Saturday, December 18, 2004

Public service announcement 

Sorry for scant blogging - with only a week till Christmas, it's pretty hectic. On top of that I'm sick, which takes out the rest of the energy (some sort of a mild form of chronic fatigue syndrome that's been dragging on for over five years now, and once in a while stages a more noticeable comeback).

Before I crawl back into my cave, An Observation of the Day: with the date set for the start of the talks about the admission of Turkey into the European Union, there will come a time when "EU will share borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria".

Some food for thought.


Friday, December 17, 2004

More culture wars 

I wasn't really surprised to read that a new study by the Parents Television Council has found that network television's depictions of religion are "overwhelmingly" negative - Michael Medved's "Hollywood versus America" had a huge impact on me when I first read it over ten years ago - I was surprised though to learn that "NBC leads the pack as the most anti-religious network, followed in order by Fox, the WB, ABC, UPN and CBS" (emphasis added). Who would have guessed it that the supposed hardcore red-as-red-can-get right-wing propaganda machine bashes Christianity with the best of them?

Yet another example of the Grand Canyon-size divide between the blue state, Hollywood-New York entertainment industry axis, and the red state viewership. No wonder the numbers are declining. Interestingly, as the Council's president Brent Bozell noted, "anti-Catholic bigotry" is "rampant" on network shows; "Catholicism is in the bull's-eye of the entertainment media... In the past, the fundamentalists were. It's a sign of the times." Could it be another reason why Catholic voters have
decisively swung behind President Bush, giving him 52% of the vote, while John Kerry, the first Catholic candidate since JFK, did worse among his co-religionists than Al Gore did in 2000?


Osama - another whining leftie 

Osama's pre-American election tape already sounded like a promo for "Fahrenheit 9/11", with its carefully scripted list of MoveOn-esque grievances. Now, in his latest production aimed at the House of Saud, bin Laden is moving one step further along the path of the great ideological - or at least rhetorical - convergence between the angry left and the angry Islamofascism:
"The speaker on the tape accused the regime of 'injustices against the people'. The Saudi Royal Family had misspent public money while 'millions of people are suffering from poverty and deprivation', he said."
And thus Osama becomes yet another billionaire complaining about the growing gap between the rich and the poor, a sort of George Soros with a Closed Society Institute, and a Peter Lewis, who instead of insuring cars blows them up.

It's hard to argue that most of the oil-blessed countries have not made a mess out of their black gold bounty, building First World infrastructure for Third World economies and constructing totally unsustainable cradle to the grave welfare states for all of their citizens, instead of investing money productively to create economies that can perform well after the oil runs out. But be that as it may, how about you redistribute your own fortune to the poor, Osama, instead of complaining about the big bad government?

And not that bin Laden is actually sincere, either. If you look at the Islamofascist utopia like the Taliban-era Afghanistan, one thing that strikes you is that, well, "millions of people were suffering from poverty and deprivation", and genuinely so, not the Saudi sort of poverty. In fact, in Osama's restored Caliphate, poverty and ignorance are both equally treated as virtues and are thus assiduously cultivated in place of such evil infidel concepts like growth or self-realization.

Still, it's funny (in a horrible sort of way) to watch bin Laden promote economic disadvantage as a grievance against what he considers a corrupt Muslim regime. For Osama, version 2005, poverty is the root cause of terrorism. For the rest of us, we know it's Osama.

Update: Thanks for all the comments, both pro and against. I hate to have to explain myself, particularly when I think I made myself clear enough the first time, but since a few of my left-wing readers thought that I was engaging in a right-wing version of "Bush=Hitler" moral equivalence when I put bin Laden, George Soros and Peter Lewis in one sentence... It's a simple point: bin Laden is increasingly sounding like a more mainstream critic of the Bush Administration. Does that tar the critics by association? Of course not. Does it invalidate their criticisms? Of course not, there are many other reasons they're wrong, and the fact that bin Laden is parroting their lines isn't one of them. Will bin Laden be more successful after adopting the angry left rhetoric? Well, it has proven to be such a roaring success at the November polls, so who knows?

In the meantime, read Daveed Gartenstein-Ross's article about Al Qaeda's objectives, tactics and rhetoric.


Thursday, December 16, 2004

Our sonsofbitches - and their's 

In a comment to my previous post about the continuing romanticization of Che Guevara, reader Quentin George writes:

"Have you ever noticed that the Left accuses the Right of supporting dictators (Pinochet, military regimes in South Korea and South Vietnam etc)? Fair enough. But you don't hear anyone on the right glamourising their 'sonofabitch' or considering them hip, or architects of freedom."
Good point and one that certainly bears continuous repeating. We've all seen our fair share of T-shirts with that iconic Che image - fortunately, we haven't seen too many people wearing a Reinhard Haydrich, or a Rudolf Hess T-shirt. The Che attire is respectable enough to be seen around our elite universities and other trendy spots; Nazi apparel is worn largely in private by a few moronic skinheads.

I got to think about this issue - and even more specifically the point raised by Quentin - a few days ago, when the media reported the 89-year old former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet will stand trial for the kidnappings of nine opposition activists and the death of one of them during his rule in the 1970s and 80s. This is, of course, not the first time that Pinochet has been pursued by the courts - we can all still remember a few years ago his arrest in Great Britain at the behest of a Spanish judge who wanted to try Pinochet for the deaths of Spanish nationals in Chile during Pinochet's 17-year rule.

Pinochet is a controversial figure, to say the least. There is no doubt that following his coup against the Marxist Allende government in 1973 some three thousand Chileans disappeared and were murdered by the regime, and human rights largely suppressed under a military dictatorship. For all that, the international left continues to hate Pinochet with a passion to this day. On the other hand, Pinochet's actions have prevented Chile from becoming a second Cuba, and arguably saved more lives than they costed. During the 1980s, Pinochet introduced a range of free market reforms that substantially lifted the Chilean standard of living, and towards the end of the decade he engineered a peaceful transition to democracy.

Seeing how much the discipline of history is dominated by the left, I have a fair idea how the history will judge Pinochet. I don't know how God will. Pinochet was clearly a "sonofabitch", and he was "our sonofabitch." On the balance, he did Chile - and us - a favor by stopping the country's slide towards communism. Yet - and this is the point that Quentin makes and which I used to make in discussions with friends in my pre-blogging days - our side of politics never turned him into a pinup boy, never idealized him, and never romantcized him (see, for example, this piece by David Horowitz).

Over the long years of the Cold War, there were at various points in time significant cults of Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and for a while even Pol Pot, not to mention a whole host of other, lesser Third World "liberators." There were no cults of Pinochet, Marcos, Roh and other anti-communist strongmen and authoritarians. The difference was the left actually thought that their sonsofbitches were great human beings, Messianic-like figures, benefactors of mankind; we thought that our sonsofbitches were necessary lesser evils.

Needless to say, the left still hasn't come to terms with their moral bankruptcy. And I'm not expecting to hear any apologies anytime soon.

Update: Have I accidentally stirred the pot, or what? (see the comments section)

Just to clarify a few points. Firstly: 1) I wholeheartedly agree that Pinochet was a sonofabitch; 2) I also think that he was better for Chile than the communist alternative; 3) but that in turn doesn't mean that I wear a Pinochet T-shirt or have a Pinochet "Viva la contra-revolucion" poster on my wall.

Secondly: you can always find a few exceptions to every rule, but it doesn't prove anything. I'm sure there were some on my side of politics who did glamorize the anti-communist dictators, but the extent of that phenomenon pales into insignificance when compared the left-wing cults of the Third World "liberators."

Thirdly: I don't claim a sole ownership over morality in politics; but I do claim that I was on the right side of the most important moral and political question of the twentieth century - the question of communism - and that the left was by and large on the wrong side. And by and large still hasn't come to terms with that fact.

Fourthly: of course the right supported its fair share of sonsofbitches - the point is that my side made a tactical decision to do because we thought they were a lesser evil (in practice some were, some weren't). I would have loved to have gone through the whole of the Cold War without having to have a recourse to sonsofbitches but it simply was not possible - unfortunately, in most if not all of these places in the developing world the alternative to our sonofabitch was not a decent, stable, peaceful democracy but "their" sonofabitch, who in most cases would have been far worse than ours.

On the other hand, the left wouldn't even acknowledge they were supporting sonsofbitches - for them, people like Castro, Mao, Ho and others were positive forces for good. That's the difference.

And lastly, the right - either directly or indirectly - has succeeded in replacing a lot of our sonsofbitches as well as many of the left's sonsofbitches with democratic governments. What has the left done to advance the cause of freedom and human rights throughout the world?


Che and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 

Some far more clever men than I - most notably the anti-totalitarian left-liberal Paul Berman - have over the past few months drive a bulldozer through "The Motorcycle Diaries", the latest Hollywood attempt to romanticize Che Guevara. I wasn't going to buy into the debate until I read this morning the review of the film by Vicki Roach in Australia's "Daily Telegraph":

"Some writers have criticised The Motorcycle Diaries for being overly romantic. But what else would one expect from a film that's designed to put audiences in touch with their inner-student?"
And here's the very essence of the Che mythos' attraction for so many people around the world, even - or maybe particularly - those not very political ones: Che, the young, cool, Latin hipster. I'm not sure which uni Vicki Roach went to, but while my university experience was fun, there wasn't anything romantic about it. Which might actually be precisely the point: far too many middle-class, well-educated Westerners dream they, like Che, could have traveled during the summer break up and down the exotic South America on an old beaten-up motorcycle. In reality, most of us have spent our uni holidays waiting on at coffee shops or just bumming around. The "motorcycle Che" doesn't put us in touch with our inner-student but with an inner-student as many would like it to have been; it's a fantasy of regrets.

And that's the main problem with "The Motorcycle Diaries" - because it focuses on the "every-backpacker's-dream" phase of Che's life without providing the new generations of viewers with any useful political and historical context, it will only serve to perpetuate the glamorized myth of a man who, as Berman reminds us, in real life was anything but:

"Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's 'labor camp' system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che's imagination."
Viewing Che through the prism of "The Motorcycle Diaries" is like focusing on Hitler, the frustrated bohemian painter in the antebellum Vienna. Many on the left, nowadays, would forgive Hitler for killing all those Jews, but they will never forgive him for being a short, pale, ridiculous figure with a pimp moustache and unglamorous obsessions.

Sadly, romantic confusion is not restricted to movie reviewers and watchers.
Gael Garcia Bernal, the new Latin heartthrob who plays the young Che, seems equally dizzy:

"Bernal admits he'd already had life-altering experiences on road trips. 'Oh, many times before,' he says of his time teaching at summer schools in Mexico and a year in Cuba. 'Especially as a young man of 16, to go to Cuba. It was very liberating,' he grins."
Maybe sexually, but I can't imagine living in an impoverished totalitarian gulag for twelve months as liberating in any other sense of the word.

Thus, as Marx has once wisely remarked, history repeats itself, first time as tragedy, and second time as farce. And the left never learns from either.


Blog interview: Steven Vincent - "Women’s rights is the Achilles heel of Islamofascism" 

In the first of what will hopefully become a regular feature on this blog, I decided to tackle Steven Vincent and ask his some question. Steven has spent four months traveling through Iraq meeting its ordinary and less ordinary people; Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, poets and housewives, mullahs and feminists, insurgents and activists. The result is his excellent new book of reportage, "In the Red Zone: A journey into the soul of Iraq", now available from all good bookstores as well as from the publisher at a special price (for my review of the book, click here).

Steven has also started his new blog, appropriately called
In the Red Zone - make sure you check it out and blogroll it - it will provide a great, often first-hand perspective, on the events in the region.

As I was unable to travel to New York, and Steven couldn't make it down to Brisbane, the magic of the internet did the trick, although I do hope to meet him in person in the future.

Your journey from the arts beat in New York to the terror beat in the Sunni Triangle is an unusual one. Please tell my readers how you came to spend four months traveling through Iraq.

First off, Arthur, let me say it's a real honor to appear on your site. And while I'm at it, let me wish you and your readers happy holidays.

