Monday, July 26, 2004
"We are becoming hopeful day by day. We cannot develop our country, in which the fighting existed for 23 years, within two years. We had lots of problems in the past but they are being solved day by day." So says Ghalib Shah Azizi, the head of Afghanistan's Northern Chamber of Commerce.
If there is one place where good news is harder to come by than Iraq, it's Afghanistan. For that we should partly blame our poor understanding of Afghan realities, and consequently, unrealistic expectations. An isolated, poor, largely rural country with harsh landscapes and limited natural resources, Afghanistan has been for the past quarter of a century cursed with constant violence and oppression. Good news from Afghanistan will not in any foreseeable future mean mushrooming shopping malls and health care clinics in every village. For the people who have suffered so much for so long, relative peace and absence of theocracy are a good start.
But, as is the case with reporting from Iraq, we shouldn't let the media off the hook so easily, either. For all the fashionable talk about Iraq distracting the Bush Administration from the war on terror, it's largely been the media who have ignored Afghanistan except for the occasional story about another skirmish with the Taliban remnants or the explosion in opium cultivation.
CBS's veteran journalist, Tom Fenton, recently had this to say about the work of his media colleagues:
"You know the old saying: No news is good news. But in the news business, it is just the opposite: Good news is no news - which is why you have been hearing so little from Afghanistan recently.Not to mention in Kabul. If they did, they would arguably find more stories like these:
"Iraq has been grabbing the headlines. Even the most confirmed optimist would find it hard to see a ray of light there today. But there is a growing body of evidence that things are beginning to improve in Afghanistan. To see why, you need to travel around Afghanistan a bit. That's something the media find hard to do in Iraq now - many news crews rarely venture out of their hotels in Baghdad."
DEMOCRACY: The Afghanis eagerly await their chance to participate in free and democratic elections. These are people like the Qaimi family: "Olya Qaimi reached into her purse and proudly pulled out her ticket to Afghanistan's future: a laminated card saying she is registered to vote in the nation's first post-Taliban election. 'The sun is rising in Afghanistan and we have a chance for a very good future,' said Qaimi's husband, Wasi, who has also registered to vote. 'This time we will settle our struggle with politics in place of tanks and guns'." The Qaimis and millions of others will get their chance in October, when after some inevitable delays they vote for President, and early next year, in the parliamentary elections. Even the Afghanis still living in Pakistan and Iran will be able to participate in the poll.
Women, in particular, are keen to seize the opportunities that until very recently were denied to them:
"[I]n spite of repeated warnings from the Taliban that women should neither register nor stand for office, 2.1 million women have now registered to vote, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the body overseeing the process. This means that 38% of the current electorate are women, overturning predictions that few would register."
The Afghanis are growing increasingly optimistic about the future of their country and approving of its current political direction. According to a poll conducted by Chaney Research, AC Nielsen India Org-Marg and the Afghan Media Resource Center for the Asia Foundation, Hamed Karzai remains popular in Afghanistan, enjoying favorable opinion of 62% of those polled. The interim government's performance gets a tick of approval from 57% of Afghanis. In other results from the same poll, 64% of Afghanis believe that their country is moving in the right direction (versus only 11% who think Afghanistan is moving in the wrong direction). More significantly, two thirds of those polled support the United States, and only 11% still favor Taliban. 81% plan to vote in the coming elections, although majority expresses concerns whether the poll will be completely fair.
Another recent poll, conducted by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium, paints a similar picture. Some of the highlights include:
- 92% of those polled now feel safe walking around their town or village; 83% feel more secure now than they felt three years ago with Taliban still in power; and 78% think that Afghanistan will be still more peaceful a year from now.In many ways, the public sentiment in Afghanistan remains significantly more positive and optimistic than in Iraq, which is surely a good sign for Afghanistan.
- 94% of respondents said it is now easier for their children to go to school then it was three years ago; 83% also think that health care has become more accessible.
- "The level of awareness about the constitution-drafting process and the national elections was high - 70% and 69% respectively." 87% of those polled intend to vote in national elections.
- Very importantly, 72% thought that "women should be involved in community decision making. When asked why, many responded either that it was their right under Islamic rule, or simply because they were humans who made up half of the population."
In the north of the country, too, optimism prevails about the future and the direction of the country. Ghalib Shah Azizi, whom I quoted at the start of the article, has this to say about the Afghani president: "I believe Hamed Karzai is an intelligent and proper person to be selected as a president for Afghanistan. He will be able to rule the government and ensure peace and stability in the country."
Religious authorities too, throw their support behind the efforts to build the new Afghanistan: the Afghan Ulema Council, composed of the nation's eminent religious scholars, has called on the Afghani people to give up their weapons and end "the rule of the gun," which has spread across the country over a quarter of a century of conflict. The scholars also called on people to support the government, and on religious leaders in towns and villages to encourage Afghanis to participate in the disarmament programme.
