Monday, April 04, 2005

Good news from Afghanistan, Part 11 

Note: Also available at the "Opinion Journal" and Winds of Change. Many thanks, as always, to James Taranto and Joe Katzman for their support for this ongoing project, and to all of you fellow readers and bloggers who continue to assist and publicize it.

Like Grinch who stole Christmas, Taliban in their days had banned the popular holiday of Nowroz, the first day of the Afghan year. A few weeks ago, people all around Afghanistan got the chance to
celebrate, for the fourth time in their free country, a new beginning. "The new year arrived with snows and rains. May it be full of peace and security as well," Allah Mohammad, a resident of Kabul, had expressed a popular sentiment.

Considering how much snow fell on Afghanistan this winter, wishing for an equal bounty of peace, security, and prosperity might be somewhat optimistic. But even a moderate precipitation of good and stable government and economic growth will guarantee that this war-shattered, impoverished and traumatized country continues its slow and often painful - yet at the same time very inspiring - ascent from the nightmare of its past twenty-five years of history.

Below are some snapshots from that journey that no longer attracts much media attention, but one that, nonetheless, matters a lot not only to the Afghans themselves but also all those around the world who believe in the redeeming power of freedom.

SOCIETY: After delays caused by logistical problems, Afghanistan's
first parliamentary election is scheduled to take place on September 18. "Fifty political parties, many of them run by former mujahideen who fought the Soviets and the Taliban have registered to contest the polls so far... These elections will be more complex than the presidential election, as the commission will probably have to deal directly with several thousand candidates, said Julian Type, from the [electoral] commission's operational planning unit."

Joining the
exodus from warlordism to democratic politics are these two famous figures:

"Two of Afghanistan's most powerful northern warlords have laid down their arms to enter politics as the country prepares for its first parliamentary elections. The militias of ethnic Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostam and his Tajik rival Mohammed Atta have clashed repeatedly in and around Mazar-i-Sharif since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.

"But calm has descended on this northern city as both men look to build political power bases. 'There are always underlying tensions, but no major problems lately. Dostum and Atta wanted to be legitimate,' said Captain Tim Rawlinson of the city's British-run Provincial Reconstruction Team, part of NATO's peacekeeping mission in the north.

"To stand in the September 18 parliamentary elections, candidates must prove they are not linked to an armed group and although commanders such as Atta and Dostam still have ties to their militias, they have disarmed most of their men as part of a UN-backed disarmament drive."
This is how the election will work out in practice:

"The voting will include ballots for Afghanistan's 34 provincial assemblies as well as the 'Wolesi Jirga,' or People's Assembly -- the lower house of Afghanistan's bicameral parliament...

"It will not be possible this year to conduct more complicated local elections for district councils within each province. 'Due to some technical and logistical problems, we cannot hold the district-council elections this year,' [chairman of the Afghan-UN Joint Electoral Management Body, Bismillah] Bismil said. 'It is up to the Wolesi Jirga [to resolve outstanding issues related to] the borders of the districts. And then we shall be able to finalize the dates for the district council elections.'

"Under the Afghan Constitution, the Afghan president appoints one-third of the members of parliament's upper house -- known as the Mushrano Jirga, or Assembly of Elders. The provincial assemblies and local district councils within each province also elect delegates from among their members.

"But the lack of district councils has forced the Joint Electoral Management Board to improvise. It says a temporary upper house will be created so the parliament can function until district elections are held. Under that system, there will be 51 representatives in the temporary upper house. Each of the 34 provincial assemblies elected in September will send one representative. The remaining 17 seats -- one-third of the total -- will be appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai."
The registration of the candidates for parliamentary election will begin on April 26 and will continue for three weeks.

"[Peter Erben, a member of the Joint Electoral Management Body] said 5000 - 10,000 candidates may nominate themselves for 249 seats...

"Voters in the presidential elections of last year could cast their votes wherever they wanted but in the parliamentary elections they will have to vote in the constituencies where they registered... A one-month voter registration campaign would be launched for those who did not register during the presidential elections or were not eligible then.

"Erben said there would be 30,000 polling stations and 5,000 constituencies all over Afghanistan with 187,000 staff working on the voting day. Around 4,300 Afghan employees and 425 internationals will be working to enhance public awareness in parts of the country about how to vote."
In the meantime, Afghanistan's next budget has been unveiled: "Afghanistan's annual budget for the year 2005-2006 has been increased by 15% over last year with nearly 50% of the budget being allocated for security related expenditure. The Ministries of Interior and Defense, entrusted with the task of securing the war torn country internally as well as externally have been given 44% of the $678 annual budget (32.833 billions Afs) for the year 2005-2006."

While good government is essential to the future of Afghanistan, USAID is helping with the development of another aspect of a healthy polity:
civil society. "A strong civil society in Afghanistan will create stability, build local government accountability, and provide a public framework for upcoming national elections. The I-PACS (Initiative to Promote Afghan Civil Society) program, launched in January 2005, focuses on building a strong, sustainable civil society in Afghanistan by supporting the enactment of a NGO law, capacity building through training and mentoring, and small grant funding for CSOs (Civil Society Organizations). CSOs include, but are not limited to: NGOs, social and cultural organizations, associations, shuras (community elders), CDCs (Community Development Councils), women and youth groups, unions, and cooperatives."

The lot of Afghan women is also slowly - but steadily - improving as many new opportunities open up for the previously downtrodden half of the population. A few weeks ago, Afghan activists have
celebrated the International Women's Day:

"The Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul buzzed with excitement earlier this month as more than 500 men and women, some of the latter stylishly dressed and even a few without the once-obligatory headscarf, marked International Women's Day. The highlight of the March 8 event, sponsored by the United Nations Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM, and the ministry of women's affairs, and funded by the Afghan government along with France, South Korea and Japan, was a rare appearance by Dr Zeenat Karzai, accompanying her husband President Hamed Karzai, who was the keynote speaker."
It was a good occasion to highlight some of the achievements ("There are 35,000 women now employed in the country's 30 ministries. Three hold key positions. And Habiba Sorabi recently became the first woman to hold the post of governor after she was appointed head of Bamian province by the president.") as well as to focus on many challenges still ahead. Says Youth Minister Amena Afzali: "We are impatient to win our rights, the rights that are guaranteed to us by Islam. But in this country, even giving birth to a girl is considered a kind of shame. That is not Islam."

To maintain the momentum in this area, the Afghan government has recently launched an extensive three-month consultation process between its ministries and numerous Non Government Organizations. The
National Plan of Action for the Women of Afghanistan, as it's officially called, aims to develop further strategies for protecting women's rights in the new Afghanistan.

high-level delegation, led by the Minister of Women's Affairs, Dr. Masoouda Jalal, visited Washington to further underline the importance of strengthening women's rights and creating opportunities for Afghan women. "The delegation met with the President and Mrs. Bush, Secretary of State Rice, Under Secretary of State Dobriansky, House and Senate members, Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, civil society organizations, and the press." As Minister Jalal said: "In Afghanistan, we women have our rights: they are guaranteed in the new Constitution. But the reality in Afghanistan is that women will never find equality unless they have education and health care."