As for how I ended up in Iraq, it's a four syllable answer: 9-11. From my rooftop on Manhattan's Lower East Side - about two miles from where the World Trade Center used to stand - I watched United Airlines Flight 175 fly into the South Tower. Right then, I realized America was at war and I wanted to participate in the conflict and defend the values I held precious. Talk about the "call of destiny" sounds corny, but I felt it, I felt summoned to do something. When my artist friend Steve Mumford traveled to Iraq in April, I knew I had to do the same. That fall, I packed my bags and flew to Amman, and hired a car to take me across the desert to Baghdad. I returned in winter and spring of this year.

In your journey through Iraq you choose, as you say, not to embed yourself with the army, but with the Iraqi society. What sort of experience has it turned out to be? As a result, how different is your perspective on Iraq to that of foreign reporters who are either holed up in Baghdad or follow the troops around?

As a freelancer coming from the oblique angle of the art world to a war zone, I had no connections, no assistance, no big-name reputation and not much money - in other words, little more than curiosity and some New York street smarts (and, apparently, luck). I figured I'd put those deficits to advantage - force myself to take risks, hazard extra dangers, go where reporters weren't. And that meant not embedding myself with troops, as most journalists were doing, but moving among the Iraqi people.

As an experience, "embedding" myself in Iraqi society was exciting, frightening, depressing, inspiring - not to mention unbelievably maddening (those were usually my Baghdad days - a more unlovely city you've never seen). The basic emotional tone was something I can't quite put words to - a sort of thrilling despair, I guess. Thrilling, because I was living an adventure; despair, because the people I was writing about were not.

As far as comparing my perspective to other journalists' - well, I can tell you one difference: I support the liberation and reconstruction of Iraq and consider it an essential part of the War against Islamofascism. In my mind, the question was not should we have invaded, but are we going to succeed? The point of view of many reporters - especially foreigners - is framed by the first question, and their doubts permeate what they see and write. This, in turn, lends negativity and defeatism to many reports, and a tendency to grant the "insurgency" more, and the Coalition less, legitimacy than they deserve. This is why I had one advantage not working for a major news organization - I was freer, I think, to draw my own conclusions.

Over your four months of travel through Iraq, has there been one moment, one experience that for you encapsulated the reality of the post-liberation Iraq?

My friend Nour. I dedicate a whole chapter of "In the Red Zone" to this woman, who, in my mind, embodies the hopeful and tragic aspects of Iraq. She's a beautiful twenty-something moderate Muslim who works in Basra (she has asked me not to reveal her last name or where she works for fear of retaliation from religious paramilitaries). She was my guide, interpreter, friend and protector during the several weeks we spent together in the southern Iraqi city. We interviewed everyone from radical clerics to newspaper editors to the Catholic Archbishop--and we were even suspected of being spies by the head of Coalition counter-intelligence.

Through Nour, I learned what it is like to be a women in Iraq: a nightmare. Nour's three brothers dominate her life - they once beat her when she attempted to marry without their permission - while in public, strangers scrutinize her every move to make sure she acts "respectably." The psychic claustrophobia is agonizing. Not only that, but she once spent 11 months imprisoned for making anti-Saddam remarks. When she told me this, I collapsed into tears - I knew what happened to women in the dictator's prisons.

Now, this won't come as a surprise to you, Arthur, coming as you do from a former police state - but Nour had a deep hunger for democracy that made me feel ashamed for taking my own liberties for granted. She would ask me endless questions about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment, and so on. To her, democracy and moderate Islam was her path to freedom - both from the religious fundamentalists, and the "ignorant tribal men," as she put it, who made women's lives such hell. I worry about her constantly. When I hear people argue that the Coalition should leave Iraq, I imagine what our withdrawal would mean for Nour, and the thousands - perhaps millions - of other Iraqis who share her faith in America and its allies.

While your book is primarily about the Iraqis and their experiences and stories, there are a few Westerners that appear on the pages of "In the Red Zone". Hardly any of them come across as people I would like to have a drink with. Please tell us a bit more about what the Iraqis themselves call "the people of the Slogans".

That's what my Iraqi friends called the anti-war and anti-Coalition activists they met in Baghdad. "I always feel like they are talking in slogans," my poet friend Naseer told me. They also called the activists "The 'Oh, my God' Club." This was a running joke based on an anti-sanctions march my friends witnessed before the war. As the marchers passed by, an American woman turned to the TV cameras and shrieked, "Oh my God, what are we doing to the children?" My friends found her carefully-staged "concern" hilarious - they couldn't tell the story without doubling up with laugher.

One of my greatest surprises in Iraq was the contempt many younger people had of Western leftists. They ridiculed "human shields" who suddenly vamoosed out of Baghdad when it became clear a war was really going to take place - or activists who tried to enlist them in pro-Palestinian causes (Iraqis hate the Palestinians because the Baathists showered such largesse upon them). But the worst, the absolute worst, were the "humanitarians" who claimed that the U.S. was as bad as Saddam. This deeply pained my friends, not because they particularly loved America, but because the activists had no conception of Iraq's suffering under the dictator. "They should examine their moral consciences," Naseer would grumble.

You subtitled your book "A journey into the soul of Iraq" and in many ways the picture you paint of that soul is rather bleak. The Iraqi people emerge affected by the legacy of their tribal past, their religious environment, and not the least the scars of three decades under a brutal dictatorship. How does a nation and its people overcome such a bitter legacy? What are the prospects of Iraq becoming in short to medium term what we would think of as a "normal" society and "normal" country?

Imagine children whose father physically and emotionally abused them for years. Now imagine that the authorities jail the father and tell the children they're free to live their own lives. Theoretically, they are free, but the traumas of their past will still haunt them, limiting and afflicting their freedom. That's the condition of most Iraqis. As if that weren't bad enough, add in the regressive pull of tribalism and reactionary Islam, and you have a very bleak psychic picture indeed.

How will Iraqis overcome this legacy? It will begin with time and a slow restoration of their sense of nationhood, citizenship and even personal self-esteem. Victories will help: curbing terrorism, managing a successful election, writing a Constitution, building a strong economy. In this way, the Iraqis can work through the humiliation and trauma of being raped by Saddam. Then, the real work will begin: to throw off the shackles of tribal Islam - or the fusion of archaic Bedouin customs and religious fundamentalism. Tribal Islam is a black hole that consumes the best energies of the Iraqi people and helps foster the despair and homicidal martyrdom we witness in the country.

Where we can help - aside from eradicating the paramilitary death-squads - is work to liberate women. Women's rights is the Achilles heel of Islamofascism. Liberated women, contributing their energies to Iraqi culture and society will do much to bring the nation into the modern world, as well as heal the anguish that lurks in its soul. As I say, a thousand Nours would transform that nation overnight.

The big question for Iraq is, I guess, how many Nours are there, and will they be able to overcome all the powerful vested interests that don't necessarily want to see Iraq become a normal, democratic, modern country?

That's one of a handful of major questions facing Iraq. I don't have an answer. Still, I'm optimistic - there are many, many women like Nour who possess the intelligence, spirit and desperation that compels any revolutionary to act. Opposed to them, however, are patriarchal interests entrenched in tribal traditions and religious law. The Nours of Iraq can't fight these interests head-on, direct combat only causes these regressive forces to entrench themselves deeper. (Already we hear the mullahs cry that "feminism" is a "neo-conservative plot to undermine Islam.") The women's revolution has to gather force indirectly - through law, the media (including bloggers!), public opinion, human rights observers, civil libertarians and - perhaps most importantly--an improving economy: globalization means women's rights. We're talking a slow evolutionary process here. Look at it this way: in the 1950s, hardly anyone could have expected that civil rights would sweep the American south or that apartheid would end peacefully. And yet, a generation later, both miracles took place. It can happen.

In many ways, the overthrow of the regime was easy; rebuilding Iraq is not. Has the Bush Administration been too optimistic? What do you think should have been done differently?

The neo-cons were much too optimistic. I can't fault them, because I was too optimistic, as well. We failed to take into account two aspects of the Iraq people. One is the humiliation they experience over the fact that it took the U.S., and not their own efforts, to topple Saddam. The other is the tribalism that lurks just below the surface of Iraqi society. Both are problems whose solution lies in an improved economy. Money is a balm that eases people's shame, and a corrosive that erodes the bonds of tribalism.

But the Bush Administration made some terrible mistakes. Not enough troops, to begin with - and not enough military police to do the kind of constabulary work hunter-killer Marines are now doing. More troops and more MPs would have helped stop the looting. I can't stress how disastrous and demoralizing the pillaging of Baghdad was to Iraq. Not only did it damage the country's infrastructure and destroy many buildings, it weakened Iraqi faith in the U.S. Imagine if your police department suddenly stopped pursuing criminals - how much respect would you have for them? I remember an Iraqi man clutching my arm and pleading, "If you're going to occupy our country, occupy it!" Others said we could have stopped the plunder had we publicly hung a few looters at the beginning of the disturbances - which gives you an idea of the Iraqi sense of justice.

In many ways, of course, it's impossible to quickly reverse the consequences of past mistakes - is there anything we can do better at the moment?

Send in more troops? Kill more Islamofascist terrorist and homicidal martyrs? That would be a start. But actually, I'm uncomfortable with too much second-guessing, especially since I'm here and not there. But I will say this: what we can do as free people is support the Iraqi resistance. By that I mean the people fighting the paramilitary death squads: the Iraqi police, National Guard troops, politicians, judges, bureaucrats, businesspeople and every last person who votes on January 30. They are the true "resistance." And by "support" them, I mean maintain a firm resolve to see Iraq through to a better place. Not everyone agrees with me, of course. But think those who oppose the war should think hard about their position. Look, for example, at the slaughterhouse Falluja became under the rule of the Islamofascists. Multiply that across Iraq and you'd have an idea what withdrawal from the country would entail. We cannot abandon the Iraqi people. What can we do better at the moment? Grasp a sobering thought: the fate of the Iraqi people is in our hands - and, for better or worse, ours is in theirs.

The big question is, once the election takes place - as it hopefully will in January - what's next for the country? It seems likely that the Shiites, who constitute the absolute majority of the population and arguably are the most organized and most united of the three main ethnic groups, will control the National Assembly. In your book you express some unease about their ability - or willingness - to play by democratic rules. What can we expect: civil war, Shiite dictatorship, a push for more federalism?

About the Shia, my thinking has evolved since I wrote the book. I feared - and still do, to some extent - their propensity toward rebelliousness, alienation and a kind of perfectionism that defeats practical action. But seeing how well they've conducted themselves in the run-up to elections - really, everyone owes Ayatollah Sistani a debt of gratitude - that I've begun to think that maybe they can rule the country with a reasonable amount of fairness.

Islam - or more specially, Islamic law, or shari'a - poses a problem. In the same way that the North defeated the South in the Civil War, but lost the will to bring full emancipation to formerly enslaved peoples, I fear we will see a stable government take root in Iraq, and then wash our hands of the country. Left behind will be women - Islam's slaves - languishing under misogynistic shari'a laws. What is the point of shepherding Iraq to "democracy" if 60 percent of its population - that's 16 million people - remain in bondage?

The Kurds want nothing to do with the Shia's conception of shari'a, one reason why they are pushing hard for a federal system granting them minority rights. Whether the Shia will accommodate this - so far, their leaders have given mixed signals - is the next test. Assuming elections take place - and I am reasonably confident they will - look for the next controversies to break out when the new Parliament sits down to write a constitution. Will they base federal districts on ethnicity (pleasing the Kurds) or geography (pleasing the Shia)? How great a veto power will the Shia give minorities? Will the Shia insist on shari'a for the entire country? These issues could rend the country apart. But, of course, its not easy formulating rules for governance - anyone at the time probably would have given you ten to one the American colonies would fail to set aside their squabbles and write a Constitution.

What's next on the cards for you? Are you planning to go back to Iraq?

Yes, assuming - insha'allah - the country stabilizes and I can move around with relative freedom. If not, I'll head for Afghanistan - or further east, where oil, Islam and Chinese interests intersect. Wherever I go, however, it will be in the Muslim world. Like the cry of muezzin at sunset, with a crescent moon gleaming over the minarets of a mosque, there's something about dar-al-Islam that captures the imagination, and won't let go.