SOCIETY: Afghani refugees continue to vote with their feet: "The pace of return to Afghanistan remains strong, with thousands of refugees going back daily. So far this year, we've seen some 450,000 refugees repatriate." Of those, more than 242,000 came from Iran, surpassing the previous source of returning refugees, Pakistan, with some 210,000 Afghanis coming back from there since January. "In all, some 3.5 million Afghans have gone home since the UNHCR-organized return movements started in 2002, including more than two million from Pakistan, 900,000 from Iran and more than 440,000 displaced persons, while tens of thousands of other exiles have gone back on their own." This is surely the greatest humanitarian good news story of the last few decades.
For too long an international shame, the status of women in Afghanistan continues to improve: "Women's role has changed, but burqas still prevail yet the status of women has improved since Taliban times. Women can walk around, unaccompanied by males, and they are allowed to work. They are free to roam in public without fear of being arrested or beaten for wearing high heels or seeming to walk in a provocative manner." Women, for so long denied educational opportunities, are slowly winning their struggle for a better future:
"Before workers could lay the first stone for a new school in this rural village, a deeper foundation took shape in a showdown with mullahs who insisted that no girls would set foot in the classrooms. 'The easiest way to stop a school is to talk about girls,' said Greg Mortenson, a Minnesota native who has spent the past decade creating schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 'Culturally, women have been chattel here.'And the government seems to be succeeding: "Now, a good share of the women have shed the burqa the Taliban forced on them and instead wear scarves draped loosely around their faces. Many have gone back to work in the capital, Kabul. More than 2 million have registered to vote, and a few hold high-level government positions."
"Mortenson's team won. The school is rising from a mountainside plot. Girls have been invited to attend when it opens this fall.
"The power struggle over this eight-room school is being replayed village by village as official Afghanistan strives to liberate women who were prisoners in their own homes before the ouster of the Taliban in 2001. Although many remain sequestered by their families, the transitional government has set a top priority on getting them into classrooms, the workplace and the polling booths."
State Department's recently released Report to Congress on U.S. Support for Afghan Women, Children, and Refugees shows that "reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have inspired Afghan women to assume roles they never dreamed possible, in government, in politics, in the market place, in the police, in agriculture, in politics and in the media." Mentioned in the report are the 187 new and ongoing humanitarian projects to assist Afghani women and children, including "[s]ome 24 job creation projects are teaching women how to make and market honey, textiles, rugs, clothing, pasta, cement blocks and countless other products." Also in the report, the fact that of 5.8 million people who have returned to schools this year, 35% are women. There is also a reminder of the new Constitution, approved in January this year, which gives equal rights to Afghani men and women.
In this changing political and cultural climate, more and more women are becoming active in the civic life of Afghanistan. Read this profile of Malalai Joya, 25, who runs an orphanage and health clinic, and despite frequent threats to her life, continues her crusade against "warlords and criminals" who engage in rape and looting and are involved in drug trafficking across the country. Read also this story of Dr Massouda Jalal, 41-year old lecturer in paediatric medicine at Kabul University who intends to run against Hamed Karzai for the presidency. This, from another profile: "Dr Jalal has addressed several election meetings in Kabul and also in other towns. 'I usually get gatherings of about 500 to 1,000 people,' she says. She has spoken at meetings in schools, universities, mosques and at other places where gatherings have often been organized by local women."
And two women, Robina Muqimyar, who will run in the 100 meters, and Friba Rezihi, who will compete in judo, are set to become the first women athletes to represent Afghanistan at the Olympic games in Athens.
After the puritanical Taliban rule, Afghanis are enjoying an entertainment explosion:
"Najeeb said he's doing a booming business selling DVDs in the centre of Kabul.Much is happening in the radio-centric Afghani society: "Radio Arman, the first independent station, was launched in 2003. Some conservatives were outraged that 'young girls can be heard laughing on the air,' according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders." In addition there are now 14 government radio stations across Afghanistan. 37% of the population listen to the radio, and the US Army last year distributed further 200,000 free radio sets. In a country that is still largely illiterate and lacking much basic infrastructure, radio remains the most useful and popular medium of education and raising political awareness.
'Every day I sell between 20 and 30 DVDs,' he said. 'It's a good business.'
"With pirated copies of the latest releases readily available for as little as 50 afghanis, or about one US dollar, and inexpensive Chinese-made DVD players flooding the market at 40 dollars each, many see no reason to pay 19 afghanis, or about 35 cents, for a ticket to a cinema.
"In addition, many shish-kebab restaurants and ice cream shops now play music videos and foreign films on DVD, giving new meaning to the idea of dinner and a movie. And unlike the films shown at both government and privately owned theatres, these films are uncensored and can be seen in the evenings."
