wean farmers away from poppy cultivation by offering them fertilisers and seeds for legal crops.

For many years, the United States focused its efforts on destroying poppy fields. This infuriated farmers who said they would be destitute without their crops. Many farmers depend on loans provided by drug traders as a down payment for the subsequent drug harvest.

Former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke and other experts have said that attempts to destroy crops penalise the farmers and have no impact on the Taliban’s earnings from the trade – rather it helps them recruit.

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops, counternarcotics operations are increasingly in the hands of Afghan authorities.

Drug addiction does not just affect those beyond Afghanistan’s borders – there are more than one million addicts in the country, according to UNODC. Drug use is high among refugees returning from Iran and Pakistan.

WOMEN

During the Taliban years, the regime prohibited women from attending universities and shut girls’ schools in Kabul and other cities, although primary schooling did go on in many other areas of the country. Earning a living was also very difficult, a tragedy in a country with tens of thousands of war widows – in Kabul alone there are estimated to be up to 50,000.

Today, women have the right to vote and are elected to parliament. Millions of girls go to school and women are allowed to work outside the home. Several women ran in the 2014 presidential elections, despite death threats and assassination attempts.

Other female leaders have been killed. In Laghman province, the local director of women’s affairs, Naija Sediqi, was assassinated in December 2012. She had been in the role for five months, following the assassination of her female predecessor Hanifa Safi. Although their murders were attributed to the Taliban, women’s groups have complained that there were no thorough investigations carried out.

The daily life of many women is still dominated by the threat of violence and backbreaking toil, and women generally are kept from public roles especially in rural areas in what is one of the most conservative countries in the world.

Many girls are married off as children or young teenagers, and the vast majority never learn to read or write.

Human Rights Watch says violence against women and girls remains rampant, including domestic violence, sexual violence, and forced marriage.

In many cases, women who are raped are charged with immorality and imprisoned. Women can also be jailed for running away from their husband.

In May 2013, Afghanistan’s parliament failed to ratify a bill banning underage and forced marriage, domestic violence, rape and forced prostitution.

LINKS

The Feinstein International Center has published several in-depth reports on aid in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC) produces useful reports on Afghans’ views.

The Afghanistan Mortality Survey (2010) showed improvements in maternal and infant death rates, as well as average life expectancy. But the gains are so great that experts are questioning its accuracy.

The think tank International Crisis Group has lots of information about Afghanistan’s conflict past and present.

UNICEF has plenty of facts and figures on children in Afghanistan. Save the Children also has some useful background.

Another good site is Pajhwok Afghan News, the country’s largest local news service. The news is broad-based and some of the reporters benefit from a wealth of local contacts, although inaccuracies sometimes pop up. Note that you have to pay to access some of the material. The service runs stories in Dari, English and Pashto.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), an international journalism organisation, carries well-written features on the country.

iCasualties is an independent site which keeps track of foreign troop casualties in the country, breaking it down by province and nationality.

The International Security Assistance Force site has details of foreign troop numbers and contributions.

Afghanistan Online says it is the biggest and most visited Afghan website.

For Afghan feminism, consult the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which was founded in 1977 by women intellectuals. The organisation supports women’s rights and education.

UNHCR’s Afghanistan page has useful statistics on refugees and the internally displaced. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centrealso has good background.

The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief alliance of aid agencies has useful reports on aid in Afghanistan.

Both ACBAR and Human Rights Watch have raised grave concerns about the impact of the conflict on civilians.

For information on demining see the Landmine Monitor report on Afghanistan.

TIMELINE

A chronology of events since the end of the Soviet occupation. It does not include many of the attacks on civilians that have happened since 2001 and have been blamed on both the United States and Taliban.

1989 – Last Soviet soldier leaves under 1988 agreement. Moscow-installed Najibullah government remains in place in Kabul

1992 – Communist government collapses. Mujahideen groups set up a government which is riven by factionalism. Country disintegrates into civil war

1994 – Battles reduce much of Kabul to rubble. Mullah Mohammed Omar, a Muslim cleric, sets up Taliban movement of Islamic students, who take up arms, capture Kandahar and advance on Kabul

1996 – Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who fought with mujahideen groups against Soviet occupation, returns to Afghanistan. Taliban take Kabul, hang former President Mohammad Najibullah and set up Islamic state

1997 – Afghanistan renamed Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Taliban impose their version of Islam. But ethnic Uzbek factional chief Abdul Rashid Dostum retains control in five northern provinces

1998 – Taliban take northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, massacring at least 2,000 mainly ethnic Hazara civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. Bamiyan, a Hazara stronghold in the centre of the country, follows. Taliban later destroy colossal stone Buddhas of Bamiyan

Northern Alliance, made up of non-Pashtun mujahideen militias, fights back against Taliban

U.S. forces bomb suspected al Qaeda bases in southeast in reprisal for bombings of U.S. embassies in east Africa

1999 – United Nations imposes sanctions to force Taliban to turn over bin Laden

2001

Sep – Al Qaeda-linked suicide bombers assassinate military head of Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masood

Sep 11 – Al Qaeda suicide plane hijackers attack New York and Washington, killing thousands

Oct – U.S. begins bombing Afghanistan to root out bin Laden and his Taliban protectors

Nov – Northern Alliance forces enter Kabul as Taliban leaders flee

Dec – Afghan groups sign deal in Bonn on an interim government headed by Hamid Karzai, a leader from the biggest ethnic group, the Pashtun

First members of multinational peacekeeping force arrive

Interim authority takes power. Bonn plan says an emergency Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, must be held in six months

2002

Jun – Emergency Loya Jirga agrees on a transitional authority. Karzai sworn in as its head

2003

Nov – French UNHCR worker Bettina Goislard shot dead by suspected Taliban militants in Ghazni town, leading to suspension of many aid missions in south and east

2004

Jan – Rival factions at the Loya Jirga agree on a constitution, paving way for first free elections

Oct – Presidential elections. Karzai sworn in on Dec 7. Parliamentary vote is put off amid security concerns and logistical problems

2005

Sep – Elections held for a lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, and provincial councils. Former commanders of military factions, three ex-Taliban officials and women activists win seats

Dec – Parliament sits for first time

2006

Jan – International conference in London promises Afghanistan economic and military support in return for pledges to fight corruption and drugs trade

Aug – Suicide bomber rams his car into a NATO convoy in Kandahar killing 21 civilians in the worst suicide attack to date

Oct – NATO assumes responsibility for security across the whole of the country after taking command in the east from a U.S.-led coalition force

2007 – Taliban step up suicide attacks throughout the country

Jan – Karzai says he’s open to talks with Taliban

Feb – Taliban threaten a spring offensive of thousands of suicide bombers as U.S. doubles its combat troops and takes over command of NATO force from Britain

Mar – NATO and Afghan forces launch Operation Achilles, targeting Taliban and allied drug lords in Helmand

Nov – More than 70 people, mostly schoolboys are killed, in a suicide bombing in the northern town of Baghlan. The dead include six members of parliament

Dec – Afghanistan expels two senior EU and UN envoys after accusing them of making contact with the Taliban

2008

Feb – A suspected suicide bombing kills more than 100 people in Kandahar in the most deadly attack since the ousting of Taliban.

Jun – Donors pledge around $20 bln in aid at Paris conference

Sep – Karzai offers peace talks and asks Saudi Arabia to help with negotiations. Taliban however refuse to negotiate

Dec – Afghanistan and Pakistan decide to form joint strategy to fight militants in their border regions

2009

Feb – U.N. says 2,100 civilians killed in 2008 – a 40 percent rise on 2007

U.S. President Barack Obama announces he plans to send another 17,000 U.S. troops. Karzai says Afghanistan turning a new page in relations with United States

May – U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates replaces commander of U.S. forces with Gen Stanley McChrystal, saying the battle against the Taliban needs “new thinking”

July – U.S. army launches major offensive against Taliban in Helmand province

Taliban call on Afghans to boycott presidential and provincial elections

Aug – Elections marred by widespread Taliban attacks, low turnout and claims of serious fraud

Oct – Electoral Complaints Commission declares tens of thousands of votes invalid and calls for a run-off election

Nov – Run-off presidential vote cancelled after Karzai’s remaining challenger Abdullah Abdullah pulls out saying the vote cannot be free and fair. Karzai declared president for a second term

Dec – Obama decides to raise troop numbers to 100,000 and says will begin withdrawing forces by 2011

2010

Feb – Taliban reject Karzai’s invitation to a peace council

NATO-led forces launch Operation Moshtarak to try and secure Helmand province

Karzai takes control of the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, which helped expose massive fraud in October presidential election