Most people thought that the Great Game for the control of influence in Central Asia ended with the dissolution of European empires, but it certainly seems to be back on. What do you think might happen in the region over the next few years and what do you think the impact of the liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan will have on the state of play?

If you laid a map of oil regions in the Middle East and Asia over one showing American bases and military presence in the War on Terror, you'd find they roughly overlap. Coincidence? I don't think so. Under the rubric of fighting terrorism, it seems, the U.S., is moving assets into the Caspian and Central and South Asian regions in anticipation of Chinese penetration of that region in search of oil. American and the PRC are unfortunately on a collision course - similar to Britain and Germany before World War I. Once again, the Islamic world will find itself the playing field between two competitive civilizations. What I hope is that the liberation of Iraq, Afghanistan and (I anticipate here) Iran will, in the long run, create enough good will for the U.S. - especially among the Shia' to give us allies in that dangerous corner of the world.

Will you keep blogging as you travel?

I'm new at the blogging game, so at the risk of sounding like a shameless flatterer to a pro like you - I say, of course! Blogging is the future of news and communication, the ultimate counter-culture, right? I look forward someday to posting from the Torugate Pass or beneath the mulberry trees of Laub-i-Hauz. Insha'allah, as the locals say.

Steve, it's been pleasure talking to you. Godspeed on your travels, and I hope to read about them on your blog before I read your next book.

The good people at National Review Online have excerpted a chapter from Steven's book, dealing with the insurgents. You can read it


Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Why they hate us, and I mean "us" 

The secret's out, according to the latest Ipsos poll - they don't just dislike the President - they dislike the people, too:

"Just over half in France and Germany said they viewed Americans unfavorably. Almost half in Spain felt that way, while a third of Spaniards viewed Americans favorably...

"A majority in each of the four European countries polled, including close U.S. ally Britain, said they were disappointed in the Bush re-election...

"In Australia, Canada, Britain and Italy, people had a negative view of Bush, but a majority in those countries said they viewed Americans favorably."
As the AP helpfully comments, "President Bush pledged soon after his re-election victory on Nov. 2 that he would work to 'deepen our trans-Atlantic ties with the nations of Europe.' He plans a trip to Europe in February. But the president, and Americans generally, have plenty of work to do to win over Europeans, according to international AP-Ipsos polls." I know that the AP is tying their observation to the remark by the President about his willingness to rebuild the bridges with Europe, but don't you just love it how it's Bush who always has to "win over Europeans"? The possibility that perhaps the Europeans might be the ones who need to win over America, or at least meet the President half-way in this act of trans-Atlantic kiss-and-make-up, doesn't seem to be entertained at all.

One other thing: the favorite defense of many - particularly on the left - who are accused of being anti-Semitic is that they don't hate Jews, they're merely anti-Zionist, or better still "it's not anti-Semitic to criticize the actions of the Israeli government." In case of the United States, there doesn't seem to be this sort of semantic distinction between the dislike of the American people and the opposition to the US government policies - the term anti-American is widely accepted as sufficiently wide to accommodate all of these sentiments. But just in case someone would still argue that the opposition the US is all about being anti-Americanist (to coin a term to describe America's "right wing" policies vis-a-vis the world) and not anti-American (in the sense of hating the American people), that distinction no longer seems to hold true. If we are to believe the results of this, and other similar polls, anti-Americanism is becoming just like anti-Semitism - a racial (or ethnic) as opposed to just a political prejudice. This is perhaps unavoidable; an acknowledgment of the democratic nature of American and Israeli societies. After all, the governments don't operate in a vacuum, they are elected and supported by majorities. The buck ultimately stops with the people.

The American attitudes to Germany, France, Spain, Canada, Australia, Great Britain and Italy are probably a lot more positive, but that in itself is quite meaningless. The citizens of Germany, France and other countries feel that America has a lot more impact on their lives than Americans think that France or Germany do. The lesson is that it's the powerful who can afford to be nice and magnanimous; the hegemon, in turn, is rarely liked. Better learn to live with that.


The end of the "therapy 1990s" and a new Christmas spirit 

Paul Comrie-Thomson writes in today's "Australian":

"This year witnessed the beginning of an ethical revolution. Voters in Australia and the US overwhelmingly endorsed the proposition that doing good is radically different from feeling good. This U-turn away from sentimentality is also taking hold in Britain.

"At the Labour Party's annual conference in Brighton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaimed: 'When I hear people say, "I want the old Tony Blair back, the one who cares", I tell you something. I've come to realise that caring in politics isn't really about "caring". It's about doing what you think is right and sticking to it'."
On a similar theme, Janet Albrechtsen, also in the "Australian", writes:

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life. Trite, perhaps, but this old adage illustrates an iron rule of economics and the first principle of foreign aid...

"With Christmas upon us, we should remember that amiable, feelgood donations offer only temporary charity. While Oxfam [charity] last week rapped rich countries over the knuckles for having aid budgets half what they were in 1960, we should be trying to make a lasting difference to poor countries, and not just by salving our conscience with a gift or donation.

"We should give developing countries what they really want and need - jobs. Our jobs. The best way to do that is by offshoring or outsourcing jobs or whatever bogy word is used these days."
And across the Tasman Sea from Australia, Telecom New Zealand's Santaline is getting some unusual requests - from adults, who might not have been bad this year, but certainly won't to be bad after Christmas:

" 'Listen Santa, I want a new man this Xmas. I broke the last one,' reads one message...

"One grandmother, who said she had been good all year and would have to do all the cooking and cleaning over Christmas, was more specific about what she wanted. 'So, could you please send me an elf to do the dishes? Make him a cute little sexy one, and I would prefer that he can not talk, burp or talk about rugby or politics,' she wrote."
So - democracy for the Middle East, jobs and economic growth for the developing world, and men for New Zealand women.

What would you like for Christmas?


The eighth wonder of the world 

"France unveils world's tallest bridge":

"A bridge officially designated the tallest in the world has been inaugurated by President Jacques Chirac in southern France.

"It is a spectacular feat of engineering that will carry motorists at 270 metres above the valley of the river Tarn.

"Before an audience of around 1,000 people, including architect Norman Foster, Mr Chirac unveiled a plaque by the largest of the bridge's seven pillars, which rises to 343 metres above ground level."
A spectacular piece of engineering, I'm sure, and hopefully one day I'll get to drive on that bridge - but sometimes you have to laugh (and it's not because it's a French story - I can be an equal opportunity jeerer): what great feat of French engineering will come after the world's tallest bridge? The world's widest skyscraper? The world's smallest shopping mall carpark?


Spirit of America Blogger Challenge - the last chance 

A very warm Australian thank you (I mean it; yesterday we had 36 degrees Celsius in Brisbane and the summer hasn't even started) to all of you my very generous readers who donated to the Spirit of America's Blogger Challenge to help American troops help Iraqis help themselves on the grassroots level where it really counts.

Not much more time to go - the Challenge will close at midnight, 15 December, your time in America - so if you haven't done so already, or maybe if you had but want to do the good thing twice - please consider donating.

You, the readers, have so far raised
$1310 through Chrenkoff. It's a great effort!

As Spirit of America's Jim Hake, who together with Omar and Mohammed of Iraq the Model blog met with President Bush for half an hour recently, relates:
"About half way into the meeting the President said to Omar and Mohammed, 'I want you two to know that we are going to stay until the job is done. It doesn't matter what the rest of the world says. It doesn't matter what the UN says. We are going to stay until the job is done. It's important that your country knows that.' It was a powerful and moving moment."
And while we're staying there, your money can make a real difference to lives of ordinary Iraqis - so keep it coming for the next 24 hours.


Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The real stupid 50 per cent 

Do you remember the UK "Daily Mirror" headline just after the US election "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?"


Hot on the heels of the news that 45% of Britons have
no idea what Auschwitz was comes this poll from Germany, whose results Avner Shalev of Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Authority has - in the major understatement of the year - described as "very worrisome":
"51 percent of respondents said that there is not much of a difference between what Israel is doing to the Palestinians today and what the Nazis did to the Jews during the Holocaust, compared to 49% who disagreed with such a comparison, according to the poll carried out by Germany's University of Bielefeld.

"The survey also found that 68 percent of Germans believe that Israel is waging a 'war of extermination' against the Palestinians, while some 32% disagreed with such a statement."
Where does one even begin to tackle this sort of absurdity? That if there is "not much of a difference" between the Second World War and the Second Intifada, where are today's concentration camps, where is Auschwitz, where are the gas chambers and the crematoria, where are the mass graves, where are the Einsatzgruppen and the SS? Or maybe it's not that Germans don't know what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians - maybe they don't know what their own grandfathers have done to the Jews? Maybe Germans think that the Holocaust consisted of Wehrmacht shooting a few Jewish kids throwing stones at the Panther tanks, or Luftwaffe taking out a Jewish Fighting Organisation leader in retaliation for a suicide attack on a Munich beerhall?

If Israel is waging a war of extermination against the Palestinians, then it's doing a pretty hopeless job. Within Israel itself (excluding West Bank and Gaza) the Palestinian population has increased from 156,000 in 1948 to 992,500 in 1993. As a proportion of the total Israeli population, Palestinians constituted 18.6% in 1993, an increase of 0.7% from 1948. By the year 2000, the number of Palestinians has increased by another 300,000, while the number of Jews by only 200,000. These, by the way, are the official figures quoted by the
Palestinian National Authority. And what about the West Bank and Gaza? Again, according to the Palestinian National Information Centre, "The comprehensive census conducted by the Palestinian central Bureau of statistics indicated the following: The population growth in 1997 reached 3,97%,while in 1998 it was increased to 4,08% which is going to reach 4,95% between 1999-2010." Or putting it in concrete terms:
"The UN provides a separate estimate of the total Palestinian population of the Gaza, East Jerusalem, and West Bank. It indicates that this population was 1,006,000 million in 1950, and rose to 1,100,000 in 1960, 1,094,000 in 1970, and then leapt to 1,477,000 in 1980 and 2,152,000 in 1990. This increase was the result of improvements in income and health services during the initial period of Israeli occupation before the Intifada. The Palestinian population rose to 2,629,000 in 1995 and 3,183,000 in 2000 – a more than 20% increase during the five years before the Israeli-Palestinian War [the second uprising] began."
In 1933, the Jewish population of Europe was 9.5 million. By 1950 it was only 3.5 million. The total Palestinian population in 1933 was somewhere around 950,000 (mostly Muslim, some Christian) - it is now around 4.5 million. Based on the same rate of growth, the Jewish population of Europe could be 45 million today. I'm sure the European Jews of the yesteryear would have wished that the Germans had waged the same sort of "war of extermination" on them that the Israelis are apparently waging on the Palestinians today.

But I get the feeling that quoting numbers in this context is like throwing pebbles at a wall; the sentiments expressed in the German survey are not based on logic or cold hard facts, they are not something that can be argued with, at least not with expectations of quick success. Who's to blame? The educators? The media? The political leaders? All of the above? I fear for Europe which has so lost its moral compass, sense of proportion and common sense, for it will have difficulties facing any serious problems and challenges - both foreign and domestic - that are clearly on the horizon.


It all ends with a Wizbang 

The Wizbang 2004 Blog Awards have closed for voting and the results are in.

Chrenkoff wasn't able to overcome the
Tim Blair steamroller in the Best Australian or New Zealand Blog category, although did manage to bring him down to under 50%, which means that Tim can't claim the majority mandate! Thank you to two thousand-plus people who voted for me - much appreciated, not to mention humbling.

As for
other results: my friends at Powerline scooped the Best Overall Blog category, the Diplomad and the Fourth Rail fought bravely against NRO's Kerry Spot for Best Newcomer (Kerry Spot, like Kerry himself, might not be with us in the future, but both the Diplomad and the Fourth Rail certainly will be). The Chrenkoff promoter James Taranto and his Best of the Web was a clear winner in the Best Media/Journalist Blog stakes. One of my oldest supporters, Blackfive, scored the Best Milblog award. Iraq the Model, that well-known CIA front, has meanwhile won the Best Middle Eastern or African Blog award. And there's plenty more - you'll find a lot more of "the friends of Chrenk" prominent in these and other categories.

