Monday, August 23, 2004

Good news from Afghanistan, Part 3 

Note: Also available at the "Opinion Journal". Kudos and thanks to James Taranto, one of the few in the mainstream media who continue to spread the good news. And, as always, available at Winds of Change, thanks to Joe Katzman.

The former king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, has seen it all in his 89 years: after four decades on the throne, a coup that saw his deposed, and another three decades in exile, he is now back in his homeland, living the peaceful life of a private citizen, albeit in the security of a private mansion on the grounds of the presidential palace in Kabul. Asked recently by an interviewer about his country's future, Mohammad Zahir Shah
replied: "I am not a fortune-teller, but I am optimistic."

For the past quarter of a century, one need not have been a fortune teller to expect that Afghanistan's near future would remain grim. A communist coup, followed by the Soviet invasion and occupation, then the civil war between former mudjahedin freedom fighters, and finally the oppressive Taliban theocracy have all drastically reduced the number of optimists in this unlucky corner of Central Asia.

But optimism is back, and since the overthrow of Mullah Omar's regime almost three years ago it has been making a slow but steady comeback. For all the continuing security problems and sporadic fighting with the Taliban and al Qaeda remnants, Afghanistan's resurrection has been an unheralded success story of the recent times. Huge challenges remain, to be sure, but for the first time in a generation there is real hope that the country is finally breaking out of the cycle of violence and succeeding in its first steps on the road to normalcy.

The Afghans know it's happening, but we in the West, looking at Afghanistan through the prism of mainstream media coverage, are far less aware of all the positive developments taking place over there. Here is some good news from the last four weeks that you might have missed while the media, true to their form, continued to focus on the negatives.

SOCIETY: The presidential elections are still some two months away, but the foundations have already been laid down with considerable success: according to initial United Nations reports,
almost 80 per cent, or 7.9 million out of estimated 10 million eligible voters have registered to vote in October's poll. Other reports at the time put the figure as high as 9 million registered voters, but when the voter registration officially closed on Sunday, 15 August, the United Nations realized that a staggering 9.9 million Afghans had registered to vote, of whom almost 42 percent were women. In the words of Manoel de Almeida e Silva, a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), "This registration process has concluded after a number of problems and what is even more remarkable is the number of Afghans registered in spite of these problems." One of those who have recently registered to vote is Afghanistan's former king.

To assist in the proper running of the election some much needed foreign aid continues to flow in, including an addition
$2 million from Australia (A$2 million has already been provided). "Australia's total assistance to Afghanistan since September 2001 stands at [A]$110 million, making it Australia's third largest humanitarian effort, exceeded only by East Timor and Iraq," said Australia's foreign minister Alexander Downer. The European Union is also providing an extra $10.9 million towards the running of the elections. Some 5,000 polling centers are expected to operate across the country, each consisting of 5 polling stations, making it a total of 25,000 places where the Afghans will be able to cast their vote in October.

There's already
considerable political interest in the presidential poll:
"Three of the political parties, the Afghanistan National Unity, the Afghanistan National Welfare and the National Ideal of the People of Afghanistan officially began their activities on Saturday August 17 after registering with the Afghan judiciary.

"The latest reports released by Afghanistan's Justice Ministry indicate that so far 61 parties have asked for permission to campaign for the nation's top job and 31 parties have obtained permission to participate in the elections.

"According to Afghanistan's laws on parties, one of the main conditions for establishing a party is to dissolve military sections; therefore, it seems that Afghanistan's active political parties have done an about-face in their policy by accepting this law."
The Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body has recently announced the names of 18 eligible candidates for the presidential election. "Of the 23 candidates who filed their nomination papers prior to the 26 July deadline, three were rejected for failure to comply with the nomination procedures and two others later withdrew."

Not surprisingly, it's those who have suffered the most in the past who feel most passionately about the need for democracy. Take, for instance, the
Panjshir valley, which used to be the hotbed of anti-Taliban resistance and where the voter registration figures now are twice what the UN has originally expected. As the poll draws near, the enthusiasm is palatable:
"Like virtually every adult in this Panjshir Valley village, Rahmal Beg registered to vote weeks ago. Indeed, popular enthusiasm is so high for the Oct. 9 presidential election -- the first in Afghan history -- that thousands of people in the valley have reportedly registered twice.