Which is why the work of USAID is so important in so many different areas, such as this program to increase participation of Afghan women in
civil society:

"To increase the impact and foster capacity building of women's role in civil society, USAID recently launched its three-year Initiative to Promote Afghan Civil Society (I-PACS). The program provides training and mentoring for capacity building of small civil society organizations (CSOs). I-PACS has set aside $5 million for small grants to enable qualifying non-governmental organizations, groups, associations and community institutions to foster political participation, income-generation, health education, and advocacy. At least 50% of these grants will go to women-focused and women-led organizations. The first grants, to women-led NGOs, were awarded in February 2005."
USAID is also donating $2.5 million directly to the Ministry of Women's Affairs "to boost public awareness of women's issues and increase social justice for Afghan women." As the report notes, "USAID has provided more than $50 million to support the women of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban."

Fortunately, all these efforts are not restricted to the relatively cosmopolitan Kabul and are
spreading outside the capital: "Inauguration of a government building may not usually be a cause for commemoration. However when it's a building for a branch of the Ministry of Women in a far-flung province, it is an occasion for celebration." In all, 17 Women's Resource Centers are being built in provincial capitals by USAID under the Ministry's auspices. And more is being done throughout the country to educate women about the electoral process: "The Afghan women's civil association has introduced seminars in the rural provinces of the country aimed at informing women about their role in the forthcoming parliamentary elections and their right to choose suitable representation. The head of the women's civil association, Hosay Andar [said] that the seminar was also hoping to help women understand the qualities and qualifications required of women in parliamentary representation."

Meanwhile, on a different level,
another first for the women of Afghanistan: "Twelve girls from the southwestern province of Helmand are preparing to launch an all girls Kung Fu Twa team in the provinces." Fighting women kicking men's butts? Afghanistan has sure come a long way in three and a half years since the fall of the Taliban.

Women are also finally getting
behind the wheel:

"Sitting behind the steering wheel of her red 4x4 Toyota, Sina Shireen gets a kick out of being one of the first women in this western Afghan city to throw off her burqa and learn how to drive.

"The diminutive 22-year-old may be hard to see behind the tinted windows of the massive car but three years ago she had to be completely shrouded in an all-encompassing blue burqa even to leave the house.

" 'The most joyful moments of my life are when I'm driving -- I love it,' Shireen says, the excitement visible on her face as she finally gets to do what the country's male motorists take for granted.

"High school student Shireen is taking part at the first ever-driving course in Herat, Afghanistan's most prosperous city, which was launched in early February by the traffic department, under the auspices of the new governor."
And in another small and symbolic victory for Afghan women:

"UC Santa Cruz graduate Masuda Rahmati Diaz may not have won a crown during the Mrs. World contest in India, but she won a newfound respect and love for others and a chance to make a bit of history for Afghan women, she said.

"Masuda, who is a real estate agent in Carmel, [California] was chosen as Mrs. Afghanistan 2005, the first woman from her country to enter the Mrs. World pageant.

"Married to Rene Diaz, who founded S.A. Commerce LLC, a multi-million-dollar fresh cut-flower importing business, Masuda decided to enter the pageant as Mrs. Afghanistan to show the women of her native country change is possible, she said.

"Masuda left Kabul as a child when her wealthy family was forced to leave the country and eventually settled in the United States where she had to learn English and the ways of a whole new culture."
The United Nations is beginning the next phase of the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan to Afghanistan, under which 400,000 refugees are expected to return over the next twelve months:

"UNHCR officials are hopeful that the repatriation operation will gather momentum towards the end of the month, as harsh winter conditions that have affected fghanistan and Pakistan's northwestern areas ease. Each returning Afghan on the scheme gets up to US $30 in travel grant. An additional $12 per person is paid to help with integration. All payments are made to returnees at UNHCR encashment centres inside Afghanistan. Last year more than 384,000 Afghans returned from Pakistan to Afghanistan under the voluntary repatriation programme. UNHCR expects about 400,000 Afghans to voluntarily repatriate during 2005."
One local authority is trying to assist the returnees: "The provincial government in the eastern province of Kunar says it plans to hand out 54 acres of land to returnees from Pakistan, who have settled in Pashad, Khas Kunar and Sawkai district. The governor of Kunar, Asadullah Wafa, said the land will be distributed for the purposes of building houses for the homeless people, after consulting with local elders." Says one of the returnees, Sayed Gul: "We returned here because we believe our country needs us for the reconstruction effort... Thank God the Afghan government paid attention to our problems and promised to give us plots of land." Meanwhile, for those most in need, "the Afghan Red Crescent Society has distributed food worth 600,000 Afghanis ($14,000) to 287 refugee families who have returned from Pakistan and Iran."

You can also read this story of an Afghan family, one among one million Afghans,
returning home after 25 years in Iran. "For Ali, the decision to return home after more than a quarter of a century was a complex one, based on his belief that conditions in Afghanistan were improving and his perception that he faced growing obstacles in Iran."

After the massive disruption of the Soviet occupation, the civil war and the Taliban dimmocracy, there is a lot of ground to be made up in education. Among many other organizations, USAID has been working hard to
expand educational opportunities across the country:

"As part of its overall objective to create conditions for stability, USAID is increasing access to education by training teachers, distributing supplies, and reconstructing schools. The Afghanistan Primary Education Program (APEP) provides accelerated education to over-age learners who were denied primary education during the Taliban era, as well as training for teachers through specialized courses at each grade level and nationwide radio-based teacher training broadcasts. APEP also prints textbooks for primary and secondary schools throughout Afghanistan. As part of APEP's program, Master Trainers teach provincial counterparts who in turn train village teachers. This 'cascade method' provides quality training at each grade level to 6,969 teachers of APEP's accelerated learning classes. On February 21st, approximately 150 of the Ministry of Education's Master Trainers completed training. Additional Master Trainer programs are being planned to meet the needs of the 30 teachers who were unable to reach Kabul due to the severe winter weather. Also, this reporting period, 422 additional students in Sari Pul Province enrolled in APEP's Accelerated Learning programs. These additional enrollments bring the overall figure to 170,268 - above the original target of 170,000 students. To support the expansion of the education system, USAID is building schools - 137 schools have been constructed, and an additional 279 are underway. Record snowfall, however, has significantly slowed the rate of school construction."
USAID is also helping women who missed out during the Taliban years to catch up on their education: "Given the years of missed schooling, in 2003 USAID established an accelerated learning program in which over-age, out of school girls can advance two grades per year. There are currently 170,000 students enrolled, of which 56% are female - compared with government schools where enrollment is 35% girls. Across 17 provinces the program has trained 6800 teachers, of which 40% are women, for this accelerated learning program." The initiatives are also reaching into the provinces:

"[The National Solidarity Program] integrates literacy, numeracy and life skills with income generation, and is managed through locally elected women's and men's Community Development Councils of the NSP. In 2005 LCEP will reach into 200 villages where there is over 90% female illiteracy, training almost 400 village teachers and 8,000 learners, 65% of whom will be girls and women. Literacy linked with enterprise development helps ensure female participation and increased income."
As another report adds, "LCEP will offer a literacy program for community members and provide training to the newly organized Afghan Community Development Councils (CDCs.) To promote economic growth, LCEP will teach community members how to organize local savings banks and micro-enterprise activities."