Not sure whether it says something about the geography of the blogosphere, but of all the geo-based contests, Australia/NZ attracted the second largest number of overall votes (after the topical and newsworthy Middle East), ahead of more populous localities such as Canada, UK, Europe, South America and Asia.


The leftie smear job to end all smear jobs 

The left-wing side of the blogosphere reaches the new low - and keeps digging, courtesy of Martini Republic (is it like a leftie Vodka Pundit?) accusing Iraq the Model of being a part of an American government intelligence and disinformation operation:

"Maybe you've wondered: What kind of operations does the U.S. Government conduct in the line of pumping 'favorable' propaganda regarding Iraq?

"And, more importantly, since this is such an unpopular War: Would the runaway Republican Government dare conduct below-board ops and psy-ops not just in Iraq, but right here in the U.S?

"In the blogosphere, the practice of 'blog trolling' - touting the 'right' messengers with a mix of above-board, official recognition and below-board, ideology-based, sustained pump-priming, to generate a following for propagandistic messengers far beyond their natural level of interest- and to perchance achieve key mainstream media placement without normal media vetting - can 'celebritize' a messenger or messengers, and help to turn bloggers into propagandists."
Yes, Iraq the Model is one of these, and the brave anti-intelligence operatives at Martini Republic want some questions answered; for example, what sort of shadowy role is the government playing in supporting the Iraq the Model brothers' current US tour? Is it just a coincidence that their Internet Service Provider is a company near Abilene, Texas, which happens to be the home base of the 490th Army Civil Reserve Unit? And just how much money is the US government paying them?

No, I'm not making these things up - it's all there, generously sprinkled for good effect with bold font so that readers won't miss all the really good points.

And as if that wasn't enough, the ever dependable
Juan Cole jumps on the "bash the uppity Iraqis" bandwagon:

"Contrast all this [favorable treatment that Iraq the Model is getting] to the young woman computer systems analyst in Baghdad, Riverbend, who is in her views closer to the Iraqi opinion polls, especially with regard to Sunni Arabs, but who is not being feted in Washington, DC."
A mystery, I say! Why on earth isn't the right feting an anti-American blogger? But the US is a free country (Cole and the Martinis might disagree) - MoveOn can sponsor a tour by Riverbend and she, too, could be feted in Washington, DC, by Juan Cole, Michael Moore and the sleuths at Martini Republic.

I'm not going to comment too much on the specific absurdities, insults and all the Grassy Knoll stuff - Tony at
Across the Bay, as well as Ali at Iraq the Model have already ably responded to Cole and the Martinis - except to say this: how open-minded and tolerant of the left, isn't it? Doesn't it remind you of the treatment that conservative African-Americans get from the enlightened liberal elites? All African-Americans must be liberals, therefore those who aren't are not "real Blacks" but traitors to their race, sell-outs, Uncle Toms and whitey-wannabes (for the latest discussion of liberal racism see James Taranto).

And now we have the same template applied on the Arabs: all Arabs are anti-American, and strongly opposed to our imperialism and the reckless invasion and occupation of Iraq. Therefore, those Arabs who aren't are not "real Arabs" - God forbid anyone in the Middle East would actually want a Western style democracy and some freedom! (it's a common perception among the Western lefties, something I have observed in the context of my own experiences: they loathe their own society so much that they can't understand how other people around the world might actually like it). Worse still, those "unreal Arabs" must also be a part of a sinister disinformation psy-ops campaign by the US government and intelligence services - somebody is paying them to spread their ugly pro-American propaganda!

I'm having deja vu - sections of the left were saying exactly the same things about Poland's "Solidarity" throughout the 1980s. Solidarity was getting money from the CIA! It was all a part of a covert effort to destabilize the Soviet Bloc! In reality, Solidarity received more help from the American and Western European trade unions than from the CIA. And no, a movement of some 10 million members - more than one in four of Poles - was not a creation or a creature of the US government. Yes, Virginia, there are genuine popular movements out there in the world and no, they're not all left-wing.

But hang on - I'm having another deja vu - aren't some on the left saying the same thing now about the Ukrainian opposition? These crazy Slavs can't possibly want freedom, democracy, and a pro-Western government - and surely they're too disorganized to run their own opposition movement - so it must be actually run by some sinister Western intelligence agencies.

I'm sorry if this post seems so chaotic (told you so about these Slavs), but as you can see I feel very passionate about this topic and there is nothing I loathe more in politics than the arrogant, sheltered, ignorant Western left which for most part never "got" the struggle against communism, and is now not getting it either about the struggle for freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

I can laugh about it, too, because a few weeks ago, a certain
H.D. Schmidt from Loma Linda, California, had this to say about one of my "Good news from Iraq" segments at the "Opinion Journal":

"I personally find it a little suspicious that it takes an Australian to tell the truth about Iraq to the American people. I wonder whether this man is not really an American, part of the great effort by the U.S.A. PR to make things look good in Iraq?"
All I can say is - I wish. If any of you, dear readers, hear of any jobs going at the White House, the Congress, the Pentagon, or any other part of "the U.S.A. PR" machine, please let me know; I'm willing to relocate!


Scamming Iraq in three easy steps 

I got my first "Nigerian scam email" from Iraq:
"FROM: Sgt. John Smith Fitte
Important Message
To President / Managing Director..

"Good day,

"My name is John Mark Fitte, I am an American soldier, I am serving in the military of the 1st Armored Division in Iraq, As you know we are being attacked by insurgents everyday and car bombs.We managed to move funds belonging to Saddam Hussien's family. The total amount is US$25 Million dollars in cash, mostly 100 dollar bills. We want to move this money to you, so that you may invest it for us and keep our share for banking.

"We will take 50%, my partner and I. You take the other 50%. no strings attached, just help us move it out of Iraq, Iraq is a warzone. We plan on using diplomatic courier and shipping the money out in one large silver box, using diplomatic immunity.

"If you are interested I will send you the full details, my job is to find a good partner that we can trust and that will assist us. Can I trust you? When you receive this letter,kindly send me an e-mail signifying your interest including your most confidential telephone/fax numbers for quick communication also your contact details. This business is risk free. The box can be shipped out in 48hrs.please reply me back on this my private address (johfitte@...)


"Sgt. John s. Fitte"
This was just too good to let pass, so I replied:
"Dear Sgt Fitte

"It is with great surprise but also great excitement that I received your email and the proposal to share 50-50 the profits of removing US$25 million in cash out of Iraq.

"For the past several years I have been involved with the administration of the United Nations' Oil for Food program in Iraq, which enabled the sovereign government of the-then President Saddam Hussein to raise several billion US dollars for the ambitious palace-building and re-armament programs.

"Due to an illegal American invasion of Iraq, of which you, Sgt Fitte, are unfortunately a part of, as well as the anti-UN and anti-Secretary General Annan witchhunt by neo-conservative agitators in the US government and the US Congress (I hope that you voted for John Kerry, Sgt Fitte!), this highly successful Food for Oil program has been suspended and I find myself reassigned and underemployed on the Darfur Crisis Resolution Sub-Committee, writing strongly worded warnings about future strongly worded warnings should the situation not improve (genocide is such a charged, unhelpful word, isn't it?).

"So, to cut a long story short, I would be happy to get back into the swing of things, as they say. US$25 million is but a small change compared to some of the oil contracts we've handled in the past, but I guess beggars can't be choosers.

"Kind regards

Jude Finisterra"
Jude is currently awaiting a response from Sgt Fitte - and guess what? twenty four hours later he still hasn't heard back from the good (bad?) Sargeant.


Monday, December 13, 2004

Remembering the martial law 

Yesterday, December 13, was a twenty third anniversary of the introduction of the martial law in Poland; the event at the time widely thought to have finally and irrevocably brought to an end the era of "Solidarity", but which with hindsight only delayed for a few more years the coming of democracy in Poland and the fall of the Soviet Empire.

I was nine and a half. I remember it snowed when I woke up on Sunday morning. I got up and went to switch on TV to watch "Teleranek" (TV Morning), a weekly program for kids that always aired at 9am. But there was only snow on the screen, too. We didn't know what has happened, but the phone lines were cut off as well, and that was a bad sign. The streets were eerily empty, as if every family in every apartment around, faced with the same snow on TV and the same dead signal on the phone, was also drawing into themselves and waiting for somebody else to make the first move.

In fact, since we were all still alive, we could discount the possibility that a nuclear war has broken out while we slept. Remember, this was the end of 1981, with that warmongering cowboy not even a year in the White House and already trashing detente and ratching up the temperature under the ailing geriatric Brezhnev. And Krakow was a big enough city to be among the first targets should all hell break loose.

No, there were only two real possibilities: either we (the opposition, the overwhelming majority of the nation) did them (the communists) in, or they did us in. At midday, when the radio stations stopped playing somber classical music and the vision came back on TV screens, we knew it had been the latter. General Jaruzelski, stiffened by his orthopedic corset, his eyes hidden behind large dark sunglasses (a legacy of a Siberian internment by the Soviets, when strong sunlight reflecting off snow damaged his eyesight), faced the nation and read a proclamation declaring martial law. The army has taken over the government to suppress the opposition and save Poland from inevitable bloodshed. What freedoms there still existed under our communist government were suppressed; curfews imposed, freedom of movement within the country restricted. "Solidarity", the movement of some 10 million members (out of the population of 36 million) was cleanly decapitated just after midnight on Sunday morning, when the security forces swept in and arrested almost all of the trade union's leaders attending a national congress in Gdansk.

Only my father eventually ventured out of the house late in the afternoon. There were tanks and armored personnel carriers on the streets, and checkpoints manned by young soldiers, cold and miserable under the inglorious Polish December. We couldn't really hate them, not just because the Army was, aside from the Church, the only widely respected institution in our society, but also because the conscripts were almost as scared and uneasy as everyone else. And they were all strangers in unfamiliar places; the General Staff had sent the units away from their home towns so that if the fighting broke out the troops would not have to fire on their fathers, brothers, and friends. It's easier to shoot strangers, after all.

My father braved the snow, the chilling wind, and the bundled up sentries, and went to our parish church for the evening mass. The church was full. People were crying and singing old religious hymns with patriotic overtones. "Free fatherland, return to us, O Lord..."

13 December 1981 remains a divisive date in Polish history. Jaruzelski and his supporters (and there are more of those than you would think) have always maintained that martial law was necessary to save Poland from an even greater tragedy of the Soviet invasion and likely bloodshed and civil war. Jaruzelski's detractors say he was always Moscow's stooge who volunteered to do the dirty job of suppressing "Solidarity" for the Soviets. Twenty three years later passions still run hot. This from a Polish newspaper:
"Overnight from Sunday to Monday, around 200 people have gathered outside the General's home. The supporters and detractors of the decision to introduce martial law were separated by a police cordon. There were verbal skirmishes, chanted slogans and singing. Members of Law and Justice, Confederation of Independent Poland and the Republican League sang "Rota" [a very old Polish military-patriotic hymn], members of the Young Social Democrats Federation and the Union of Democratic Left - "The Internationale". One side chanted "We thank you, General", the other "We'll find a bat for the General". One side sported banners saying "Here lives a communist criminal" and "Jaruzelski - we condemn your crimes", the other "Hands off General" and "No to extremism."
Martial law was to last less than two years. In that time I got used to passing on my way to school a backpackers' hostel converted into temporary military barracks, its carpark normally full of tourist buses now packed with the APCs. My family used to joke that at least I would be very safe getting to school.

I can only say thank you to the rainbow coalition out there who supported us in any way they could. To Ronald Reagan who kept a candle lit every night in the window of the White House to show his thoughts were with us - and, on the other side of the spectrum, to people like Francois Brutsch in Switzerland, who with others organised a committee of socialists, Trotsyites and independent leftists opposed to the Soviet oppression of Eastern Europe (link in French, but you can translate the page with Babel Fish).

The martial law was not the end. The system merely stagnated for another few years, and then in 1989 collapsed from within, when the communist leadership realized there was no more room for maneuver and nothing left to save. Poland was the first domino to fall - some, like Serbia, Georgia or Ukraine are still falling, fifteen years later. It been a long revolution, and nothing like we'd expected that Sunday morning, December 13, 1981. But that's history for you - you never know where it's going to lead. One morning you wake up and there's nothing on TV, another morning there are dozens of Western channels on cable.


