Monday, September 20, 2004

Good news from Afghanistan, Part 4 

Note: Also available from the "Opinion Journal" and the Winds of Change. As always, thanks to James Taranto and Joe Katzman for support and thank you to all the other blogs and readers for publicising the series.

The third anniversary of a significant event had passed recently without much notice or commentary, not unexpectedly overshadowed by another, more prominent third anniversary. On September 9, 2001, two al Qaeda suicide bombers impersonating foreign journalists assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Rightly so, this event came to be seen as a prelude to S11, the opening shot in al Qaeda's renewed offensive against the West as well as its enemies within Afghanistan.

Three years can make a huge difference. The presidential campaign in Afghanistan has officially commenced on September 7. Perhaps it would have been more symbolic had it started two days later, but the very fact that a country which for a quarter of a century has been successively ravaged by the Soviet occupation, a bloody civil war, and a theocratic dictatorship is now embarking on its very own democratic journey is an achievement in itself and a cause enough for celebration.

Getting to this point has not been easy, but Afghanistan slowly and steadily continues to achieve normalcy; mostly out of the media spotlight. Here are some stories of hope and promise that you might have missed over the last month while the mainstream media continued to focus on violence and mayhem, or not at all.

SOCIETY: Afghanistan is preparing to take the first step towards democracy with the presidential elections still scheduled to take place on October 9. The current president Hamid Karzai and 17 other candidates are now competing for the country's top job in a campaign that
officially commenced on September 7. As one report reminds us, "Afghanistan has never before experienced a one-man, one-vote democratic election. Past political systems mainly consisted of elected tribal assemblies and district councils, under a monarch."

Illustrative of the logistical challenges involved in sowing the seeds of democracy on this previously rocky ground is this story of the efforts by a
voter registration team to reach one of the most remote parts of Afghanistan and enroll to vote "people [who] had no TV, no telephones, no way to contact - or really know about - the outside world. The only modern conveniences, it seemed, were their weapons: The AK-47 was the accessory of choice for every turbaned man, and the Toyota Hilux the standard vehicle." While it hasn't been as difficult for all other voter registration teams, the overall effort has nevertheless been quite colossal: "Take all the roads out of France, remove the phone network, and the plumbing, add in 80 percent illiteracy, and you get a picture of what we are dealing with," says David Avery, chief of operations for joint Afghan-UN electoral commission. "Organising the first presidential election in Afghanistan, a country largely without power, roads or literacy, has required a leap of imagination that has encompassed everything from donkeys to satellite phones." This fascinating story shows how the experts got to plan everything from planning security to design and production of ballot papers. Meanwhile, the world's largest democracy, India, is helping with its expertise at conducting elections, as well as with more tangible aid in the form of indelible ink pens to prevent fraud.

With the voter registration now finished inside Afghanistan, the efforts continue to
register Afghan refugees still remaining in Pakistan: "The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) would start registration of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan from October 1, which would continue till October 3... [T]he IOM would increase the period by a day or two if needed. The registration will enable thousands of Afghan refugees living in camps to cast their vote in the first Afghan presidential elections... 'The Afghans living as refugees in Pakistan will be educated about the method of casting votes,' said [the IOM official]. The IOM has recruited more than 400 workers for the registration campaign.

"The source said around 800,000 Afghan voters would be registered for the presidential election in October and for the Olasee Jirga (National Assembly) elections in April... [R]egistration would be carried out at more than 1,000 places in refugee camps."
With the voter registration thus almost over and election campaign already underway, the efforts are being made to provide the Afghan voters and politicians with support and expertise to help them make the most of their new opportunities. One group currently involved in such work in Afghanistan is the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a non-profit organization based in Washington: "This group has opened six offices in Afghanistan to teach the public about political campaigns and fair elections. Another group, Internews, is working with local media and Internet providers to help guarantee freedom of expression."

Afghanistan's previously persecuted minority
Hazaras continue to prosper, hoping that one day the giant world-famous Buddha statutes destroyed by the iconoclastic Taliban will rise again from the rubble:

" 'This was a ruined place, but now everything is being rebuilt,' said Azizullah, 31, a policeman who fled the fighting in 1999. He returned two years ago and has constructed a solid mud house by a stream that rushes past the Buddhas, irrigates acres of golden wheat and quenches flocks of goats festooned with bright ribbons.