The Ministry of Education, in conjunction with UNICEF, is launching a
campaign aimed at getting religious leaders, elders and community figures to encourage greater participation by girls in education. "Meanwhile, UNICEF's partnership agreement with the MoE, signed this year and worth some US $19 million, is expected to support the establishment of community-based classes for up to 500,000 girls in villages with no formal school, enhanced teacher training programmes for 25,000 primary grade teachers, curriculum development, and the supply of education materials to more than 4.5 million children and 105,000 teachers. The new information campaign will complement these practical measures."

UNICEF is also providing considerable assistance across the board:

"As more than 4 million Afghan children prepare to return to school from next week after a particularly harsh winter, the United Nations Children's (UNICEF) has been helping the Ministry of Education to provide basic classroom stationery and materials to schools nationwide.

"Although the difficult weather delayed distribution of some materials en route from Pakistan and classroom kits destined for northern provinces, tens of thousands of student kits have been prepared for more than 2 million children, containing materials such as exercise books, pens, pencils and other stationery. Full distribution to an estimated 4.3 million children is expected to be completed by mid-April."
Kabul is also getting a new high-tech school: "A high-tech school 'Solai' or peace built with a budget of US$520,000 was inaugurated... in a district of Kabul by the Ms Handie, the daughter of the former Afghan King Amir Amanullah Khan. The money donated by Italian school children and Ms Handie was built in 1.5 Acres with 18 class rooms, one kitchen and a playground."

Afghanistan's universities have also suffered immensely over the past quarter of a century. Read also this story of
Afghan academics trying to rebuild their higher education system. The whole generation of educated adults is in need of further training to catch up on the last time. To that end, USAID has also been working to strengthen the capacity of the Afghan Supreme Court:

"Afghanistan's justice system faces enormous challenges, and USAID is working in close cooperation with the Supreme Court and Ministry of Justice to strengthen the five major elements necessary for a recognized rule of law: legal framework, formal court system, qualified legal personnel, judicial buildings, and citizens who know and exercise their legal rights. In particular, significant progress has been made in working with and training the nine Supreme Court Judges. USAID has trained Supreme Court administrative staff and is upgrading records management which, among other things, will allow the Supreme Court to track the training needs of local-level judges. In January 2005, USAID worked with the Supreme Court to coordinate among donors to better plan and execute legal personnel training and to establish a training library."
In related news, "the University of Washington School of Law has been awarded a $2 million State Department grant to establish a graduate programme for Afghan lawyers. The grant will pay for a three-year project aimed at helping rebuild Afghanistan's legal system. Under the programme, Afghan lawyers will spend a year in Seattle to learn about the US legal system either as visiting scholars or masters of laws candidates."

The Afghan government is also getting on the act to
improve the country's justice system: "All judges, lawyers and investigators in the country will be enrolled in a one-month workshop designed to give them a thorough grounding in modern legal practices. Topics to be emphasised include awareness and observance of human rights, public trials, the right of the accused to a defence lawyer, and access to legal documents. The workshop will offer instruction and practice in conducting trials, highlighting the individual responsibilities of the various members of the judiciary. The training programme is being run by the Judicial Reforms Commission, the interior ministry, the prosecutor's office and the supreme court, and is being funded by the Italian government."

In health news, USAID is combating maternal mortality throughout Afghanistan through
Learning for Life - a health-focused literacy, numeracy and life skills program: "This innovative accelerated health-focused literacy program is designed to help reduce maternal and child mortality. With 90% female illiteracy in rural areas, there are few women to become healthcare workers. Yet generally, only women can treat women in these cultures. Learning for Life builds literacy skills for 8,000 primarily young rural women and older girls, of which 5,500 are being selected and trained as community healthcare workers, community midwives and midwives. The link with health and hygiene makes literacy relevant to something a woman cares about most - her family's health - which motivates participation and retention of new literacy skills and health practices." You can read more here about the efforts to educate Afghan women throughout the provinces about maternity care.

There's also some high-tech help from

"The satellite-based networks that will be established later this year with the help of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will offer connectivity to major hospitals in India to improve healthcare in the war-ravaged country. An ISRO team will visit Afghanistan soon to install the network at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Chid Health (IGICH) - a 250-bed hospital in Kabul set up during the mid-60s with funds from the Indian government - which will be linked with New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS)."
The University of Loma Linda, in Southern California will soon be taking over the management of one of Kabul's major hospitals:

"The 350-bed hospital which was built nearly 40 years ago, in the central suburbs of Wazir Akbar Khan will provide a fee-paying service to patients for surgical and orthopedic procedures. A spokesman for the ministry of health, Abdullah Fahim told Pajhwok Afghan News that the University wants to help Afghanistan improve its health facilities and bring the health care services to good international standards. 'The Loma Linda University wants to carry out healthcare services with good international standards for a fee'."
This development seems to have struck a chord with Afghan patients: "A man living in Kabul, Ahmas Maoud Amini has kidney stones, and is delighted that he will be able to treat his illness soon. 'This is great news for me because, now I don't have to go to Pakistan for my treatment.' Nureen's mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer and she says she doesn't have anybody else to care for her mother and was planning on going to Pakistan for her treatment. 'I am glad to pay for my mother's treatment, and if it was possible to treat her here in Afghanistan it would be better,' Nureen said. 'I wish the hospital was functional sooner'."

There are also great success stories in the development of free
Afghan media:

"The first photo-journalism agency to be established in post-Taliban Afghanistan has since played a vital role in creating a flow of news and pictures from the war-torn nation. Now, Channels Exhibitions, the organisers of PhotoWorld-Dubai 2005, have invited AINA Photo of Afghanistan to present its pioneering activities at the imaging exhibition taking place at the Dubai World Trade Centre on March 15-17.

"AINA Photo was established in 2002 by AINA, a non-profit association founded in France in August 2001 by Iranian-born photographer Reza. Based in Kabul, the agency now offers Afghans the opportunity to tell their own stories, and covers their daily life after 23 years of conflict and political instability.