Good news from Afghanistan, Part 7 

Note: Welcome for the first time to all the Little Green Footballs readers. I hope you'll enjoy the Afghanistan segment and keep coming back for more - there's plenty to see, including regular "Good news from Iraq" updates (see the sidebar for details, but here's the latest one) as well as many others musings about the left, the right, and the wrong.

Another note: Also available from the "Opinion Journal" and Winds of Change. As always, big thank you James Taranto and Joe Katzman for their support in publicizing the good news - and to all of you who read it, link it, and pass it on.

A few days ago, hundreds of Afghan leaders and some 150 foreign dignitaries, including the Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, got to witness a historic event;
the swearing in of Afghanistan's first democratically elected president, Hamid Karzai:

"Wearing a black lambskin hat and traditional striped silk coat over his shoulders, Mr. Karzai took his oath before the aging former king, Zaher Shah. The president himself then swore in his two vice presidents, Ahmed Zia Massoud and Mohammed Karim Khalili, who represent the two largest ethnic minorities, the Tajiks and the Shia Hazaras, after Karzai's own ethnic group, the Pashtuns."
"We have now left a hard and dark past behind us, and today we are opening a new chapter in our history, in a spirit of friendship with the international community," said Karzai in his inauguration speech, switching between Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan's two main languages.

The irony of the situation, if irony is indeed the correct word, is that the country that only three years ago was still ruled by the most dictatorial and backward of regimes can now claim to have one of the few democratically elected leaders in the whole region. Electing a president, of course, is only a start; great many challenges remain for this impoverished and war-scarred country. How much still remains to be done to improve security, eradicate the scourge of drugs, and rebuild the physical and human infrastructure should not blind us to how much has already been achieved in the three years since the overthrow of the Taliban regime - indeed, how much continues to be achieved every day throughout Afghanistan, for most part out of the media spotlight. Below is a snapshot of the past month's unsung efforts to face and meet the challenges.

SOCIETY: With the excitement of the presidential election now behind, Afghan authorities and political parties are starting to plan for the
parliamentary election scheduled for April 2005. The biggest task will involve drawing up the electoral boundaries. In time for the election, Afghanistan's historical census is now near finish. This joint project between the Afghan government and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has so far surveyed 30 out of the country's 34 provinces, with work in southern Paktika, Zabul and Helmand, and the newly established Daikudni province expected to be completed over the next month. Good and accurate information, of course, is necessary for the planning of the parliamentary election:

"There are a total of 249 posts in the new parliament. The provinces which have fewer than half a million population will be given nine posts. The provinces which have between half a million and one million people will get 15 posts. Those with between one and two million people will have 19 posts. The provinces with two to three million people will have 23 posts and those with more than three million will get 29 parliamentary posts."
Meanwhile, an ambitious program is aiming to rebuild the country's devastated local administration:

"The Afghan government has launched a new US $312 million project financed by international donors to centralise and equip the country's fragile district administrations...

"The project, entitled the Afghanistan Stabilisation Programme (ASP), is expected to strengthen the authority of the central government beyond the capital Kabul.

" 'Maintaining proper administration and proper buildings and complexes in districts will bridge the gap between Kabul and local administrations,' deputy Interior Minister Helaluddin Hellal [said]... after launching the main phase of ASP...

"There are 364 districts in Afghanistan's 34 provinces and due to years of devastating conflict the local administrations do not have buildings and other necessary public utilities, Hellal said."
According to the head of ASP, Abdul Malik Sediqi, "six districts have already been covered in the pilot phase and it is expected that 150 districts will be finalised by the end of next year." "We have $36 million in hand and if we obtain the required budget, ASP will take three years to cover all the districts of the country," says Sediqi.

From political reform to spiritual liberation, the Afghans are finally free to
celebrate and enjoy religion like it should be:

"Three years after the fall of the hardline Taliban regime, residents of Afghanistan's capital are celebrating the Eid al-Fitr festival in upbeat mood...

"Wearing a newly tailored traditional Afghan shalwar-kameez trouser suit, electronic engineer Qadratullah said the country was 'reborn' when the Taliban were toppled in Kabul in November 2001 by a US-led military campaign.

" 'I am feeling quite good about what we have in this year's Eid. Compared to the past under the Taliban I feel that we have risen to heaven from the depths of hell,' added the 32-year-old as he marked the end of Ramadan.

"Under six years of Islamic fundamentalist rule, Qadratullah was lashed for failing to grow a beard and his wife was beaten for not wearing the all-enveloping burqa."
The growth of the media is presenting many opportunities for Afghan women to reach out to each other:

"Sitting around a table with their burqas (top to bottom covering veil) on chairs, Arefa Zareh, a school teacher and her fellow women were preparing to broadcast the first trial programme of Quyash (the Sun), a newly established local women's radio station in the northern city of Maimana.

"Radio Quyash is now one of the four local women's radio stations and one of over 30 independent radio stations in the country. It counts as the only independent media outlet in troubled Maimana, the provincial capital of Faryab.

"The new station is expected to tackle the issues of poverty, illiteracy, forced marriages and the rule of the gun, which are among the major concerns of the local community in Faryab province."
There are still numerous problems, like interference from local officials, or overcoming culture shock in the community, but the work of radio stations like Quyash is a good step forward for Afghan women: "Fawad Sahil, a radio programme manager for the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS), a Canadian NGO working on strengthening civil society and democracy... believes that establishing women's radio stations provides more women with the opportunity to become journalists, producers, technicians, fundraisers and decision-makers. In assuming these roles, they learn new skills, develop greater self-confidence and awareness, and become active participants in their own communities."

And there is also a new
radio broadcast for Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan: "The 10-minute-long programme, aired twice a week, tells Afghan refugees about the latest developments in Afghanistan, and provides updates on the [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme. UNHCR is producing the programme with Radio Pakistan to give Afghan refugees the information they need to make a decision on whether to voluntarily repatriate to their country." Meanwhile, as the refugees are coming back after years of exile, the UN is trying to help them rebuild their homes:

"It is late autumn, but still mild enough for Akbar Nusrati to enjoy lunch in the garden of his newly reconstructed house. Until last month, this small patch of earth with its two apple trees was where Akbar, his wife and their three children ate, slept and washed - their only shelter a makeshift tent. With the frigid winter only weeks away, Akbar is grateful to be back in the home he and his family fled during Afghanistan's civil war 13 years ago.

"Following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, hundreds of other families from the village of Qarabagh, 50 km north of the capital Kabul, have also taken the decision to return after years living as refugees in Iran and Pakistan. For most, what they found when they arrived was rubble...

"The help, which is provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has enabled more than 5,000 families in Qarabagh to repair or completely rebuild their homes. In the Shomali Plain, some 14,000 families have received UNHCR assistance and more than 300 water points have been established.

"The UNHCR investment in Qarabagh is a fraction of its nation-wide programme to assist the more than 3 million Afghans who have returned since 2002."
Not just on the radio, Afghan women are also make progress in the arts community:

"Barely three years ago, at a time when women in Afghanistan were not permitted even to leave their homes, the idea of a woman performing on stage - and in mixed company! - seemed inconceivable. Any woman who did so risked life and limb.

"All the more astonishing, then, that a theater festival opening in Kabul will include a play written by a woman (a teenage schoolgirl, to be precise), with real actresses, about the brutal suppression of women under the country's now-ousted Taliban government.

" 'To those people who want to keep us away from the stage, I say: You have no right to interfere,' says 16-year-old playwright/director Naseeba Ghulam Mohammed, whose 'Toward Brightness' is among the plays women will perform during the eight-day national festival. 'In Afghanistan today, men and women are equal'."
Another report tells a story of Afghanistan's new star and the resurrection of the country's movie industry:

"Two years ago, Marina Gulbahari was a street urchin begging for scraps from the tables of Kabul restaurants. If she was lucky, she might get a few crumpled notes or kebab leftovers wrapped in nan. If she was unlucky, the black-turbaned Taliban police would beat her. That was before she became the biggest name in Afghan cinema.

"Now, after a stunning performance in last year's critically acclaimed film Osama, Marina, aged 14, has become the face of Afghanistan's resurgent film industry at foreign film festivals, hailed as a precociously talented actress with an exciting future whose natural ability is drawn from her traumatic upbringing amid war and turmoil.

"Her emergence is the most extraordinary story of Kabul's film-making renaissance. From being persecuted by the Taliban, who burnt all the film stock they could, directors are again making movies. A new generation desperately short of cash and equipment but not of enthusiasm is buzzing with projects and ideas, determined to create a uniquely Afghan creative film genre."
But Afghanistan is creating even more female film-making stars: "When 14 young Afghan women started a video project in Kabul, secretly documenting the history of women under the Taleban regime, they never imagined how far their work would take them... Now the public television network in the United States, PBS, has bought the rights and will show the film on its 349 affiliated stations." And in a display impossible to imagine under the Taliban rule, "on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, hundreds of women rallied in the Afghan capital, Kabul, to promote their cause." Afghanistan, of course, remains a deeply conservative, rural-centered society and the struggle for equal rights and equal treatment still has a long way to go - at least, though, women can finally make a start.

education explosion continues throughout the country: " 'There has been a tremendous demand for education, since the rebuilding of Afghanistan began. It has continued to exceed all expectations.' says Keiko Miwa, an Education Specialist with the World Bank... based in Kabul. 'More than 3 million students enrolled in grades one to 12 in 2002, when only 1.7 million students were expected to enroll. In March 2003, the enrollment surpassed 4 million.' Today, more than 5 million students are enrolled in schools, according to Habibullah Wajdi. 'This is the most definitive expression for education in Afghan history'." Problems persist: security concerns are still keeping many girls away from school, and the growing demand for education puts strain on the existing resources, but the combination of enthusiasm at home and help from abroad is making a difference:

"Since April 2002, the World Bank has committed US$317 million in grants and an additional US$441 million in no-interest loans, known as 'credits' for development projects in Afghanistan... In addition, the Bank is administering six grants, totally US$27.6 million from the Japan Social Development Fund and a US$1.5 million grant for training teachers from the World Bank Post Conflict Fund."
Meanwhile, Afghanistan has been able to rediscover its once thought lost heritage:

"More than 22,000 ancient cultural treasures from Afghanistan, feared lost or destroyed after decades of war and Taliban rule, have been taken out of dusty crates and safes in Kabul and inventoried for safekeeping, said a U.S. archeologist...

"The objects, including 2,500 years' worth of gold and silver coins and ancient sculptures, represent a 'Silk Road' of goods once traded from China, India, Egypt, Greece, Rome and ancient Afghanistan.

" 'By the end of the Taliban's reign, most of us thought there was nothing left, just destruction and despair,' said National Geographic fellow and archeologist Fred Hiebert, who led an inventory project of the items.

"Many of the treasures were once on display in the Kabul Museum, which was shelled several times and lost its roof and door. Inventory cards were lost by fire and neglect, making it difficult to track down any of the items.

" 'This project has been an enormous boost for Afghanistan - finding the treasures intact and then working with the outstanding team to inventory each one of them, preserving our heritage for our children,' said Afghanistan's minister of information and culture, Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, in a statement released by National Geographic."
Read also this story of Omara Khan Massoudi, the director of the Afghan National Museum, and his long-standing attempts to preserve Afghanistan's cultural treasures from destruction. "Massoudi said that plans are now under way to protect and catalogue the remaining inventory in the museum. Afghanistan's ministry of information and culture is now creating a computer database to record all the artefacts in the museum's collection. The registration process began at the end of April. To date, more than 22,500 of them have been recorded. Restoration of damaged artefacts is also under way. Massoudi said the ministry has repaired about 50 items. Experts from France and Italy are also aiding in the effort."

There is even
more good news on the cultural heritage front: "A collection of pre-Islamic wooden idols chopped up by the Taliban in 2001 in their drive for a pure Muslim state is back on display in Afghanistan after painstaking repair in a project financed by the Austrian government. The near life-sized idols, some bearing at least a passing resemblance to the mysterious stone statues of Easter Island, went on display this week at the Kabul Museum, which was badly ravaged in Afghanistan's civil war and Taliban rule until 2001." And there is also hope for a much bigger find:

"French archeologists searching for the colossal Sleeping Buddha in Bamiyan province have uncovered what could be the long-missing statue's foot, raising hopes of a major new discovery from Afghanistan's ancient Buddhist past.