" 'The militias have put down their guns and gone home to their fields,' he said. 'We have the best security in Afghanistan, and we welcome everyone who wants to visit and help. Our people want only unity and peace, and they ask only for their rightful share in national life'."
The work to reconstruct the giant Buddhas is already commencing: "[L]ittle by little, what remains of the ancient treasures is being restored, with iron rods shoring up their niches and concrete being pumped into cracks across the crumbling stone." Meanwhile, the search for the world's largest Buddha statue, hidden and untouched by the Taliban, has begun around Bamian. At the forefront, archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi: "It's hard to believe that the sculpture ever went missing. According to the writings of a Chinese pilgrim who reported seeing the reclining Buddha in the year 629, it stretched 1,000 feet... Should Tarzi locate it, the discovery would mean more than uncovering the largest known statue of Buddha. It could be a psychic balm and a financial boon for Afghanistan, easing a collective guilt over the Taliban's destructive acts and reviving Bamian's fortunes as the tourism capital of the nation."

Hazara women, too, are sharing in the new opportunities: "Sabera Sakhi, who runs a small social welfare program in Bamian, the region's capital, is trying to promote several changes at once: the economic emancipation of Hazara women, the cultivation of crops no one has grown here before, and the benefits of vegetarian cuisine to a population that survives on starch." These new initiatives are not only improving the local nutrition and health, but are also bringing unprecedented economic independence to Hazara women: "Within months, the women in Fuladi went from being the neediest members of their community to being among the top income earners. They developed farming skills unknown to local men, learned how to prepare and cook vegetables for their children, and discovered their own stamina improving in the process."

Everywhere around the country, efforts continue to
deal with consequences of decades of conflict:

"The Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Afghanistan New Beginning Programme (ANBP) have joined forces to identify qualified military officers, who have entered the Disarmament Demobilisation and Reintegration programme (DDR) to fill vacant teaching posts. The DDR process helps soldiers to fit back into society through training and employment.

" 'It is good to have these officers who have witnessed war in Afghanistan,' Denise Duclaux, ANBP's public information officer told IRIN in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Wednesday. 'These officers are able to teach a new generation not only basic skills necessary but also about Afghanistan’s past and how they can create a new future for themselves'."
Thanks to a grant provided by the Japan Social Development Fund, this valuable three year program "will provide immediate wage labor employment for 10,000 unskilled ex-combatants while providing around 100 to 300 ex-officers and ex-commanders with employment, training and equipment (under a lease-purchase arrangement) to start up small scale labor based contractor businesses. The program will also provide vocational training to 1,500 ex-combatants and will train 1,000 more in operating and maintaining road construction equipment. It expects to generate 3 million labor days of employment for ex-combatants, rural workers in poppy-growing areas, and others who are living in poverty."

The other legacy of war are, of course, the
refugees. So far this year, 200,000 Afghans have returned home from Pakistan, bringing the total for repatriations from that country to 2.2 million since 2002. "The numbers in August have been boosted by Afghans who asked to return from the 'new' camps established to shelter those fleeing the 2001 war in their country." Meanwhile, on the other refugee front, "[t]he United Nations refugee agency today marked a symbolic milestone with the return home of the one millionth Afghan from Iran since the start of voluntary repatriation to their war-ravaged country in April 2002, reducing by half the overall Afghan refugee population there." Says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers: "Behind this figure there are 1 million individual stories, 1 million people who made the choice to go back, and are now rebuilding not just their own lives, but also their homeland." And the agency's representative in Iran, Philippe Lavanchy comments that "[m]any Afghan refugees in Iran are very educated. They have professional skills that are essential to the future of Afghanistan... Every teacher who goes back will teach hundreds of Afghan children to read, every doctor will save lives, all will be an integral part of the reconstruction of Afghanistan."

Yet another legacy of lawlessness is now
receiving attention: "Thousands of Afghan people whose only livelihood has been combat or the growing of illegal opium poppies will be given the opportunity to enter Afghanistan's new economy with help from a US$19.6 million grant to be provided by the Government of Japan and administered by the World Bank." And to further build up Afghanistan's criminal justice system, the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) is planning to conduct a capacity building program, which according to the UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva will "increase the capacity of the criminal justice institutions to deal with serious crimes in particular with drug-related crimes," and will involve "train[ing] judges, prosecutors and the counter-narcotics police of Afghanistan in the area of arresting criminals, investigation, detaining and imprisonment of serious criminal offenders."

