Saturday, February 12, 2005

Congo - move on, nothing to see here 

Note: Due to a Blogger malfunction, I haven't been able to post anything for the past 24 hours, which meant that you only had the title of the post to work with - but it didn't stop many of you from commenting anyway. Here's the body of the post as it should have appeared:

(and by the way, I was amused by how many of you thought that this post was even more poignant and symbolic when it consisted only of the above title. In the future, I promise to restrict my blogging just to headlines that say it all.

OK, maybe not.)

Reports ABC (hat tip: Instapundit):
"Widespread allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of Congolese women, boys and girls have been made against U.N. personnel who were sent to help and protect them — despite a so-called zero tolerance policy touted by the United Nations toward such behavior.

"The range of sexual abuse includes reported rapes of young Congolese girls by U.N. troops; an Internet pedophile ring run from Congo by Didier Bourguet, a senior U.N. official from France; a colonel from South Africa accused of molesting his teenage male translators; and estimates of hundreds of underage girls having babies fathered by U.N. soldiers who have been able to simply leave their children and their crimes behind."
One particular lowlight: the harddrive of a computer belonging to Didier Bourguet, a French U.N. official, containing "thousands of photos of him having sex with hundreds of young Congolese girls."

As the former US ambassador William Swing, who is now in charge of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, says, "A few people have managed to basically cause disgrace for the mission and for the U.N., and that's why we're determined to conquer it. I have sent a dozen home." Swing points out that only a small percentage of the 11,000 U.N. personnel in Congo were involved in various abuses.

That may or may not turn out to be true (depends what your definition of "small" is), but equally, only a small percentage of American troops in Iraq were ever involved in torture, abuse and any other improprieties (mind you, I doubt whether any American soldier or civilian in Iraq has managed to accumulate hundreds of sexual "conquests" a la Bourguet; so far the sex scandals from Iraq consist of pyramids of naked prisoners and two servicewomen flashing their breasts and mudwrestling).

I'm a realist enough not to expect that groups of young men away from their families and familiar environment will always behave like angels. The fact that most of them do for most of the time, particularly when compared to even a few decades ago, never mind the olden days, is a triumph of civilization. So I won't be too harsh on the United Nations and their personnel.

But one thing is for certain: the sleazy UN goings-on in Congo (or the Balkans for that matter) will not elicit the same sort of salivating fascination from our Western media as reports of military misdeeds in Iraq. The reason is simple: the perpetrators are not American, and the victims are African. The former is arguably more important a factor than the latter; if the Marines were raping Rwandan women we wouldn't be able to turn on the news without another live report from the dark heart of Africa.

As it is in Congo, the locals are being abused multilaterally with no oil wells in sight; so, no story. Pity the Congalese, because if anything, the plight of their country deserves far more attention than it's currently getting. Since 1998, some 3.3 million people have died (that's 33 times the unreal leftoid figure of 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians) and 2.25 million have been displaced as a result of the conflict, a savage struggle over political influence and the prodigious bounty of mineral resources and precious stones. Foreign corporations are profiting out of the scramble, but there's no Halliburton in sight and far too many of the companies are European (only 8 out of 85 implicated in illegal exploitation of Congalese resources are American firms).

The media yawns and the world nods off. A combination of four widely-held beliefs will conspire to keep the fate of Congo and many other places from generating sufficient levels of international outrage: American misdeeds are the worst in the world; there are worse misdeeds in the world, but that's to be expected of others, so who cares? now back to American misdeeds; American misdeeds are the most offensive because America holds itself to the higher moral standard than others; American misdeeds deserves the most attention because by publicizing them within the Western world you actually have the greatest chance of affecting change (this is a sort of backhand, and often unintended, compliment to the strength of the American political system).

Whichever way you look at it, it would have been better for the Congalese had their country been invaded by the US: for a right-winger this would hold a promise of bringing peace and stability there; for a left-winger it would provide a spur into action to expose and publicize the Congolese disaster. From either point of view, the people of Congo would be now better off.



Read Mark Steyn's latest piece in "The Spectator" (unfortunately it's only available for the subscribers), not just because it is as always funny and insightful (this time Mark tackles the counterintuitive degeneration of the British Tory party into a sad clone of the Democrats and the continuing air of unreality surrounding the establishment's response to Bush's Mid East democracy project), but also because yours truly gets a mention towards the end of the piece (hat tip: Sophie Masson).


CNN's not-so-exclusive 

If Eason Jordan is really resigning (Update: he just did) over his recent comments that US troops are deliberately targeting journalists in Iraq, he will become a victim of his own friendly fire and the only media professional to bite the bullet, so to speak, on the issue. What surprises me about the whole affair is that Jordan has not even made a new and shocking claim but merely repeated an accusation which had been frequently raised over the past year and a half by other professional groups, including:

France's Reporters Without Borders

Al Jazeera management

Canadian Journalists for the Freedom of Expression

Abu Dhabi TV management

Belgian-based International Federation of Journalists

New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (and here).

Greek and Spanish Journalists' Unions

Things truly have greater impact if reported by CNN.


A matter of local pride 

Ray Romano will not be holidaying in Australia, and not being a huge fan of "Everybody Loves Raymond" I can't say I'm too heartbroken. I was, however, intrigued by the reasons Romano came up with for giving Down Under a miss:
"His dislike of flying is holding him back. He said the 15-hour flight was just too long."
Which is fair enough, but spare a thought for the Aussies who have to fly to Europe, which takes around 24 hours plus stops along the way. But for Romano the clincher is:
"There's a lot of sharks and snakes and creepy things down in Australia as well."
Hey, Ray, you forgot about those vicious koala bears and boxing kangaroos. Give us some slack, Romano; there are sharks and snakes in the United States, and some of our most unpleasant creepy things now live in Great Britain anyway (John Pilger, Germaine Greer).

As it is, Ray will be choosing to holiday somewhere safer, "probably Mexico or a resort in the Caribbean," the locations which with their temperate-to-subarctic climates are pleasantly devoid of dangerous fauna and poisonous insects.


Saturday reading 

Powerline notes another WaPo opinion piece with some fabricated history.

Blackfive presents to you a warning sign from the 1st Marine Division.

Dean Esmay: "I've never seen anyone do anything quite like this: take a carefully guided internet discussion, edit out the chaff, and present it in book form. Regardless of whether it's been done before, this may be the best thing ever to appear on Dean's World."

Free Iraqi blogs about twisted logic and misunderstandings in Iraq.

Call Spade a Spade salutes a brave Iraqi politician whose ideas cost him the lives of his two sons. Iraq the Model has more.

Vodkapundit is producing a new map of the world.

In the aftermath of the Ward Churchill fiasco, John Rosenthal reminds us that the architect of the new WTC complex Daniel Libeskind is hardly very sympathetic to the victims either.

Tom Heard writes that Big Brother (or rather Big Employer) is watching you smoke: "The Michigan company has instituted a policy making smoking, even off company property and even in an employee's own home, a firing offense. Company CEO Howard Weyers says he's sick and tired of rising health care costs cutting into his company's bottom line, and he refuses from now on to pay the medical bills for smokers. Hey, Marlboro Man, if you don't like it, get another job."

Eric Cowperthwaite blogs on the hanging effigy of an American soldier.

Crossroads Arabia has some thoughts on the Saudi cabinet reshuffle.

HipperCritical blogs about Darfur and notes that even for Nicholas Kristoff it is now easier to criticize Bush than the UN.

Considerettes blogs about the latest Democrat 180 degree turn: the Social Security.


Friday, February 11, 2005

The left gets aroused 

Should I, or should I not bother to say something about the "Gannon affair" (has anyone called it Gannongate yet?). Ah, what the hell. For some background see here. For some blog reactions, try Powerline and Brainster's Blog.

Let's put aside the question whether the guy was a "real" journalist (he's not from the mainstream media and is partisan; journalists from the mainstream media are however never biased or partisan because they're "real" journalists), who on earth cares if he's gay or connected to gay websites? Kos does, of course.

Memo to Kos: you're onto something, son. Keep digging. I have some suspicion that Andrew Sullivan might be gay, too. And those Log Cabin Republicans - log cabin sounds so folksy and frontier-ish in the good ol' American style, but these chaps seem to be pretty friendly with each other. I think the whole thing might be just a cover for homosexuality.


One man's torture is another man's S&M dungeon 

Questions continue to be raised about "sexually provocative" interrogation tactics used by female interrogators at Guantanamo Bay. This from the "Washington Post" (hat tip: Best of the Web):

"Detainee lawyers likened the tactics to Nazis shaving the beards of orthodox Jews or artists dunking a crucifix in urine to shock Christians. 'They're exploiting religious beliefs to break them down, to destroy them,' said Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents several dozen detainees. 'What they're doing, it reminds me of a pornographic Web site -- it's like the fantasy of all these S&M clubs'."
Which begs the question - do "detainee lawyers" and the Centre for Constitutional Rights think that artists dunking a crucifix in urine constitutes an unacceptable torture for Christians. And if so, who can the Christians sue?

This is all such a tricky area, isn't it? If exploiting religious beliefs to break down detainees is a no-no (and I'm not arguing that it should or shouldn't be), are all the other types of beliefs, for example political or ethical beliefs, also off-limits? Would smearing vegetarians with meat be torture? Now, to some people, being locked up in the same room with a Republican, particularly a talkative one who makes fun of your deeply cherished ideals (think Rush Limbaugh or Mark Steyn or James Taranto), would be torture, too. Is this a purely subjective judgment of the torturee or are there some objective components in making the call?


Live hard, spy hard 

A few days ago, the Australian authorities have asked an Israeli diplomat Amir Lati to leave the country. Initial speculation revolved around a possible link with the expulsion of two other Israeli diplomats from New Zealand last year, but this does not seem to be the case.

Lati held a post of charge d'affaires, which coincidently might have actually led to his expulsion, since as John Kerin
reports, "Lati had a relationship with a woman who worked for Australia's Defence Department."

Kerin does some hilarious investigative reporting about Lati's life in Australia's capital:

"He was known to drink at the B-Bar in Kennedy Street, though not heavily, and regularly went with embassy staff for a pizza at La Capanna, a haunt that is also popular with politicians.

If he were a spy, he certainly did not stand out from the crowd, though some have described him as an extrovert."
Where on earth did Kerin get the idea that a "real" spy has to be an alcoholic reveler, a Guy Burgess-meets-Austin Powers? Oh, never mind...

"Staff at Kingston's local bars and restaurants were generally surprised to find a spy may have been in their midst."
Who can blame them? After all he didn't drink heavily and didn't stand out from the crowd. Oh, and he didn't have horn-rimmed glasses and buck teeth. Although now that you mention it, he did have a rather irritating habit of replying to everything with "Groovy, baby."

"One staffer at La Capanna said she recalled meeting Mr Lati and commented on the name on his credit card because of its resemblance to latte."
Just wait for La Capanna to cash in on this minor bit of infamy: today's special, $5 Lati latte and a cake.


Thursday, February 10, 2005

Desperate Down Under 

You might, or might not, be interested (or disturbed) to find out that the hit series "Desperate Housewives" is proving to be as big a hit in Australia as it was in the US.