"Ever since the fundamentalist Taliban destroyed Bamiyan's 1,500-year-old Standing Buddhas in 2001 because they were 'un-Islamic,' attention has been focused on the hunt for the much larger Sleeping Buddha, described in the travel diary of the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuan Zang and depicted in cave paintings at the historic site in the Hindu Kush mountains west of Kabul."
The Afghans are also re-discovering some simple pleasures of life:

"Through 25 years of war and drought, the hardy roses of Afghanistan never stopped growing. They climbed through the gardens of government buildings, the plush Kabuli villas of Arab fighters, and kept sprouting in the shattered remains of bombed homes long after their owners fled.

"But with Taliban rulers busy fighting for most of the late 1990s, gardens fell into neglect and disrepair.

"In the waves of joy that flowed from the collapse of the hardline regime in late 2001, Afghans rediscovered their gardens and a revival of roses swept the capital."
With the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban gone, Afghan people are free to indulge in other previously forbidden pastimes. From Kabul, this victory of the sporting spirit:

"At a resort that became a battlefield, Afghans teed off... in their country's first open golf tournament in more than 30 years.

"As is still the way in Afghanistan, the first shot of the day at the Kabul Golf Club went to the local militia commander, applauded by his men with shouldered Kalashnikovs.

"But organisers say they hope their tournament, contested by 40 local caddies in a picturesque valley just outside the capital, will help bring a new era in which the only risks are from golf balls, not bullets, flying down the fairways.

"The club describes itself as the best and only course in Afghanistan and promises 'golf with an attitude'. Hazards are unorthodox, from the bombed out club house below the dramatic first tee on a ledge high up the valley, to the odd spent shell or scurrying lizard...

"A lack of water means there is not a patch of grass to be seen and the greens are actually 'browns' made from oiled sand, yet the course has become popular with a few dozen hardy souls among Kabul's 2,000-strong foreign community."
Says a club pro, Mohamad Afzal Abdul: "We still don't have a proper green and we still need more facilities... Some of our international members have promised to help us reconstruct our greens and donate equipment." And a former refugee Zabir Sidiq, who is rebuilding a restaurant and nightclub overlooking the course adds: "In the past there was a lot of killing going on here... Right now we are trying to fix up this area and give people some hope to understand a better life." Any Western golfers who would like to help?

not just golf, though: "Afghan Atiq Sikander only took up bowling two years ago, but he dreams of building a bowling alley in his war-torn homeland. 'People used to play bowling in Afghanistan in the 1970s, but after all that has happened, probably eighty percent of Afghans now have never heard of bowling,' Sikander said. Sikander, 30, is the first Afghan to compete in the 40th American Machine and Foundry Bowling World Cup, to be held in Singapore from December 5-12... Although he holds an Afghan passport, Sikander has lived in Bulgaria for the past 16 years after moving there from Kabul with his family... [Now] Sikander wants to bring his love of the sport to his native country. 'War destroyed us. The Afghan people are eager to learn new things, but they do not have the facilities. I'm sure they will like bowling if they have a chance to play,' he said."

Lastly, if you want to put a human face on the opportunities that are now open to Afghan people, read this
truly inspirational story from "USA Today"'s Walter Shaprio:

"On a reporting trip to Afghanistan in December 2001, six weeks after the Taliban was routed, I met Jawad Sepehri Joya at a Red Cross rehabilitation facility in Kabul. Although he was just 16 and confined to a wheelchair because of polio, Jawad was not a patient. Instead, he was working at his part-time job programming computers for the Red Cross. And in near flawless English, this young man - who had never attended any school, who had been illiterate until 1998 and who had never left Kabul - earnestly confided that he wanted to go to college in America."
Jawad is now attending Earlham college in Indiana on full scholarship. "Foreign students in America, particularly those few from war-torn lands, tend to be the children of privilege. But Jawad, the oldest of five, was instead shaped by Afghan adversity. His parents are illiterate Shiite Muslims, who moved to Kabul from the countryside after the 1979 Soviet invasion. His father, now retired, was a self-taught builder and architect. Nothing is more poignant than Jawad's story of how he contracted polio as an infant in 1986, long after this disease was eradicated in all but a few impoverished lands." Taken under the wing of an Italian doctor in Taliban-held Kabuk, Jawad was given clandestine lessons and taught himself computer programming. Now, a world away from the old life he "is taking chemistry and biology along with the required freshman courses at Earlham, [and] wants to be a scientist. But reflecting the forces that molded him, Jawad's conception of his future calling is characteristically expansive. As he stressed, 'I want to be a scientist who is very literate in social science, literature and art.' In short, a Renaissance Afghan."

latest successes in the work to establish sound, competitive economy in Afghanistan:

"Privatization of State Owned Enterprises will soon begin and construction of three industrial parks is near completion. Other accomplishments include:

- Issuance of more than 6,000 Business Licenses and 13,000 Tax Identification Numbers in Afghanistan
- Relicensing of three State Owned Banks, licensing of three local banks, and the licensing of four Foreign Banks
- 80% of connected banks currently submitting daily reports
- International Fund Transfer payments total 4,012 transfers for the year...

"Customs revenue generation figures indicate another significant improvement in Afghanistan's overall customs operations. Since March 2004, the beginning of the Afghan fiscal year, $76.4 [million] was generated in customs revenue - at a rate significantly higher than last fiscal year. Customs operations in Afghanistan are the largest contributor to the country's total domestic revenue Border operations are improving and progress continues with the commencement of Customs Mobile Units, which generate additional revenue."
Speaking of banking, the Afghan authorities have issued a license for the establishment of an Iranian bank called "Aryan bank", soon to open office in Kabul (no neo-Nazi connotations there; Iranian people see themselves as direct descendants of the historical Aryan people of the second millennium BC). The number of foreign banks in Afghanistan has now reached eleven.

Unemployment remains a big problem throughout Afghanistan, a legacy of widespread destruction, economic dislocation and illiteracy. To tackle this challenge, the International Labour Organisation will be opening new centers to assist job-seekers and provide training opportunities for those unqualified:

"The first [Employment Services Centre] was established in the capital earlier this year. Nearly 1,000 job seekers and 300-350 vacancies have been referred to the centre in the first three months of establishment. 'Out of these we have confirmed about 10 to 15 percent placement which is not so bad in the beginning,' the [ILO]'s chief adviser noted.

"The other eight centers will be established in the next 12 months in major cities of the country. ESCs are also expected to create a database on training providers for those out of work."
And to spur the employment and economic growth through greater trade, the United States is pushing for the World Trade Organization to accept Afghanistan as a member.

There is a lot of action on the transport infrastructure front to link Afghanistan with it neighbors. According to an estimate by the Pakistani Ministry of Roads and Transportation, some
$2 billion will be needed to complete road and railway lines linking Afghanistan and Iran in the so called North-South transit corridor. The work on some key elements of the network is progressing well; the 122-km Dogharoun-Herat highway has already been completed and will be officially opened soon. Another highway, between Herat and Maimana will commence construction shortly.

In another link, a 320-meter
Milek bridge spanning the Iranian-Afghan border has been rebuilt at the cost of dlr 3 billion ($3 million) and recently reopened. "Eventually, if the road networks improve, this bridge will shorten the country's access to port by hundreds of miles," says former Afghan diplomat and politician from southern Kandahar, Abdul Jabbar Naeemi (600 miles, or 1,000 kilometers to be exact). Report notes that "Iran also paid 1.5 million dollars to build a four-kilometer stretch of road linking Zaranj to the bridge as well as Iranian road networks stretching south across Iran to the port of Chabahar." "This road will help the transportation of goods between Afghanistan's northern neighbours, Iran, and the subcontinent of India to the Persian Gulf and other Arabic countries," adds Afghanistan's reconstruction minister, Amin Farhang.

"Although there is a road running from Kabul in the east of the country to the main southern city of Kandahar, before the bridge was built most of Afghanistan's trade centered on the western city of Herat.

"That meant goods had to travel almost a full circle around the eastern edge of Afghanistan and back up to its western border in Herat before crossing to Iran for transport to the Gulf, or, be hauled south through Pakistan to Karachi.

"If plans to build a multi-billion dollar ring-road come to fruition, that could change.

"A further 200 kilometers of roads connecting the border town of Zaranj to the town of Delaram in western Afghanistan's Farah province is being constructed with Indian government help to create a ring road circling the country."
To help with the construction in the corridor, "the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved a loan package worth $301.2 million to improve road connections from Pakistan's Afghan border to the southern ports of Karachi... The project will improve access to the ports and the Pakistani market for landlocked Afghanistan and the republics of Central Asia... The project will upgrade 212 kilometres of provincial highways and about 700 kilometres of rural access roads. About 310 kilometres of national highways, including new access to Afghanistan, and infrastructure at two border points will be built or improved."

The Asian Development Bank is also working to implement the proposed
Customs Free Corridor (CFC) plan to promote regional trade between Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan: "During the first meeting of the working group representatives [of the] six nations discussed the idea of one customs regime for trade among [the group]... Pakistan is already facilitating trade to land-locked Afghanistan under the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA) and the launching of the Customs Free Corridor will further enhance the role in promoting trade with the said Asian countries. The bank is also financing different projects of roads for connectivity from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asian Republics (CARs) with the aim to enhance their volume of trade in the years to come."

And to assist with the development of
aviation infrastructure, "Afghanistan has been granted a $30 million soft loan from the Asian Development Bank to repair the war-torn country's regional airports... The concessional assistance will also include a staff training package for Afghanistan's Civil Aviation Center, which will produce about 180 graduates in two years."

A major energy infrastructure project might finally be
getting off the ground: "Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan will hold talks in January on constructing a long-delayed $ 2-2.5 billion pipeline to transport gas from ex-Soviet Turkmenistan, an Afghan official said on Wednesday. 'There are three problems to be addressed,' [said] Hakim Khan Taniwal, Afghan Labour Minister... 'Pakistan should say how much energy it needs. Afghanistan should look into the security of this pipeline. And Turkmenistan should confirm the reserves'." As report notes, positive developments across the region are making the pipeline more viable: "Hopes of stability in Afghanistan and signals from India this year that it might agree to import natural gas from nuclear rival Pakistan have revived interest in the project."

There is also some valuable assistance from
India to complete another major piece of infrastructure: "India Thursday selected state-owned Water and Power Consultancy Services Limited (WAPCOS) to complete the Salma Dam Project in Afghanistan. WAPCOS, a premier international organisation under the Indian ministry of water resources, will be required to complete the project within four years. The Indian government had last month sanctioned Rs.3.5 billion ($79 million) for reconstruction and completion of the project. When complete, the dam will meet the water requirements of Herat province and support a 42 MW hydropower plant."

Speaking of
water management, "the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved a grant package totaling US$1.96 million to prepare a project to boost integrated water resources management and irrigated agriculture development in Afghanistan:

"ADB is contributing a grant of $1.2 million toward the $2.06 million total cost of the technical assistance (TA) and will administer a grant of $760,000 equivalent provided by the Government of Canada. The Government of Afghanistan will finance the remaining $100,000 equivalent.

"The TA and proposed project aim to improve water resource management at all levels in Afghanistan, from farm level to basin management. It will also rehabilitate, modernize and develop new irrigation and water resource infrastructure, lay the foundations of improved agricultural productivity, and ensure the integrity of watershed resources."
Afghanistan's famous industry is planning to stage a comeback and regain the market share lost over decades of conflict:

"After a three-decade absence, the annual Carpet Festival, celebrating what’s believed to be a 2,500-year tradition,has shown its colours again in the northern province of Jowzjan.

"The festival, which was last held in 1974, returned to Jowzjan on November 22. It used to be held each autumn in either Jowzjan's Aqchah district or Andkhoi in neighbouring Faryab province, but was suspended during the years of fighting.