In education news, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), in conjunction with the Afghan Education Ministry, has commenced a community-based schools programme in remote areas of the country to provide
learning opportunities for Afghan girls who cannot attend formal schools. The report notes that "Afghanistan has seen a steady increase in the number of children attending school since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. More than four million children are now enrolled in schools - a third of them girls." A lot of challenges still remain: more than a million of school-age girls are not attending school at the moment; the UNICEF program is aiming to reach half of them. Overall, though, more children are coming back to school:

"As millions of school children across the world return to the classroom this week, an anticipated half a million boys and girls from the southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan will also be going back to study, as the second annual phase of the country's Back to School campaign begins.

"Afghanistan has two academic years - one running from March until December in areas affected by cold winters, and the second beginning in September in areas where the summers are too hot to hold classes. Most of these 'warm weather' schools are in the south and east of Afghanistan.

"The Afghan Ministry of Education, supported by UNICEF, has been mobilizing supplies of learning and teaching materials for some 580,000 children and 5,500 teachers during the last two months in preparation for the September return."
The UNICEF is also starting a major push to increase the overall literacy rates in this country where only 49% of men and just over 19% of women can read and write. "The UNESCO official said the main activities of [the program in question] Land Afghan included the development of a curriculum in both Dari and Pashto for basic literacy and a post-literacy teachers' guide; providing literacy-related capacity building training to government agencies and NGOs; and establishing community learning centres where literacy and non-formal education courses were offered. Land Afghan was also aiming to develop resources for visually impaired and deaf Afghans."

In media news, Kabul's
Arman FM radio station is providing a valuable service to listeners:

"Sitting in the middle of the young men and women working together - a sight that would have given the Taliban apoplexy - is a balding, overweight, 42-year-old man in ill-fitting jeans and a checked shirt. He doesn’t look as if he has superstar status, but Humayoon Daneshyar's daily radio phone-in show has revolutionised Afghanistan's staid world of dismal talk-in shows about dry politics. The format has never been heard before, and has taken the battered city by storm. His show, The Youth And Their Problems, may be Western in style, but the problems are definitely Afghan. Daneshyar is called on daily to sort out matters of life and death.

"His army of fans consult him about arguments between brothers, which can be deadly when so many people are armed with Kalashnikovs. Desperate lovers driven to the brink of suicide come to him as their last resort; he has talked people out of taking their own lives. And despairing young people who survived war and the Taliban but can't cope in an Afghanistan striving for peace, seek his assistance in finding a job. Many have been bitterly disappointed by an economy that has failed to deliver the opportunities they had hoped for. All this sound advice and avuncular help has been delivered live on air, making Daneshyar a sort of good-natured Frasier Crane of Kabul."
In sports news, the Afghan athletes might not have won any medals at the Olympic Games but they have made an important statement by simply competing in the games:

"Her hair was blowing free behind her. Robina Muqimyar was falling way behind the pack Friday in the Olympic 100-meter sprint, but that didn't matter. She never really had a chance to win, and her gold medal was waiting for her at the starting line. There she was on the world's grandest stage, the Olympic Stadium, losing hopelessly in a race against superstars, including American Gail Devers."
For Muqimyar, the victory was symbolic: "I had no opportunities to do anything during the Taliban. I was living at home, not doing anything, just doing homework and chores. This was the biggest memorable moment for me in my life because I competed at the Olympics."

Afghan economy continues to power ahead:

"Afghanistan's economy will maintain its robust growth this year but security, better roads and lower oil prices are needed to keep a lid on inflation, the Governor of the Central Bank of Afghanistan said on Wednesday. Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady said refugees returning home to work the land and generous international largesse fuelled strong growth.

" 'This year, growth will be 16 percent, maybe a little more,' he told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of an annual Islamic Development Bank meeting in Tehran. He said this was a slight cooling from 18 percent growth in 2003 and 29 percent in 2002."
The economy is obviously starting from a very low base line; as Ahady notes, the current reliance on aid is unsustainable, and many problems, such as inflation and trade deficit loom ahead. But so do many opportunities.