The show is merely the latest and the most popular manifestation of the premise that underneath the veneer of an ordinary and respectable middle class (suburban) life lies a hotbed of violence, psychosis, depravity and perversion. This formula has been very successfully explored in popular culture since at least the 1950s (arguably starting with
"Peyton Place"), and more recently finding popular outlets in just about every Stephen King novel and in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks."

But there is a deeper side to it, too, since so many of the concepts that drive popular culture are just the dumbed-down versions of serious intellectual output produced by our intelligencia. The idea that bourgeois life is oppressive and hypocritical has been the staple of the New Left counter-culture critique of the status quo as well as the motherlode of the post-war feminism (it was
Betty Friedan who famously described the suburbia as "comfortable concentration camps" for their female victims), and for at least a century prior, one of the articles of faith for bohemian and radical critics of the social order, fed in part by the work of Freud and Engels (one could go even further back in time; after all, city, middle class, bourgeois life has had its critics since the golden age of Athens).

So as you kick back and watch "Desperate Housewives", remember it's not just an escapist entertainment but also the latest manifestation of a prominent intellectual tradition. You're not wasting your time, you're actually participating in subversion of the dominant paradigm. At least that's a pretty good excuse.

Just another thought: It's actually very difficult for shows like "Desperate Housewives" to sustain their momentum. Let's face it - the life in suburbia for most part is not prime-time exciting - but the writers and producers somehow have to maintain viewers' interest. This creates the pressure to try to top and outdo previous plot twists, and eventually leads to disasters such as the second series of "Twin Peaks", which ended up a confusing mess. You can only paint a small community so much darker and more twisted before it trips over the threshold of ridiculousness.

Meanwhile, fellow blogger
Ninme comments about the above observations:

" 'Honey? Are you watching TV before finishing your homework!'

" 'No, mom, I'm participating in subversion of the dominant paradigm!'

" 'What? Who told you that?'

" 'Arthur Chrenkoff, mom.'

" 'Oh, he writes for the Wall Street Journal! Keep participating, honey.'

" 'Sweet!'

"Darnit, where were you when I was a kid."
Update: Check out Andrew Bolt's perspective: "Unhappy, unfulfilled, unappreciated, unloved: these are the Desperate Houswives. And who's to blame? Men, of course."


Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Islam doesn't need a Reformation - it needs an Enlightenment 

A few weekends ago I had the pleasure of finally meeting Sophie Masson and her husband, David. Sophie is a prolific author, as well as a regular visitor and even occasional guest blogger at Chrenkoff (too occasional; how about another piece, Sophie?), and over some coffee on a hot Sunday afternoon in Brisbane we got to discussing, among other things, the current condition of Islam. Sophie, like Mrs Chrenkoff, was born in Indonesia, which prompted her to note that Indonesia, even though still one of the most moderate Muslim societies in the world, has over the past twenty or so years become noticeably less easy-going and more conservative a society (something she has written about here).

At which point the concept of the Reformation popped into our conversation. Many observers, particularly since September 11 had irrevocably thrust the question of Islam into the public debate throughout the Western world, have argued that what the Muslim world badly needs is a movement akin to the Protestant Reformation, to bring Islam out of its current "Middle Ages" and help the Islamic society become more like, well, us. But what if, Sophie suggested - in an ironic case of "beware what you wish for" - the Reformation is already taking place throughout the Islamic world - and its name is Bin Ladenism?

The debate about the need for a Muslim Reformation suffers from misunderstanding of how the Christian Reformation came about and how it contributed to shaping of both the modern Christianity and the modern West. When we say that the present-day American, British and Australian societies owe much to their Protestant heritage, and therefore to the Reformation, we tend to forget that the Protestantism we are familiar with today has itself evolved as much as its host societies over the last five centuries. The relationship between religion and other aspects of human activity is not as simple as Max Weber with his "Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" would suggest; Protestantism undoubtedly changed our Anglo-Saxon societies, but our societies in turn changed Protestantism.

When we talk about the "Protestant West" as the embodiment of democratic and liberal traditions as well as the spirit of tolerance and openness, we tend to forget that merely replacing Catholicism with Protestantism in the first half of the sixteenth century was only one element of the transformation from medievality to modernity. Our "end of history" societies are just as much the legatees of the Enlightenment, the scientific and industrial revolution, deestablishment of state churches, rationalism and general secularization - all trends with a complex and often uneasy relationship with religious faith.

Which brings me back to the problem of the Christian Reformation as a blueprint for modernizing Islam of today. Protestantism itself is a term dangerously broad, embracing as it does anything from the High Church Anglicanism, which can be easily oversimplified as Catholicism without the Pope; through the somber established creeds like Lutheranism and Calvinism; all the way to radical sects like Anabaptists or Shakers. Protestantism today also spans the broad spectrum from the Establishment Episcopalianism to evangelical, charismatic, "new-born" congregations. The common denominator of the original Reformation push was the desire to take the faith from the hands of what was perceived to be a corrupt, rigid, ossified, worldly establishment and return it to the people - in a form purified, simplified and stripped of heretical or at least questionable overgrowths. Where the various sects and denominations differed was the intensity of that desire and the lengths they were prepared to shake their earthly societies in order to achieve their heavenly ends.

Historical analogies tend to imperfect because times and circumstances change - for one, there is no such thing as the "Muslim Church" akin to the medieval Catholic superstructure - but arguably the movement that Bin Laden represents has similar aims to Christian reformers of the sixteenth century: in his case, to cleanse the faith that has been corrupted by the embrace of the modern Muslim state, and to restore Islam to its earlier, pre-modern, austere, unworldly form. That's why Al Qaeda targets the "corrupt" and "heretical" Muslim regimes as much as the decadent, infidel West. That's why the first adjective that often comes to mind to describe the Wahabbis is "Puritanical."

The Reformation is not - or at least not always - a peaceful and orderly process. As I said before, all too often we forget when looking at our present-day societies that it took us half a millennium to get here. And along the way we had to go through the wars of religion which for century and a half tore Europe apart, the madness of witch-hunts and persecutions, and tremendous political and social upheavals and dislocations. Sometimes, the Protestantism took relatively mild forms (for example Anglicanism in England), but just as easily some of the earlier Protestant communities - such as Calvin's Geneva, the Puritans' Commonwealth, or several of the early American colonies - were very far removed from the open, tolerant and liberal Protestant societies we cherish today.

To point this out is not to engage in Protestant-bashing, or to try to refight the Protestant-Catholic wars, but merely to remind that, just like everything else, Protestantism has evolved over the centuries of interaction with material forces and other ideologies and creeds. I welcome a vigorous discussion and debate of the above ideas, but please remember that everything I wrote is in the spirit of good-will towards both Protestantism and Islam. I'm certainly not arguing the favorite left-wing canard that "Islamic fundamentalists = Christian fundamentalists" or that Bin Laden is a spiritual heir to Luther. I'm merely trying to point out that there is nothing clear-cut about the reformist impulse and that the reform itself is not always a peaceful and orderly process.

Thus, the Muslim Reformation can just as easily result - at least in short to medium term - in more violence, more radicalism, more anti-American and anti-Western sentiment (a point made by
Reuel Marc Gerecht in his recent discussion of the prospects of Muslim democracy). What Islam really needs to in order to modernize is an Enlightenment, which would bring the separation of the church and state, democratization, liberalization and the acceptance of principles and practices of tolerance, openness, innovation and progress. Yes, in many ways the Enlightenment was a child of the Reformation, but the Western world had to go through two centuries of conflict and upheaval to get there. Today, we don't have that much time to wait until the Muslim world truly embraces modernity. We can only hope that just as everything in our world today seems to move faster, so will the political, social and religious trends.

In this context, Iran might ironically be our greatest hope and a harbinger of things to come. Iranian society had undergone its very own Reformation experience as a result of the Khomeininst revolution of 1979. Today, following the experiences of the past quarter of a century, Iran is, at the grass-roots level, arguably the most pro-American and pro-Western society in the region, and one most ready to embrace the future.

Many might wish for a Muslim Reformation. Whether or not that's a good thing, we might still get it. The good news is that we might not have to wait too long afterwards (although these intermediate years might be very bloody and tumultuous indeed) for the true reform within the Muslim world.


Manufacturing martyrs 

Kudos to Australian journalist Paul McGeough, normally a dependable voice of defeatism in Iraq, for writing a story about al-Zubaidi family in Baghdad, whose Down Syndrome child was used by terrorists as a suicide bomber on the election day (although here, more than ever, is the case against the term "suicide bomber" since the 19-year old Amar did not make a conscious decision to kill himself and others):

"Accustomed to living on charity, [the Zubaidis] were not surprised when, 10 days before the election, two men arrived saying they were from the local Sunni mosque and wanted to help Amar. Ms Zubaidi was overjoyed.

" 'They said they would organise a sickness pension from the new government, that they were arranging with the Red Crescent for a block of land on which we might build a house, and they gave me $300 for stock for the shop.

" 'They said that they would take Amar to a special school, and each day they collected him and drove away. They gave him sweets and clothes and cigarettes - he loved them. Sunnis had helped us before, so I didn't think it strange'."
Read and be infuriated.

The article closes with this quote from Amar's mother: "The election was meant to be so exciting. But we've had to give Amar as a present for the new Iraq and we just hope that it will get better as a victory for Amar and all the people."

The sub-editor, however, can't quite help himself (or herself), giving the story this headline: "Grieving family counts the cost of democracy."

How about "Grieving family counts the cost of terrorism" instead? Or "Family pays the highest price for freedom." All similar words and concepts, but there is a crucial difference.

(hat tip: Justin K)


Wednesday reading 

Pete Blackshaw writes about the blogs' performance in covering the tsunami disaster - from a marketing and communications perspective. Interesting, and it even mentions yours truly in passing.

Iraq the Model
cautions against the rush to proclaim theocracy in Iraq.

Tim Blair notes the spread of the
"Viet 1967 election = Iraq 2005 election" meme.

Stephen Green at Vodkapundit writes
how he fell in love with history and maps.

Greyhawk reminisces about
Christmas in Baghdad.

Chester continues to defend Lt Gen Mattis (
here and here).

Joe Gandelman writes that the Jordon affair
tarnishes both CNN and WoPo's Howard Kurtz. Speaking of the Jordon affair, if you're a junky, there's now a whole blog devoted to it: Easongate. Instapundit, Powerline, Captain's Quarters, Hugh Hewitt and Michelle Malkin are also providing frequent - or in some cases constant - coverage.

Decision 08 notes that
the ancient Greeks would not have been able to stand Barbara Streisand, either.

John Rosenthal observes
the Al-Dura saga continuing its progress through the mainstream media.

Athena at Terrorism Unveiled puts out the
pictures from her latest sojourn to Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

The UN's Millennial Development Goals? Debt write-off? Ethiopundit blogs about the futility of throwing money at the problem (in parts
one, two, and three).

Why not also check out a few new(er) blogs and sites:
Vietpundit, written by a Vietnamese-American refugee from communism; Blackanthem - Winning the war on terror one dead terrorist at a time, a great source of news and information about victories in the war; a new Australian blog Calling a Spade a Spade; and Conservative Life - All Politics.


Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The question of legitimacy 

This morning, while looking through the newspapers, I saw this picture...

...and it got me thinking.

The new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has won a
"landslide" victory in the January election, polling 62.3% of the vote in the turnout of about 66%. Hamas, the most powerful political force in Palestinian politics boycotted the poll; it refused to field candidates and called on its members and supporters not to participate. Hamas did not, however, demand that other Palestinians don't vote, nor did it threaten election violence. Subsequently, Hamas contested local elections in Gaza and has won around two third of the seats, clearly demonstrating its political clout (Abbas's candidates won less than a quarter of the seats).

Just about everyone in the world considers the January Palestinian elections to have been reasonably fair and legitimate, and President Abbas to be the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people.

Meanwhile, somewhat to the east of the West Bank and Gaza, the new Iraqi prime minister, most likely a Shia politician, would have also won a landslide victory, probably polling around 60% of the vote out of the turnout of also around 60%. Most (though by no means all) Sunnis, who clearly represent a minority of Iraqi voters, decided to boycott the election. The extremists among that community also conducted a violent campaign against the election and the voters.

Today, questions linger about the legitimacy of the new Iraqi leaders who were elected without the participation of a minority religious group.

Go figure.


Blog interview: Radek Sikorski on Afghanistan, Old and New Europe, Ukraine and the march of democracy 

I wanted to interview Radek Sikorski for quite some time now. A fellow Pole, Sikorski left for England in 1981 during the turbulent "Solidarity" era and studied at Oxford. He was a war correspondent in Angola, and one of the very few Westerners to travel with the mudjahedin through Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets (winning the World Press Photo Award for this photograph). After the democratic revolution swept the Eastern Europe, Sikorski became deputy Defence Minister in the Polish government, and later on, deputy Foreign Minister. He is now based in Washington, where he works at the American Enterprise Institute and is the Executive Director of the New Atlantic Initiative.

Now I finally got my wish. Sikorski has recently spoken to a Polish daily "Rzeczpospolita" on a very wide range of topics, so instead of reinventing the wheel we decided to use the excerpts of that interview. I translated the parts that I thought might be of interest to readers and then asked a few extra questions. We start off with Sikorski's impressions of his recent trip to Afghanistan:

Sikorski: Not that long ago, I went to Herat where my old friend Ismail Khan was until recently the governor of the province. Herat had witnessed an uprising, like the Warsaw one, except for thirteen years. Between 1979 and 1992 one part of the city was held by the Soviets and the communists, and the other by the mudjahedin. I went there during the fighting in 1987, again after the fall of the communist regime in 1993, and most recently in July 2004. Where previously there was a sea of ruins, which the locals called Little Hiroshima, now there are new commercial districts, roads, hundreds of shops. For the first time in its history Herat has a regular access to electricity, for the first time all children - both boys and girls - go to school.

Ismail Khan, with whom I spent a few days, uses Islamic arguments at his rallies: you can't lock your women away in the house, you can't deny your daughters education; hasn't Prophet Mohammed said that for the sake of knowledge one should walk even as far as China? What sort of men are you that you have to have others arrange your marriages for you and pay for your wives? I suspect that this sort of rhetoric is more persuasive than anything that might come from foreigners. You have to remember that in Afghanistan there was an attempt to introduce secularization by force, through communist terror, killing tens of thousands in the process. Later on, also using terror, the Taliban tried to introduce Wahabbi fanaticism. Hence, a conservative approach, modernization flowing from philosophical and cultural foundations of the Afghan society strikes me as much more interesting approach.

Chrenkoff: Are we seeing the beginnings of a new "Great Game" for strategic influence in Central Asia, this time between America, Russia, China and radical Islam? And what is the role of the free and democratic Afghanistan in this context?

Sikorski: Afghanistan has always been more important as a bridgehead to somewhere else: to India, to Central Asia, to the Indian Ocean. It also has a great nuisance potential - as a terrorist heaven under the Taliban and as a fount of narcotics today. Afghanistan could contribute to the stability and eventual democratization of Central Asia at least two fold: first as a negative example and a warning against the dangers of Islamic radicalism and second as a route for the exportation of the region's oil and gas, which could make these countries less dependent on Russia, and reverse their economic decline.

Rzeczpospolita: September 11 united the West in the cause of the war on terror. Unfortunately, only for a short period of time. What caused the fracturing of this alliance?

Sikorski: The unity was rhetorical, not real. The reason for it lies primarily - and this is not a new thesis - in the way weakness and strength lead to different assessments of the threat. Europe doesn't feel threatened, and above all, is exhausted by the 20th century.

Rzeczpospolita: Does Europe really not feel threatened? There are five million Muslims in France.

Sikorski: There is a difference between internal and external threats. And every threat can either be met with defense or with appeasement.

Rzeczpospolita: Isn't it true to say that the French passivity in relation to the external threat flows from the perception of the internal threat?

Sikorski: Of course, because the demographic reality and an honest assessment of threats conflict with the canons of political correctness. Not that long ago progressive intellectuals were still promoting utopian multiculturalism where tolerance was supposed to lead to an idyllic celebration of differences - multiculturalism as reading Salman Rushdie in a Thai restaurant. But now it transpires that multiculturalism also means female genital mutilation, arranged marriages, physical aggression against social minorities, or murder of people like Theo Van Gogh who are brave enough to speak out about it. Conservatives don't have problem with migrants: people from other countries are guests, and if they want to stay they have to adjust themselves to our way of life and, over the course of generations, assimilate into our society. When I myself was a refugee in Great Britain [in the 1980s], I would not have dreamed of forcing Britons to eat bigos. Instead I learnt to drink white tea. But some Muslims in the West are now trying to impose their culture on us, for example demanding that their women wear burqas for their drivers license photos, or that crucifixes are removed from Italian hospitals. The conservative approach defends the institutions which make liberalism possible. The progressive camp will have to find a better answer than they currently have to the problem of mass migration between civilizations.

Rzeczpospolita: President Bush said in his speech at the Wawel Castle in Krakow last year that Poles haven't had to go through the occupation, tyranny and uprisings to now be told that they have to choose between Europe and America. Doesn't the political situation, however, force Poles to make such Manichean choices - to be a faithful ally of the US, or a good European citizen?

Sikorski: Being a loyal European state as well as a good ally of the United States should be the cornerstone of Polish foreign policy. And we will keep rejecting any attempts to force us to choose between these two objectives. The European cause is most harmed by those who want to create the common identity for the continent out of the ideology of anti-Americanism. Firstly, most Europeans do not want a civil war within the West; secondly, if the United States takes such an eventuality seriously, it has enough resources to sabotage such version of European unity.

For Poland, which lies on the border of both the EU and NATO, it is important that in security questions there is no other point of reference but the United States, because Europe is a military pygmy. It has two million men and women in uniform, but when it comes to the crunch it has problems sending three thousand soldiers and three helicopters to Afghanistan. The US has 350 military transport planes, the whole Europe 15, despite the fact that its defense spending is more than a third of America's. Europe's operational capabilities, however, are maybe around 5 per cent of the US's capabilities. There is a great need for reform because we're currently wasting money and the technological gap just keeps growing. Polish involvement in Iraq is our investment in the alliance and you make an investment in order to get dividends.

Rzeczpospolita: In November last year, you warned the American government on the pages of the "Washington Post" that it can lose the support of other countries of the "New Europe" because it's not fulfilling their expectations of American assistance these countries were counting on in relation to their involvement in Iraq.

Sikorski: There are currently discussions on the highest levels within the Administration about the creation of the Solidarity Fund which would have at its disposal some $500 million a year to support countries which are the true allies in the hour of need. I hope that the proponents of this initiative will get the upper hand, despite the overall moves to rein in spending. Otherwise there is danger, already evident in public opinion research, that Poland will keep shifting from a position that was significantly more pro-American than the rest of Europe, towards a lot cooler attitude.

Rzeczpospolita: Are you concerned that the reelection of George W Bush will cause many countries, in particular the European ones, to turn away from America even more?

Sikorski: I think that joining in the charge of the French light brigade against the United States is neither in the European interest, the Polish interest, nor even the French interest. I'm eagerly awaiting the day when the leadership of the cradle of the European unity will pass into more reasonable hands. For example Nicholas Sarkozy seems to understand that Europe is a community of large, medium and small countries, as well as that it needs reform if it is to regain some economic vigor.

In his turn, President Bush has struck a conciliatory note in his first post-election speeches. Paradoxically, personnel changes in the Bush administration can also have positive implications for a trans-Atlantic greater understanding. Europe is used to foreign policy being run by Ministries of Foreign Affairs. But in the United States, in the White House-Pentagon-State Department triangle, the last one is institutionally the weakest, even more so when the person heading it was a distinguished politician with a limited influence on his boss. This situation should change now.

Rzeczpospolita: Since 2002 you have been the executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. What is the Initiative's role?

Sikorski: The Initiative was founded in 1996 at the Royal Castle in Prague under the patronage of the then Czech President Vaclav Havel, Baroness Thatcher and other distinguished politicians. The primary objective for the Initiative was to open the North Atlantic Treaty and then other Western structures to Europe's new democracies. We've managed to achieve a mental breakthrough in Washington in that all these countries are now recognized as allies. It was America's best investment over the last decade, but by the same token countries such as Poland should think of their involvement in Iraq at least in part as in terms of appreciation of what the US has done to help them achieve their dream of getting them into NATO, and indirectly into the European Union.

We always had three objectives for the New Atlantic Initiative. Firstly, to welcome new democracies into Western structures. Once, it was Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, in the future it will be countries from the Balkans and the Eastern Europe, like Ukraine and the future democratic Belarus. Secondly, we support free trade between the United States and the European Union. We think that our civilization should have a military arm in the form of the North Atlantic Treaty, but it also should be one market, with uniform rules and minimum restrictions. Thirdly, we want to keep an open door for Russia. If Russia wanted to fulfill the joining criteria of our club, we should encourage its movement towards us. It's a pity that Russia is currently drifting in the other direction. In light of the current events I think that the methods we've used in the past to fight the communist tyranny and which had led to the liberation of the Central Europe, can be used again wherever radical ideology and dictatorship still stifle the dream of freedom and prosperity - that is, in the post-Soviet world and in the Arab tyrannies. This model of action through cultural institutions, independent media, scholarships, building interpersonal contacts with the other side seems to be still the most appropriate. That's why, for example, I have organized the biggest conferences in Washington on Belarus and Chechnia. Soon there will be another one about Ukraine, and next year I want to invite to Poland a group of American politicians for the twenty fifth anniversary of "Solidarity". Because "Solidarity" is a great Polish patent of achieving independence and democracy through non-violent means.

Chrenkoff: I wonder whether this model can be successfully applied across the great civilizational divide, in Muslim countries, which might not all necessarily want to be liberated in the Western way? Can there be a New Middle Eastern Initiative?

Sikorski: There already is. The American Enterprise Institute has launched a Project for Arab Democracies on the lines you suggest. Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that their people want democracy but they face many challenges before it is securely rooted there. It's only by looking at how the world of Islam is searching its way towards its own preferred model of representative government, that we can appreciate Christianity's contribution to our own liberty. Division between Church and state, putting the individual before the community, compromise between religion and science or personal liberty and ethics - those are all issues that Christianity once also grappled with and settled.