Jul – International agreement to transfer control of security from foreign to Afghan forces by 2014. General David Petraeus takes command of U.S. forces

Aug – Independent Election Commission says over 900 polling centres will be closed due to security fears during Sep. parliamentary elections

United States says Karzai ban on all foreign private security firms may affect aid and development work

United Nations says civilian casualties up by 31 percent since 2009, with Taliban responsible for 76 percent of deaths

Unidentified gunmen kill 10 aid workers, including 8 foreigners, in Badakshshan province

Sep – Parliamentary elections pass off relatively smoothly despite a Taliban threat to disrupt the poll

Nov – NATO agrees plan to hand control of security to Afghan forces by 2014-end

Dec – Final election results announced

2011

Mar – The number of civilians killed by fighting rose 15 percent in 2010, compared with 2009, United Nations says. A total of 2,777 civilians were killed during 2010, 75 percent of them by Taliban

Apr – Violent protests break out against Koran burning in a U.S. church. At least seven foreign U.N. workers are killed when protesters storm the U.N. compound in Mazar-e Sharif

May – Bin Laden shot dead by U.S. special forces near Pakistan’s main military academy in the northwestern garrison town of Abbottabad

Taliban launch “spring offensive”

Jun – U.S. President Obama announces 10,000 U.S. troops to leave during 2011, and another 23,000 by Sep. 2012

U.S. says it is participating in Afghan Peace Council talks with Taliban

268 civilians reported killed in May, highest monthly toll since 2007

Jul – Senior government officials assassinated, including Karzai’s half-brother who was governor of Kandahar

ISAF forces hand over security of seven regions to Afghan troops

United Nations says 1,462 civilians killed by conflict during first half of 2011, a rise of 15 percent from the same period in 2010 and the highest since 2001

General John Allen replaces General David Petraeus as head of ISAF, U.S. forces

Sep – Militants carry out major attack on U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, killing 27 people. Officials blame Taliban-linked Haqqani Network, and U.S. top military commander accuses Pakistan of backing attack

Human Rights Watch report says Afghan militias and police are committing serious abuses

Oct – India and Afghanistan sign strategic partnership

Bomb near U.N. housing and assault on NGO offices in Kandahar kill at least five people

U.N. report is released, detailing torture of detainees by Afghan security officials

Karzai says the government is to abandon peace talks with Taliban and focus on dialogue with Pakistan

Nov – Hundreds of political elite attending a loya jirga traditional assembly endorse Karzai’s bid to negotiate a 10-year military partnership with the United States

Dec – Pakistani Sunni militants Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claim responsibility for attacks on Shia holy day Ashura, killing more than 80 people and injuring at least 100

Pakistan boycotts Bonn conference on Afghanistan

2012

Jan – A leaked NATO report says the Taliban, with Pakistan support, is poised to retake control after NATO withdrawal

Taliban said had opened an office in Qatar as part of confidence building measures agreed on with U.S. and German govts

Feb – Reports of NATO troops burning copies of Koran trigger violent country-wide protests

NATO, UK and France recall civilian staff from ministries after two senior U.S. military officers killed in Afghan Interior Ministry. Taliban claim responsibility

United Nations says the civilian death toll rose in 2011 to 3,021

Mar – U.S. soldier Robert Bales shoots 17 villagers including 9 children in Kandahar’s Panjawi district.

Taliban break off prisoner exchange talks with U.S.

Apr – U.S. and Afghanistan agree a strategic partnership deal

Taliban launches a multi-city “spring offensive” in Kabul, Nangahar, Logar and Paktika provinces

Pakistan, Afghanistan and United States discuss reviving peace talks

May – NATO summit says 2014 withdrawal of troops “irreversible”

ISAF announces al-Qaeda second-in-command killed in Kunar province

Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban minister and key member of the High Peace Council, is killed in Kabul. The Taliban deny responsibility

Jul – Tokyo donor conference pledges $16 billion in aid, and promises to channel more aid through the Afghan government if Afghanistan does more to tackle corruption

Aug – U.S. military discipline six soldiers for inadvertently burning copies of the Koran in February

2013

Mar – Two former Kabul Bank chiefs are jailed for a massive fraud that nearly led to the collapse of the entire Afghan banking system in 2010

Jun – NATO forces hand over command of all military and security operations to Afghan army

Aug – Robert Bales is jailed for life for massacring unarmed villagers in March 2012

2014

Jan – A Taliban suicide attack on a restaurant in Kabul’s diplomatic quarter kills 21 people, including the IMF country head. It is the worst attack on foreign civilians since 2001

Feb – The number of Taliban attacks rises with the start of the presidential election campaign

Apr – Presidential election

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Afghanistan: Bicycle a new metaphor of freedom for Afghan women

Paghman (Afghanistan), 27 June 2014 – AFP

Anuj CHOPRA / FEATURE

Trundling down dun-coloured mountain slopes, they ignore hard stares and vulgarities from passing men, revelling in an activity that seemed unthinkable for previous generations of Afghan women –- riding a bicycle.

The sight of a woman on a bicycle may not be unusual in most parts of the world, but it is a striking anomaly in Afghanistan where strict Islamic mores deem the sport unbecoming for women.

The country’s 10-member national women’s cycling team is challenging those gender stereotypes, often at great personal risk, training their eyes not just on the 2020 Olympics but a goal even more ambitious — to get more Afghan women on bikes.

“For us, the bicycle is a symbol of freedom,” said Marjan Sidiqqi, 26, a team member who is also the assistant coach.

“We are not riding bikes to make a political statement. We’re riding because we want to, because we love to, because if our brothers can, so can we.”

One crisp morning, dressed in tracksuit bottoms, jerseys and helmets, Marjan and half a dozen team members, all aged between 17 and 21, set out for a training ride from Kabul to the hills of neighbouring Paghman.

Mindful of turning heads and ogling eyes, they rode in the amber light of dawn through a landscape of grassy knolls, fruit orchards and tree-lined boulevards.

A little boy dressed in a grubby shalwar kameez stopped by the wayside and stared at the girls with wonder and amazement.

Up ahead, dour-looking bearded men in a Toyota minivan pulled up parallel to the cyclists — their stares were more menacing.

But the wheels continued to spin as the women powered ahead undaunted.

They have become accustomed to the hostility, often accompanied by insults:

“Whore.”

“Slut.”

“You’re bringing dishonour to your families.”

“Go home.”

But the team say they are emboldened despite such attitudes -– partly due to the encouraging support from unexpected quarters.

– ‘Living my dream’ –

Fully cloaked in black, the mother of one cyclist came out to cheer them on the way to Paghman, waving, applauding, and exuding enthusiasm that is not shared by most of her extended family.

“My daughter is living my dream,” said Maria Rasooli, mother of 20-year-old university student Firoza.

“My parents never allowed me to ride a bicycle. I can’t let the same happen,” she said, adding that she and her husband kept relatives and neighbours in the dark about their daughter’s sport because “they just won’t understand”.

Thirteen years since the Taliban were toppled from power in a US-led invasion, Afghan women have taken giant strides of progress with access to education and healthcare.

Female lawmakers are no longer an anomaly in Afghan politics and the ongoing election saw the participation of the country’s first woman vice presidential candidate.

That marks a sea change in women’s rights from the Taliban-era, when women weren’t allowed to leave their homes without a male chaperone and were brutally repressed and consigned to the shadows.

But gender parity still remains a distant dream as conservative attitudes prevail.

That sentiment is portrayed in a mural by graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani on the walls of a Kabul cafe: burqa-clad women trapped in a watery universe — an allegory of women in the post-Taliban era who have a voice but still cannot be heard.

– ‘Boys or girls?’ –

It’s hard to reason with self-proclaimed arbiters of “morality” who regard a woman mounted on a bicycle as unconceivably risque, say members of the cycling team.

On a recent training session outside Kabul, three young Afghan men riding a motorbike swooped out of nowhere and sideswiped one of the cyclists, 18-year-old Sadaf Nazari, who tripped and tumbled on top of Marjan.

Marjan badly injured her back in the incident, which drove Mohammed Sadiq, head of the Afghan Cycling Federation who was trailing the women in his SUV, into a paroxysm of fury.

He chased down the men -– the two pillion riders escaped, but he caught the driver by his collar and hauled him over to the police headquarters.

Sadiq, who established the team in 2003 after his own daughter expressed an interest in cycling, said the women’s safety was a constant concern — and plans for international troops to pull out of Afghanistan by 2016 has perpetuated those anxieties.