"With another few years of foreign assistance he said the economy could settle into the mould of Yemen or Bangladesh. At that stage it would be running growth at three or four percent. The private sector is getting off the ground in areas such as bottling and food oils. Further advances would demand legal adjustments and better security.

"Ahady had no reliable unemployment data but said there was evidence jobs were being created at a healthy rate. Semi-skilled Pakistani labourers have been crossing the border for work. The key to any future investment was the high rate of return from Afghanistan's cheap labour, he added."
In the new Afghanistan, previously unheard of opportunities are opening up; including many for Afghan women:

"A few, determined Afghan women are making the most of whatever economic opportunities are open to them - mostly in home-related spheres such as craft making. Fahimeh, a 23-year-old former refugee who returned from Iran, is one such entrepreneur, who has overcome numerous obstacles to establish a successful small business. The photos in this essay document a day in the life of her beauty salon named Aroos'e Golha (Bride of Flowers)."
See the photo-essay accompanying the story. But it's not just women; take for example this story of a mullah who wants to become a mogul:

"He was 19 when he took up the gun, firing potshots at the Soviet soldiers who came to swim near his village. Now, after 23 years of fighting, the mujahedeen commander is perched again above the dusty brown shores of Lake Qargha and plotting strategy. His new mission: building an Alpine resort.

"Scores of his former comrades in arms toil at the waterside Moon Cafe, laying stone walkways and painting the dining room in cheery pastels. Others are refurbishing several nearby guesthouses.

"By year's end, four model chalets, prefabricated in Switzerland and priced from $183,000, should be built and ready for inspection by well-heeled Kabulis looking for their own slice of Lucerne just six miles northwest of the Afghan capital.

"And that's just the beginning, if the former commander, Ezatullah Rooz, has his way. His plans call for condos on the nearby - albeit war-ravaged - golf course, a shopping center, hotels and perhaps even a short ski run, kept white with snow machines."
As Afghanistan's newest convert to capitalism says, "This is the only way to bring peace to Afghanistan. We cannot bring it with guns, or even the United Nations. Only with jobs." Amen.

Speaking of tourism, a new training initiative aims to combine potential future
benefits for the industry with benefits for Afghan women:

"The Afghan Government is piloting a scheme to teach widowed women the kind of skills necessary to work in the country's tourist industry, which is re-emerging after more than two decades of dormancy due to war and Taliban hostility, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported today.

"More than 30 women are learning skills such as cooking, literacy and home-making, to take advantage of the growing interest from tourists in the site of the Bamiyan Buddha statues and the Band-i-Amir Lake in Afghanistan's central region.

"If the pilot phase works, the scheme will be expanded to help more widowed women left financially vulnerable by the loss of their family's breadwinner, UNAMA spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said."
Doing their bit for the rebirth of Afghan tourism is this group of American tourists - average age 74 - who decided to be among the first Westerners to visit Afghanistan for pleasure. "The tourists have encountered only generosity from ordinary Afghans. 'We make quite a stir wherever we go,' said Dick Bogart, a retired computer salesman from San Francisco and grandfather of 10. 'It's been very touching'."

Another industry is also returning to Afghanistan after years of absence: "War in Afghanistan drove the carpet weavers into exile in Pakistan, peace has drawn these refugees home. The result is an industry straddling the border, providing jobs for both countries and reinforcing their economic inter-dependence...

"Inside Afghanistan, some returnees have established factories; [one of them,] Allahbirdi employs about 90 people, themselves former refugees, in his Kabul Magu Village Carpets. But most production, as before in Pakistan and earlier in a peaceful Afghanistan, is done in homes. The skill rests with the Turkoman, Uzbek, Hazara and Tajik populations - not the Pashtuns who constitute the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan...

"The industry has also become more sophisticated since the days when the carpet business was centred in Kabul and there was little production in Pakistan. Both countries are more conscious they are part of a worldwide market."
While the work continues in every workshop and factory, elsewhere, bigger plans are being hatched too. Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has recently unveiled his vision for Afghanistan as part of the greater Central Asian region:

"The future of our country depends on the level of relations with our neighbors. We are striving to revive the Great Silk Road in its new modern concept... Afghanistan wants to become a transit country between the countries of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, and is interested in putting various economic projects into practice."
One cannot imagine any more romantic and exotic an economic plan than a "new Silk Road." It's not a pipe dream - to achieve it, considerable planning and work are already taking place:

"Afghanistan and Uzbekistan agreed on Sunday to push ahead with a mammoth road-building project intended to make their countries a lucrative trade link between Asia and the Persian Gulf. 'A unique opportunity has appeared for Afghanistan to serve as a transit country between South-East Asia and the Persian Gulf,' Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told journalists.