Chrenkoff: After the third round of the presidential election, what now for Ukraine and the future of the post-Soviet world? And as a supplementary question: is the situation in Ukraine as black and white as we think? - I know some people are concerned that after all it's the pro-Western faction which is withdrawing Ukrainian troops from Iraq, and others are worried about support that Yushchenko has received from some nationalistic elements with a rather unsavoury past.

Sikorski: Starting at the end: you can find unsavoury people in any large movement but the key is how the leadership deals with problems as they arise. President Yushchenko instantly expelled members of his party who made chauvinist appeals. He is after all the son of an Auschwitz survivor. I believe the US should give him a pass on Iraq. Yushchenko had to promise to withdraw troops to neutralize the issue of his American wife, which the Kremlin-supplied spin doctors were using for black propaganda. Now, that he has won, it is in our Western interest for him to be seen to be the kind of politician who keeps his word. The Iraq contingent is a small price to pay for that. Ukraine can be helpful elsewhere. Our overarching interest is for President Yushchenko to be seen to succeed in improving the life of Ukrainians. What we can do to help him is to promptly respond to every reform move with gestures of inclusion in the Euro-Atlantic community. That will give encouragement to the people of Russia and Belorus to follow Ukraine's path. (BTW, I recommend a
paper on this I did for AEI).

You can learn more about Radek Sikorski's work


Monday, February 07, 2005

Storm in a D-cup 

Another scandal hits the troops in Iraq:
"Female soldiers stripped to their skivvies for a mud-wrestling bout, and sergeants allegedly were lending their rooms to G.I.s for sex last year at the Army's Camp Bucca prison in Iraq.

"Photos of a wild Oct. 30 party at the camp show women soldiers baring their breasts to male onlookers, and other female G.I.s clad only in bras and panties wrestling and cavorting in a mud-filled plastic pool as men cheer, leer and snap pictures."
To the quoted experts, the incident represents "a serious breakdown of military discipline"; for Michelle Malkin, it "confirm[s] the worst fears of military watchdogs who have long warned about the disaster wrought by social engineering experiments on our troops" (that is allowing women into armed forces); but the top brass, paralyzed with fear after the Abu Ghraib fiasco, seems to be most concerned to reassure the public that Iraqi prisoners held at Camp Bucca were not within the ear or eyeshot of the revelries, lest presumably they get psychologically scarred for life by the sight of females engaged in mud-wrestling.

Should we throw the offending soldiers out with the mud-water? One of the female participants has already been demoted from a specialist to a private for exposing her's. As she's the only one disciplined so far, this will provide further ammunition for the feminists who argue that when the proverbial hits the fan it's the male participants who always seem to get off lightly (no pun intended) while women get punished.

Groups of young men, particularly those removed from their normal environment and put in stressful, dangerous conditions will invariably play up and however much we would want to eliminate any sort of unsavory behavior, the best we can perhaps hope for is to minimize it. War and sex have been constant companions since the time immemorial, from army-generated prostitution booms to mass rape of civilians. The Camp Bucca incident, however offensive it may be to our modern sensibilities, should also remind us just how much the things have actually improved in that regard, even over the last few decades, much less over the past few centuries.

In related news,
British Navy has rescinded their recent ban on the skin on the ships; British sailors will be again able to hang "in the privacy of their own quarters" their favorite pin-ups. The rule, of course, also applies to female sailors and their choice of centerfolds.


Good news from Afghanistan, Part 9 

Note: Also available at the "Opinion Journal" and Winds of Change. Thanks to James Taranto and Joe Katzman for the continuing support and to all of you who make this project worthwhile through your readership, feedback, linkage and publicity.

There are signs that the drought which has gripped Afghanistan for the past several years might be
finally breaking. "In the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, about 3 1/4 inches of rain fell in Kandahar over a two-day period... Rainfall for December was four times the normal amount for the month... North of Kandahar Air Base, the Tamak River rose so high the water was nearly touching the bottom of the main bridge leading into town. Meanwhile, near Kabul, rainwater filled some smaller streams that are usually bone-dry this time of year."

According to Khoshhal Murad, a United Nations interpreter in Kabul, Afghans are saying "this is a sign from God."

"When the Taliban were in power, Murad said, some of its leaders grew so frustrated by the drought they randomly rounded up dozens of people, drove them into the desert and demanded they pray for rain. It didn't come. 'You can't force people to pray,' Murad said. 'They should have gone out in the desert themselves.'

"Murad said his father told him this is the most rain he has seen in more than 30 years."
The drought has broken throughout Afghanistan - both literally and metaphorically. As Kim Hart of the "American Journalism Review" writes, "with the establishment of a new government and building of infrastructure, a continuing U.S. military presence and the hunt for terrorists, Afghanistan is rife with stories of long-term consequence." Unfortunately, as Hart notes, there's hardly anyone left in Afghanistan to report it:

"Once a journalism hot spot, Afghanistan was all but left behind when the media's spotlight turned to the conflict in Iraq. In June/July 2003, [the "American Journalism Review"] reported that only a handful of reporters remained in the struggling country on a full-time basis, while other news organizations floated correspondents in and out when time and resources permitted.

"A year and a half later, Afghanistan has become even more of an afterthought. Only two news organizations--Newsweek and the Washington Post--have full-time reporters stationed in Kabul, the capital. Other major newspapers, such as the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, rely on stringers in Afghanistan and correspondents based in New Delhi, India, to cover the region, a stark contrast to the hundreds of reporters pouring into Iraq since the war began. The New York Times uses a stringer, albeit a full-time one. Television networks have nearly disappeared."
As the old saying goes, all dressed up and nowhere to go. Just when after decades of bloodshed and despair Afghanistan is finally getting back on its feet the media has already moved off to cover another crisis and another quagmire somewhere else - perhaps in Iraq. But as citizens of countries whose servicemen and women have liberated Afghanistan from under the Taliban yoke and which continue to participate in rebuilding of the country, we deserve to be told when all that blood, sweat and money is bringing good results. Below are the last month's stories from Afghanistan that you might have missed.

SOCIETY: At a religious festival, an Afghan
takes stock:

"As George Bush was sworn in as President for a second term yesterday, Shah Mohammed was spending the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha at home in Kabul with his family. Eid is a time to take stock, reflect on the past and consider the future, and the Afghan businessman was counting his blessings like all good Muslims on the holy festival.

"Since the fall of the Taliban who jailed him and persecuted his country, Kabul's economy has boomed, reconstruction is well in hand, and security is better than it was although nobody ever feels completely safe these days. 'Things are definitely better,' he said. 'Construction workers are making six times as much money and people have cash to spend. To give you an example, I have sold 2,500 copies of the collected works of Shakespeare in Persian in the last three years, compared to only 250 in 15 years before that'."
This is not to say that problems don't exist - security, drugs, organized crime, corruption and poverty still plague Afghanistan - or that everyone's happy. But significant strides have undoubtedly been made over the past three years. For more on Eid celebrations in Afghanistan read this report.

One election down, one more to go. With President democratically elected and the new cabinet appointed, Afghanistan is now
preparing for parliamentary elections: "The Central Statistics Office in Kabul says it has nearly completed an initial estimate of provincial populations across Afghanistan. The study creates the framework for a complete census in the future. The pre-census estimates also will be used to determine the number of representatives that each province will send to the new parliament." President Karzai has also appointed the new independent electoral commission comprised of three women and six men, representing Afghanistan's major ethnic groups. The commission is replacing the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body, which last year "came under fire from critics because it was simultaneously organizing the election and investigating complaints into its own activities." Much hope rests in the election, as Afghan newspaper "Hewad" editorializes:

"The presidential election were held successfully and in a fair manner. The Afghan people participated and carried their first presidential election so successfully that it was described as unprecedented at the national and international level and the war-stricken peoples of the world had been urged to follow the Afghans in order to implement democracy in their countries. We can be very proud of this.

"The Afghan people should emerge triumphant from the forthcoming parliamentary elections too."
Note that logistical problems might cause a delay to the poll. In the meantime, however, USAID is working to strenghten the existing public administration framework throughout the country. Among the recent initiatives of the Afghan Governance and Legal Reform Project:

"- Completed rehabilitation of the Balkh provincial appeals court and a new courthouse in Ghorband district. In total, fifteen judicial facilities have been rehabilitated or constructed, eleven more are underway.

"- Started two English literacy training courses for Legislative Drafting Department staff at the Ministry of Justice, enabling them to conduct better comparative research in the course of their legislative drafting work and to work directly on English versions of the draft laws.

"- Prepared 1,100 sets of the Constitution and are currently distributing them to judicial personnel around the country. These are also available on a searchable CD-ROM."
Run-down administrative machine is not the only legacy of past conflicts that the Afghan authorities have to grapple with: "The Afghan government in cooperation with the John Hopkins University in the United States is conducting a nationwide survey to determine the number of disabled people living in Afghanistan... The census project, which is scheduled to be completed in one year is aimed at getting a precise assessment of the number of people disabled and register them, so that they can receive medical and other facilities to make their lives more comfortable."

Another survey will soon be underway across the border. "The Pakistani government and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have announced that they will undertake a census of all Afghans who are living in the country by the end of February. It will be the most comprehensive survey of its kind and provide vital information to allow Islamabad to formulate long term policy on Afghan refugees and economic migrants residing in the country."

Overall, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees expects that another few hundred thousand refugees will come back to Afghanistan this year, out of some 3 million Afghans still remaining outside the country, mostly in Pakistan and Iran. 760,000 have made the journey in 2004. "More than 3.5 million Afghans have returned to their homes since UNHCR began its voluntary repatriation programme in 2002, the agency's largest operation in its 53-year history." Coping with the influx is a major challenge:

"UNHCR supports the reintegration of returnees through a number of programmes. With its assistance together with its partners, more than 170,000 homes across Afghanistan have been rebuilt since 2002 and some 8,000 wells or water points have been established in areas of high return.

"In places where the return of significant numbers of returnees has created tensions or disputes UNHCR has launched coexistence initiatives which promote dialogue, inclusion and mutual understanding."
In the effort to help Afghan education system, USAID "support[s] to the Back-to-School campaign provided 25 million textbooks for 2.9 million students in FY03 [fiscal year 2003], including nearly 1 million girls, 30 percent of the total. USAID also supplied 30,000 teacher supply kits and 15,000 students' school supply kits. More than 50,000 teachers have received a food commodity salary supplement equal to 26 percent of monthly income, raising income and boosting morale."

higher education sector will also be undergoing much needed reform:

"Higher education in Afghanistan is expected to be revamped with international funding of $250 million after donors meet with the Ministry [of Higher Education]...

"[The Minister] Dr Hasanyar said the number of university students had increased by ten fold from the 4000 enrolled in the system during the time of the Taliban. It was conceivable that this number would go up to 1 million in ten years with the enrollment of 4 million in schools. To meet this demand the Ministry would have to increase the number of teachers from 2000 to 5000...