“If the Taliban return, the first casualty will be women’s rights,” he said in an interview in Kabul’s old city.

As he spoke, half a dozen young women, some sporting kohl-accented eyes and henna-dyed hair, convened in his living room for a discussion about nutrition and diet with Shannon Galpin, an American competitive cyclist who is coaching the team for the forthcoming Asian Games in South Korea.

Back on the training ride, the exhausted girls gathered by a freshwater stream in Paghman to refuel on naan bread, raisins and cottage cheese.

Near a roadside kiosk where fresh plums, cherries and mulberries dangled from strings, a curious Afghan man sidled up to Marjan.

“Are you with those cyclists going around the mountain?” he asked.

Startled, Marjan’s eyes darted around as she braced for trouble.

“Yes,” she replied hesitantly.

“Are they boys or girls?” the man enquired.

Marjan’s face lit up with bravado.

“Girls,” she beamed proudly.

 

http://www.afp.com/en/news/bicycle-new-metaphor-freedom-afghan-women

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Afghanistan: Stark choice for many Afghans: sickness or debt

KABUL, 2 July 2014 (IRIN) – The cost of health care is throwing many poor Afghans into a cycle of debt. While most now have access to basic public health care, the quality is so low that many patients seek out private services at a higher cost than they can afford – driving some of them further into poverty.

When Reza Gul’s children get sick, she takes them to a private clinic. Like most Afghans, she thinks she will get better health care there, so she forks out 2,000-3,000 Afghanis (US$35-53) for each visit.

But in order to do so, her jobless husband is forced to borrow money. They have had to borrow 35,000 Afghanis (US$615) to cover health costs. In the winter, her family migrates to Pakistan in search of work and then comes back to Afghanistan during the summer, when employment opportunities pick up in the capital Kabul. They fear they may never be able to repay their debts.

According to a recent report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which surveyed 700 patients in four provinces, 44 percent of respondents were forced to sell their possessions or borrow money to get health care during a recent illness.

“When families get into debt, they cannot afford proper food. Their kids get sick, and malnourished and it creates this perpetual cycle,” said Edi Atte, the field coordinator at Ahmed Shah Baba Hospital in Kabul.

“They have to borrow money from a neighbour or someone who has money in order to take care of their child.

“The children can die from something simple, something easy to cure in the hospital. This cycle affects their whole life. The next time around, maybe they cannot get the money. Another child dies. Or if they do get the money, it just adds to the debt they already owe.”

Even though nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and unemployment hovers between 35 and 40 percent, reports dating back to 2006 show the vast majority of the population rely heavily on private health care.

Two in three people who described their household as “poor to extremely poor” in the MSF survey (living on US$1 a day or less) had paid an average of $40 for health care during a recent illness. One in four spent more than $114.

“Most people seek private services over governmental ones because their services are of higher quality,” said Mohammad Amin, a supervisor at Ahmed Shah Baba Hospital. “And if you compare people’s income to the cost of the health services, the cost is higher than their income.”

But even the private healthcare system pales in comparison to neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and India, according to Amin, prompting Afghans to travel abroad for care. MSF found that 65 percent of those who went to Pakistan for treatment were forced to borrow the money or sell goods to make the trip.

Tough choices

The public health system presents its own very serious risks.

Recently, a young woman in Paktia Province was sent to hospital due to complications during pregnancy. On the way, the woman went into labour, according to a woman who accompanied her to the hospital and gave only her first name, Leila. The baby, a stillborn, was only partially delivered – only the head and one hand had exited the mother’s body.

“When we reached the hospital, it was night time,” Leila told IRIN. “The baby was still half-delivered and the woman was in bad condition, but the female doctors told us they could not admit the patient because it was too late.”

The women turned back. By the time they got home, the mother was also dead.

“We had to pull the baby out of the patient’s body,” said Leila, visibly distraught.

This quality of public health care leaves most of the population with limited choices: access the public system and risk poor treatment or access the private system and risk impoverishment.

Nearly 20 percent of patients interviewed by MSF had had a family member or close friend die in the past 12 months due to lack of access to health care. According to the report, the three main obstacles to accessing health care, in cases where its inaccessibility resulted in death, were lack of money, long distances, and conflict.

A grandmother’s experience

Leila, a grandmother living in a household with more than a dozen family members, cannot afford to go to private clinics in her province of Paktia.

“When you’re sick, you have to spend a lot of money in private clinics. We don’t have money and we can’t afford it, so we go to the public clinic. They don’t have a lot of medicine and qualified people, so we just take the medicine we’re given and wait. We hope and see if we get better – or we die.”

The public clinic in her village closed after the Taliban fired rockets on it.

Leila and her husband heard that MSF provided free, quality care so they risked a dangerous five-hour trip to get their pregnant daughter-in-law to MSF’s maternity hospital in Khost. The trip cost the equivalent of $80 – they used their savings from selling pine nuts, but had to borrow $50 to make up the shortfall.

While health costs place considerable strain on people from all strata of society, the poor are hit particularly hard. A 2010 Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) report found that some families were refused treatment in private clinics because they could not afford it.

Corrupt doctors?

In line with Afghanistan’s constitution, primary health services, including medication, at public facilities is free. But stocks often run out, and patients are then forced to buy the medication in private pharmacies or at the bazaar.

The MSF survey showed that 56 percent of patients interviewed who visited a public facility paid for all their medication.

“Often, the doctor has a relationship with a pharmacy,” said Ahmadullah Safi, a medical staff member at Ahmed Shah Baba Hospital. “When people go [to the doctor], maybe they don’t need an antibiotic, they need something else. But to do their business [and make money], the doctor prescribes a lot of medicine.”

The private sector accounts for 70 percent of the largely unregulated pharmaceutical market – a system that is contaminated with “substandard, falsified, counterfeit and diverted” medicine, says one report published in what has since been renamed the Journal of Pharmaceutical Policy and Practice.

For Najibullah Safi, a primary healthcare officer at the World Health Organization, the Afghan health sector is doing the best it can under challenging circumstances.

“There are certain standards that must be followed and we are following those standards. If we compare to some other places, definitely there are a lot of problems with quality… but the types of facilities that are locally acceptable or feasible at this stage are available here.”

According to the World Bank, 85 percent of the Afghan population lives in districts with facilities able to deliver a basic package of health services; and around 60 percent live within one hour’s walking distance of a public health facility.

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Afghanistan: How to Oversee Aid in Uncertain Times

From the U.S. Institute of Peace blog The Olive Branch. You can view this post on the USIP web site here. June 23, 2014

By Colin Cookman

Last weekend, as many as 7 million Afghan voters are reported to have defied skeptics and cast their ballots for a second time this year in a runoff election to choose a president. Although the U.S. and other international partners are moving to reduce their military presence in the country, the next Afghan administration will still need significant military and non-military assistance. A report by USIP and the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) lays out the discussion of a joint symposium that explored how aid could be prioritized, designed, managed and monitored.

Although the Afghan government has taken steps to improve its ability to generate revenue from customs and taxation, the country remains highly dependent on donor funds for many key functions, and in recent years, revenues have stagnated. The United States will need to think carefully about how to structure its assistance to the next Afghan government.

Although the United States and its partners have made considerable progress in supporting the development of an Afghan government capable of securing its own territory against militant and transnational terrorist groups, “the task is not over, and will require long-term international support — albeit at more sustainable levels than those of the past decade,” Andrew Wilder, vice president for USIP’s Center for South and Central Asia, wrote in the report.

USIP and SIGAR organized the symposium to gather experts and practitioners from across and outside the U.S. government earlier this spring to assess the lessons and challenges for overseeing aid distributed in active conflict areas such as Afghanistan. The highlights of those discussions are now available in a conference report released today by the two organizations.

The U.S. and other donors have committed to financing the Afghan army and police through the next decade, and the administration’s 2015 fiscal year budget request includes $1.2 billion in non-security assistance for Afghanistan. While this represents a major decline from peak appropriations in 2010, Afghanistan remains one of the largest U.S. aid programs globally. Yet movement outside of guarded compounds is being increasingly restricted as the military coalition that helps provide security draws down.

Managing that aid effectively will prove a significant challenge, cautioned John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, in the report. He noted that “significant portions of Afghanistan are already inaccessible to SIGAR and other U.S. civilians,” and ” ‘oversight bubbles’ are getting smaller as U.S. military units are withdrawn and coalition bases are closed.”