"The core of the new agency's professionals came from Afghanistan's first school of photo-journalism, founded in 2002 by Iranian-born international press photographer Manoocher Deghati. About 15 Afghan men and women were given a chance to train as photo journalists, and some later joined AINA Photo.

"Today, the agency has a network of many Afghan photographers, both men and women, working out of the country's main cities. The association AINA brings together a team of 25 volunteers and media professionals, and employs 250 Afghans - including 130 journalists - in eight media and cultural centres and gives training courses each year to more than 300 journalists and students.

"Publications supported by AINA reach more than 250,000 readers, its mobile educative cinema screenings reach almost a million viewers annually and its partner radio programmes - including the first women's station - enjoy an audience of three to five million listeners throughout Afghanistan."

Pakistan is donating two frequency modulation transmitters to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Indian Bollywood's latest star has great ambitions for the future of film-making in his home country: "Can a wealthy businessman turned movie star and producer breath life into Afghanistan's tiny film industry? That was clearly the hope raised by the recent opening of 'Bullet', an action adventure film financed by - and starring - Afghan émigré Asad Sikandar... With this film under his belt, he says he's ready to help revitalise his homeland's film industry. 'I made the film "Bullet" outside Afghanistan,' he said, 'but after this my main goal will be making Afghan films, which will be created with the help of Afghan Film'."

new magazine "Paktika" has been launched in this remote province which has no access to radio and TV:

"Mohammed Halim Fedayi, the chief editor of the magazine told Pajhwok Afghan News that the magazine covers social, cultural and political issues and presents a true picture of the province to other Afghans in the country and the world.

"He criticized the national and international media for carrying false reports about the province: 'They give bad coverage of the province and claim to know much about the region from afar.' According to him the security condition in the province is not that bad as reported by many media outlets."
Good news, too, for the preservation of Afghanistan's historic past: "Ryukoku University, a Buddhist school in Kyoto, and Afghanistan's National Institute of Archaeology have signed an accord to survey and excavate newly found Buddhist relics lying west of the famed Bamiyan ruins that were destroyed by the Taliban." More here. Meanwhile, Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan will be cooperating on the preservation of relics of the Achaemenid dynasty. You might also get a chance to see some of the Afghan treasures closer to home:

"Afghanistan's Bactrian treasures, a famous collection of gold artifacts thought to have been destroyed by the Taliban, will go on a world tour. Considered an important part of Afghanistan's historic patrimony, the 2,000-year-old collection consisting of 20,000 gold artifacts, jewelry, weapons and everyday objects, was found in six tombs in the northern region formerly known as Bactria, an ancient nation considered a major stop on the Silk Road."
From treasures of the past to a very contemporary pastime, a further evidence that you can't keep a good sport down:

"Never mind that the fairway was just a muddy hillside. Or that the green was a patch of sand smoothed with black motor oil.

"Mohammed Hashem prepared to tee off with all the concentration of his new hero, Tiger Woods. 'Check the condition of the ground first,' warned instructor Mohammed Afzal Abdul.

"It's an essential precaution on the rock-strewn links of the Kabul Golf Club, which reopened on the outskirts of Afghanistan's capital last spring after more than two decades of war and neglect.

"Like the rest of the country, the government-owned course is something of a work in progress. Landscapers have dragged away most of the weapons and shrapnel that littered the grounds, though a rusted Russian tank still stands sentry atop one of several hills ringing the course. A large metal shipping container has been brought in to replace the old clubhouse, now a bombed-out shell.

"Abdul, the club's director in addition to its pro, has also built a water hazard. Someday soon, he hopes to fill it with water. The rough, at least, is world-class.

"Despite the challenges posed by the nine-hole course, about 100 diplomats, aid workers and other foreigners paid a small fee to golf here last year. With the club's second season about to begin, Abdul, a slim, athletic-looking man in his 40s, is keen to attract a larger crowd.

" 'If I could get funds from the Americans or maybe the British, I could put a fence all around the course to keep the foreigners safe,' he said. 'Then we will need a well, so we can grow grass, and plumbing so we can build a new clubhouse.'

"Still, he said, his priority was the roughly 50 Afghan students he has been teaching free all winter. 'I know they have a bright future in golf and that makes me feel very happy,' Abdul said."
And a chess tournament will be taking place in Kabul next month to select the national team for the next Olympics. "We also want to form a female team from school and university students," says Babrik Hesar, head of the Chess federation at the Afghan national Olympic committee. Just as the New Year, chess was banned under the Taliban.

RECONSTRUCTION: The Associated Press paints
this picture of Afghanistan more than three years after the liberation:

"After a generation of conflict, Afghans are slowly emerging from darkness. In the afterglow of last fall's presidential election, there is hope in Kabul.

"Violence in the capital is now rare. Record numbers of children, including girls, are returning to rebuilt schools. U.S. trainers are forging a multiethnic Afghan army. Aid money is flowing in, and relief groups are helping put the health service and other institutions back on their feet.

"Still, three years after America invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and the quick fall of the Taliban regime, Kabul remains a city of struggle. It is a place where life is hard, and where many promises have yet to be met."
Poverty, unemployment, under-development still continue to plague Afghanistan - and considering where Afghanistan is starting from, they're like to do so for many years - but at least levels of activity suggest that the country is finally moving ahead:

"Each morning before dawn, thousands of men offer themselves up at day laborer markets, carrying their paintbrushes, wheelbarrows and trowels and hoping to be among the lucky ones chosen to earn $6 and a breakfast of bread and green tea for a day's work.

"Some of that work is rebuilding the city's devastated infrastructure. Electricity supplies are improving, but much of the city is still without sewage systems or telephone service. Entrepreneurs with mobile or satellite phones power them from car batteries, selling call time by the minute.

"Across the city, workers dig neck-deep trenches looking for damaged power lines, while others give a fresh coat of paint to bomb-damaged mosques. The city's streets are congested with men pushing heavy bricks and building materials on carts among the sport utility vehicles of relief workers, government officials, diplomats and drug profiteers."
There is more help for Afghan small businesses which is likely to fuel the recovery over the long term:

"Farmers, shopkeepers and private individuals in northern Afghanistan are being encouraged to apply for small loans as the country's first credit union project gets under way.

"With the banking system in disarray outside the capital Kabul, many people have no credit facilities other than moneylenders who may charge up to 50 per cent a month in interest...

"Afghanistan has seen a number of donor-funded microfinance schemes designed to help poor people start businesses, but the new scheme is the first to create something approximating to a cooperative bank, offering services such as savings, loans, and even plastic cards.

"The United States-based World Council of Credit Unions, WOCCU, recently opened the first in a planned series of credit union branches in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, with another to follow in Shiberghan province.

"The project is funded by the Microfinance Investment and Support Facility for Afghanistan, MISFA, an Afghan government agency which is overseeing microfinance projects. WOCCU, with headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin, has been operating for more than 30 years running similar programmes in 85 countries, with 123 million members worldwide.