"In the first year the ministry will focus on reviewing the curriculum, launching administrative reforms and reconstruction. Its plan for the next five years includes construction of buildings, establishing laboratories and libraries, teaching and recruiting qualified professors and entering into agreements with international universities and expansion of provincial universities in Nangarhar, Balkh, Herat and Kandahar are among the priorities."
"After decades of supression, a new, vibrant media is making its presence felt in Afghanistan," sums up one report. "Half way between the western Afghan city of Herat and the Iranian border, in the dusty village of Ghoryan, the Afghan media is going through a reincarnation. Returning after two decades of exile in neighbouring Iran, Jamshid Nekjoo Azizi and his photographer friend, Hafizullah Haqdost, cobble together a television station with 7,000 dollars from their own money. With a borrowed VHS video camera, some cheap video cassette recorders and CD players and a rebuilt transmitter, they are now beaming three hours of broadcasting into 500 homes around Ghoryan." It's just one example of many.

"Today, close to 300 publications are registered with the ministry of culture. With a large chunk operating from Kabul, most Afghan cities and towns have their own modest publications often in the form of magazines...

"Afghanistan is still steeped in a radio culture as the majority of the population, particularly in the remote rural regions, depend on radio for news and information... In addition to the projected 45 Internews community stations, the state- run Radio Afghanistan has 17 stations. Owned and managed by the business savvy young Australian-Afghan Mohsini brothers, Arman FM is the country's most successful commercial pop station. Starting in late 2003, the station soon captured the imagination of Kabul's four million people. Attracting around 80 per cent of the city's listenership, it's still the most popular station in the capital...

"By contrast, the development of television in Afghanistan has been slow. According to most estimates, only one- third of the Afghan population has access to television, while all attempts at reforming the state-owned Afghan television have been abandoned. Many in the ministry of culture and information now believe that privatisation might be the last resort for white elephants such as Afghan TV and the Bakhtar news agency, another subsidiary of the information ministry. With USAID funding, Arman FM has started Afghanistan's first independent commercial TV channel, Tolo TV, in early October, although its success has yet to be ascertained."
Overall, as veteran Afghan journalist Habibullah Rafie says, "in December 2001, after the fall of the Taliban, we started from absolute zero. Since then media development has been unparalleled in our history."

Meanwhile, a former BBC producer and Asian media consultant has been officially recognized for his work in Afghanistan with the award of the Order of the British Empire from the Queen. 43 year old
Waseem Mahmood "has been setting up and managing a Dutch funded project called Kids News Network that broadcasts a weekly news programme for children on Afghanistan Television... [Another two of his projects] both 'Good Morning Afghanistan' and 'Good Evening Afghanistan', on Radio Afghanistan, were on air within two months of the liberation of Kabul and have been hugely successful. A recent survey indicated that 80% of the city's two million people had heard of the former, with 60% listening in at least four times a week." You can also read here about the good work being currently performed by an NGO Aina to develop Afghan media, such as building community radio and cultural centers, and training journalists, including female journalists.

In a good news for Afghan women, the
Voice of Afghan Women radio is being re-launched. According to Ariane Quentier of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan "the 11 female journalists and technicians who operate the radio station will not only broadcast informative programmes on health, education, women's rights and family matters, but they will also tackle sensitive cultural issues such as divorce, forced marriages and honour killings." By way of background, "the Voice of Afghan Women's Association first launched the radio station in March 2003 with the help of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). But because the antenna was too small, the radio could only broadcast to a small area in Kabul. It eventually went off air in November 2003. Since then the German Development Service has provided it with a powerful new transmitter, which paved the way for the anticipated re-broadcast." You can read more about the radio station here.

Speaking of women's issues, a new program is aiming to improve
sanitation and hygiene throughout the eastern Afghanistan. Some 40 women were recently trained by the Ministry of Women's Affairs in three districts of Nangarhar province. Says Fahima Mojadedi, director of the women's affairs directorate in the province: "These women will then go to their districts and talk to other women about sanitation. The plan is to train 4,800 more women."

Meanwhile, back in
the capital:

"Kabul's chaotic roads are used to plodding camel-carts, smoke-belching lorries, and four-by-fours packed with armed men threatening road rage. Now they have a new, and for Afghan motorists, truly exotic sight: women drivers.

"A few brave females have shed their burqas to venture into the driving seat - for decades here the ultimate preserve of the macho Afghan male - thanks to the tuition of a mechanic-turned-instructor who has opened the city's first driving school for women. Delawar Mamozai struck upon the revolutionary idea of teaching women to drive several years ago, and after teaching just one woman in the first five years of his venture he has had a flood of students in the past few months."
Still in Kabul, a new facility for women opens its door:

"From the outside, there's no hint that what lies beyond the glass door is anything other than what the red sign out front indicates: a beauty salon.

"But inside, there is not only a modern salon for haircuts, makeup and nails, used most often by brides and their attendants, but also Afghanistan's first fitness club for women of all ages, single and married, to get in shape...

"Since the fall of the Taleban, young women in Afghanistan have been gaining opportunities to get involved in sports. Since mid 2003, 62 clubs, representing 14 different types of sport, have opened across the country -11 in the provinces of Balkh, Herat, Kandahar, Kunduz, Baghlan and Parwan and the rest in Kabul.

"But the sport clubs, which include karate, judo, track, football, handball, tennis, volleyball, basketball, ping-pong, kick-boxing, and tennis, have been attended largely by single girls interested in joining a local team or evening making sports their career.

"Now, at this new fitness club in Kabul - the only one of its kind in the country - married women with no interest and no real opportunity to join a sports team have a chance to exercise for health and beauty reasons."
There is still a long way to go before full equality: "The capital may be the most progressive place in the country for women, but Nima Sooratgar, the 20-something owner of the facility, believes society still isn't ready for this kind of a fitness club. That's why she keeps the name and location of the facility a secret." Meanwhile down south, more public space opens up for local women: "The Governor of Afghanistan's southern province of Kandahar has said a special park would be built for women, the first such initiative in the area which was earlier a Taliban stronghold. Parks for women were closed under the Taliban as were all public spaces. Women were not allowed out of their homes unaccompanied by a male family member, much less allowed any recreation. Kandahar, which was a stronghold for the Taliban, saw the implementation of particularly repressive measures against women."

In cultural news, Afghanistan has got its
new - female - teenage star:

"The discovery of Marina Gulbahari, 14, who has become the star of a major international film, reads like the script of a Hollywood movie. Marina, then 11, was begging outside a hotel in Kabul when she was spotted by Afghan film director Sediq Barmak...

Marina went on to star in 'Osama', a film in which she portrays a 12-year-old girl forced to masquerade as a boy called Osama, in order to work to save her widowed mother and grandmother from starvation, when women under the Taleban were banned from working and even appearing outside their home unless accompanied by a male member of the family.

"The film went on to win numerous international awards in 2003, including three at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe as the best foreign-language entry. Osama's success also meant that Marina can afford to pay for her education and support her family."
Meanwhile, a teenage Afghan refugee girl residing in Iran beat two million other entrants to win the first prize in the UN World Food Program (WFP) 2004 painting contest.

older cultural heritage, too, is being revived. "With each stroke of his paintbrush Shairazuddin Saifi watches the past come back to life, meticulously restoring a Buddhist statue which was broken by looters digging it out of the ground. 'I feel proud when I do this because it is Afghanistan 's history,' Saifi says as he rebuilds the features of the Buddha with a solution of mud and chemicals, in a backroom of the Kabul Museum heated by a flickering wood stove." Read the whole piece about the efforts of the staff at the Museum to recover and preserve Afghanistan's lost treasures. Elsewhere, more archaeological discoveries continue to be made.

Another past-time is reviving in Afghanistan: "This Asian country has just five internationally rated players in the recent FIDE [World Chess Federation] rating list but in every urban household at least two persons know chess here. The chess players of Afghanistan, who were once beaten up by forces in command [Taliban] for pursuing the sport, have finally come out of their country after 15 years to get a feel of where the game has moved."

You can also read this story about the efforts of Paul McNeill Jr., chief of administrative services for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, to restart the
Kabul Golf Club.


"September 11 was a defining event for millions of people. The US decided to come to Afghanistan and to Iraq, and because I serve on a lot of European boards - British Telecom, ABB, Sulzer, Electrolux - I witnessed first-hand the conflict the Europeans were having with their old friends the Americans.

"Why were we doing this? Was this the right thing? Was it necessary? I was convinced it was, but having spent 14 or 15 years in Europe I could understand why the Europeans were raising the questions they were raising. Then in the autumn of 2003 I got a call out of the blue from the White House. At the time I had been considering pursuing a CEO role again after taking a pause for a couple of years for personal reasons. Some of my friends could not understand why I was even contemplating a move to Afghanistan. I had a comfortable life with a wife and two children, a number of homes and wonderful (executive) boards and a very nice lifestyle. Why would I give all that up to live in a hooch and eat cafeteria food for a year? The answer is simple: it was to make a difference."
So writes Louis Hughes, the head of the US State Department's Afghanistan Reconstruction Group. Read the whole story. As the profile notes, "he currently lives in a 15ft by 8ft shipping container in the US embassy compound," but Hughes clearly does more for the people of Afghanistan than a condescending British reporter, and he does it with good cheer.

Certainly, the hard work of people like Hughes is bearing fruit. The
World Bank reports on the progress made by Afghanistan:

"Afghanistan's economy has performed strongly in the past two and half years with non-drug GDP reaching US$4.6 billion in 2003-04 (corresponding to a GDP per capita of about US$200 per year), an increase of almost 50 percent, albeit from a very low base. This is mainly attributable to the recovery of agriculture from the drought, revival of economic activities after major conflict ended, and the commencement of reconstruction efforts. This solid performance has been supported by the government's sound macroeconomic polices-a highly successful currency reform in late 2002, a prudent no overdraft policy prohibiting domestic financing of the budget deficit, conservative monetary policy, and good management of the exchange rate."
To strengthen the administrative functions of Afghan government, the World Bank will also be giving a $27 million grant. "It will support ongoing work to improve public procurement, financial management and accountability systems." Another positive report, this time from the International Monetary Fund also notes the progress that Afghan economy continues to make:

"The International Monetary Fund said... Afghanistan had successfully implemented a one-year IMF-monitored program that expires in March and had kept its commitments for fiscal discipline and management. Such an endorsement by the international lender bodes well for the country's credibility among investors in the donor community, which funds Afghanistan's budget as it recovers from 20 years of civil war...

"Overall, the IMF said the Afghan government had made progress in rebuilding the economy, despite a challenging security environment... The IMF forecast economic growth of 8 percent in 2005, off the high levels of 29 percent that followed the ousting of the former Taliban rulers by U.S.-led forces in 2001."
As the report says, "prudent fiscal and monetary policies have helped to contain inflation and facilitate relatively high levels of growth, and were encouraged by the continued successful implementation of the staff-monitored program... Although budget execution has not met expectations, a core budget has been introduced that consolidates all the government operations channeled through the treasury, revenue collection has continued to improve and significant progress has been made in the implementation of structural reforms." Or in human language: things are looking up.