Conference participants expressed concern about the Afghan government’s substantial needs and about the risks facing aid implementers in the country’s uncertain security environment. They also underlined the need to be realistic about what development assistance can accomplish and the importance of effectively managing the continuing partnership with Afghanistan.

If international donors and Afghan recipients both work to meet previous commitments to enact reforms on each side, reduced but sustained aid might help consolidate and strengthen Afghan institutions and political processes. Those ultimately will determine the government’s ability to support itself over the long term.

Some participants argued that reduced U.S. assistance, managed carefully, could even spur more strategic thinking about how to best prioritize aid and how to ensure that aid does not fall prey to waste, fraud or mismanagement.

“With external resources for Afghanistan shrinking during the coming years, there will be a need to prioritize spending — rather than spending money because it is there to spend –which in itself should improve the quality of projects being implemented,” USIP’s Wilder wrote in the report. That would require building monitoring and evaluation into project design from the beginning, and working to clearly link those project assessments to broader stabilization strategies at the macro level.

Improvements also depend on better coordination and information-sharing among and within donor organizations to ensure that the declining, but still substantial, assistance is not wasted due to duplicate efforts or a lack of institutional memory about what sorts of programs have seen successes and which have not worked in the past.

New technologies can potentially help extend oversight on some indicators in remote or otherwise inaccessible areas, where civilian aid officials may no longer have international security force protection. But these tools face clear limits for what they can reveal, particularly in gauging qualitative impact.

Engaging closely with local Afghan partners, communities and the Afghan government on project design, implementation and evaluation, and working to build local capacity to assess the effectiveness of aid, can potentially help offset a declining international presence. But this carries its own set of risks. It may be difficult to confirm the reporting of local partners or to manage security threats against Afghans who cooperate with the international community and with their own government.

Leaders at USIP and SIGAR have said they plan to continue the discussion going forward, in order to share lessons between aid managers, implementers and overseers on how to best remain engaged with Afghanistan while also mitigating risks to the overall objective of stabilizing and securing the country.

Colin Cookman is a senior program specialist in USIP’s Center for South and Central Asia.

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Afghanistan: Beyond Elections — What Is Required For Real Democracy In Afghanistan?

Despite a substantial level of anticipation in the first round of Afghanistan's presidential election, the authors argue that much more needs to be done before democracy is firmly established in the country.

Despite a substantial level of anticipation in the first round of Afghanistan’s presidential election, the authors argue that much more needs to be done before democracy is firmly established in the country.

Radio Free Europe, By Karim Lahidji and Guissou Jahangiri, June 13, 2014
Much noise was made about the unprecedented voter turnout for the first-round elections in Afghanistan on April 5, with almost 7 million people (60 percent of all eligible voters) making their voices heard despite serious insecurity.Yet just two months after they filled the streets of Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, and Kandahar, the people of Afghanistan have all but disappeared from the discussion, and media attention has turned to the big power players and who between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani will be the country’s next leader. But regardless of the results of the second-round elections to be held on June 14, the question of whether Afghanistan can now be considered democratic will depend on whether its citizens continue to participate in their own governance.For the next leader of Afghanistan to be a true beacon of democracy, he will need to ensure that the extraordinary willingness of Afghanistan’s citizens to participate in their governance continues beyond the ballot box, by guaranteeing them access to education, information, and justice.

An educated citizenry is at the heart of any well-functioning democracy: people must be informed and encouraged to think critically if they are to meaningfully participate in a political society. Education is particularly important in a young country like Afghanistan, where two-thirds of the population is under 25 years of age. Equal access to quality education should be a key priority for the incoming government and seen as an investment in the development of generations of politically active and informed citizens.

An improved educational landscape has been one of the major achievements of the post-Taliban era. Many schools closed under Taliban rule have been reopened, and girls have again been offered access to education. But just as important as the government’s reopening of schools has been the enormous public response to it. With the same enthusiasm that they brought to the ballot boxes in April, Afghan citizens have shown a desire to invest in the future of their country by sending their children — boys and girls — to school. Since the fall of the Taliban, school enrollment skyrocketed by 700 percent, with almost 3 million more girls attending school despite continued threats and attacks against them.

Low Literacy Rates

To build on these gains, Afghanistan’s next leader must ensure equal access to quality education and give protection to those regions where Taliban groups continue to burn school buildings and threaten those who wish to educate their children.

Further resources need to be dedicated to improving literacy rates, which remain among the lowest in the world. In rural areas, where three-quarters of the population resides, around 90 percent of women and 63 percent of men still cannot read or write. In addition to the proven role of education in economic development and advancing women’s rights, ensuring access to education for all of Afghanistan’s children will be the main determinant for genuine democracy in years to come.

But even an informed and educated citizenry cannot engage in politics unless they are given the space to voice their thoughts and opinions. A democracy that represents the will of the people is not guaranteed only through the counting of ballots every few years; citizens must have the opportunity and freedom to share their views and concerns on an everyday basis.

Ensuring that civil society is given space and resources to thrive in Afghanistan will therefore be an essential element to lasting democracy in the country.

Freedom of expression, association, and assembly must be protected, and the media must be allowed to operate without censorship.

Media and civil society are the channels through which citizens learn about and engage with their government, and Afghanistan’s new president must therefore enact legislation to protect journalists and facilitate the creation and operation of diverse civil society organizations. The international community and donors must also recognize the importance of bolstering local civil society, and support Afghan organizations representing and mobilizing their fellow citizens.

Violence With Impunity

Challenges to the capacity of Afghans to engage freely in governance come not only from illiteracy or a weak civil society. Violent actors who deny the rights of women continue to dominate local politics and rule by force, particularly in rural areas. Current approaches to “peace talks” have resulted in impunity and have allowed warlords to continue terrorizing the population.

The passing of an amnesty law by the parliament in 2007, ironically titled the “National Stability And Reconciliation Law,” precludes prosecution of all people engaged in large-scale human rights abuses prior to 2001. This immunity for violent actors, combined with a lack of vetting for political leaders, has allowed local warlords to hold on to power and prevent genuinely representative candidates from running for office.

Moreover, without accountability for past and present abuses, Afghans will not feel safe to criticize the government and defend their rights. The fallacy that peace and justice are incompatible continues to pervade the peace talks in Afghanistan, and allows violence to continue with no consequence.

In this climate of impunity, Afghanistan’s citizens have no guarantees that they can safely speak out against those who violate their rights. Unless Afghanistan’s new government guarantees the rule of law and invests in justice mechanisms, he will be but a figurehead, and violent actors will continue to prevent genuine democracy from taking hold.

For far too long, the voice of the Afghan people has been silenced by poverty, exclusion, and violence. Nevertheless, they are being asked to have hope and courage and again face great risks to vote in the second-round elections on June 14.

Let us not ignore this call for change by the Afghan people by succumbing to the temptation of declaring democracy in Afghanistan based simply on the completion of the elections. Afghanistan’s people deserve to be able to continue to participate in their own governance, and it’s up to the country’s next leader to ensure that they are able to do so.

Karim Lahidji is president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Guissou Jahangiri is director of Armanshar Open-Asia, FIDH’s Afghanistan-based partner organization. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of RFE/RL
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Afghanistan: “Pakistan: Worse Than We Knew”

Book Review by Ahmed RashidJUNE 5, 2014

Alexandra Boulat/VII

A pro-Taliban rally in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, circa 2002

During the Afghan elections in early April I was traveling in Central Asia, mainly in Kyrgyzstan. I wanted to inquire into the fears of the governments there as a result of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. What did they think of the growth of Taliban and Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Officials in each country cited two threats. First, the internal radicalizing of their young people by increasing numbers of preachers or proselytizing groups arriving from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Middle East. The second, more dangerous threat is external: they believe that extremist groups based in Pakistan and Afghanistan are trying to infiltrate Central Asia in order to launch terrorist attacks.

Islamic extremism is infecting the entire region and this will ultimately become the legacy of the US occupation of Afghanistan, as the so-called jihad by the Taliban against the US comes to an end. Iran, a Shia state, fears that the Sunni extremist groups that have installed themselves in Pakistan’s Balochistan province on the Iranian border will step up their attacks inside Iran. In February Iran threatened to send troops into Balochistan unless Pakistan helped free five Iranian border guards who had been kidnapped by militants. (The Pakistanis freed four of the guards; one was killed.)

Chinese officials say they are particularly concerned about terrorist groups coming out of Pakistan and Afghanistan that are undermining Chinese security. Although China is Pakistan’s closest ally, its officials have made it clear that they are closely monitoring the Uighur Muslims from Xinjiang province, who are training in Pakistan, fighting in Afghanistan, and have carried out several terrorist attacks in Xinjiang.