"So far, the Afghan branch has attracted more than 1,000 members. Credit unions work as a cooperative, offering financial services to anyone who joins and obeys the rules such as saving regularly and repaying loans on time."
In an USAID-supported initiative, "a traders and carpet-weavers association is to be created by an American consultancy firm, On the Frontiers (OTF) in the northern city of Mazar in Baghlan province... The incentive is seen by Afghan businessmen and industrialists as a positive step towards helping the carpet weaving trade and industry co-ordinate their commercial affairs throughout the country... The goal behind creating this association is to encourage unification, and coordination among the business community in the carpet, dry fruit and marble industry in Afghanistan."

USAID is also working to increase
economic opportunities for Afghan women:

"Revitalizing Agricultural Livelihoods for Women: 75% of all Afghans live in rural areas, and most families are very poor and undernourished. Multiple USAID programs are increasing skills training for women and access to resources. In one initiative, 11,000 women have been trained in poultry technology and management, with 55,800 chicks distributed to increase family incomes and nutrition. 5,000 more women will join the program in 2005. In another effort, USAID and Development Works Canada have joined to develop a vegetable dehydration factory that employs 400 women. Some 1,400 farm families, using female home labor, will supply the factory with various produce. Microcredit programs across the country specifically target women. 6,000 women received micro loans in 2004 with USAID funds, with an average loan size of $550.

"Private sector enterprise development: USAID has supported the Women Entrepreneurship Development (WED) program through the Ministry of Commerce since August 2003. WED has helped create significant breakthroughs for Afghan businesswomen. It established the 400 female member Afghan Women Business Association (AWBA), which has introduced women's products locally and internationally, assisted ten women to sign export contracts, supported creation of the first 'Afghan Women and Business' magazine, and trained 380 women in basic and advanced business courses."
USAID will also be working on another important aspect of Afghanistan's legal-economic structure: "Proper ownership records are an essential foundation for economic growth. A real estate title is the most common form of collateral for commercial lending which, in turn, supports new business start-ups, business expansion and education. Working in cooperation with shuras and other Afghan institutions, the LTERA (Land Titling & Economic Restructuring in Afghanistan) project will identify broadly acceptable, easy-to-implement methods of formalizing property ownership in order to improve tenure security of urban dwellers. Tenure insecurity is a constant concern for many Afghans, the majority of whom have no legal title to their homes."

Reconstruction taking place throughout the country is not only providing the Afghans with much needed infrastructure (For example, "reconstruction projects totaling
$4 million have been started in three districts of Laghman - Alishing, Daulat Sha and Alingar, under the National Solidarity Program (NSP)... The project involved construction of roads, highways, clinics, schools as well as dams and embankments to stop floods."), it's also having political benefits:

"President Hamid Karzai went to the entrance of the Panjsher Valley on Monday to mark the start of a road project he hopes will show political foes the economic benefits of laying down their weapons. Panjsher became a symbol of resistance to both the Soviets and the Taliban during the past quarter century of conflict. Ethnically Tajik, the valley is now a centre of opposition to Karzai, who comes from the traditionally dominant Pashtuns...

"USAID is funding the $12 million road, and Louis Berger Corp is working with the Afghan government on the first phase of the project -- covering the first 20 km of the 70-km road into the heart of the valley.

"The road will bring trade, and better access to health care and the outside world, to the villages strung along the banks of the Panjsher River as it courses through steep gorges and ravines from the Hindu Kush mountains.

"More than that, it will help assuage Panjsheri fears of being left behind in Afghanistan's reconstruction, after fewer than one percent voted for Karzai in last October's historic presidential election."
This USAID project also aims to combine reconstruction with easing local tensions: "Kakrag village is in a remote and mountainous area in central Afghanistan that is home to Hazaras and Tajiks. In consultation with both Tajik and Hazara communities, USAID identified a bridge and retaining wall as high-priority needs for both communities. Because there was no bridge to cross the river, people from the Hazara village, located above Kakrag, were forced to cross the Tajik villagers' farmland with their carts. Since the continual traffic across the farmland damaged the fields and crops, relations between the Hazaras and the Tajiks in the area were strained. The bridge was successfully completed and awaits hand-over to the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development in Bamiyan. Both communities are pleased with the construction of the bridge and retaining wall, which alleviated tensions between two ethnic groups."

Not surprisingly, the positive trend is
spreading across the country: "An end to hostilities between rival groups in the Ozbin region of Sorobi district of Kabul has seen the area move away from guns towards reconstruction. Traditional rivalries continue to be a major reason for the lack of national reconciliation in this country and the reconciliation in Sorobi is being seen as a positive indicator."

In the news of Afghanistan's growing ties with the region, Iranian team is preparing for the construction of
power lines to link the Khost region to Iranian power grid. Iran is also donating $42 million for further reconstruction work in Afghanistan: "$22 million of this amount will be spent on building the road between Herat and Maimana, $10 million for reconstruction of Kabul roads, $10 million for building communication facilities between Kabul and Kandahar and $600,000 will be spent on agriculture."

Pakistan will be setting up a
power grid station in Afghan city of Khost as part of a project to supply electricity to its neighbor. The project is expected to be up and running in two years' time. The Khost grid will be linked via a 100-km transmission line with a 220 KW grid in Domail, Pakistan.

The trade between Iran and Afghanistan has reached
$260 million over the past two years. Iran is now actively entering the construction sector (in competition with Chinese firms for the estimated 500,000 new housing units Afghanistan has to build every year to keep up with demand).

Pakistan and Afghanistan are commencing a
regular bus link between their major cities, including between Peshawar (Pakistan) and Jalalabad and between Quetta (Pakistan) and Kandahar. The recent visit by President Hamid Karzai in Pakistan has also resulted in additional agreements in the areas of cultural, tourism and media cooperation.

Under a recent agreement signed between Afghan and Indian authorities, "
will start flights from Delhi and Amritsar to Kabul and vice versa on March 31, 2005. "Currently only Ariana Airlines has direct flights to Delhi from Kabul and these operate only twice a week."

Along the border with Iran and Turkmenistan,
customs revenues in the province of Herat have increased by 38% since last year, or by 859 million Afs ($20 million) from 2.225 billions Afs ($54 million) to 3.084 billions Afs ($72 million).

Along another stretch of border, a
bridge will be constructed at a cost of $28 million donated by the US government, connecting Afghanistan and Tajikistan over the Amo River in northern Kunduz. "The bridge which will enter at the port of Shir Khan in Kundouz and Niznji Pianj, a border area of Tajikistan will be completed in two years. At present, ferry ships transport over 50 cars a day, but it is estimated that over 1,000 cars will traveling across it daily."