With that in mind, and with a $2.5 million grant from the Italian government, "UNESCO has undertaken the project to completely upgrade and rehabilitate distance education services in Afghanistan." As part of the work, the headquarters of the Educational Radio and Television Centre of Afghanistan's Ministry of Education have been fully renovated and is again operational after being completely destroyed during the war. Also, a new radio and TV programme, supported by the UNESCO, will aim to reach out to those in remote areas, the sick, the infirm and the home-bound, to ensure that educational opportunities are available to everyone in Afghanistan.
RECONSTRUCTION: In a huge vote of confidence and a sign of optimism, the Afghan International Chamber of Commerce is formed in Kabul: "Three hundred people were expected; 2,500 showed up to vote. Obvious was their energy, their enthusiasm, their pride and their strength. They were creating one of those institutions that becomes a pillar of a free society, an economic power independent of the state."
The trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan stood at just $20 million two years ago, but today it's $700 million. Pakistani Finance Minister estimates that the trade between the two countries will reach $1 billion later this year. Among signs of increased economic cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan, "the resumption of air flights, functioning of Pakistani banks in Afghanistan, contribution of Pakistani laborers and contractors in reconstruction of Afghanistan, construction of highways between the two countries."
Western companies are slowly coming in too, like the Utah-based internet business Overstock, which aims to bring the work of Afghani craftsmen, many of them handicapped in war, to the world market.
In banking news, "Afghanistan International Bank (AIB) was officially opened at a ceremony attended by shareholders, management, and about 150 guests from the international and local business and diplomatic communities in Kabul."
In energy news, a Sofregaz-led consortium along with Energy Markets Ltd, financed by the Asian Development Bank, has just completed a Natural Gas Master Plan for Afghanistan. The Plan, based in part by research conducted by the Soviet geologists during the occupation in the 1980s, aims to assess Afghanistan's hydrocarbon reserves. Also, India has now "decided to construct a transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul in Afghanistan for import of power from Uzbekistan." Says the Indian energy minister: "The project will enhance India's image as a major partner of Afghanistan and will introduce its capability in a new area of activity with potential future commercial spin offs."
And as the country rebuilds, more opportunities open up for women: the Self-Employed Women's Association, an NGO which helps women gain economic independence and become self-reliant, is sending management consultants, insurance team, research team and the rural development team to assist Afghani women in setting up micro-businesses. Some of the businesses to be introduced include craft making such as "miniature paintings, jewellery, carpet weaving, shoe-making and embroidery" as well as "food processing units making jams, pickles and cookies." In a country where so many women have been widowed over the years of conflict, particular efforts are being made to help those with little other support:
"Muslima cradles a scared chicken in her arms, tending to it with all the careful treatment due a precious object. She gently hands it to her teacher, Farima, who is lecturing a roomful of about 25 women on the best way to care for the bird. Farima's students, all widows, are eagerly attentive.To the Western eyes these seem like very small things, but they make a huge difference on the ground in Afghanistan.
"Although long past school age, these women - most of whom have children of their own - have never been to school themselves. This dark, mud-walled room in Muslima's home is their first classroom. They sit on the floor leaning against the walls, their faces lined in concentration. This poultry-raising class has the potential to guide them from unemployment to self-sufficiency."
Lastly, read this story about Ghulam Sediq Wardak, a 62 year old semi-literate and self-taught Afghani genius with 341 inventions to his credit. His latest project, a car powered solely by the solar energy. A few more people like Sediq, and Afghanistan's future might be a lot more brighter.
HUMANITARIAN AID: A number of Afghanistan's regional neighbors contribute to the reconstruction effort. Turkey is sending Provincial Reconstruction Teams to the Takhar area of the country; the teams consist of 200 people, including 80 military personnel and are expected to stay on location for 3 to 5 years. Turkey has also recently renovated two hospitals seriously damaged during past conflicts, re-equipped and reopened them under the name of Turkish-Afghan Friendship Hospitals. 300-400 patients are being treated there every day. A third hospital is currently undergoing the same treatment, and mobile health clinics are starting to reach less accessible areas. Meanwhile, Indian Army's Military Engineering Services are set to commence work in Afghanistan on construction of roads and housing within the next six months.
The Coalition forces, in addition to providing security, also work on a number of other important projects. These are soldiers like Sgt. Gary Feldewerd and other Army Reservists from Minnesota's 367th Engineer Battalion who are involved in a titanic struggle to rid Afghanistan of the estimated 10 million landmines and other unexploded ordinance strewn across the country.