Terrorist assaults from Pakistan into Indian Kashmir have declined sharply since 2003, but India has a perennial fear that Islamic militant groups based in Pakistan’s Punjab province may mount attacks in India. Many Punjabi fighters have joined the Taliban forces based in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, and they have attacked Indian targets in Afghanistan. India is also wary of another terrorist attack resembling the one that took place in Mumbai in 2008.

Some five thousand Pakistani soldiers and policemen have been killed and some twenty thousand wounded, both as targets of terrorist attacks and during offensives against them. The economy has sharply declined, and there are widespread electricity shortages. The political elite is divided and at odds with the military over how to deal with terrorism, while many in the middle class are leaving the country.

Two years ago all the states in the region would have publicly or privately accused Pakistan’s military and Interservices Intelligence (ISI) of supporting, protecting, or at least tolerating almost every terrorist group based in Pakistan. The ISI had links with all of them and often collaborated with them. Recently those relations have changed. Governments in the region now accept that Pakistan is in some ways trying to fight terrorism on its soil. But those governments are also concerned that the Pakistani military and political elite have lost control of large parts of the country and cannot maintain law and order. The US and Western countries fear that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal is vulnerable and that terrorists in Pakistan may be planning an attack comparable to that of September 11.

There is still no overall political or military strategy to combat Islamic extremism. The Pakistani army tries to suppress some terrorist groups but not, for example, those that target India. Such a selective strategy cannot be maintained indefinitely and poses enormous risks to the entire world.

Since the mid-1970s the ISI has supported extremist Islamic groups in Afghanistan including the Taliban, but that policy may now be changing. Contrary to many predictions, the situation in Afghanistan may be taking a turn for the better. Despite the threat of Taliban reprisals, seven million Afghans turned out on April 5 to vote in the first presidential election in which President Hamid Karzai was not a candidate. This was also the first genuine attempt in Afghan history to transfer power democratically. A remarkable 58 percent of the 12 million eligible voters turned out—35 percent of them women. Although the Taliban did not make a show of force to stop the vote, relatively few people voted in many Taliban-controlled areas in the south and east. Preliminary results released on April 26 show the Tajik leader Abdullah Abdullah in the lead with 45 percent of the vote and his Pashtun rival Ashraf Ghani trailing with 32 percent. Over three thousand cases of fraud still have to be investigated before the count is final.

Since neither candidate had a majority of 50 percent, there will be a runoff election between the two by the end of May. A new government will not be in place before July, which means that a security agreement with the US, which all the candidates have agreed to, will be delayed. The US and NATO want a military force of some ten thousand to stay in the country in order to train the Afghan army and gather intelligence. Such an agreement will be necessary if the US Congress and Europe are to be persuaded to keep the Kabul government financially afloat. Afghanistan needs a minimum of $7 billion a year to pay for its budget and army. In January the US Congress cut by half the $2 billion earmarked for US aid to Afghanistan.

To bring the civil war to an end the new president will try to open talks with the Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan is now also keen on such talks because two thirds of Pashtuns live in Pakistan, including members of the Taliban, and there has been talk by Islamists of carving out a separate Pashtun state. Will the Pakistan military put pressure on the Afghan Taliban leaders who live in Pakistan to talk to the new government in Kabul while Pakistan deals with its own Pashtun problem? A lot will depend on whether a much weakened Pakistan still has the power to force the Afghan Taliban to engage in negotiations.

All the recent books I have seen on the Afghan wars have recounted how the Pakistani military backed the Taliban when they first emerged in 1993, but lost its influence by 2000. Then, after a brief respite following September 11, 2001, Pakistan’s military helped to resurrect the Taliban resistance to fight the Americans. My own three books on Afghanistan describe the actions of the Pakistani military as one factor in keeping the civil war going and contributing to the American failure to win decisively in Afghanistan.*

Now in The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001–2014, Carlotta Gall, theNew York Times reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade, has gone one step further. She places the entire onus of the West’s failure in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s successes on the Pakistani military and the Taliban groups associated with it. Her book has aroused considerable controversy, not least in Pakistan. Its thesis is quite simple:

The [Afghan] war has been a tragedy costing untold thousands of lives and lasting far too long. The Afghans were never advocates of terrorism yet they bore the brunt of the punishment for 9/11. Pakistan, supposedly an ally, has proved to be perfidious, driving the violence in Afghanistan for its own cynical, hegemonic reasons. Pakistan’s generals and mullahs have done great harm to their own people as well as their Afghan neighbors and NATO allies. Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has been the true enemy.

Dogged, curious, insistent on uncovering hidden facts, Gall’s reporting over the years has been a nightmare for the American, Pakistani, and other foreign powers involved in Afghanistan, while it has been welcomed by many Afghans. She quickly emerged as the leading Western reporter living in Kabul. She made her reputation by reporting on the terrible loss of innocent Afghan lives as American aircraft continued to bomb the Pashtun areas in southern Afghanistan even after the war of 2001 had ended. The bombing of civilians was said to be accidental, supposedly based on faulty intelligence; but it continued for years and helped the Taliban turn the population against the Americans.

Before human rights groups or police arrived in remote, bombed villages, Gall was often there first. Thus in July 2002, she writes of driving “for three days over dusty and rutted roads” to reach a village in Uruzgan province that had been bombed during a wedding. Fifty-four wedding guests were killed, including thirteen children from one household, and over one hundred people were wounded. The survivors of this massacre “were collecting body parts in a bucket”—Gall’s quote of the provincial governor that haunted reporters and other observers in Kabul. She continued:

Sahib Jan, a twenty-five-year-old neighbor, was one of the first to reach the groom’s house after the bombardment. Bodies were lying all over the two courtyards and in the adjoining orchard, some of them in pieces. Human flesh hung in the trees. A woman’s torso was lodged in an almond sapling…. Bodies lay in the dust and rubble of the rooms below.

Some of those killed were friends of President Karzai and these bombings infuriated him and caused his relations with the US to deteriorate. As late as 2009 Gall was still covering such disasters, as when US planes bombed the village of Granai, killing 147 people—“the worst single incident of civilian casualties of the war.”

Carlotta Gall was, in effect, a one-woman human rights agency. She spent much time and effort exposing the torture and killing of Afghans taken prisoner by the Americans. This was a highly sensitive issue—the American victors did not expect American media to expose their wrongdoings. But Gall went ahead. She told the heartbreaking story of Dilawar, a naive taxi driver who was wrongly arrested in Khost in eastern Afghanistan, incarcerated in an isolation ward at the US airbase at Bagram, and then beaten to death by his American jailors. She spent many weeks tracking down Dilawar’s family and obtained the death certificate issued by the US Army:

I gasped as I read it. I had been looking to learn more about the Afghans being detained. I had not expected to find a homicide committed by American soldiers.

Nobody was ever charged and the same US team of interrogators was deployed to Abu Ghraib in Iraq—the other site of grisly US treatment of prisoners. Gall’s modesty does not allow her to mention that it was this story that led to the making of the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.

Robert Nickelsberg

Prayer flags at a Taliban graveyard on the outskirts of Kandahar city, Afghanistan, February 2005; photograph by Robert Nickelsberg from his book Afghanistan: A Distant War, just published by Prestel

All her skills were put to the test when she reported on the death of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and tried to discover whether senior Pakistanis had been hiding him all along. Methodically adding one fact to another, she concludes not only that some were, which is convincing, but that all the top officials in the military and the ISI knew of his whereabouts, although the evidence she offers for such widespread knowledge is not wholly plausible; and her assertion that there was a specific “bin Laden desk” at the ISIappears, from my own inquiries, to be flimsy.

For many Pakistanis the main failure of the government is that nobody has ever been punished or held responsible either for hiding bin Laden or not discovering him earlier. Gall surmises that the ISI had let it be known that bin Laden’s hideaway was an ISI safe house. That is why nobody ever knocked on the door—a reasonable assumption.

However, the fiercest opposition to her views comes from American officials themselves. They insist, as they are obliged to do, that none of the top Pakistani leaders knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts. Gall’s conclusion that the Obama administration deliberately kept the ISI’s role in harboring bin Laden secret in order to save the US–Pakistan relationship is difficult to accept for two reasons. The first is simply the propensity of officials in Washington to leak to journalists. The second is that US–Pakistani relations would collapse a few months after the killing of bin Laden over different issues, notably Pakistan’s support of the Taliban. The US therefore would not have been so concerned to protect its relations with Pakistan.