" 'Everyone wants to vote,' the 75-year-old farmer said proudly. 'The radio, the mullahs and the district officials have all promoted the election. This is our chance to choose a leader who is patriotic and Islamic. Our valley was the center of resistance against the Russians and the Taliban. Now we want to become the center of democracy'."
The feelings are similar among the minority Hazaras who have also strongly opposed the Taliban takeover in the 1990s and as a consequence suffered thousands of their own people killed by Mullah Omar's not-so-holy warriors:
"There is one main reason Sher Aga will not allow the Taliban to scuttle his chance to vote in the October presidential election. Aga... recalled how agents of the former regime fatally shot his friends in this provincial capital's bazaar.

" 'They really exploited us,' he said at a teashop in the market. 'They killed a lot of our youth, burned our houses, destroyed the Buddhas and even released sheep and cattle into our fields to destroy our crops. Now it's a good opportunity for us to elect someone to serve the country... I have a voter card, so now I have the power...'

"Aga's comments are typical of the ethnic Hazara minority who live in the central Afghan province of Bamian. Armed with a new constitution that guarantees equal rights to minority groups, Hazaras are engaged in an intense campaign to grasp some power and lift themselves from the bottom of Afghan society."
There's more about the Hazaras in this current profile of their province:
"It is an idyllic image of what the rest of Afghanistan could be: University students play volleyball against the backdrop of the destroyed Bamyan Buddhas, while groups of chattering young girls walk to school through fields of wheat. Taliban fighters are hiding in caves just 60 kilometres to the south, launching attacks against U.S.-led coalition forces, election workers and the aid community, but the central province of Bamyan has become the safest, most egalitarian place in Afghanistan."
Unlike in some conservative tribal areas of Afghanistan, women were actively encouraged to enroll to vote by the local Hazara religious and community leaders, and they have done so in numbers equal to their men. Speaking of Hazaras, the famous ancient Buddha statues, whose destruction by the Taliban had generated so much anger across the world a few years ago, might soon be raised from the ashes, or in this case, rubble:
"[T]he fate of the Buddhas may lie with a veteran Bavarian art restorer with a walrus moustache who has spent a lifetime in German castles and cathedrals. Edmund Melzl has been sent out by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) for the summer to sort through the rubble piles to evaluate whether they contain the raw material to rebuild... 'Yes, we think it is possible to recreate the Buddhas,' he said. 'In restoration terms, this is the biggest challenge imaginable. Really good restorers could do it. A giant scaffold is needed, and a lot of money. It could take years. We could train local people so Afghans would do most of the work'."
Not a minority like the Hazaras, the Afghan women, too, continue to enjoy their new-found freedoms. Both Afghanistan and Iraq have for the first time sent official delegations to the Global Summit of Women, held this year in South Korea. "I can't compare before with now," says Soraya Rahim, deputy minister of the Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs, who heads the nine-person delegation. Indicative of the huge social changes that have taken place in the post-Taliban Afghanistan, Masooda Jalal, a female doctor from the Tajik ethnic minority, is contesting the presidential elections. It's not just politics, as dangerous as they can be; after the hiatus of the fundamentalist rule women are also rejoining the security forces:
"Nahid, 18, from Kushhal Kan in the western part of Kabul, leaned against the wall as she watched hundreds of young male recruits, march in formation in a graduation rehearsal at Afghanistan's only police academy.

"Her decision to become a police officer had caused a family row, she said. Her uncle cut off all relations with her parents, who supported her decision to enter the academy. But despite such challenges, women are once again joining the ranks of the police in Afghanistan."
And in their more traditional roles, yet still undreamed of under the Taliban, two Afghan women give birth to test tube babies at the Australian Concept Infertility Medical Centre in Karachi, Pakistan.

As the situation in Afghanistan slowly returns to normal,
refugees continue to flow back to their homeland: more than half a million have returned from Iran and Pakistan so far this year, bringing the total to 3 million out of the estimated 4.5 million who have left Afghanistan over the last quarter of a century of war and dictatorship. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is providing an extra 20,500 housing units for the returnees. So far, "[a]s part of an initial reintegration effort to help vulnerable returnees, UNHCR, in collaboration with the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MRR), provided some 100,000 rural shelter units as new homes that have benefited more than half a million Afghans in the past two years." You can read how this assistance is helping to rebuild houses in Kabul.