While governments continue to provide aid and assist in reconstruction, many NGOs and individuals also contribute on a grass roots level. You might remember Djamshid Popal, a 9 year old boy with a heart defect, whose story so touched a Canadian resident Saddique Khan, that he personally financed bringing the child over for a life-saving operation. Unfortunately, Djamshid's condition has proved to be more serious than previously thought; fortunately, the hospital itself is charging only half of the usual fee, and a mystery benefactor has now stepped in to cover these costs. Read also this story of the efforts by a joint American-Jordanian medical specialist team to save the life of a little Afghani girl in one of the remote villages.
In Michigan, John Dark, a high school student from Western High School in Parma is trying to raise $30,000 by October to build a playground for Afghani kids at the Abdullah bin Omar School in the Paghman district, east of Kabul. "We were thinking about the basic needs of kids... They've seen a war-torn country all their lives. We decided one of the basic needs is to learn how to be a kid," says John. Read the whole story to see how you can help.
Meanwhile, Operation Shoe Fly continues with their great efforts to provide Afghani kids with much needed shoes. And Care USA runs numerous aid projects on the ground in Afghanistan. Please visit both website if you want to assist in their valuable projects. Give2Asia, a nonprofit organization founded by The Asia Foundation to promote philanthropy to Asia, has also been active in Afghanistan spending $500,000 to fund education opportunities for Afghani women (visit them here).
Afghanis living in the West are too contributing to the reconstruction of their homeland. In the section of Fremont, in Marin County, California, known as "Little Kabul," Humaira Ghilzai, president of the 2-year-old Afghan Friends Network, now spends 20 hours a week on her project to establish a sister-city relationship between Hayward, "home to the Bay Area's largest Afghan mosque, and Ghazni, a city of 35,000 residents, 70 miles southwest of Kabul":
"This month, she gave her frequent-flier miles to the governor of the province of Ghazni, Asadullah Khaled, so that he could fly to Hayward and tour a medical clinic, Tyrrell Elementary School and Cal State Hayward.Khadija Omar, 74, and her daughter, Hassina, of Denver, Colorado, are meanwhile raising money to buy wheelchairs for thousands of Afghani children who have lost their limbs to landmines. In June this year they delivered 70 wheelchairs already. Click on the link above to learn how you can contribute to their project.
"Children in Ghazni and Hayward have become pen pals, and a fund-raiser here netted enough money to buy 150 tables and chairs for a school in Ghazni. Hayward kids learned from the governor that few families in Ghazni have cars and that schools are bare of computers; sometimes a classroom is just children sitting under a tree."
SECURITY: For the Coalition troops things seem a lot calmer than in Iraq. "People are more apprehensive about us in Iraq... Here, they stare at us like we're a circus act, but they accept us," says Michael Englert, a Navy bomb-disposal expert who travels with the Marines to help detect roadside explosives and mines.
Meanwhile, the new US-trained Afghan Army continues to grow steadily, and it now numbers 13,000 men. In addition, to further military training objectives, "[t]eams of officers from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and officers from the Office of Military Cooperation - Afghanistan are working closely with their Afghan counterparts in the country's defense ministry to establish the National Military Academy of Afghanistan and model it after West Point."
The crucial cooperation between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Coalition forces continues as military and diplomatic representatives meet to discuss the troubled border region between the two countries. Says Brig. Gen. Charles Jacoby, deputy commanding general, Combined Joint Task Force 76:
"We will continue to work with the Afghanistan and Pakistan security forces in any way that serves our common objectives of defeating terrorism, denying sanctuary and strengthening cooperative security... The coalition will continue its aggressive operations and reconstruction efforts on the Afghanistan side of the border as the Pakistan military continues its operations within its own borders."The governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran are also signing a Memorandum of Understanding targeted at controlling the illegal drug trade across the region's borders. And Great Britain is providing Afghanistan with 100 million pounds funding to help combat drug cultivation and trafficking.
The UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programme continues across the country. In the western Herat province, for example, another 750 ex-Mudjahedin turned in 550 pieces of light and heavy arms to the government. In Herat itself, 2,000 fighters have laid down their weapons recently; Safiullah was one of them:
"Safiullah dreams of being a farmer, but up until now the 22-year-old Afghan militiaman has only ever known a life of fighting. 'I picked up my brother's gun after he was killed by the Taliban. I had to finish the war he had begun,' he said, cradling an ancient AK-47. 'I'm tired of carrying weapons. I want to go into civilian life, but I also want the government to help me'."Now, at least, there is some hope that the circle of violence will finally be broken for Safiullah and tens of thousands like him. Other ex-fighters are finding new work - dangerous one, but of immense importance to their country:
"Many former combatants are now joining de-mining agencies as part of the UN-backed disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme. More than 700 such ex-combatants throughout the country have so far joined the United Nations Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan (UNMACA) project."Let's never forget that none of this would have been possible without the United States and allies who two and half years ago helped to bring peace and freedom to the long-suffering people of Afghanistan. Let's hope that, with the world's help, the Afghanis will now make the most of it.