"Meeting in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, Abdullah and his Uzbek counterpart, Sadyk Safayev outlined plans for Uzbek contractors to build a road across northern Afghanistan between the towns of Andhoi and Herat. The eventual aim - agreed last summer at a summit of Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan's presidents - is to extend the road from Uzbekistan southwards through Afghanistan to Iran's Gulf Coast, possibly supplemented by a railway.

"Uzbekistan has simultaneously been pushing for construction of a rail link eastward through Kyrgyzstan and deep into China in order to create a complete oil transit route between China and the Persian Gulf."
In other transport infrastructure news, other projects to link Afghanistan with its neighbors are currently in planning stages:

"The Asian Development Bank has offered Pakistan $2 billion to help create 'regional connectivity' into Afghanistan and India with a road and railway network... The objective is to help create a transportation network that's connected with Afghanistan through Chaman on the western border of Pakistan, and India through its eastern parts."
A high level Asian Development Bank team is expected in Pakistan in September for talks with the government.

Afghanistan's neighbors are already assisting with development of
communication links: "Iran has allocated a grant of 60 billion rials [$7 million] to Sangan-Herat railway project which is currently under construction in Afghanistan. A report released by the Public Relations Department of the Ministry of Roads and Transportation on Saturday said that the project was launched in late March and is expected to be finalized by 2007." Dogharoun-Herat and Milak-Zarang links are already under construction as part of Iran's "non-return financial aid" to Afghanistan. Overall, 36 road projects are currently underway in Iran and six others in Afghanistan to complete the transit corridor that will give Afghanistan and Tadjikistan access to warm waters of the Persian Gulf.

Speaking of Iran, the two governments have recently signed
a mutual economic cooperation agreement: "Under the agreement, Afghan technicians would undergo training courses in Iran or Afghanistan, Afghan ministries would have access to Iranian state-run Persian language softwares and public libraries and those located at universities would be provided with their needed books. Iran would contribute to building Sangan-Harat and Harat-Meymaneh roads. The Afghan party would provide Iran with necessary information of its reconstruction projects and Iran would have necessary cooperation with Afghanistan in implementing the related projects."

Pakistan, too, is helping with the transport infrastructure to link Afghanistan with the rest of the region. Says Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Mahmood Kasuri: "We are pursuing development of transport and communications network linking Pakistan to Central Asia. The laying of railway tracks from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan is an important part of it. Our Ministry of Railways has completed feasibility study of Chaman-Kandahar rail project. Its report will be discussed in the next meeting of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Joint Economic Commission which will be held in Islamabad shortly." Meanwhile, Pakistani Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz has welcomed some of the infrastructure initiatives proposed by the Afghan government: "[Aziz] said that Pakistan will be too happy to consider the request of building airports at Khost and the Ghulam Kha-Spin Boldak road. On the rail link [between Chaman and Kandhar via Spin Boldak] he said pre-feasibility report was ready a firmed up detailed feasibility study would be undertaken. He said that Pakistan would be keen to participate in the regional power grid station [linking Central Asian states through Afghanistan] so that additional power can be made available in Pakistan. He welcomed the ring road between Mazar Sharif and Heart as it would facilitate the quicker link between Pakistan and Central Asian States."

The foreign assistance is of course not limited just to transport. The
Asian Development Bank has recently announced a $600 million assistance package to Afghanistan, to be provided over three years, "to support economic growth, poverty reduction, and reconstruction and development." According to the Bank, [t]he 12 projects and programs planned during the period span five sectors, including natural resources, transport, energy, the financial sector and public sector. The ADB is following a three-pronged approach to supporting Afghanistan's post-conflict reconstruction: building capacity, establishing an appropriate policy and institutional framework, and rehabilitating essential infrastructure."

India is also providing aid: the government in New Dehli will provide $400 million "to improve Afghanistan's infrastructure, health facilities, transportation networks, power transmission and educational institutions." As part of the aid measures, India has agreed to train Afghan diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute of India.