And speaking of things monetary, the Afghan authorities have disallowed the use of Pakistani money as
legal tender within Afghanistan. The move is designed to strengthen the local currency, afghani.

Yet another international institution reports on the
progress: "The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has fulfilled its pledge of providing 500 million dollars in soft loans and grants to Afghanistan in 2004, the bank announced. It said annual assistance to the war-torn country would henceforth amount to about 200 million dollars, at least half of which would be in grants."

USAID is highlighting its
achievements in Afghanistan in 2004. The numbers speak for themselves:

"562 canals and irrigation structures constructed; 310,500 hectares of farmland rehabilitated; 186 km of farm to market roads constructed; 138 market centers constructed; 8,400 loans distributed (73% to women); 3,679,222 livestock vaccinated; 482 km of Kabul-Kandahar highway operational

"40,000 radios distributed to vulnerable populations (including rural women); 400 legal personnel trained; 8,000,000 Afghans voted in first presidential election (40% women); 6,000 business licenses issued; $9,700,000 in domestic revenue generation collected

"169,716 students in 17 provinces enrolled in Accelerated Learning Programs (55%women); 16,200,000 textbooks printed and distributed; 6,819 teachers trained in Accelerated Learning Program; 80 schools constructed; 4,800,000 Afghan children enrolled in school

"4,700,000 people have access to basic health care; 1,971 MOH and NGO health care workers trained; 9,900,000 children under the age of 5 vaccinated against polio; 159 water wells constructed or refurbished; $697,000 in pharmaceuticals and commodities distributed."
And in the new year USAID continues to assist in restructuring Iraqi economy and administration. For example, it has been involved in land titling reform:

"Clear and just land titling help market reforms promote sustainable economic growth, and protect the rights of the poor and improve livelihoods. To help develop and support land titling in Afghanistan, our programs strengthen property registration, simplify land-titling procedures, and standardize and clarify the legal framework. Recent progress include:

"- Reorganization of property records in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, and Parwan provinces. Property records have been catalogued more efficiently, reducing access time from two-three months to just fifteen minutes. Reorganization of Ghazni and Takhar provincial records are starting this week.

"- Afghans were hired and trained to electronically input deed information into a database system using digital cameras rather than traditional scanners, allowing more efficient and accurate access to records."
Meanwhile, as part of its Economic Restructuring Program, USAID is assisting the Afghan government in the privatization program:

"As outlined in the Government of Afghanistan's National Development Program, one of the objectives is to dissolve State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) in order to stimulate economic growth in the private sector. This reporting period, USAID programs accomplished the following:

"- Two SOEs were sold to a foreign agro-industrial group; six other negotiations are underway.

"- A Social Safety Net program is currently completed in draft, aimed at assisting SOE workers with retraining or assistance with new employment or retirement.

"- Surveys of excess SOE land underway. Estimates show that 70% of all SOE assets are in excess land, translating into significant growth potential for the private sector."
With the economic growth, comes general expansion. Kabul itself has been redrawn recently, increasing the number of districts from 18 to 22. To cope with the growth, "the Kabul city municipality... plans to expand the capital of Afghanistan to accommodate the growing population that has increased by nearly 75% since the Taleban movement was ousted nearly three years ago, and the interim Karzai administration came into power. According to Mohammad Musa Mahboob, the deputy director of the city planning implementation department, the capital has an area of 33,000 hectares of land and the new city plan proposes to expand it by a further 24,000 hectares."

Afghanistan might soon become a part of a
major regional infrastructure project: "Turkmenistan said today that a feasibility study supports a proposal to build a natural-gas pipeline through Afghanistan and Pakistan to an Indian border town. Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry said the study commissioned by the Asian Development Bank envisages it would cost $3.3 billion to build the 1,000-kilometer pipeline to transport Turkmenistan's gas to India."

In trade and transport links, presidents of Iran and Afghanistan have inaugurated
Dogharun-Herat trade route between their two countries. "The 123-kilometer route was built as one of the Iranian projects to help the reconstruction process in Afghanistan. Several private companies implemented the project under the supervision of the Iranian Ministry of Roads and Transportation. It is expected to facilitate the transit of goods and services to the Afghan border markets. It was earlier planned to come into operation this month, but the two sides decided to postpone the ceremony for it was going to coincide with formation of the first Afghan cabinet. Iran has totally donated some $560 million to the reconstruction process in the neighboring country." At the joint opening of the route, the road was seen as a symbol of stability and cooperation between the two countries.

As its contribution to rebuilding Afghanistan's transport system (and a part of its overall $100 million reconstruction package), Pakistan has recently donated
45 ambulances. 200 trucks have been delivered last year, and 100 buses will be shortly.

Afghanistan is an energy-poor country with limited power infrastructure, particularly in isolated areas of the country. That's why projects such as this are so
important for the future:

"The Asian Development Bank (ADB)... had approved a 750,000-dollar grant to develop solar energy technology for use in isolated rural areas in Afghanistan. The grant, financed by the British government, would demonstrate how solar energy could enhance the quality of life in poor, remote villages which could not be connected to wider power grids...

"Most of Afghanistan's population have no access to modern energy sources like electricity and gas and are forced to rely on traditional fuels like firewood... However, the country has a great potential for solar power since the sun shines for about 300 days a year in Afghanistan...

"The grant would be used to provide solar systems to communities on a pilot basis and to train 10 people from different ethnic groups as solar technicians at a training centre in India. Upon returning to Afghanistan, they would train 10 additional people from their communities."
In other energy news, the US has allocated $3.5 million for surveying oil and gas fields in the Jowzjan Province. And cooperation with Iran is bringing more benefits, too:

"The presidents of Iran and Afghanistan will officially inaugurate a 132-kilowatt power transmission line from Torbat-e Jam in northeastern Iran to the western Afghan city of Herat... once the power line becomes operational Iran's power exports to Afghanistan would increase ten- fold... The total cost of the project [was put] at 13.8 million dollars... The amount spent to install the transmission line was part of the financial commitment made by the Islamic Republic of Iran for reconstruction of Afghanistan. Last March, Iran opened a 150-kilometer, 20-kilowatt power transmission line to the western Afghan city. The project cost Tehran some 2.3 million dollars."
Another $10 million has been allocated by the authorities to extend electricity from Herat, which already boasts Afghanistan's most reliable supply, into outlying districts, some of which still don't have connection. And USAID and a Chinese company have signed an agreement for the reconstruction of Kajaki power dam in Helmand Province.

In late February, Kabul will host the first ever local
expo for the construction and power industries. Jointly sponsored by Iran's Ministry of Energy as well as Afghanistan's Ministries of Commerce, Energy, Transportation and Industries, the exhibition will involve 50 Iranian companies, alongside businesses from Turkey, France, Russia, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Afghanistan.

The new, expanding economy is providing more opportunities for
Afghan women: "Nearly 4,000 women, who are the bread winners for their families, will be given jobs according to their skills... A Senior Public Information Officer for [the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan], Ariane Quentier said the women will get a respectable salary in the jobs they have skills in, such as tailoring, making candles and soaps, and preserving fruit and vegetables. A number of these women chosen were already working at bakeries in the capital Kabul and supported their family through the money they earned." And Afghan women are also on the forefront of a small business explosion:

"Just a few years ago, Kamela Sediqi had to hide her blossoming tile business from the Taliban. She used a false name, worked from home and had to smuggle material under her burqa.

"Now she and 14 other Afghan women are participating in a special program to help them expand or build businesses in their struggling nation - a kind of refresher course on capitalism.

" 'Afghan women are fearless. These women are totally fearless and they are ready to move on,' said Mina Sherzoy, director of Afghanistan's Women's Entrepreneurship Development program.

"A businesswoman herself who returned to Afghanistan from San Francisco in 2002, Sherzoy accompanied the women from Kabul to this Phoenix suburb for the program at Thunderbird, the Garvin School of International Management.

"The two-week training, which ends next weekend, is a business school overview, covering everything from marketing to accounting and will culminate with the development of business plans. The women have been paired with mentors, who will continue to help them over the next several years."
The Afghan agriculture is also receiving support from overseas. "If you are going to rebuild a country from the ground up, you are going to need a soil scientist. Drew Adams, a district conservationist who works out of the Brattleboro office of the U.S Department of Agriculture, will be heading to Afghanistan later this month to work for six months as an agricultural adviser."

HUMANITARIAN AID: Governments, Non-Government Organizations and individuals from all parts of the world continue to help the people of Afghanistan rebuild their lives.

International Red Cross has finished renovating
Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital in Kabul: "Technicians from the Norwegian Red Cross, working closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Ministry and senior hospital staff, had been carrying out repairs to the building since the summer of 2002, installing a new central heating system, (with financial support from the Kuwait Red Crescent Society) and fixing the roof, windows and doors. The water supply system has also been improved, the wiring completely replaced, the walls plastered and painted, and floors and walls tiled where needed. The hospital also received two generators, and the Danish Red Cross, working under the auspices of the ICRC, installed a waste management station, maintenance workshop and X-ray machines." The Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital is the main center for orthopaedic and emergency surgery in Afghanistan.

war victims are also receiving assistance: "A shipment of much-needed medical equipment donated by Clear Path has arrived at an emergency surgical center for civilian war and landmine victims in Afghanistan. The shipment of diagnostic and surgical instruments, wheelchairs, gurneys, crutches and other trauma-care hospital equipment was a collaborative effort between CPI and the Mobility Project based near Bremerton, Wash. The Mobility Project funded the shipment of a 40-foot container, which was about half filled with equipment and supplies donated by Clear Path through its medical support program for mine-affected countries."

You can also read this report about the work of the
Green Village Schools initiative in constructing and equipping a school in Afghanistan. As the organisation's Yama Kharoti concludes: "As for the general outlook, the security situation in Afghanistan as a whole improves despite what lop-sided attention the media gives it. The infrastructure of the nation is improving drastically which is bringing in many new merchants and bolstering the economy. Women are feeling more and more comfortable unveiling, shopping, and traveling. From any angle, signs of improvement are crystal clear. The dark phase really is gone." Speaking of schools, CARE charity's "out of school" girls program is supporting nine schools which fast-track Afghan girls who missed out on years of education under the Taliban regime.

The young and old throughout the United States are continuing to help, touched by the plight of the Afghan people. This action from
California provides one example of people's initiative:

"This month a truck will leave from the Bishop's Central Storehouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Colton, loaded with humanitarian supplies destined for Afghanistan.

"The supplies represent the culmination of the work of hundreds of women representing 10 churches, who worked all year to better the lives of women in need half a world away.

"The members of Women of Faith of Redlands have spent an estimated 34,075 hours sewing, painting, tying, cutting, gathering, assembling and praying in preparation for sending a shipment of 15 pallets and 11,660 pounds of goods valued at more than $133,000 to Afghanistan.