Meanwhile, Pakistan is sending a high level team to examine Afghanistan's
customs regime, before it makes the final decision to erase the final six items from its Negative List. "The government of Pakistan would also seek assurance from Afghanistan, during the visit of the two member delegation, to implement the enhanced taxation rates through a foolproof system so that the prices of 6 items would be same in both the countries to avoid the smuggling of the said items from Afghanistan to Pakistan," according to a Pakistani official.

communication network within Afghanistan is developing fast:

"When Barry Rosen travels through Afghanistan, he sees how modern technology and ancient cultures mix. 'It seems like everybody has a mobile phone,' said Rosen. 'It's an amazing situation. It's farmers in villages, merchants. They look like they're out of the 11th century. And all of a sudden, you see them flip open their phones. It's the cutest thing in the world to see.'

"Rosen heads an education project in Afghanistan run by Columbia University Teachers College. He lived in the country for 10 months in 2004. He spent only $40 a month on wireless services, even though he made many calls to the U.S.

"Rosen signed up for mobile services from Roshan. It's Afghanistan's biggest wireless operator, with some 450,000 subscribers. No. 2 Afghan Wireless Communications has about 260,000.

"Afghanistan is a poor country. Yet wireless use is growing fast. Roshan and Afghan Wireless are locked in a fierce battle over customers -- government officials, foreign workers, traders, professionals and well-to-do farmers -- that have enough money to spend on wireless...

"After the U.S. ousted the Taliban and al-Qaida from Afghanistan in late 2001, the country had a mere 33,000 landline connections. Decades of war had damaged its telecom networks. Kabul, the capital city with millions of residents, had just 12,000 phone lines.

"Roshan estimates Afghanistan will have 1 million wireless users by year's end. That's up from 100,000 in 2003 and 15,000 in 2002."
You can also read this, similar report on the communications explosion in Afghanistan:

"Today, in the aftermath of two decades of civil war, technology is beginning to return some of that wealth to the shattered country. Although deeply divided by geography and ethnicity, a nascent technological boom in Afghanistan is spreading beyond the cities and has the potential to reshape the country.

" 'Two years ago, when we went into Afghanistan, there wasn't' even a working road grader in the whole country,' said Harry Reid of USAID, the government aid agency. He said that most advanced technology were mine detectors.

"Today, this country of 29 million has more than 662,500 people using mobile phones, reports the GSM Association, a cellular trade group. Afghanistan's Internet domain, .af, was awarded in March 2003 and Web cafes are springing up around Kabul. Microsoft is even inserting phrases of Afghanistan's two dominant languages, Dari and Pashto, into its software.

"That is a sea change from 2002 when only one telephone line existed for every 1,000 people, according to the Afghan government. The United States government counted only 1,000 Internet users and 15,000 people with mobile phones in the whole country, among the lowest in the world."
USAID is also helping with developing the energy sector:

"USAID continues to enhance the Afghan power sector through provision of fuel and rehabilitation of hydro plants. Diesel fuel supplies provide for operations of the Northwest Kabul power facility, Kandahar emergency diesel station and Lashkar Gah emergency diesel supply. As diesel fuel is a primary source of power supply for Kabul and Kandahar during winter low hydro periods, an additional 8 million liters has been supplied (contract awarded January 2005.) Refurbishment of the Kajaki Hydroelectric Power Plant's two turbine units and construction of a new third unit began in December 2004. A work camp has been constructed and work on Unit 1 is underway."
In the field of agriculture, foreign assistance and expertise is also helping the Afghans to get back on their feet:

"Over the course of his career, R. Mick Fulton has been involved in the design and build of two animal diagnostic laboratories, experiences he will take to Afghanistan later this month to help that country re-build its agriculture and food industry.

"Fulton, an associate professor of avian diseases in Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, heads to Afghanistan on March 21 to help in the construction of a laboratory similar to MSU's Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health (DCPAH). This, he said, is one of the first steps in helping the war-torn nation begin to feed itself."
The SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse is also entering into exchange program with Kabul University, to cooperate on a program of greening Afghanistan. The College has already donated 10,000 willows to the reforestation effort.

Speaking of forests, "the authorities are arming and training a
'Green Division' to protect Afghanistan's disappearing forests from timber smugglers, who have been operating with increasing impunity for the past three years... An initial contingent of 300 forest rangers is being sent into the woods, to be deployed along the country's borders, particularly with Pakistan, where most of the contraband timber is sold. Mashal said his ministry hopes to increase the Green Division's manpower to 2,000 before the end of the year."

HUMANITARIAN AID: As if misfortunes of the last quarter of the century were not enough, Afghanistan has been hit by the wrath of nature, with a particularly harsh winter burying the country in snow and creating a humanitarian emergency. Just how much snow, you can see on
this graph (scroll down).

The aid is coming from many sources and in many shapes. "In response to a request from the government of Afghanistan, the United States is contributing
$100,000 in emergency assistance to alleviate suffering caused by unusually heavy snowfall and cold temperatures in Afghanistan." $50,000 will be provided by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration in funding to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and another $50,000 is being donated by USAID to the Afghan Red Crescent Society.

Meanwhile, "a joint delegation of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA), UN Children Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Program (WFP) has started distributing foodstuff and other materials to over
1,000 families affected by the recent flash floods in Nimruz and Farah province."

In western Afghanistan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program have been shipping supplies from the main city of Herat out to the worst affected parts of Farah. 'We sent 25 metric tons of food to Farah from Herat last week, which should cover the needs of 5,000 people for two weeks. Distribution will start Tuesday,' Maarten Roest of the World Food Program said. UNHCR is also distributing blankets, plastic sheeting and groundmats, soap and cooking sets to flood-hit areas across the country, using the US military to ferry supplies in the south, Tim Irwin of the refugee agency said."

Overall, in just one week in March, the World Food Program has distributed
2,000 metric tons of food to 242,000 recipients in need throughout the Afghanistan. Non-Government Organisations are also helping. Christian Aid has been delivering aid for almost 15,000 people in Tulak and Saghar, some of the most isolated parts of Afghanistan.

Disasters aside, a
Japanese charity is helping with education: "Picture books featuring Afghan folklore and made by a Japanese nongovernmental organization for educational purposes are becoming popular with children in Afghanistan. About a hundred children aged up to 12 visit a community library in Jalalabad, some 130 kilometers east of Kabul, every day. It is operated by the Shanti Volunteer Association of Tokyo. 'It's nice to go to school but my pleasure is to come here every day,' said 12-year-old Marina."

Surgeons from Indianapolis are performing heart surgery on a 14-month old
Qudratullah Wardak. "Medics from the Indiana National Guard discovered the toddler at a camp in Kabul, Afghanistan and helped make his life-saving journey possible." The surgery went well: "Qudrat Ullah Wardak could leave Riley Hospital for Children as early as next week if all continues to go well... The 15-month-old boy from Afghanistan successfully underwent complex heart surgery... and was moved from intensive care into a regular room... He was listed in good condition." Another, older Afghan boy is also recovering well after his surgery:

"An Afghan boy brought to the U.S. last month for a heart operation after a soldier took up his cause came to New York yesterday to sightsee and show off the boundless energy of a typical 12-year-old.