In entertainment news, "Earth and Ashes", a film by Paris-based Afghan director Atiq Rahimi, shared the
Best Picture prize with a Taiwanese entry at the sixth Osian Cinefan film festival. Back in Kabul, French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres has officially reopened the capital's famous 600-seat Arian cinema, which was destroyed during the civil war in the 1990s. The cinema was rebuild with donations from the French film industry. And Afghanistan now has its first entertainment television channel:
"Using a mobile antenna positioned on a hill overlooking the capital, the broadcast range of 'Afghan TV' station only covers Kabul city, but its owner, Ahmad Shah Afghanzai, hopes to widen its range across the country in a year's time. 'Within a year we hope to be watched all over the country through a satellite station,' he told Reuters. Afghanzai, a 34-year-old businessman, has invested $200,000 in the nascent private operation, and needs nearly $3 million to expand it to cover the whole of the country."
Mullah Omar must be turning in his cave. Another new station, Ayna TV (Mirror TV), which is broadcasting to northern Afghanistan, is also up and running.

And in sports news, Friba Razayee and Robina Muqim Yaar are the
first Afghan women to compete in the Olympics (in Judo and sprint, respectively): "When asked about her chances of winning an Olympic medal in Judo, Friba Razayee smiles and giggles that she's just happy to be able to compete at the games. 'I am really happy, winning or losing is not important for us, because we are the first women,' she says. 'The Olympic Games are important to us, we are all Olympians and it is important to us to participate and we are not here just for a medal'." Afghanistan was banned from competing in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, partly because the then Taliban government did not allow female athletes to participate.

The sprinter
Robina Muqim Yaar recently had this to say about the day she stopped wearing her burqa: "It was liberating, marvelous. I was very happy. The burka was not me, it was forced on many people by others." Her Olympic message back home is simple, yet powerful: "I am here to give hope to the women of my country. They can look forward to the future. Sports like athletics cost nothing to do. I would like to see many more Afghan women competing in sport."

It's an example that others are already following. On the somewhat more junior level,
eight girls with four months of soccer experience behind them are the first team from Afghanistan to participate in the International Children's Games, held this year in Cleveland, Ohio: "They're part of the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange, which brings Afghan girls to the USA for a six-week sports leadership camp. When program organizer Awista Ayub, a 24-year-old Afghan-American, learned about the Games, she realized it would be a great event for her girls to work toward." The rest, as they say is history; or in this case, history in the making. The team in now being couched by the local Cleveland soccer legend, Iranian immigrant Ali Kazemaini and President Bush has already met with the girls.

Not just the two female members but the whole
Afghan Olympic team is making history, even without getting onto the podium:
"For Afghanistan's athletes, gold medals are a distant dream. For them, the Athens Olympics merely represent ground zero after years left out in the cold. For the five Afghan athletes bravely carrying the flag for their war-torn nation, Olympic glory will be measured simply by the fact they were able to take part at all.

Afghanistan Olympic officials have long-term plans. 'All of Afghanistan is proud of what the athletes are doing in Athens,' Sayed Mahmood Ziadashti, vice-president of the Afghan Olympic Committee, told Reuters on Sunday. 'This is a very important step for Afghan sport and will encourage the youth and younger generations so we can build for the future'."
More here about the tough journey of the Afghan team from their war-torn country to the Olympic stadiums: "The road to Athens is tough for any athlete, but for some it is lined with land mines. For those representing war-torn countries, training can mean risking bombs and bullets to reach the stadium, and making do without the barest essentials of equipment and coaching... But many say the adversity they face has strengthened their resolve to push themselves to the limit." Let's hope that win, lose or draw, the Afghan Olympic squad with their determination, tenacity and hard work will provide some much needed inspiration and role models for their compatriots.

And finally, a
moral victory in the war on the local scourge of drug cultivation, after Afghanistan's religious leaders declare any involvement in drug industry out of bounds: "Afghanistan's Council of Ulemas earlier this month issued a fatwa, or religious decree, saying the cultivation, processing trafficking and consumption of drugs must be prevented... opium poppy cultivation, even if it is not consumed by Muslims or if it is done out of poverty, is illegal." This coincides with signs of increased efforts to combat drug cultivation: "US-led coalition forces are preparing a coordinated effort to attack the narcotics trade in Afghanistan, recognizing that drug income could be used to fund insurgents and terrorists in the country."