Most states today, including the US and NATO countries, believe that the Pakistani military is no longer in control of the Taliban in Afghanistan or capable of putting decisive pressure on them. The army leaders have too much of a problem at home with their own Pakistani Taliban. Their ability to persuade the Afghan Taliban to make peace with Kabul is very limited. Moreover, the Pakistani military has shown no willingness to kick the Afghan Taliban out of Pakistan and back to Afghanistan. The civilian government is trying to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban but the military is against such talks and would rather use force, a major division in policymaking in Islamabad. There are enormous risks involved, such as the two Talibans merging to fight the Pakistani army.

The Pakistani military belatedly understands that a Taliban conquest in Afghanistan would eventually ensure that Pakistan would find itself with a Taliban government in Islamabad. As Gall recounts, the Pakistani army has spent years propping up the Afghan Taliban, training their fighters, allowing them to import arms and money from the Arabian Gulf and to recruit among Pakistani youth. As Gall shows, the army even decided which tactics the Afghan Taliban should use. The army is now desperate to find a political solution that would send the Afghan Taliban home.

Many army and police officers find themselves confused as they are ordered to protect some Taliban and other extremists and kill others. Pakistani officials are supposed to be loyal allies of the US and they take its money but they also are encouraged by powerful Pakistanis to promote anti-Americanism in society and the army. There has been no adequate explanation for these dual-track policies, which have ravaged state and society and undermined the army internally. Moreover the army is still not prepared to give up its militant stand against India.

Gall writes that Pakistani soldiers “were fighting, and dying, in campaigns against Islamist militants, apparently at the request of America, but at the same time they were being fed a constant flow of anti-American and pro-Taliban propaganda.” Unfortunately she does not acknowledge that there have been shifts in the military’s thinking and that it faces the more open kind of confusion over its strategy and its loyalties that I have described. Her book starts and ends on the same note even though thirteen years have elapsed.

Afghans have observed that the ISI has not interfered in the Afghan elections. Contrary to its policy since the 1970s, it has avoided favoring Pashtun candidates. It has also tried to improve relations with the former anti- Taliban Northern Alliance (NA) warlords it once opposed by meeting with the leaders of Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek groups that were the major components of the alliance. Consequently all the Afghan presidential candidates have softened their comments on Pakistan, avoiding the harsh rhetoric of Hamid Karzai.

Yet for the reasons described by Gall, the Pakistani military still does not comprehend how deeply Pakistan is hated by most Afghans. Even today the worst atrocities and suicide bombings causing civilian deaths are often blamed on the Taliban elements “trained by Pakistanis.” Hatred for Pakistan is possibly even stronger among the Afghan Pashtuns who have been Pakistan’s traditional allies. The Pakistani army must undergo deep self-examination and show considerable humility in dealing with the Afghans if it is to genuinely create an opportunity for peace.

However there are large gaps in Gall’s analysis that cannot be ignored. Pakistan was not the only cause of the failure to control the Afghan Taliban; the failure in Afghanistan has been an American failure as well. The lack of a US political strategy stretched over four administrations. Two Presidents—Bush and Obama—were unable to make up their minds about what to do in Afghanistan or how many troops should carry out which tasks. The overwhelming militarization of US decision-making and the hubris of American generals undermined diplomacy and nation-building; the US failed to curb open production of opium and other drugs. There was constant infighting between the White House, Defense, and State Departments over policy. There was also widespread corruption and waste both in the private contracting system used by the US military and in some of the operations of the US Agency for International Development. The list of such American failures is indeed long, and assigning responsibility for the losses in Afghanistan will occupy US historians for decades.

Gall’s second omission is not to recognize the negative effects caused by the neighboring countries, apart from Pakistan, and their constant interference in Afghanistan. She ignores the Afghan civil war after 1989 when all the Afghan warlords had international backers. She fails to mention that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia backed the Taliban while Russia, Iran, India, Turkey, and the Central Asian republics supported the Northern Alliance.

More recently Iran has given sanctuary to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, India is funding the Baloch separatist insurgency in Pakistan, and Afghanistan has provided a refuge to the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. The US presence has failed to provide protection for people in the region. Most Afghans will tell you today that what they fear most about the Americans leaving is that intervention from all the country’s neighbors will start again. Gall doesn’t blame neighbors other than Pakistan.

Why did Pakistan adopt policies of intervention in Afghanistan, especially after September 11, when it had essentially lost the game in Afghanistan? There has been a disastrous logic to the military’s policies—which more thoughtful Pakistanis have always resisted.

Here some history is useful. The Pakistan military has used militant political groups as an arm of its foreign policy in India and Afghanistan since the 1970s. This was allowed by the West as part of the cold war. During the 1980s the CIA funded the Afghan Mujahideen and Islamic extremists from forty countries when they were fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It was not until September 11 that Pakistan’s use of Islamic extremists as a tool of its foreign policy became unacceptable.

After September 11 General Pervez Musharraf and the military regime believed that they could, for a time, appear to meet US demands by capturing al-Qaeda leaders while avoiding harm to the Afghan Taliban. Musharraf was always treated as a messiah by the Bush administration; but a year after September 11 well-informed Pakistanis knew that Musharraf had started playing a double game with the Americans by covertly supporting a Taliban resurgence.

What was the Pakistan military’s logic in doing so? After the war to oust the Taliban was over in 2001 the military faced the defeat of its Taliban allies and had to suffer the Northern Alliance and its backers—including India and Iran—as victors in Kabul. Musharraf felt he had to preserve some self-respect; and Bush appeared to acknowledge this when he allowed ISI agents to be airlifted out of Kunduz before the city fell to the Northern Alliance and its backers—a series of events well described by Gall. Bush had also promised Musharraf that the NA would not enter Kabul before a neutral Afghan body under the UN took over the city. But as the Taliban fled, the NA walked into Kabul without a fight and took over the government.

The Pakistani military was further angered at Bonn in December 2001, when the new Afghan government was unveiled and all the provincial security ministries were handed over to the Northern Alliance, with Pashtun representation at a minimum. This was the usual outcome by which the spoils of war went to the victors, but for Pakistan’s generals it was further humiliation that bred resentment and a desire for revenge.

The military was equally perplexed about why the US did not commit more ground troops to hunt down al-Qaeda instead of leaving that task to Northern Alliance warlords. The military was convinced that the Americans would soon abandon Afghanistan for the war in Iraq and leave the NA, backed by India, in charge in Kabul.

Bush’s refusal to commit even one thousand US troops to the mountains of Tora Bora where bin Laden was trapped sent a powerful message to Pakistan. By 2003 US forces in Afghanistan still amounted to only 11,500 men—insufficient to hold the country. Five years later in 2008 there were only 35,000 US troops in Afghanistan, compared to five times that number in Iraq.

The Pakistani military’s insecurity about American intentions and the growing power of the NA, India, and Iran led to its fateful decision to rearm the Taliban. It believed that the Taliban would provide a form of protection for the Pakistani military against its enemies. Instead the revamped Afghan Taliban helped create the Pakistani Taliban and the worst blowback of terrorism in Pakistan’s history. It is the Taliban’s terrorism within Pakistan rather than US pressure that altered the military’s position from backing the Afghan Taliban to its now seeking a peaceful Afghanistan.

Gall’s account of the rise of the Taliban is also open to question. She writes that three commanders in Kandahar and Kabul—two of them drug smugglers and one of them a landlord—initiated the Taliban movement. Between 1994 and 1998, in Kandahar and Kabul, I interviewed nearly all the students who were the founding members of the Taliban and the three men she names were never mentioned, except as intermittent financiers. The founders of the Taliban were pious, conservative, simple young villagers who had fought the Soviets as foot soldiers and were now deeply disillusioned with their former leaders for fighting a civil war. They came together to rid Kandahar of criminal gangs. They then traveled around the country asking warlords to help end the civil war and bring peace. When that failed they decided to launch their own movement.

Contrary to Gall’s account that they wanted power over Afghanistan from the first, the Taliban founders initially had only three aims—to end the civil war, disarm the population, and introduce an Islamic system. Until they reached the gates of Kabul in late 1995, they had no intentions of ruling the country. Instead they were demanding a Loya Jirga, or meeting of tribal elders, to decide who should rule. Some, like Mullah Borjan, were actually royalists who wanted to call back the former King Zahir Shah from exile. Gall says Borjan was killed at the behest of the ISI in 1996, although it is widely accepted that he died a year earlier in the first attack on Kabul.