" 'Before, I cannot walk so much,' Assadullah Khan said during the whirlwind trip with his father and interpreter to meet the 'nice people' who helped save his life. 'Now, I walk everywhere. I can walk and run.'

"Until last month's operation to patch a hole in his heart, Assadullah could barely walk across a room, much less go to school or play with other children in his tiny village of Jdellak. But something about the small boy with big brown eyes caught the attention of U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Layne Pace."
In another recent story with a happy ending for an Afghan child:

"Vasila, an 11-year-old Afghani girl, has a beaming smile, a bold singing voice, five brothers and sisters, a house they and their parents share with six other families and, between the 20 children who live there, one toy: a little plastic doll without arms or legs. Vasila also has a congenital heart defect that could take her life if it is not treated within six months.

"Now, thanks to an anonymous donation to 'Vasila's Heart' -- a new fund at Project Kids Worldwide -- she has something else as well: hope.

" 'Vasila's Heart' will soon bring Vasila -- whose story was first reported by documentary filmmaker Stacia Teele and featured on ABC's Nightline on March 2 -- to NYU Medical Center to treat her Patent Ductus Arteriosus, a congenital heart defect that allows unoxygenated blood to circulate through her body. But Vasila -- whom Teele discovered while making her film, Back to Afghanistan, directed by Ed Robbins -- will leave behind countless other Afghani children whose diseased yet treatable hearts await only the generosity needed to bring them here to join her."
See the story for details if you would like to help, and here's another look at this story.

Meet also this Australian women in a
knitting frenzy, touched by seeing on the news Afghan children shivering from cold.

THE COALITION TROOPS: In addition to performing their security duties, the Coalition forces throughout Afghanistan are also heavily involved in rebuilding the country. One Provincial Reconstruction Team is combining
economic and cultural assistance:

"In 1997, Taliban leaders nearly drove a 600-year-old Afghan art form to extinction when they fired 22 of the 30 craftsmen at the Blue Mosque Tile Factory here. The eight remaining blue-tile artisans held in their hands the fate of this ancient craft.

"After U.S. and coalition forces expelled the Taliban from power in 2001, the factory, now called the Blue Mosque Preservation Center, began to flourish. In the months ahead, the center will help former combatants lay down their weapons to become productive members of Afghan society.

"The coalition's Herat Provincial Reconstruction Team has funded a project to train 40 former combatants in cooperation with the Afghan New Beginnings Program. Representatives from the Blue Mosque Preservation Center, the Department of Social Affairs and Labor and the ANBP will select the new workers based on their interests, aptitude and skills."
Capt. Simon Schaefer of the Farah Provincial Reconstruction Team is seeing progress: "We disrupted a known Taliban safe area... Mortars were fired over the city a couple of weeks after we arrived as a (warning). We, and the local Afghans working for us, received threats... [Now, the local people]have really taken to us being here. They realize we are here to support them... The people didn't know how to react to us at first and would shy away. Now when our presence patrols go out into the towns, we are greeted by children. This is a new development that has built up over time."

Meanwhile, in Helmand province the
new Provincial Reconstruction Team has been officially launched in Laskhar Gah. The troops however, have been active in the area for some time already:

"The PRT has been working closely with Bost Hospital in Lashkar Gah to improve health care for the citizens of Helmand. The PRT has refurbished the woman's wing of the hospital, reconstructed the infectious disease ward, renovated the hospital's exterior, and repaired water service. The PRT donated more than $100,000 worth of medical equipment.

"In cooperation with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the PRT has constructed 16 schools, provided 1,500 desks and donated more than 100 computers for students. They have also constructed 12 medical clinics in an effort to improve rural health care.

"More than 10,000 Afghans are working in Helmand under the PRT's Alternative Income Program. The program employs laborers to reconstruct and clean storage drains. The PRT has also contributed humanitarian supplies such as food, blankets and tents to the Helmand Rural Rehabilitation Department for distribution to needy families."
Kandahar airport will be the second international airport in Afghanistan, after Kabul, to be partially returned to civilian use by the Coalition forces. "The United States was already spending 83 million dollars to improve vital facilities at Kandahar and the main US airbase in the war-shattered country at Bagram, north of the capital Kabul."

In Kabul, work begins on a great new piece of
education infrastructure:

"Afghan President Hamid Karzai and American University of Afghanistan officials broke ground March 21 to begin the process of building the university. They dug in to officially break ground on the future university's perimeter wall.

"The $370,000 wall-building project is being funded by Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan and will take about five months to complete, said Lt. Col. Bill Leady, CFC-A engineer. 'This marks the first physical construction of what will be a strong tie between the American and Afghanistan cultures,' Leady said.

"CFC-A will oversee the wall project in accordance with the university board of trustees' desires. Once the wall has been erected, the university buildings will be constructed under a partnership with university officials and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"The university will be privately run by an elected board of trustees comprised of Afghans and Americans and will stress an American style of education. The school will not have any direct political or financial ties to America."
Near Kabul, another local project comes to fruition:

"On March 10, Coalition Joint Task Force Phoenix will be traveling to Tangi Kalay Village, northeast of Kabul, to participate in the opening of a community center that the task force help fund.

"During an initial visit to the village, members of CJTF Phoenix spoke to Debra Babakarkhil of the Kabul Province Reconstruction Organization. She described how the people of Tangi Kalay desired to have a community center where services such as Voter / Returning Refugee Registration, Medical Day Clinics, Workforce Development Programs, and a village meeting hall. After the construction was complete the village hoped to build a school for the children of three villages.

"U.S. Army Maj. Marcus Thomas reported the request to CJTF Phoenix Civil Military Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Terry Snow. With Snow's assistance, the command of CJTF Phoenix awarded more than $17,000 to rebuild the center and school buildings. The money was designated to pay for the materials to construct the building, while Tangi Kalay and two other villages paid for local contractors to build the project."
And there is always time to help on a smaller scale, like members of the Joint Effects Assessment Cell from Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan who handed out stuffed animals and 275 backpacks full of school supplies to students at the Khoshal Khan Boarding School. Says Capt. Chris Crosby of Castle Rock, Washington, one of the event organizers: "Many of us have children back home and miss our time with them... Opportunities to share with other children help us to suppress our feelings of being away from our families. In addition, we are only here a short while and desire to make an enduring difference in the relations between the United States and the people of Afghanistan... How else can we demonstrate our goodwill than by assisting the children and the helpless?" The stuffed animals, by the way, have been donated by the students of Gwin Oaks Elementary School in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

The recent harsh weather created a lot of additional work for the troops who have to
ensure that aid is getting through to all those affected: "Last month, the 'Cacti' Soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, distributed tons of food to the citizens of southern Afghanistan, helping them survive one of the country's worst winters in recent history. While Operation Bear's Paw might have seemed simple to the casual observer, many Soldiers spent as many as 16 hours a day ensuring the mission went off without a hitch."