Lt. Col. Scott Normandeau, of Manchester, New Hampshire, commander of the 157th Communications Flight for the Air National Guard: "There is a huge reconstruction effort going on... I came back here [to the United States] and was surprised at what I heard on the news." Having been following the media coverage of Afghanistan I can sympathize with Lt. Col. Normandeau. "I don't think people realize, this isn't a country at war," he continues. "It is a country that is in the process of recovering." Normandeau provides a good picture of how the reconstruction is taking place every day, out of the eye of news camera:
"The city is divided into reconstruction zones, whose first effort is to establish security. After that, people like Normandeau go from zone to zone, having tea with the governors and finding out what they need. Schools top the list, but after almost a quarter of a century trying to defend itself against invaders and the Taliban, they need everything.

"So Normandeau and others act as liaisons between the provinces and the workers who are being taught basic skills such as plumbing techniques and reinforcing concrete. 'The engineering unit there isn't just doing the building for them, they are teaching them how to do it themselves,' Normandeau said. 'The Afghanis are learning a trade.'

"Because the last two decades have been spent waging war, there hasn't been much time to create infrastructure, let alone build anything, Normandeau says. 'We are helping them rebuild and providing the security so they can do that,' he said. 'But we are just a part of it. Most of the security is provided by the Afghanis. And we are just one of 68 nations. There are Germans, Poles, Italians'...

"Normandeau's area of expertise is telecommunications. In that role, he worked with the nationals to design systems, obtain equipment, build new telecommunication centers. The 'first generation' of communication will be cell phones, he said, which will replace the switchboards and radios in use now. After that - in five to 10 years - fiber-optic cables will be laid."
On the other side of the world, University of California-Berkeley recently hosted about 100 businesspeople, professors and government officials at the International Conference for the Rehabilitation and Development of Infrastructures in Afghanistan. The conference was organized by the Society of Afghan Engineers, a global group of about 500 members, which has a large local branch in the Bay Area:
"Invited to the conference were prominent guests including Afghanistan's deputy ministers of education, water and power, housing, irrigation, and education; leading scholars, such as Bernard Amadei, professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado and head of the U.S. branch of Engineers Without Borders; and Afghan-American activists Rona Popal of Fremont and Humaira Ghilzai of San Francisco, both of whom simply want to understand what's going on in their homeland and see what they can do to help.

"The academic setting provided an opportunity for Said Mirzada, 29, a Newark computer engineer who plans to return to Afghanistan in about two years. Mirzada wanted to meet with big names in the field such as Hunter Lovins, president of Natural Capitalism in Colorado, who spoke about how Afghan engineers have an opportunity to develop their homeland 'right the first time' by using eco-friendly infrastructure. 'My dream is to rebuild Afghanistan and get it stabilized,' Mirzada said."
Back on the ground, the World Bank has announced a grant of $456 million, half of nearly $900 million already pledged to Afghanistan, which will be released by June next year. The Bank has also approved a $145 million package of extra assistance: "$35 million in grant funding for education, a $25 million credit for urban reconstruction, a $80 million credit to support the Afghan government's medium-term development strategy, and a $5 million in seed money for a private investment guarantee initiative."

In transport news,
Russian Railways (RZD) will be constructing a railway network which will link major Afghan cities and extend to Iran and Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistani Minister for Railways, Ghous Bukhsh Mehar, has announced that his government is considering the construction of the Pakistan-Afghanistan rail link to slash the high transport costs between the two countries and open Afghanistan to the international markets. "To accomplish the objective, both Islamabad and Kabul had already agreed to lay down railway track of about 103 Km between Chaman and Kandhar", said the Minister.

Pakistan is also donating
200 trucks and 100 buses to help in the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Manila-based Asian Development Bank is funding the development of a master plan to "identify the main road systems required to link major markets, production centers and development opportunities in Afghanistan" as well as linkages between Afghanistan and its neighbors. Earlier this year, the Asian Development Bank has already pledged $1 billion in loans and grants to Afghanistan between 2005 and 2008.