All the founding members of the Taliban I interviewed gave a different account from Gall’s of the rise of their leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. They all had equal status, the requisite piety, and a strong record of fighting the Soviets. There was no natural commander among them. After much debate they picked Omar as the first among equals, the most pious and apparently the most humble. His status rose only after he insisted that his colleagues swear an oath of allegiance to him. He continues to be powerful. Too much of Gall’s information and analysis on the history of the Taliban seems to reflect the views of the Afghan intelligence service, whose own interpretation is flawed and one-sided.

Today, with Pakistan torn apart by unprecedented violence and the situation in Afghanistan still precarious, the Pakistani military has strong reasons to change its past policies of sponsoring wars fought by nonstate organizations. Some changes are happening, but only at a glacial pace. Serious reform needs to start at the lowest level of the military, at the schools and colleges from which the army is drawn, where drastic curriculum changes are needed. The ISI needs to be brought under a code of conduct and accountability, particularly with respect to its dealings with violent organizations. Its personnel should be trained in political realism rather than in ideological prejudices. Unless changes in the army can be made more quickly, there is still the danger that this nuclear power could slip into chaos.

  1. *The trilogy is: Taliban (I.B. Tauris, 2000); Descent into Chaos: The US and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (Viking, 2008); Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan(Viking, 2012). 
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Afghanistan: Afghanistan’s Fragile Gains for Women

southasia.foreignpolicy.com, May 9, 2014
Parnian Nazary, a representative of Women for Afghan Women, a grassroots civil society organization, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee how far both she and the women of Afghanistan have come in just over a decade by recounting a harrowing story of the challenges she faced and the barriers she scaled in order to gain an education under the rule of the Taliban. While expressing her elation that Afghan women no longer have to attend secret schools and surreptitiously teach themselves English like she did, she also emphasized that these successes are fragile and at risk without the sustained support of the international community.

Nazary’s words square with my own experience in Afghanistan. When I first moved there in 2003, land mines were scattered across the once fertile farm land, women were hardly ever seen in public, and less than a million boys and only a handful of girls attended school. After a decade of persistent effort by Afghans and support from the United States and the international community, Afghanistan has changed dramatically. Pomegranates growing in orchards once littered with land mines are being packaged and exported, women actively participate in the Afghan government and civil society, and more than 8 million boys and girls are enrolled in school.

According to the United Nations, Afghanistan has experienced greater improvement in human development — a measure of health, education, and standard of living — than any other country in the world since 2000. Life expectancy alone has increased by 20 years, from 42 years to 62, and maternal mortality has decreased by 75 percent. All this progress came at less than 3 percent of the total cost of the civilian and military effort in Afghanistan.

While these achievements are substantial, Afghanistan still needs our support and attention. It remains a poor country deeply affected by 30 years of war: Half of Afghan families are surviving on less than $1.25 per day. To address this, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is continuing its work with the Afghan government to combat corruption, strengthen Afghan institutions, and encourage business growth and entrepreneurship. At the same time, USAID applies strict safeguards to ensure U.S. dollars are utilized for maximum results as we work with the Afghan government.

But if Afghanistan is to successfully navigate its way out of a cycle of extreme poverty, it will need its women, youth, and civil society to play an essential role. To this end, USAID has made it a priority to focus on these three groups. As such, we will be launching our largest gender program in the world in Afghanistan. The program, known as “Promote,” will help educate Afghan women and turn them into the country’s future business, political, and civil society leaders. At the same time, USAID is working with the Afghan government to bolster institutions of basic and higher education and to increase opportunities for youth to receive the kinds of technical and vocational training necessary to find jobs in the expanding economy. We are also helping to provide civil society groups with new skills needed to effectively address the issues facing their communities with programs such as Promote, which will enable women’s rights organizations and coalitions to influence public policy and social practices.

With an active and engaged citizenry, the many fragile gains Afghans have made can be transformed into lasting successes.

Nazary concluded her testimony by voicing a concern that many Afghan women share: that the international community will abandon Afghanistan. While Afghans are ready to take on the challenges ahead, as demonstrated by the high number of voters who turned out for the April 5 presidential election, she underscored that they cannot tackle them alone. Together with the Afghan people, the United States can help ensure that the remarkable development progress in Afghanistan is maintained and made durable, and that Afghan women like Nazary do not have to study in secret ever again. The risks and sacrifices that the people of the United States have made in Afghanistan in support of our national security interests, and the determination that the Afghan people, particularly women, have shown, demand no less.

Kathleen Campbell is the Acting Deputy Assistant to the Administrator in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development. She recently testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

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Afghanistan: Afghanistan’s Insurgency after the Transition

International Crisis Group Report
Asia Report N°25612 May 2014
The Executive Summary is also available in Dari.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The war in Afghanistan entered a new phase in 2013. It now is increasingly a contest between the insurgents and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Many within and outside the government are more optimistic about stability in the wake of a relatively successful first round of presidential elections on 5 April 2014. However, any euphoria should be tempered by a realistic assessment of the security challenges that President Karzai’s successor will face in the transitional period of 2014-2015. Kabul may find these challenges difficult to overcome without significant and sustained international security, political and economic support.

The overall trend is one of escalating violence and insurgent attacks. Ongoing withdrawals of international soldiers have generally coincided with a deterioration of Kabul’s reach in outlying districts. The insurgents have failed to capture major towns and cities, and some areas have experienced more peace and stability in the absence of international troops. Yet, the increasing confidence of the insurgents, as evidenced by their ability to assemble bigger formations for assaults, reduces the chances for meaningful national-level peace talks in 2014-2015.

A close examination of four provinces – Faryab, Kunar, Paktia and Kandahar – reveals underlying factors that may aggravate the conflict in the short term. Historical feuds and unresolved grievances are worsening after having been, in some cases, temporarily contained by the presence of international troops. In Faryab, these are largely ethnic tensions; in Kandahar they are mostly tribal; but in all transitional areas there is a variety of unfinished business that may result in further violence post-2014. Similarly, clashes among pro-government actors may become more frequent, as predicted by local interlocutors after recent skirmishing between government forces in Paktia. The situation in Kandahar also illustrates the way mistreatment of Afghans at the hands of their own security forces, operating with less supervision from foreign troops, breeds resentment that feeds the insurgency. Finally, despite its rhetoric, Pakistan has not reduced safe havens and other support for the insurgency, while Afghanistan’s hostile responses – especially in Kandahar and Kunar – risk worsening cross-border relations.

None of these trends mean that Afghanistan is doomed to repeat the post-Soviet state collapse of the early 1990s, particularly if there is continued and robust international support. In fact, Afghan forces suffered record casualties in 2013 and retreated from some locations in the face of rising insurgency but maintained the tempo of their operations in most parts of the country. Afghanistan still has no shortage of young men joining the ANSF, offsetting the rising number of those who opt to leave them or abandon their posts. The government remains capable of moving supplies along highways to urban centres. ANSF cohesiveness, or lack of it, may prove decisive in the coming years, and Paktia notwithstanding, only minor reports emerged in 2013 of Afghan units fighting each other. As long as donors remain willing to pay their salaries, the sheer numbers of Afghan security personnel – possibly in the 370,000 range today – are a formidable obstacle to large-scale strategic gains by the insurgents.

That will not stop the Taliban and other insurgent groups from pushing for such gains, however. Despite a short-lived gesture toward peace negotiations in Doha, the insurgents’ behaviour in places where the foreign troops have withdrawn shows no inclination to slow the pace of fighting. They are blocking roads, capturing rural territory and trying to overwhelm district administration centres. With less risk of attack from international forces, they are massing bigger groups of fighters and getting into an increasing number of face-to-face ground engagements with Afghan security personnel, some of which drag on for weeks. The rising attacks show that the insurgents are able to motivate their fighters in the absence of foreign troops, shifting their rhetoric from calls to resist infidel occupation to a new emphasis on confronting the “puppets” or “betrayers of Islam” in the government. The emerging prominence of splinter groups such as Mahaz-e-Fedayeen is a further indication the insurgency will not lack ferocity in the coming years.

For the first time, the insurgents inflicted almost as many casualties on Afghan security forces in 2013 as they suffered themselves, and several accounts of battles in remote districts suggested the sides were nearly matched in strength. There are concerns that the balance could tip in favour of the insurgency, particularly in some rural locations, as foreign troops continue leaving. President Karzai has refused to conclude agreements with the U.S. and NATO that would keep a relatively modest presence of international troops after December 2014. The two presidential runoff candidates have vowed to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which would in turn allow for a NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). While retaining a contingent of foreign soldiers would not be sufficient on its own to keep the insurgency at bay, its absence could prove extremely problematic. The ANSF still needs support from international forces, and signing a BSA and a SOFA would likely have knock-on effects, sending an important signal of commitment at a fragile time, thus encouraging ongoing financial, developmental and diplomatic support.