In energy news, the electricity line which will carry
power from Iran to Herat is ready for launch. Mohsen Darmani, the Afghan official in charge of the project, "added that the first phase of the project has come to an end and Iran was waiting for Afghan minister to officially inaugurate the line. He added that the project has cost about 80.792 billion Rls. [$9.2 million] while 29.5 billion Rls. [$3.3 million] have been spent on building electricity posts... Iran-Afghanistan power line comprises two phases. The first phase includes a 20kv line from Taibad in Iran to Herat in Afghanistan while the second phase includes a 132kv line and a 132/20kv electricity station."

And read this story of
three young Swiss architects who had won a competition against 48 other entrants to build a tower block which will house student meeting rooms and accommodation at Bamiyan University in Afghanistan:

"It is similar in style to traditional buildings found in Afghanistan’s second-biggest city of Kandahar, which lies in a region prone to earthquakes... The building is technically complex but uses material from the area and relies on local craftsmen...

"The architects intend to leave the building management to local experts, hoping to contribute to the transfer of Western architectural know-how to Afghanistan. 'It is important to involve locals in our project. At the moment all the effort in reconstructing Afghanistan goes into engineering work,' said [one of the architects] Graf."
HUMANITARIAN AID: Well represented on the ground, the Coalition forces continue to provide aid to people of Afghanistan. The US forces, for instance, engage in a charm offensive:

"The villagers were on edge. Two hours earlier the Americans' had arrived in terrifying style... What happened next left the villagers bemused. What did they want the most, Colonel McBride demanded - a new school, a well to be dug, a doctor for the derelict clinic? 'Just tell us what you want and how we can help you,' he urged while the villagers furiously stroked their long Taliban-style beards and stared as if unable to believe their luck.

" 'Have you come to build or come to destroy?' one of them had nervously asked before the meeting. They remember Soviet soldiers whose policy was to carpet-bomb villages, not build schools for them."
According to US military, the strategy is working: "Villagers sick of war and Taliban banditry are increasingly tipping them off about hideouts, ambush plans and arms caches - usually of weapons supplied to anti-Soviet guerillas by the CIA's 1980s covert operation and now turned against American boys in scrappy firefights."

Then there is North Carolina's
Donna Horosko:

"At Southern Guilford High School, Donna Horosko liked basketball and biology, had a long list of friends and entered every dance contest that came along. Twenty-five years later, she's an Army lieutenant colonel, stationed in Afghanistan and helping to rebuild that war-torn country...

"Horosko, as part of the 364th Civil Affairs Brigade out of Portland, Ore., is working with the country's new Ministry of Women's Affairs to offer educational and cultural opportunities to a long-neglected segment of the Afghan population... Since her unit arrived in Afghanistan nine months ago, Horosko has helped in strategic planning, but especially in efforts to bolster the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Army officials have given away thousands of crank-powered radios to families in rural areas, where no electricity is available. Much of the programming targets female audiences, telling women it's OK to register to vote and that they have equal rights."
And Wally Hopkins, the director of Amarillo's Department of Veteran's Affairs Medical Center of Amarillo, Texas, who has assisted in bringing the Afghan hospitals out of the Middle Ages:

"Hopkins and Rose Bolza, a midwife from an Arizona Indian reservation who was also volunteering in Afghanistan, worked together to set up a new, clean labor triage room in the main facility.

"Hopkins oversaw installation of emergency lighting in the operating room where doctors had improvised with cell phone light. The new system replaced a risky backup system. 'They were using kerosene lamps,' he said. 'In a room where they used 100 percent oxygen, you can imagine what a catastrophic situation that might cause.'

"He also enlisted the help of the Army Corps of Engineers to repair a pathological incinerator that had not worked for weeks. Uteri, placentas and other body parts sat waiting to be disposed of, Hopkins said."
The challenges are truly daunting, but fortunately there are many people of good will and experience willing to help.

Often, the humanitarian aid is part of the official military mission; but sometimes the efforts result from individual initiative, like the case of Oregon's
Army Spc Moises Salgado, who motivated his family and friends to provide Afghan children with school supplies such as pens, pencils, notebooks and backpacks - "To date almost 2,000 pounds of much needed items have been sent, with more on its way." Says Salgado:

"Basically, when I first met the Afghanis Nationalist people I wasn't sure what to expect, because of how the media had pictured them... Since working with them I have found they are very friendly people. When they come to work on the base it is my responsibility to make sure none of them wonder off where they were not supposed to be.