And in the private sector, some quite unexpected business concepts prove to be
quite successful: "Afghanistan's first fashion brand -- 'Tarsian & Blinkley' -- is selling fast in New York and various other cities around the world. It is a product of a company a 30-year-old female fashion designer has created with the local non governmental organization 'Morning Star.'
" 'Morning Star''s office in the Taimai residential area in the heart of Kabul is always crowded with Afghan women, mostly those who lost their husbands to war, trying to meet the designer, Sarah Takesh, to sell their embroidered products..."
HUMANITARIAN AID: The Coalition forces, in addition to their vital security role, continue to assist in reconstruction. Some of their tasks are unlike any faced in previous deployments: for example, getting more girls to schools:
"Coalition officials are working with village elders in Aibat Khile to improve the learning environment for the girls who are starting to go back to school. The groundbreaking ceremony for Aibat Khile Girls School was held July 15. 'As the number of children in the village grows, so does the number of students,' said Gen. Maulano, a local mujahedeen commander. 'There will be 600 girls attending Aibat Khile Girls School when the construction is done'."
The Coalition governments are also providing valuable assistance, which in some cases can take quite a high-tech form:
"The Bush administration is sending talking, electronic books to Afghanistan to give women basic lessons about public health. The concept is based on LeapPad, a top-selling line of electronic books that help children learn to read...

"The books have a small wand that can be used to touch images of everyday life in Afghanistan that are then described in Dari or Pashto, the country's two principal languages. One scene describes how to make water safe to drink, another how to give basic care to an infant. Health clinics initially will distribute 20,000 books to Afghan women."
Other health assistance is more straight-forward: "Japanese surgeons successfully removed a bullet from a 13-year-old Afghan girl's head, eight years after she was caught in crossfire in her war-torn homeland. Fatema Safar was hit by a stray bullet during fighting when she was five years old. The bullet, embedded near the top of her nose, caused her chronic headaches. Safar was brought to Japan by a Tokyo-based aid group last month for treatment." You can also read this story about one humanitarian "over-stayer" in Afghanistan: "When Army Col. (Dr.) Richard Gonzales arrived in Afghanistan, his mission was to serve 90 days before he could return to his family and private practice in Puerto Rico. Now, six months later, his private practice is sold and he has signed on for an entire year." Col. Gonzales will be teaching modern orthopedic techniques to Afghan surgeons.

Civilians, too, are active in humanitarian work on the ground in Afghanistan. These are people like
Cindy and Zack Taylor (Zack is a gastroenterologist in Germantown), who have taken medical teams with them into Afghanistan on six occasions so far. The genesis of their effort lies on September 11, when Cindy Taylor was onboard one of the planes which were diverted to Canada when the terrorists struck. "We began to ask ourselves what we could do to help," says Cindy.

Agriculture still remains Afghanistan's major industry, and so in that area, too, some major assistance programs are currently under way. A native of Fairfield, Iowa,
Randy Frescoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development business and cooperative program director, is going to Afghanistan on a six-month assignment to help increase agricultural growth and rural incomes. Meanwhile, Canada's Drew Gilmour is "trying to marry business and aid by forming Development Works Canada with two silent partners" in a $4 million aid project to build a sustainable business for Afghan farmers. Says Gilmour: "Smart development doesn't have to be charity. Emergency relief is absolutely necessary, but if a country is going to recover, it has to have opportunities. Long-term recovery can only happen through economic investment and job creation." Hence, Gilmour's new project: a vegetable dehydration facility.
"Dehydration is labour-intensive and increasingly popular, two reasons that attracted Mr. Gilmour to it. In addition, the climate of Afghanistan allows many things to grow well. 'Afghanistan is an agricultural greenbelt. The quality of goods you can get there is amazing,' says Mr. Gilmour. 't's sandy, but things can grow in that environment. They have wonderful soil that has not been contaminated (by pesticides or chemicals).'

"The company has already sold its dehydrated vegetables to Dutch, German, British and French customers. With produce coming from 1,200 farms, the new venture employs 5,000 people. A top-of-the-line dehydration factory is under construction and will open in December, employing another 125 people. A second factory is being considered."
Another of Gilmour's projects: producing sun-died tomatoes, with four hundred farms led by women participating in the project.

It's not just the Coalition governments which are providing funds and support to aid in Afghanistan's reconstruction: the government of
New Zealand, for example, is spending an additional NZ$5 million on education, agriculture and governance programs, targeted specifically at the southeast province of Bamiyan, which is the base of the operation for a New Zealand provincial reconstruction team.