With or without backup from international forces, the Afghan government will need more helicopters, armoured vehicles, and logistical support to accomplish that limited objective. Such additional military tools would also permit the government to rely increasingly on the relatively well-disciplined Afghan army rather than forcing it to turn to irregular forces that have a dismal record of harming civilians.

Certainly, the future of the Afghan government depends primarily on its own behaviour: its commitment to the rule of law, anti-corruption measures and other aspects of governance must demonstrate its concern for the well-being of all Afghans. However, responsibility also rests with the international community; its patchy efforts over a dozen years to bring peace and stability must now be followed not with apathy, but with renewed commitment.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To help Afghan security forces withstand a rising insurgency

To the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan:

1. Sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S. and a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO.

2. Take urgent steps to reduce casualties among Afghan forces, including a large-scale effort to train police and soldiers in the basics of emergency medical care.

3. Strengthen anti-corruption measures to ensure that security personnel receive their salaries and other benefits, and confirm that ammunition, diesel and other logistical supplies reach Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) units.

To the government of the United States:

4. Significantly increase the size of the Mobile Strike Force (MSF) program, so that sufficient ANSF quick-reaction units are available to handle many of the worsening security trends of 2014-2015 and beyond.

5. Find a way, possibly by working with other donors, to expand Afghan capacity for tactical air support, including more helicopters in support of government efforts to retain control over remote district centres.

To all donor countries:

6. Convene a meeting of donor countries as a follow-up to the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, with a view to expanding annual pledges of support, realising them on schedule and allowing the ANSF to maintain for the time being personnel rosters approximately equal to their current levels. Those ANSF levels are not indefinitely sustainable or desirable, but reductions should progress in tandem with stabilisation.

7. Support anti-corruption measures by the Afghan government to ensure, inter alia, that salaries are distributed to all ANSF members and logistical supply chains function as required.

To reduce tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan

To the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan:

8. Increase diplomatic outreach to regional governments, including Pakistan, to find ways of reviving peace talks with the insurgents; maintain, at a minimum, lines of communication between Afghan and Pakistani civilian and military leaders; and explore ways to increase bilateral economic cooperation as a way to ease tensions with Pakistan.

9. Refrain from taking direct military action inside Pakistan or supporting anti-Pakistan militants.

To strengthen the rule of law

To the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan:

10. Reduce reliance on and ultimately phase out the controversial Afghan Local Police (ALP) program, given the ALP’s abuse of power and destabilising effect in most parts of the country.

11. Respond with transparent investigation and disciplinary measures as appropriate to any report of ANSF failure to protect or deliberate targeting of civilians, in violation of obligations under Afghan and international law.

To all donor countries:

12. Assist with programs aimed at encouraging the ANSF to respect the constitution and the country’s obligations with regard to human rights and the laws of armed conflict.

To improve political legitimacy and state viability:

To the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan:

13. Encourage open public and media discussion and debate of security problems so as to find solutions and keep policymakers informed; and acknowledge that, aside from the conflict’s external factors, internal Afghan dynamics such as corruption, disenfranchisement and impunity also deserve attention.

14. Strengthen efforts to make the Afghan government more politically inclusive, particularly at the provincial and district level.

15. Refrain from interfering in the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and the Independent Complaints Commission (IECC) processes of disqualifying voters and adjudicating complaints in connection with the 2014 and subsequent elections.

16. Direct propaganda messages toward front-line insurgents that publicise the absence of international forces in their areas of operation in order to undermine the logic of jihad after the departure of foreign troops.

To all donor countries:

17. Sustain economic assistance for the Afghan government and work with the finance ministry to encourage growth in customs and other forms of government revenue.

18. Encourage the IEC and the IECC to comply strictly with electoral laws, including requirements to conduct their work in a transparent manner, in the processes of disqualifying voters and adjudicating complaints.

19. Provide diplomatic support for the Afghan government’s efforts to improve relations with Pakistan and revive peace talks, when feasible, with insurgent factions.

Kabul/Brussels, 12 May 2014

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Afghanistan: Afghan Elections Through a Gender Lens

From: Network for Afghan Women LISTSERV <info@funders-afghan-women.org>

Watch “Afghan Elections Through a Gender Lens.” Recorded last week at the New America Foundation, see what Afghan women thought about the April 5 election.
Despite the Taliban’s effort to disrupt the recent Afghan presidential elections, seven million Afghan citizens voted (out of an electorate of 12 million), 36% of whom were women. With the preliminary results of the elections announced on Saturday April 26th, this timely event will take stock of the situation in Afghanistan a month after the elections occurred, with particular focus on women, peace and security.

The progress made by Afghan women over the last 13 years is irrefutable and stands as a testament to the pride, focus and commitment of leaders such as Sima Samar and Belquis Ahmadi. However, the drawdown of U.S. and NATO troops, uncertainty regarding future international funding, and continued domestic challenges to women’s progress combine to create an unstable situation in which tenuous gains made by Afghan women could be walked backwards.

The discussion addressed a number of questions, including the leading Afghan presidential candidates’ stances on women’s issues, expectations of Afghan women from the new Afghan government, and examining how the international community should support Afghan women beyond 2014.

Join the conversation online using #Afghanlens and following @NatSecNAF.

Watch the event here: http://newamerica.net/events/2014/afghan_elections_through_a_gender_lens?utm_content=bufferb6b8d&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

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Afghanistan: Afghanistan’s Next Generation Mobilizes

By Viola Gienger

 

Afghanistan

The pivotal presidential elections in Afghanistan next April will rest more than ever before on a new generation, as the proportion of the country’s population under the age of 25 reaches 68 percent.

To gauge the potential influence of youth on the elections as well as their attitudes and their degree of political activism, USIP has commissioned two studies that will interview more than 270 young leaders across the most populous provinces.

“The old guard, which has prevented reform, is not ready to relinquish power, and forward-looking youth groups don’t seem to be ready to challenge them,” said Scott Smith, USIP’s deputy director of Afghanistan programs. “The key questions for this election, and therefore for the future of Afghanistan, is whether the ballot box will matter, and if it does, whether the youth vote will be decisive.”

Young Afghan leaders have conducted human rights education in their communities, tracked the national budget to hold elected leaders to account, worked in newly established government ministries, and run for parliament. Take, for example, 29-year-old Naheed Farid, the youngest member of Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament, who is considered an outspoken supporter of young Afghans becoming more involved in the political processes.

At the same time, some have been frustrated by the concentration of power in the hands of older, established leaders both at home and abroad who often take what the youth see as outmoded, intransigent positions that keep Afghanistan mired in the past.

“Afghanistan has transformed, and both our leaders at home as well as our allies in the U.S. or elsewhere need to start adopting a new set of optics towards the country,” said Haseeb Humayoon, the founding partner and director of QARA Consulting Inc., the first Afghan-owned public relations and political risk consulting firm. Humayoon, who spoke at a June 28 panel discussion at USIP on youth in Afghanistan, previously worked at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, conducting research and briefing members of Congress.

Humayoon is a council member for Afghanistan 1400, a civil-political movement founded in December that aims to establish a political platform for the country’s new generation. Another leading youth-established policy group in Afghanistan is Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3), said Rachel Reid, director of the Regional Policy Initiative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, who moderated the panel.

 

Click HERE to read more from the United States Institute of Peace.

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Afghanistan: Lost In Time: Groovy Afghanistan

afghanistan

A cautionary tale of a vibrant and thriving culture lost in time, these photographs collected on a community Facebook page in Afghanistan are likely to leave you in disbelief. The country we’re so often shown today is comparable to a broken medieval society, but not so long ago, the barren landscape was dotted with stylish buildings, women wore pencil skirts and teenagers shopped at record stores.

As you browse the photos that capture progress, hope and that rock’n’roll spirit in the air, keep in mind the implications of what happened to this culture in just a few decades.

Above: Afghan women in the 1940s

Afghanistan

Typical Kabuli Fashion in the 60′s- 70′s

Mohammad Qayoumi grew up in Kabul during the 60s and 70s and many of his photographs are featured on the Facebook page’s collection. This is the Afghanistan he remembers:

A half-century ago, Afghan women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods. There was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead. All that has been destroyed by three decades of war, but it was real.

This was Afghanistan…

Afghanistan

Afghanistan

 

 

To read more, click here!

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