"Men, youth and children have also taken part in the effort, including Girl Scouts, Brownies, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts."
From Pennsylvania: "When 11-year-old Taylor Barth, of Murrysville, saw pictures of bundled-up soldiers and children without shoes in the wintry Afghanistan weather, she decided to do something about it. She started by cleaning out her own closet and sending her outgrown shoes to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan through her friend, Kevin Higgins, an Army captain serving there. She even saved some money and bought a couple pairs at the local thrift shop. Now, with the help of her youth group at Newlonsburg Presbyterian Church in Murrysville, she is conducting a gently-used shoe collection through Sunday. Shoes sent to the military in Afghanistan are turned over to village elders who distribute them to children in need." And again in California, "the El Monte Women's Club started a citywide campaign Tuesday to gather shoes for children in Afghanistan."

Meanwhile, there is no slowing down for this
Massachusetts man: "Elliott Larson closed his medical practice on Dec. 31, but the 65-year-old Southborough internist is headed to Afghanistan, not into retirement. Larson and his wife, Martha, will travel to the capital city of Kabul, where he'll work with the International Assistance Mission, researching how best to start a postgraduate education program for doctors in Afghanistan." Others will be teaching English: "When Mary Dohlman heard about a group of people going to teach English in Afghanistan, she thought it was something she could do. After discussing it with her husband, Dennis, an engineer with BP, they both decided to go. The Dohlmans, who live in Crane, joined a diverse group of 24 people from the United States, Canada and the Philippines."

Lastly, this story suggests that
even words can help:

"Not often does a playwright's work bring tangible, life-saving changes. But William Mastrosimone's The Afghan Women is helping to provide housing, food, education and health care for orphans and women in a dangerous country struggling toward democracy."
Read the whole fascinating story of how Mastrosimone came to be acquainted with Afghanistan in the first place, and how International Orphan Care, of which he is a member, is caring for Afghanistan's many orphans and building schools and health clinics.

THE COALITION TROOPS: Most of the time it's providing security; often it's helping to rebuild the country; always it's an effort to make lives better in many ways, big and small. Recently, the troops have been instrumental in enabling
pilgrims from Afghanistan to attend their annual pilgrimage to Mecca: "Scores of commercial flights from four locations in Afghanistan - Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat - have been coordinated in some way or another by Air Force, Army and Marine personnel. [Marine Maj. John] Forti said the number of pilgrims processed through the four sites totals 26,387, up by nearly 2,000 from 2004. Some Afghans even came from refugee camps in Pakistan. The U.S. military provided broad assistance, from security and accommodations in Kandahar to fire trucks in Herat."

The troops are also active in the reconstruction effort. These units have been working throughout the sixteen provinces of
eastern Afghanistan:

"While continuing small-scale projects, the command is committed to initiating what [Army Col. Gary] Cheek called 'capacity-building projects' -- creating road networks, revitalizing downtown areas, establishing irrigation and water systems, and bolstering economic infrastructure. 'We are working with each of our provincial governors to develop five-year reconstruction plans that will set a course for reconstruction in each province,' he said. 'We will also continue to equip and train Afghan police forces to improve the security posture across the region.'

"Since June, Cheek said, eight provincial reconstruction teams within Regional Command East have spent more than $24.8 million on reconstruction projects. These projects have focused on education, water and sanitation, healthcare and governance, he said. They included full renovation of the Ghazni Public Health Directorate Civil Hospital, which serves an estimated 1.5 million people, and the nearly completed Matun electric grid project in Khost province, Cheek said. By late February, the Matun project will provide electricity to some 85,000 residents.

"Other successes included purchasing 110 police vehicles and 7,260 police uniforms, facilitating the first meeting of the Ghazni Women's Council, and progress in promoting winter wheat and other crops in lieu of poppies."
In Kabul, the local Provincial Reconstruction Team has recently completed a $700,000 renovation of the Khoshal Khan Boarding school. "Khoshal Khan, the only school in Kabul that teaches its students in Pashtu instead of Dari, was established in 1948 for children of the Kuchi tribe, a nomadic people whose tribes are scattered throughout Afghanistan. The Kuchi children attend school from March through December, while their parents travel the countryside allowing the families' livestock to graze. Through the end of 2004, the school has catered to more than 5,000 students. However, according to Minister Brahowee, more than two decades of war took its toll on the facility and the number of students was reduced to five. Today, there are about 1,400 children attending the school and Minister Brahowee couldn't be more proud."

Some of the
actions are less tangible than erecting a building, but no less important: "Medics from Bagram Airfield joined forces with the members of the Farah Provincial Reconstruction Team to provide basic medical care for the people and animals in the villages of Khormaleq, Darabad Bala and Chin during a routine civil affairs mission...

" A team of 11 Army medics treated more than 1,500 people and 2,100 animals in the Farah Province Jan. 15 through 18.

" 'It is important that we treat the animals for the villagers because it improves their health and economic status,' said Col. Steve Johnson, Task Force Victory surgeon. Eighty percent of the population owns animals, and by treating the herd their value is increased by 10 percent, according to Johnson."
Utah servicemen and women are busy on the ground: "Humanitarian work keeps piling up for Utah National Guard soldiers in Afghanistan. The soldiers have adopted an orphanage of 500 boys and 150 girls southwest of Kabul. They already have donated personal hygiene items and Christmas presents to the children, but the orphanage now needs thousands of yards of material to make blankets." Click here if you want to assist. In another action organized by the Utah Guardsmen, eleven-year-old Asedullah Ibrahim will travel with his father from their home in Afghanistan, to Southern California for an operation, provided at no cost to the family, to repair a hole in Asedullah's heart.

Capt. Todd Schmidt's
Operation Dreamseed Inc has blossomed from an idea into a full-flung humanitarian project thanks to "the heartland heroes" back in the United States; "they range from a large New York City law firm and a Chicago philanthropist, to a Houston middle school and a Beverly Hills investment-consulting firm." The Operation has several aims:

"The first is to provide schoolchildren in southern Afghanistan with basic school supplies.

"Next is the renovation of schools, which is not as simple as it may seem. In a land where only 5 million of the nation's 28 million people can read, Schmidt noted that some teachers have their work cut out for them. In some cases, they use rocks to scrawl lesson plans on the walls of their mud-brick classrooms.

" 'These kids have nothing,' said Cipponeri, a soldier who has played a major role in helping Schmidt. 'All these children have smiles on their faces and wear rags for clothes. When you help them, it opens a new part of you in your heart.'

"Ultimately, Schmidt would like to establish an exchange program between Afghan teachers and institutions in the United States. He said talks with the University of Nebraska and Denver University are in their infancy, but already the latter is interested in sending doctoral candidates to Afghanistan."
A Florida guardsman, meanwhile, is reaching to Afghan kids through sport:

"One day early last year, Joshua Walters was a high school girls soccer coach in Tallahassee, Fla., preparing his team for a regional playoff game.

"Just a couple of months later, in April, he was stationed in Afghanistan as a first lieutenant in the Florida National Guard, watching a girl die in his arms.

" 'It pushed me,' said Walters, 27. 'I went to my boss and said 'I've got to do something. I know soccer and that's where I thought I could relate with them.'

"He has related, effectively using the world's most popular game as a way to bridge cultural gaps by heading an effort to have playing fields made, conducting coaching courses for the Afghanistan youth and setting up adult games between locals and coalition forces."
Read also this story of how Dean Perez, a major in the Oregon National Guard, has befriended Afghan children at a small village north east of Kabul.

It's not just the American troops - here's
the Italian contribution:

"The personnel of the First Mountain Artillery Regiment of the 'Taurinensea' Alpine Brigade have distributed health material, clothing and food to some centres of the Afghan capital. Among the structures that have benefited from the aid is the Alberto Cairo health centre, that for years has been operating in Kabul in the field of rehabilitation for the many victims of mines still spread over most of Afghanistan. The clinic has been given 11 wheelchairs, 400 kg of food products and eight tons of clothes. This aid, arrived in Afghanistan thanks to the contribution of many sections of the National Alpine Association of Piedmont and Ligura, Tuscany and Veneto, besides the Nastro Azzurro Association and that of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. A hospital in the capital has however been given operating tables, hospital beds, cots and other furniture donated by the Hospital of Acqui Terme and by the Centre for the gathering of hospital material in Parma. Then there is also 200,000 euro's worth of medicines, donated by a Milan pharmaceutical company and distributed to many health institutes and the Kabul Military Hospital. There concluded finally yesterday the phase of infrastructural works by 'Paktiakot School', the school that the Italian contingent in Afghanistan is building also thanks to a Fossano credit institute. The personnel of the army's civil-military cooperation unit, which has looked after the project, is now awaiting furnishings, orders, and craftsmen from Kabul in the intention to contribute to their economic position and to help the city's growth."
Lastly, read the story of Jamal Ud Din, who for the past two years has stood guard outside the gate of Camp Phoenix in Kabul.

"A taxi stops near the front gate of Camp Phoenix on the outskirts of Kabul. Within seconds a short, stocky man wielding a pipe starts to approach the vehicle. The man with the lead stick means business. 'Move the car,' he demands in a language anyone could understand. The occupant hastily pays his fare, and the taxi driver wastes no time backing away. With the way clear, the Afghan man U.S. soldiers call 'Rambo' returns to his post just inside the gate to resume his vigil."
When his wife died in a Taliban rocket attack during the civil war, Jamal Ud Din moved with his family to Pakistan. He says: "While I was in Pakistan, I saw President Bush and his wife on TV... They said: 'We will help Afghanistan. We will rebuild Afghanistan.' That's why I like Americans, and why I like to work for them."

"That commitment to his country prompted him to return to Kabul. Because Jamal Ud Din had sold his apartment, the only logical place to go, he figured, was his old workplace. His bosses didn't have a driver's job open, so they assigned him to the front gate - and he's been there ever since...

"In June 2003, when U.S. forces first rolled up to the front gate of what was then a Russian-Afghan transport company, Rambo was waiting. He hasn't left."
Read the whole wonderful story.

SECURITY: As the Taliban threat weakens with time, the security situation throughout Afghanistan continues to improve. Recent talks raising a prospect of a
possible amnesty for low-level Taliban fighters are progressing well, with local tribal chiefs acting as intermediaries in provinces of Paktia, Khost and Paktika. Paktia governor Assadullah Wafa expects that hundreds of fighters are ready to down weapons and finally return to peaceful life. The recent release of 80 Taliban prisoners by the US forces is widely seen as a good will gesture to help with negotiations. In other recent security successes: killing of a local Taliban commander in an attack on a government building in Zabul, and killing of an "important" Taleban commander and the arrest of another in an armed raid in the country's eastern Helmand province.

In the meantime, however, the Coalition presence in the country continues. On January 27, the troops of the
Turkish 28th Mechanized Infantry Brigade have taken over the command of the Kabul Multinational Brigade. "The multinational brigade operates under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Turkey is due to take over the command of the whole mission on Feb. 11 for six months." Turkish forces have now taken responsibility for Kabul's international airport.

Increasingly, however, thanks to generous assistance from abroad, Afghanistan's own security forces are starting to play an important role in protecting their own people. Most recently, the Bush administration has assigned funds up to "
$88.5 million of defence articles, defence services and military education and training from the Department of Defence for the Government of Afghanistan." With all the foreign financing and training assistance, Afghan security forces continue to grow. According to U.S. Army Maj. Mark McCann, "[The Afghan army] is well trained, brave and relentless in its execution of missions... [Progress made by the Afghan National Army over the past year has] enabled Afghan institutions to build enduring local, regional and national security, extended the reach of the national government and assisted in Afghanistan's transition to a democratic nation." So far, "the Afghan National Army has 21,000 soldiers, McCann noted, which includes about 17,800 trained troops and more than 3,400 still in training. About 4,000 Afghan soldiers are deployed throughout the country performing security tasks."