Private businesses are also contributing to the reconstruction: "All thanks to the efforts of a construction company owner from Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, a badly needed schoolhouse is rising from the rubble in a small village in the east of war-ravaged Afghanistan. Mitsuhiro Kanemoto, 61, has donated the majority of the funds for the project with money he raised to help the children of Qara-i-wazir, about 10 kilometers south of Kabul."

Japanese students, too, lend a helping hand: students form Tsuruma Elementary School in Tokyo's Machida, for example, have all donated their old school bags after the graduation. "Artificial-leather manufacturer Kuraray, Co. and JOICPF [Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning] teamed up in February to collect and deliver the bags, along with stationery and other utensils. Contributions came from around the nation. Of about 10,000 bags donated so far, 2,200 were shipped from Yokohama in May to the mountainous Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan. JOICFP has asked an Afghan group to distribute the bags to schools."

SECURITY SITUATION: The fight against the Taliban remnants continues: in recent fighting in the
Khost province along the Pakistani border, the US forces have killed 50 Taliban fighters. In another recent success, "Afghan forces acting on a tip captured four regional Taliban commanders and killed six other militants in two separate weekend raids in southern Afghanistan." And in eastern Afghanistan, a Taliban commander has been killed during an unsuccessful ambush against a Coalition convoy.

Some successes in border control, too, as Pakistani Frontier Corps
arrest 13 suspected terrorists near the border between the two countries, also seizing a "huge quantity of arms and ammunition" that the arrested men were attempting to smuggle into Pakistan.

After two and a half years out of power and under constant military pressure, a
split has developed in the Taliban ranks, resulting in the formation of a breakaway faction. Claiming the loyalty of about one third of fighters, the new faction is led by Sabir Momin, the Taliban's deputy operations commander in southern Afghanistan. According to Momin, "the Taleban militia was beset by internal differences and suffered serious losses due to poor leadership." May they continue.

As the new Afghan security forces are slowly building up and gaining strength, there is more foreign military assistance with
Eurocorp, the European security force, arriving on the Afghan scene. In the force's first deployment outside Europe in its 12 year history, Eurocorp has now taken control over the 7,000-strong peacekeeping contingent in Afghanistan: "Eurocorps is made up of detachments from five European Union countries - Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Spain. Created in 1992 by France and Germany, it was later put at the service of the European Union and is certified as a NATO rapid reaction force... Ultimately some 350 Eurocorps troops will be deployed to Kabul. While the peacekeepers patrol Kabul and parts of northern Afghanistan, another 20,000-strong coalition of troops under the United States' leadership is hunting militants in the southern and eastern parts of the country."

There is a strong cooperation between the foreign troops and the new Afghan security forces: the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, for example, has been
airlifting Afghani army units to trouble spots around the country. Other contributions are smaller in scale, but just as valuable: "Cisko the sniffer dog is worth more than a new Corvette sports car, but his ability to intercept explosives is priceless."

While armed forces work to guarantee a more peaceful tomorrow for the country, international organizations are working to deal with the
legacy of Afghanistan's bloody past:
"Ahmed has had to grow up fast. Aged 12, he found the bodies of his parents amid the rubble of their home bombed by Taliban aircraft four years ago. By then he was already a fighter in Afghanistan's resistance forces, and ever since has been providing for two younger sisters.

"With shaved head and troubled, darting eyes, the thin 16-year-old seems to have lost his childhood, although he loves to play soccer when he can. Like thousands of other child soldiers in Afghanistan being prepared for civilian life under a programme sponsored by the U.N. children's charity UNICEF, he is looking forward to a less turbulent future.

" 'I want to be a blacksmith,' he said, after enrolling in the scheme in a village on the old frontline between the Taliban and Northern Alliance forces north of Kabul."
According Yousaf Ghaznavi, programme supervisor and UNICEF's local partner, between 2,000 and 2,500 former child soldiers (out of the total of around 8,000) have enrolled in the scheme since February. You can read more about this valuable program here.

No one is pretending that Afghanistan doesn't have a long way to go yet - it is, after all, starting almost from zero. But thanks to the Coalition military action that overthrew the Taliban regime almost three years ago, and with the continuing assistance from governments, organizations and individuals around the world, the Afghans are finally allowed to be optimists again. For a country that has suffered so much, it's a good start.


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