"Despite a driving rainstorm, more than 10,000 people came, including United States Ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad and Afghan commerce minister Mustafa Kazemi."
As the report reminds us, "carpets are the country's third largest export after dried fruit and karakul, the lambskin used to make hats such as the one commonly worn by President Hamed Karzai. Over one million people are employed in the carpet industry in Afghanistan, including weavers, dealers, and businesspeople. Many of those involved in the carpet industry are of Turkmen ethnicity, and the majority of weavers are women." The challenge now is to regain at least some of the market which has been cornered by Turkish and Iranian producers. It will not be easy, but there are some successes already: "First, the US government agreed to import Afghan carpets without imposing import duties. And second, Ariana Afghan Airlines agreed to transport Afghan carpets abroad at cost," says commerce minister Kazemi.

Tourism, too, is making a slow comeback. Afghanistan once used to be a large tourist attraction, but years of conflict have driven visitors away. "It is not a vacation spot for the fainthearted," writes one
report. "Still, adventurous tourists are returning to this wild and exotic landscape."

"Hessamuddin Hamrah, president of the Afghan Tourism Organization, is confident that foreign visitors will come back. But since the fall of the Taliban, his agency has hosted only 35 tour groups, comprising 247 individuals from around the globe, mostly from Western Europe and Japan. 'We hope a lot of tourists will come,' he said, 'because it's really important to us for economic revival.'

"Admittedly, Afghanistan's reputation as a haven for terrorists - and as one of the most heavily mined places on the planet - has been a poor advertisement for tourism. 'The news they hear from Afghanistan is bad,' Mr. Hamrah said. 'But the security in Afghanistan now is not bad. ... We send groups out, they go there and come back very happy.'

"Lonely Planet, the bible of budget travelers, published a section on Afghanistan in the latest edition of its Central Asia guidebook - previous editions said simply: 'Don't Go!' Other guidebooks plan to include information and advice about the country."
HUMANITARIAN AID: In the previous installment of the series, I mentioned the efforts of San Diego Rotary Club that resulted in their home town becoming a sister city of Jalalabad. The mayor of Jalalabad Abdul Razzaq Arsalai is now visiting San Diego to thank for many initiatives that are currently helping his city:

"Local group members have enlisted area schools and colleges to help Jalalabad schools, where teachers sometimes have no textbooks and base their lessons on decades-old notes... Rotary clubs in San Diego provided books and computers for Jalalabad's university, and an elementary school in the city has become a sister school to Doyle Elementary in La Jolla."
Speaking of schools, read about this great initiative from Alaska and how it's making a huge difference for Afghan children, particularly girls:

"When the United States began bombing Afghanistan in late 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, a father named Ayub Azizi cheered the invasion. His wife secretly taught their four daughters during the Taliban's oppressive reign, a time when girls were denied an education. But the end of restrictions didn't solve another problem: how to rebuild schools that had fallen into disrepair, if they existed in places at all, after a generation of warfare that started with the Soviet invasion in 1973 [sic].

"Five young Americans, all in their early to mid-30s, responded by creating a non-profit organization, Solace International, that raises money to build schools for girls in Afghanistan. They found that their lack of bureaucracy helped them to be faster and more flexible in getting projects done.

"The group, which originated among a group of friends in Anchorage, Alaska, and uses Seattle as one of its bases, has completed six schools in less than two years at a cost of $25,000 to $30,000 each."
Ray Riehle from Citrus Heights, California, tells me about the project he has been involved with lately:

"My brother, Ed, is a career Army Offices. He has been deployed to Afghanistan and is now working for Central Command. He has spent quite a bit of time traveling around the country but in his 'spare' time, he is working with orphans. There are 768 boys in Tahai-Maskan, a home for boys aged 8 to 18. There are 177 girls and 380 boys in Allaudi, a boys and girls home for boys up to 13 and girls up to 16. The kids are very poor, but their prospects are getting better every day. Ed's section is running the program. He is the Officer in Charge and the soldiers who are working at the orphanages are all volunteers. They are assigned to CFC-A, Combined Forces Command Afghanistan, based in Kabul."
When back in October Ray asked his brother if there was anything he could do to help the troops, Ed had other ideas - he requested clothes and shoes, linen and school supplies for the orphans, and asked for any help to raise funds to build a better orphanage. Ray has so far raised $4,000 and is looking for more help with this ongoing project. Visit the website if you can help (SOZO International is the aid organisation acting as a conduit for funding).

Others are helping on a smaller scale. In Lompoc, California, Mary Younglove has reached her target of sending
20 boxes with school supplies and clothes to distribute to needy Afghan children through her son Chuck who works with the American troops in Afghanistan.

It's not just the Americans who are giving a helping hand to people of Afghanistan. Throughout Canada, an organisation called Women for Women in Afghanistan is raising funds through
pot luck dinners, mostly to assist women in refugee camps through education initiatives. In Britain, meanwhile, "Berkshire Community College staff and students in October donated ten large boxes of school supplies to a village school in Afghanistan. Part of the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation, these supplies are in memory of north county resident Peter Goodrich, who was in the second plane that crashed into the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001."

You don't have to be a grown-up to be able to help, either:

"While students were anxiously awaiting the end of the 2003-04 school year, two Bellevue girls were busy campaigning for donations to provide the one thing students in Afghanistan were in desperate need of - school supplies... In April, Meghan Frank, 13, and Mallory Ubbelohde, 13, from Logan Fontenelle Middle School, decided to prevent their classmates? school supplies from going to waste by coordinating a donation drive in their school, as well as other schools in the area."
The idea to help Afghan children came to Meghan and Mallory while reading news stories about Afghanistan, cut out by Meghan's mother (Meghan's father, Capt. Kevin Frank, was stationed near Kabul). "The results were overwhelming, said Tracy Frank, Meghan's mom. The objective, when they started, was to send two shoeboxes worth of supplies. Just by word of mouth, things grew, and they ended up donating six boxes each for 12 Afghan teachers."

Elsewhere, in New York state, another
success story: "Build it and they will come. Short just $1,300, a local Sunday school class has raised enough money to fund a 'School of Dreams' for 100 children in Afghanistan. Students in the Lyall Memorial Federated Church Teen Sunday School are trying to wrap up the school fund-raiser, called 'School of Dreams,' which they began in the spring. The idea to fund a new school was sparked when the class looked through Christmas catalogs last year during one of its Sunday school classes. Teacher Maggie Blayney brought the catalogs for the class of 7th, 8th, and 9th-graders to hear what they would like for Christmas. Included in the assortment of department and clothing store catalogs was one called Samaritan's Purse. 'When I received it in the mail, it looked just like a normal catalog,' said Blayney. 'As the class flipped through the catalog, there was dead silence,' she said. Among things available for purchase was clean water for a family, hot meals for a week and farm animals. The class decided to build the school for $3,500, hoping to raise the necessary funds by Dec. 31. Blayney emphasized that participating in Samaritan's Purse was entirely the class's idea."

And the young Afghan boy, whom you might remember from
previous installments, Djamshid Popal is almost ready to return home after his successful life-saving heart surgery and recuperation in Canada.

THE COALITION TROOPS: One of the most important, if rarely appreciated, legacies of the foreign troops' stay in Afghanistan will be their effort to clean the country from the deadly legacy of past conflicts. To help them remove Afghanistan from millions of pieces of unexploded ordinance, the troops will soon have the helping hand - or arm - of
100 Talon robots. But not all assistance is so high tech: "They walk into minefields armed only with their noses and the promise of a good chew toy. They're undeterred by the junk that litters their work area. They go in unprotected. They have no Kevlar helmets or life-saving flak vests. The 19 mine-sniffing dogs that serve at Bagram Air Base probably don't realize how much the soldiers of the U.S. Army Reserve's 367th Engineer Battalion have come to rely on them." Dogs are a God-sent in this task, since they are able to sniff out explosives and don't get false alarms unlike metal detectors which react to any metal.

In a country where health care system is only now starting to be rebuild, the military personnel is still playing an important role in
providing medical assistance to Afghan people. These are people like Staff Sgt. Anthony Koertner, a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, who is serving as a nurse with the 325th Field Surgical Team. "We provide care to local Afghan nationals and our soldiers... The majority of what we see is mine blast injuries, but we see pretty much everything you can think of," says Koertner.

"While the personnel at the field hospital help Afghan nationals who have been injured, they have offered a helping hand in other ways as well. One of the doctors at the hospital is working with local officials to help them improve their local healthcare system. Hospital personnel also work with patients as they come in to teach them better health habits.

"They've also helped children at school. 'One of the things that I like is adopting a village,' Koertner said. 'As far as schools go, the only requirement is they have their own pen and paper.' Hospital personnel help gather necessary school supplies, and also give donations of clothing to local children."
But Afghanistan's culture and religious tradition mean that some of the American service personnel have a very special niche to fill: "At her base in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, Army Capt. Nicole Powell-Dunford is a flight surgeon, the person to go see if you are on flying status and feeling ill. She also relishes the chances she has to get off base and care for the people who live in the villages where the old ways and traditions endure. As a result, because she is a woman, she is the only doctor some Afghan women get to see."

In the end, the reconstruction of the country will have to be a joint effort, and the troops are increasingly
helping the Afghans to help themselves. "When we first arrived in Afghanistan, the people in the village would constantly come to us asking for schools and other projects to be done. Then we would take the request and make it happen," says Army Sgt. 1st Class Edith Horn, a member of the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion and head of the Khowst Civil Military Operations Center.

"Now, the CMOC is helping the people understand how to use tools in place throughout the country for those kinds of requests. The Afghan government is made up of ministries and departments that handle everything from road construction and repair to medical facilities and schools. 'While most CMOCs and (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) are still handling the requests themselves, the people of Khwost are learning to rely on their own government,' [Horn] said. The process was slow to start, but now it has taken hold and the people seem very happy with the help and support they are receiving from the CMOC team."
The troops are also reviving the "adopt-a-village" program: "Afghan children and adults swarmed Airmen bearing gifts recently, marking the revival of Bagram Air Base's adopt-a-village program. To create more room for the almost daily arrival of clothing, toy and school supply donations from people worldwide, the program restarted with three distribution missions in two days. With eight pickup trucks loaded with goods, Airmen convoyed to the mountain villages of Kharoti and Dorani, and to the town of Jangadam on the first day, and to the nearby town of Hasankheyl on the second day. Donations included 50 bags of clothing, a pallet of drinking water, 40 personal hygiene kits, 25 blankets, and enough notebooks, pencils, pens, crayons, glue and teddy bears for more than 100 children."

another occasion, "about 90 orphaned children stared at the soldiers who arrived from Bagram Air Base to make their coming winter a little easier. Separated into groups of girls and boys, the children of Parwan Orphanage in Charikar stood quietly in neat rows from smallest to largest. The soldiers moved among them, guessing their foot size and handing them each a new pair of shoes wrapped in plastic bags to keep out Afghanistan's endless dust. The 450 pairs will replace their worn-out, ill-fitting shoes and sandals before the Afghan winter hits with temperatures that can dip to 15 below zero." Case-by-case basis humanitarian aid is necessary, as Lt. Col. Lisa Bailey, a Dallas native, observes, "but there also must be long-term, sustainable work." Read the whole article on how the troops are trying to help via 14 Provincial Reconstruction Teams across Afghanistan.

And the troops are also trying to
help through sport:

"With a final score of 3-1, the Parwan youth soccer team recently defeated its coalition visitor, Team Eagle, at Parwan's home field in Charikar village. After 60 minutes of 'futbol,' the crowd of nearly 1,000 cheered and rushed onto the field to congratulate the home team on a solid victory.

"But a victory wasn't the only thing solidified with the match-up between the coalition team and its central-Afghanistan hosts. The match reinforced the coalition's good intentions and the progress that allowed personnel to spend a peaceful morning playing soccer in the local community.