To help with raising more troops, the US forces will be opening
more recruitment centres around the country, bringing the total to 35. Most recently, 60 officers graduated from the Command and General Staff College, and the authorities have opened another National Army Volunteer Center in the Farah province. The authorities are in line "to open at least one army volunteer center in each of the country's 34 provinces, including two in Kabul."

On a local law enforcement level, "Afghan government with the support of the United States and its allies established
the first model police station in the capital of Kabul... 'Establishing district 10 police station as a Model Police Station is a major step by the first Afghan elected government towards improving policing in Afghanistan,' Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali noted at the opening ceremony of the station. A total of 300 policemen in the first model police station are equipped with 40 vehicles, 20 motorbikes and 40 bicycles."

Overall, the target of 62,000 police officers by 2006 has been almost achieved, with
53,000 members of Afghan National Police already on the beat.

Training doesn't always involve weapons. Recently, "Afghanistan and the U.S. Defense Acquisition University paired to train new personnel in the Afghan Ministry of Defense's Acquisition Agency and the Acquisition and Technology Policy Directorates. The Afghanistan
Project Management course, held at Amani High School in Kabul Jan. 8 - 17, provided 40 hours of initial project management training to approximately 70 officers."

As equipping of the new forces continues, not all the weapons and weapons systems are necessarily new. Afghanistan will also soon begin negotiations with its neighbors about the return of
two dozen or so military aircraft belonging to the old Afghan air force, which have been hijacked and taken out of the country over the last quarter of a century of strife.

Building Afghan police and armed forces is only one half of the security equation - demilitarizing society which has been engaged in continuous warfare for a generation is another. To that end,
the disarmament program is making steady progress in one of the most heavily armed societies on Earth: "The Afghan government is tracking the country's private militias with international help, and hopes to begin disarming them before parliamentary elections... The project aims to fix the location of each irregular force and assess its size and type. This involves determining whether it is a rogue militia, a community-based self-defense group or a security force hired to guard reconstruction projects." More on the progress of the disarmament program here. The heavy weapon disarmament program is now in its final phase, having entered the Panjshir Valley, the stronghold of anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban resistance over the last quarter of a century. So far, "more than 32,700 militiamen have now handed in their weapons from an estimated 50,000 militia members in the country... About 8,000 artillery pieces and armored vehicles have been brought to collection points under the heavy weapons cantonment program."Overall, "more than 90 percent of all heavy weapons in Afghanistan have been collected." In fact, the quantity of equipment collected so far has far exceeded the initial estimates of some 4,000 pieces of heavy weaponry throughout the country.

The other aspect of disarmament program - disbanding private militias - has been a success in
the north of the country: "Clashes between the two units - the 7th Army Corps, which had been loyal to ethnic Tajik general Atta Mohammad, and the 8th Army Corps, which was under the command of Uzbek general Abdul Rashid Dostum - had been the primary cause of violence in that part of the country over the past several years. The two militias had long been the only military powers in the north and acted with complete disregard of orders from central government. The units had spent most of their time fighting over land." Now the militias have been disarmed. "In place of the two corps, the government has created two new national army units. Now, 6,171 former militia members have relinquished their arms under the United Nations' Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration, DDR, programme. Dr Kamal Amini, in charge of DDR in the north, said about 90 per cent of the men have undergone training to learn such skills as de-mining, tailoring, carpentry and mechanics."

Taliban, too, continue to get disarmed through
increasingly frequent discoveries of arms caches throughout the country:

"A cache turned in by Afghan citizens near Ghazni yielded 89 cases of 14.5 mm and 12.7 mm rounds. The Afghans said the ammunition had been there since the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of the country. Another cache turned in by an Afghan citizen near Spin Buldak yielded three 82 mm rockets.

"Coalition forces found another cache near Kabul. That cache consisted of 100 107 mm rockets, 100 anti-personnel rockets and assorted smaller munitions. Coalition forces patrolling near Qalat found a cache containing 500 7.62 mm rounds, 120 cases of 14.5 mm rounds, 66 cases of 12.7 rounds, 144 mm mortar fuses, 22 82 mm mortar rounds, seven 60 mm mortar rounds and six 75 mm recoilless rifle rounds.

"Another weapons cache was discovered near Gereshk by coalition forces. The cache contained three 122 mm rounds, 27 82 mm recoilless rockets, 12 82 mm mortars, two 107 mm rockets and two hand grenades."
In all, fourteen arms caches have been discovered in just three days between January 5 and 8 and another 10 between January 8 and 12. The intelligence from the Afghans is increasingly leading to seizures of weapons and ammunition. For example, of 32 arms caches discovered in a fortnight to 24 January, 11 were recovered due to tips from locals. And another 13 caches have been discovered in the last week of January, including this monster: "One large cache included more than 10,000 mortar rounds, 500 122 mm artillery rounds, rockets and fuses." "Since early 2003, Regional Command East has recovered more than 600 weapons caches, including 152 since August, Cheek reported. As of Dec. 6, the command's explosive ordnance teams destroyed 300,000 pieces of ordnance." The New Zealand troops, too, have recently destroyed five arms caches in the Bamyan province.

After two and a half decades of conflict, Afghanistan continues to be littered with landmines and unexploded ordinance, which still cause injury and claim lives. But the progress is being made here, too. The
Explosive Ordinance Disposal units of the Italian contingent in Kabul, for example, have recently dismantled more than 700 50kg bombs. Overall, "more than 100,000 [metric tonnes] of ammunition will be collected from across the country under a new programme, the United Nations backed Afghanistan New Beginnings Programme (ANBP)... Around 600 Kamaz trucks (large Russian lorries) of ammunition in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif alone. Another 5,000 mt of ammunition have recently been moved out of the western city of Herat, which accounts for only a third of the whole problem in Herat province." Also, "so far 2.8 million explosive devices, including mines and UXOs (unexploded ordnance), have been cleared from 320 million sq metres of land. But 815 million sq metres of land remain have to be cleared to ensure the safe return of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees." You can also check out this story about the disarmament program, as well as this:

"Between the majestic snow-capped mountains of the Band-e Baba Range and the historic city of Herat in western Afghanistan looms a powerful menace of man's making...

"[Mark] Holroyd, an explosive ordnance technician for Ronco Consulting Corp., calls it
'the biggest open-air arms cache in the world.' There are about 8,000 tons of explosives - an estimate he characterizes as conservative - on the ground and under 24-hour guard. Much more was here, and much more is expected to arrive in the coming months.

"The cache is the result of a United Nations program, with U.S. military assistance, to disarm the warring militias in western Afghanistan. Dubbed Task Force Saber, the effort began in August and by October tons of ammunition started being consolidated in a field east of Herat."
As part of its disarmament program, the authorities are also intensifying their effort to recover any outstanding Stinger missiles provided to mudjahedin during the 1980s.

In the fight against drugs, there is
increased support from the United States: "The US will spend $780m (Euro 579m, £410m) this year on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, up from $130m in 2004 and about $35m the year before." The US will also be supplying eight helicopters to help equip the Afghan counter-narcotics police.

The Afghan government itself is also getting serious, launching a new force to eradicate poppy crops across the country. "Deputy interior minister General Mohammad Daud, who inaugurated the 700-strong
'Central Poppy Eradication Force', said it would have another 2 300 men by the end of the year. Counter-narcotics forces have destroyed 14 800ha of poppies during the last three months, Daud said, adding that 2005 has been declared poppy eradication year in Afghanistan."

The Afghan authorities are also considering an
amnesty for drug smugglers to "get out of the country's booming narcotics industry and invest their profits in national reconstruction." But not if at least some Afghans will get to them first: "Tribal elders in southeastern Afghanistan have threatened to torch the houses of people found growing opium and make them pay a hefty fine in a bid to stamp out burgeoning poppy cultivation... The tribal council of southeastern Khost province... [announced] in a radio broadcast... that anyone arrested for robbery, setting explosives or growing opium would have to pay a 100,000 Afghani (2,083 US dollar) fine and would have their house burnt down. 'All the tribes agreed to obey this agreement and all tribes signed it, so ordinary people in each tribe will obey and respect it,' [said] Sultan Mohammad Babrakzai, assistant Head of Tribes Affairs Department in Khost... Babrakzai added that the tribesmen would also burn down the houses of anyone who supports Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the region, which has been a hotbed for attacks on US and pro-government forces." This drastic method of waging jihad on drugs, however, hasn't won President Karzai's support.

By the same token, the Afghan authorities seem to be doing
good enough work:

"Nangarhar, the eastern province which is probably the country's greatest opium producer -- where once the fields were a picture of pink and white poppies -- now offers a scene of barren earth... The provincial authorities of Nangarhar said this month that 95% of the poppy fields in the province had been destroyed.

"Whilst there have been many reports of drug-eradication raids and extensive poppy destruction, the extent of the programs has in the past often failed to match the publicity. But when Pajhwok Afghan News visited leading poppy-producing districts, its reporter found that the claims about poppy destruction appear to be correct."
More in this report:

"The poppy fields that once crowded every scrap of farmland in this fertile corner of eastern Afghanistan have been supplanted by wheat. Farmers are slashing their cultivation of opium, government and foreign officials say, in a bright start for President Hamid Karzai's US-sponsored campaign against the world's largest illegal narcotics industry.

"Nationwide, officials forecast a drop of between 30 per cent to 70 per cent in this year's crop. In crucial growing areas such as eastern Nangarhar province and southern Helmand, it could be down more than three-quarters, they say, though reliable statistics are not yet available."
At the same time, USAID is stepping in to provide assistance to farmers under its Alternative Income Project:

"As part of the larger counter-narcotics initiative, the Alternative Income Project (AIP) in Helmand province delivers a strong message to communities that the Government of Afghanistan and donors will assist them through emergency programs that will lead to sustainable development. AIP provides immediate cash distributions to communities through labor-intensive activities and uses this economic growth as a foundation for future viable alternatives to poppy. Since early December, AIP has been organizing cash-for-work activities in central and lower Helmand. The project currently employs 5,600 workers and has generated over 100,000 labor-days in drainage and canal rehabilitation projects. AIP workers have cleared more than 100 km of catchdrains to date. AIP is planning activities in upper Helmand and is working closely with Sher Mohammad, governor of Helmand province, who has been helpful in community consultations and resolution of security issues. Also, since arrival in Lashkar Gah, the AIP team has provided local NGOs with grants for community enterprise and social activities reaching vulnerable groups."
As the old riddle goes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one's there to hear it, does it make a sound? Or more importantly, if a country like Afghanistan is getting back on its feet and there's no one to report it, does it actually happen? As far as the people of Afghanistan are concerned, thankfully yes; as far as the rest of the world, all too often the answer is no. That's why it's so important that the stories of Afghans - and those who are helping them - be told.


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