"The news media had led me to believe these people could not be trusted. But the more I was around them the more learned of their truthfulness and honesty. As time went by I became increasingly aware of their living situation. When the Taliban was in rule these people were not even allowed to write. This simple task that Americans do without fear would bring severe punishment if caught doing it. Now that the Taliban is no longer in rule, things are changing. It's amazing the little things these people are grateful for. Even a simple ball-point pen. When I passed them out to some women they would make a mark on their hand and sniff it. They were so excited about having a pen."
More on Moises Salgado's action, as well as details of how you can help can be found here.

There are also people like Jenni Birker of Garrison, Iowa, who has started the
Shoes for Kids drive to collect shoes for Afghan orphans. Jenni "started the campaign after her father, who is stationed near an orphanage in Afghanistan, asked her in an e-mail to send more than 300 pairs of shoes for the orphans. Now Birker has put collection boxes in Vinton area businesses and is accepting monetary donations to help with shipping costs." More on Jenni here, including the details of how you can contribute.

Then there are
Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, both September 11 widows, who decided to reach out to Afghan women. "Retik and Quigley were struck by how women, especially widows, were marginalized by the former Taliban regime and by Afghan society in general: They had no life insurance and often no money or property to help them carry on after their husbands' deaths. 'I thought - look at all the support we're getting,' said Retik... 'What must it be like for widows in Afghanistan?'"

"Earlier this year, [Retik and Quigley] created Beyond the 11th, a nonprofit foundation to aid widows in areas touched by conflict, and they plan to mark the third anniversary of the attacks by riding their bikes from New York, where their husbands' lives ended, to Boston, where their final flights began...

"The two women plan to ride the first 220 miles of the route together, making their way through back roads of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and into Massachusetts, where they hope to be met by another 200 riders for the final 30 miles to Boston. Each rider will represent one of the 202 New Englanders killed in the attacks...

"The ride will begin Sept. 9 at the former site of the World Trade Center and end on Sept. 11 at a new memorial in the Boston Public Garden. They are hoping to raise $100,000 for food, clothing, education and job training for Afghan widows and their children.

"With less than three weeks to go before the ride, about 75 riders have signed up to do the final leg with Retik and Quigley. The riders have pledged a total of $30,000 so far to help Afghan widows."
You can find more about the ride on this website.

Hawa Meskinyar, formerly of Atlanta, Georgia, has set up another charity organization: "[She] hopes to change that through the work of JAHAN (Join and Help Afghanistan Now), a nonprofit humanitarian organization she formed in 2001. The Washington-based organization, run by volunteers in the United States and Kabul, helps needy women and children become self-sufficient...

"JAHAN's initial goal was a program that would pair a sponsor with an Afghan child. So far, more than 80 sponsors have signed on. Meskinyar distributes the funds - $30 to $50 a month. She asks only that the family receiving the money make every effort to send the child to school. 'Education is the key,' she said.

"She scours Kabul's ethnically diverse neighborhoods, its tent cities and low-income housing, to make sure the money reaches as many children as possible. Soon, she plans to start a sewing and literacy center to help Afghan women become self-sufficient. She worries that the country will become too dependent on handouts.

"She hopes to market the products in the United States and other countries through retail outlets or the Internet. The women will earn a salary and their children will also be placed in the sponsorship program."
Read also this story of Brian Murtagh, Australian farmer who celebrated his 70th birthday in Afghanistan last year. Murtagh worked for six months in logistics coordination for the Oxfam charity. This meant "procuring and transporting goods ranging from communications equipment, including large satellite dishes to 14km of poly pipe for irrigation and cooking utensils." The work gave Murtagh a valuable new perspective on life: "I am constantly amazed at the things we complain about in Australia which on a scale of one to 10 are about minus 475 in importance."

You might remember the story from one of the
previous updates, about Djamshid Djan Popal, a nine year old Afghan boy receiving, thanks to generosity of private benefactors, life-saving treatment in Canada. The latest news is that Djamshid is now slowly recovering after a successful surgery.