" 'It was beautiful. In the future, I hope this can happen again,' said Wahid Qanit, a youth soccer coach and interpreter for base operations on Bagram Air Base. And with all that is planned for the future, it should happen again. 'I wanted to use soccer as a medium to reach out to the local community,' said 1st Lt. Joshua Walters, 2nd Battalion, 265th Air Defense Artillery Regiment and base operations intelligence officer. Walters also is a full-time high school soccer coach in his hometown of Tallahassee, Fla. 'The idea is to use soccer to reach out to the youth,' he said. 'They are the ones who will be making decisions about the future of Afghanistan pretty soon'."
Of course, it's not just the American troops helping the Afghan people - increasingly, the Afghan troops are playing an important part in the Coalition, and they, too, are starting to bring assistance to their own people:

"Afghan National Army soldiers with the 3rd Brigade from Pol-e-Charkhi are learning to appreciate what it means to do a little extra for their fellow citizens... One way they are doing this is at the Kabul Children's Hospital. The ANA's 3rd Brigade is sponsoring the hospital through many projects intended to get the hospital in better shape and enabling it to provide enhanced support for local children."
SECURITY: Afghanistan's militants are suffering a decline; according to security experts the Taliban still pose a threat and continue to enjoy some support in the ethnic Pashtun areas of the country, but "the Taliban movement suffered a serious psychological and military setback after failing to disrupt Afghanistan's presidential election... Experts said the movement was beset by leadership rivalries and internal divisions after a year of revived strength and cohesion. They also said the Taliban was increasingly being squeezed by a new Pakistani military offensive along the border, where many Taliban renegades were believed to be hiding... There are growing signs of a serious, three-way split within a once hierarchical movement dominated by a single religious leader."

There are signs that at least some Taliban members are ready to take up the US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad on his
offer of amnesty:

"The US-led military in Afghanistan... said it had been contacted by Taliban members willing to lay down their weapons following an arms-for-amnesty offer by the US envoy to Afghanistan. US military commanders operating in south and south-eastern Afghanistan have been contacted by Taliban declaring their desire to 'join the peaceful political process,' US-led military spokesman Major Mark McCann, told a news briefing in Kabul... He also said there had been 'contacts with senior (provincial) government officials and military representatives here in Kabul'."
While the efforts to combat the Taliban remnants continue, on a parallel track to make Afghanistan a safer and more secure place, the disarmament program is also moving ahead: "The multi million-dollar Afghanistan New Beginning Programme (ANBP), the official name for [the UN-backed Disarmament Demobilisation and Reintegration], is designed to disarmed more than 50,000 former fighters. So far, 22,000 members of Afghanistan's dozens of militia forces have returned to civilian life since the process begun in October 2003." Commander Zalmai, or Toofan (Storm) as he is also known, is one of the twenty success stories of the program recognized by the United Nations:

"The commander, who was one of the most powerful warlords in Kabul, with more than 2,000 troops at his disposal, now leans more towards economic development than battling rival militias. 'I am thinking of creating a paper factory in Kabul, we need a lot of paper for school text books and it will be good business,' said Toofan.

"He had been studying business when he left university to fight to remove the Soviets more than 20 years ago. He was also involved in the civil war during the 1990s and at one time controlled much of the suburbs south of the capital. The 50-year-old also played a role in ousting the Taliban as one of the leading Northern Alliance commanders...

" 'All of my soldiers have been disarmed, so now I have no armed men except my bodyguards,' he said, adding that now he needed professionals to help him set up a factory. 'Not all of the commanders are bad guys, we are very elegant and will prove our talent in the rehabilitation of Afghanistan as well'."
On a smaller scale, disarmament touches many others and changes lives throughout the country:

"Eight-year-old Mohammed Imran thinks Jaweed, the local shopkeeper in this eastern Afghan village is 'cool' because his shop is full of sweets. 'Uncle shopkeeper is a cool man -- he has got lots of candies,' Mohammed told AFP as he hung around outside the store. But it wasn't long ago that local children were scared of Jaweed and people insulted the 28-year-old for being a gun-toting militiaman -- one of around 60,000 fighters loyal to local warlords and commanders across Afghanistan.

"Jaweed is one of almost 25,000 fighters who have laid down their weapons as part of a UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration program which was launched in Afghanistan last May and is almost at the halfway point. After more than two decades of war, the country is awash with weapons and privately disarmament staffs think there may be as many as five guns per militiaman, most of whom owe allegiance to local commanders.

"But while only 25,000 guns have been collected, officials from the program hope that if they can break the link between local commanders and their poorly paid fighters and offer people an alternative livelihood, many like Jaweed would jump at the chance. 'I'm happy with my new life -- very, very happy,' he said at his booth-like shop in Khushgunbad village some 15 kilometers (9 miles) northeast of Jalalabad, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province.

"The ex-fighters are given the choice of working in agriculture, training for the police force, national army or de-mining, or setting up a small business like the shopkeeper, who said was sick of toting a gun for a living. 'I was tired of weapons, I wanted something different so I decided to become a shopkeeper,' said the ethnic Pashtun, who has fought to feed his family for more than a decade."
You can also read an interview with Bubany Khairandesh: "[She] became a shopkeeper after a two-week business-training programme within the DDR process. The 35-year-old mother of five, who had worked as a military officer for more than 10 years in different Afghan army regiments, counts as the first female disarmed combatant." As Bubany says: "Being a female combatant is not very common in this country, also being a businesswoman is something very challenging in the conservative Afghan society. I personally enjoy having a challenging job."

Over just one weekend, a fortnight ago, some
588 fighters gave up their weapons as part of the "New Beginnings Programme." The total of disarmed militiamen now stands at 26,569.

The process of disarmament and "de-warlordisation" is already having
positive security and economic effects throughout Afghanistan's regions:

"In northern Afghanistan, the national highway police are now manning security checkpoints once operated by armed militias controlled by of local commanders. The change has come as a big relief to those who regularly travel by road here.

"For years, travellers not only had to pay out 'fees' levied by the militias, but also faced the risk of being accosted and robbed - even beaten or killed - when they drove along the major highways between northern cities. But now uniformed members of Afghanistan's central police have replaced the militia gunmen, whom drivers referred to as 'highway bandits'.

"Sarajuddin, driving a Toyota Corolla, said he has travelled the main road from Mazar-e-Sharif to Sheberghan for the last 13 years. He said motorists were regularly charged illegal 'road taxes' during the day - and ambushed and robbed by night - at checkpoints run by gunmen. 'Those who controlled the checkpoints taxed passengers and drivers under pretexts such as "chai puli" [tea money], "jeb kharchi" [pocket money] and lunch costs, and if someone didn't pay, he would be beaten and robbed,' said Sarajuddin.

" 'We didn't mind paying those taxes, but the most frightening thing was that the armed men who controlled the checkpoints by day became looters at night... and they would even kill someone if they didn't like him. For all those reasons, I haven't driven at night for the last few years.'

"For Sarajuddin, the deployment of national police meant that 'last week I travelled safely with four passengers during the night'."
As the Taliban threat recedes and the influence of private militias slowly wanes, the building of the national security forces continues apace. According to Bob Sharp, Chief of Staff of Office Military Cooperation in Afghanistan, the Coalition forces and the local authorities are on schedule to create the Afghan armed forces of some 70,000 soldiers by 2007: "There are almost 18,000 soldiers in the ANA. More than 15,000 trained soldiers in the field and about 3,000 in training... Of those 70,000 troops, 43,000 will be the ground combat forces and the rest will comprise the sustaining institutions such as the Recruiting Command, the Logistic Command, the Air Corps, etc."

Here's a story of one American serviceman
involved in the effort:

"Kirk Kobak took his turn as a volunteer assistant soccer coach at Prairie and Fort Vancouver high schools 12 years ago, but his biggest coaching job ever was in Afghanistan.

"Army Sgt. 1st Class Kobak and three other U.S. soldiers worked for eight months this year training dozens of Afghan soldiers to be army recruiters. They set up a recruiting system that has built the three-year-old U.S.-backed Afghan National Army from 7,000 soldiers in March to 17,000 now. Afghanistan's goal is 70,000 troops by 2007.

"Kobak said his four-man team worked 61/2 days a week training 263 recruiters and assigning them to 19 National Army Volunteer Centers across the nation. The goal is 35 recruiting stations, one in each Afghan province.

" 'It was the greatest experience in my 21 years in the Army,' said Kobak, 39, who returned from his volunteer tour in Afghanistan to his Vancouver apartment just before Thanksgiving. 'If I had it to do over again, I'd volunteer again,' he said. That's despite sandstorms, 120-degree heat, and rocket-propelled grenades frequently flying over the compound where he worked and exploding nearby. 'It was like walking into a pizza oven,' said Kobak, who now works as an Army recruiter in Portland."
Kobak's superiors were suitable impressed with his effort at to build the recruiting service for the whole of the Afghan army - he has since been awarded the Bronze Star. And speaking of the goal of 35 recruitment stations, the most recent one to open was one in Herat.

With the Taliban and al Qaeda threat diminishing over time, more attention is now being given to
other security issues in Afghanistan: "The Bush administration has devised a more aggressive counternarcotics strategy aimed at greater eradication of poppy fields, promotion of alternative crops and prosecution of traffickers. The plan, a mix of stronger carrots and sticks, attempts to bring more coordination, more money and more muscle to Afghan and international programs launched over the past three years that have not made much of a dent in the lucrative drug business."

Other foreign assistance for the anti-drug campaign is starting to flow into Afghanistan, with
Canada, Australia (the third largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan with its A$83 million [$60 million] contribution so far), and Great Britain providing help. Great Britain is expected to provide $960 million over five years (until 2007 on the Afghan counter-narcotics efforts, and has already been instrumental in establishing the Counter-Narcotics Police of Afghanistan.

On a
smaller scale, "Britain has pledged more than £3,5 million [$6.7 million] for a project to help Afghan farmers grow alternative crops in place of opium poppies, a UN agency said today. The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation said the project will encourage the production, marketing and processing of crops, including vegetables, nuts and dried fruits."

Dr Iain Wright, the chief executive of the commercial arm of the Macaulay Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, an expert on agricultural land use, is touring Afghanistan "to meet partners in a pioneering project aimed at identifying a range of viable livelihoods for farmers in the country's poorest rural regions." In order to convince farmers to replace opium growing with legal agricultural use, Dr Wright is suggesting alternatives such as cashmere goats, which can bring quite significant financial returns.

Afghan farmers are also encouraged to
replace opium poppies with roses and "distil rose oil, a key component of perfume, by planting 40,000 Bulgarian rose plants. The oil-producing species were brought from Bulgaria by the German non-governmental organization Agro Action and the United Nations Development Program last month."

In other recent security successes throughout Afghanistan: the arrest by Afghan police of
16 suspected Taliban militias accompanied by the seizure a large amount of arms and ammunitions in central Afghanistan during the Eid festival; turning in by Afghan civilians of a weapons cache near Shkin; and the find of a giant arms cache by Romanian troops (four cannons, 98 grenade launchers, and dozens of machine guns and rifles, found in two containers buried underground).

And in recent security successes in neighboring Pakistan, which will have positive impact on Afghan security: the Pakistani armed forces have killed around
40 militants and demolished terrorist hideouts in an offensive along the Afghan border; meanwhile, "thousands of Pakistani troops backed by helicopter have succeeded in bringing all inaccessible areas of South Waziristan tribal area under its control in the ongoing operation against Al-Qaeda linked terrorists"; and the troops have dismantled a terrorist training camp and seized 1,700 kilograms of explosives and large quantities of arms in southern Waziristan, near the Afghan border.

The US has also donated some
valuable equipment to help Pakistani security forces track down terrorists in the border region: "the equipment delivered on Tuesday to the Frontier Corps manning the Pak-Afghan border includes 68 spotting scopes, 74 hand-held Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and 200 bullet proof vests."

As Afghan daily
"Hewat" commented upon the presidential inauguration, "Hamid Karzai took the oath of allegiance yesterday as a president who entered the palace through the nation's direct vote, instead of via cannons, tanks, coups and uprisings. This was truly a great national festival. This was a festival of renewal of our strong national determination. This was a festival of a new chapter in our history. This was the festival of the renewal of the international community's solidarity and support for the Afghan nation."

This is only the beginning of the journey. Let all of us in the West, leading safe and comfortable lives which allow us to take so much for granted, don't disparage the little things that are today taking place on the other side of the world; a song that can now be sung, a girl who can go to school, a joke that can be told, a country road being build - or indeed a rose smelled again. These things may not sound like much to us, but for the people of Afghanistan they are all small steps leading them towards a better life and a normal future.


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