It's not just the West, though; other Muslim countries are also helping. The
Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates is sending another two planeloads of aid for needy Afghan families as part of their long-standing humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan.

new Afghan army is proving to be increasingly effective as a force for stability in the country:

"Rivals in western Afghanistan agreed to a cease-fire last week after the arrival of the Afghan National Army (ANA). With 13,700 soldiers, the fledgling ANA has become a force that President Hamid Karzai has used to douse flareups between warlords who still rule a majority of the country.

"The recent fighting in Afghanistan's western province of Herat is seen by many as an effort to mar the country's first democratic presidential elections, but for Karzai it has also provided the opportunity to flex his muscle and show how far his government has come in the last three years."
The Afghan government's new get-tough policy on warlords has already resulted in unseating from power one of the most famous and influential of the lot: Isamail Khan who previously controlled the city of Herat. "For the first time in Afghanistan the American military has made it clear that they are backing moves to push out a warlord, and Mr Khan's support is unlikely to prove strong enough to resist determined action by the US-backed Afghan National Army."

Kabul, meanwhile, has been declared
free of heavy weapons - the first time in a quarter of a century - and a positive step along the road to elections. " 'Bulldozers should replace tanks and cannons,' Deputy Defense Minister Rahim Wardak told the ceremony in a dusty compound north of Kabul containing dozens of tanks and artillery pieces. 'AK-47's and pistols should make way for saws and axes'... Wardak said 2,300 heavy weapons had been rounded up around Kabul, the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and the southeastern city of Gardez."

Among other recent successes on the Afghan front of the war on terror:
three suspected Taliban fighters including "a senior commander" are killed during an action in Ghazni province; in Uruzgan province, the US-trained Afghan National Army arrest 16 Taliban fugitives in the latest sweep; in Khost and Zabul provinces, 22 more suspected Taliban fighters are detained; and the US forces kill 22 insurgents, among them several Arab fighters, in a firefight in the Zabul province.

In another incident, the US special forces have cornered and killed one of top Taliban commanders,
Roze Khan, who was leading the Islamist guerrillas in southern Afghanistan. A CBS reporter who accompanied the troops on this operation writes:

"The coalition soldiers came in with overwhelming force, but they used it sparingly. Because there were shots fired, they handcuffed some 22 men in the village of fighting age and above. Then they were searched and questioned. But contrary to popular perceptions, soldiers here operate with very strict rules, and unless they find weapons or other evidence on someone, they cannot be detained, which is similar to how the police operate in the U.S. So after several hours, only two men were detained while the rest had their plastic cuffs cut free and were left to ponder the American soldiers actions, that seemed to have taken them completely by surprise."
In the continuing effort to provide assistance to the new Afghan armed forces, teams of American officers are currently working with their Afghan counterparts to establish the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, modeled on the West Point. "The purpose of the NMAA is to provide the Afghan National Army with professional officers who support and defend the Constitution of Afghanistan."

Meanwhile, Holland has sent
additional fighter planes to reinforce the NATO security force for the October election. Great Britain, too, is sending in more jets. On the ground, a Georgian Mountain-Rifle battalion is on its way to perform peacekeeping duties, going via Germany, where the Georgian troops will receive two week of additional training.

To strengthen border security and to combat smuggling, Pakistan is setting up
more checkpoints along the border. Pakistan is also currently providing training for Afghan customs officials. The Pakistani armed forces have also bombarded a terrorist training camp near the Afghan border, killing 50.

And in a development which might have some positive
long term indirect flow-on effects, the Pakistani government "with US help, has embarked on several initiatives to combat zealotry by broadening educational offerings. A little over 300 madrassahs have introduced elementary subjects like English, math, science, and computers, and US funds have revitalized some government schools." It's a slow start to tackle a huge problem - in the past, Pakistani madrassahs have proven to be a fertile breeding ground for Islamic radicalism, for which Afghanistan in particular had paid a high price. Any attempts to "drain the swamp" are only to be encouraged.

The venerable
"Economist" has summed up its commentary about the coming presidential elections in Afghanistan in one sentence: "A triumph for nation-building, if it succeeds." Somebody else might say, a triumph for Afghanistan that it already got so far. An even greater triumph, as the "Economist" says, if it succeeds. For their sake of the long suffering people of Afghanistan, let's hope that will be the case.


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