Members of the
Jalalabad Provincial Reconstruction Team and the Afghan National Army went on a recent mission to villagers in the valley of the now-infamous the Tora Bora Mountains; "trudging through snow that was waist-deep at many points, the PRT members delivered blankets, coats and tarps to 300 Afghan families that have been affected by deep snow and freezing temperatures." Members of the Gardez Provincial Reconstruction Team have been delivering aid to villages isolated by up to 30 feet of snow. And part of Parwan Provincial Reconstruction Team, "in a 40-person, 16-vehicle convoy, Soldiers and Airmen from Bagram Airfield traveled over 30 miles southwest into the mountains, delivering humanitarian aid to two snowbound villages."

As winter snows are giving way to
spring rains, the troops are finding their assistance still needed in rescue operation and provision of humanitarian aid. "U.S. forces conduct some kind of humanitarian assistance every day. A lot of it lately has to do with the weather. But he said coalition forces only get involved in disaster operations when the Afghan government and United Nations can't handle a situation. U.S. aid often involves providing air lift or ground transportation. Coalition members also meet with Afghan government officials during their regular disaster planning meetings."

In mid-March, US troops in Helmand province also
rescued several dozen civilians, including many children, stranded on a river island after heavy rains. You can read more about it here.

Meanwhile, C-130 Hercules airlifters with the US 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron are flying humanitarian missions from an airbase in neighboring Uzbekistan, conducting
airdrops with much needed supplies and water to remote areas of Afghanistan.

It's not all heavy lifting. 40 members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan and the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan celebrated International Women's Day a few days earlier by delivering much-needed
supplies to more than 300 refugees, mostly women, on the outskirts of Kabul. The Army's involvement in cultivating women's rights in Afghanistan is multifacted:

"On the heels of International Women's Day March 8, Afghanistan's deputy minister of women's affairs visited two villages in the eastern part of the country to take part in women's 'shuras.'

"The Afghan shura serves as a forum for women in the community to discuss their concerns and needs, just as a 'jirga' serves as an assembly of elder men to solve problems within the community. Women's shuras have been conducted in many villages across Afghanistan in the past year.

" 'The country is very traditional, and they've always worked their problems through jirgas, and they have elders come and discuss their problems,' Deputy Minister Nageeba Shareef said. 'Basically this was the same thing.'

"Shareef and several women from the coalition's Combined Joint Task Force 76, met with the women of Torkham, in Nangarhar province, on March 10. This was the area's first women's shura. More than 50 women from the village gathered under the shade of trees in a courtyard to be part of the event. Shareef was the first government official to visit the area."

"It took about 150 years for women to get the right to vote in the United States, and decades longer to achieve equal rights under the law. So in some respects, women are off to a solid start in a democratic Afghanistan.

"About 150 women gathered Thursday at Albirooni University to hear a series of speakers tout women's rights in a country where - especially under the Taliban - females have long been considered second-class citizens. 'As women, we want to have equal rights when it comes to this society,' said Shirin Sahar, one of the event's organizers.

"Parween Kohistani, director of women's affairs for the province of Kapisa, said the U.S.-led invasion that drove the Taliban from power provided a big boost for women. 'It has improved a lot in the last three years,' she said through a translator.

"Another translator was needed for one of the event's keynote speakers: Sgt. Michelle Naylor. The New York native is serving her third tour in Afghanistan. She grew up a short distance from Seneca Falls, a key spot in the women's suffrage movement in the 1920s... Naylor said she's not used to speaking in front of so many people, but she said this issue is an important one. She brushed off any pressure about being a role model - dressed in desert camouflage - for hundreds of women."
Meanwhile, the American Army doctors have been able to help another Afghan child:

"Knowing the skills of the Coalition doctors at Bagram, Zaleikha and her uncle hoped just showing up at the Bagram gate would be enough.

"The pair traveled from Farah, on the other side of Afghanistan from Bagram, to see if Coalition surgeons could operate on 10-year-old Zaleikha and repair her cleft palate.

"Once the doctors were made aware of the girl's needs, they were eager to do what they could for her. Colonel Dallas Homas, a Combined Joint Task Force 76 surgeon, deployed here with the 25th Infantry Division (Light), performed the surgery March 2 at the U.S. hospital here at Bagram. Afterwards he said he was pleased with the operation, and it went well and looked very good."
Other Coalition troops are helping, too. Here's a recent Italian contribution: "Artillerymen of the 8th regiment from Persano (SA) headed by Colonel Luigi Vinaccia, delivered sanitary and pharmaceutical materials and equipment at the 'Indira Ghandi' hospital which is the country's biggest paediatric hospital, located in the capital. They delivered 288 kg of diapers; 90 kg of soap; 70 kg of sterile gloves; 45 kg of antibiotics; 45 kg anti-cough syrup; 40 kg of disposable gauzes; 40 kg of disinfectant alcohol; 40 kg of disposable syringes; 20 kg of baby food; 350 drips and many more. The operation represents the contingent's largest delivery of pharmaceutical material to a paediatric hospital in Afghanistan. The material has been donated by citizens and a number of pharmacies in the Salerno province."

And "Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) has
donated learning materials to students of Sitara Primary school, Shash Darak in the capital Kabul, ahead of the new academic year. The school children received 850 school satchels with notebooks and pens, which was distributed among the students by Gen. Ethem Erdagi."

SECURITY: The indications are that more than three years after their overthrow, the once feared Taliban are
losing their sting:

"Attacks on U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan have fallen by at least half in the past year, a U.S. general who commands military operations across the country said in Kabul.

"A year ago, 'we would experience between 10 and 15 attacks against coalition forces a week,' U.S. Army Major General Eric T. Olson said... 'Now, at this point in time, we rarely receive more than five attacks per week.'

"The U.S.-led coalition lost 20 to 25 soldiers in the past year, Olson said. About 117 American troops have died in Afghanistan since late 2001, with slightly more than half killed in action."
Lieutenant-General David Barno agrees: "We have seen just in the last six months, since the elections in October, a dramatic downturn in enemy activity... In the month of February we saw the lowest level of enemy attacks."

The amnesty programs run by the Afghan authorities and the Coalition are also bearing fruit, most recently with the surrender in Zabul province of a senior Taliban commander
Mullah Amanullah. You can also read this interview with Habibullah Fawzi, a former Taliban diplomat at the Afghan Embassy in Riyadh, who was one of four senior former Taliban members to recently accept an amnesty offer by the Afghan government. And here's an overview of recent Afghan and American efforts to bring some of the Taliban from the cold.

As their enemies weaken, the Afghan troops continue to
grow in size and stature:

"Almost 19,000 soldiers now serve in the Afghan National Army, with another 3,400 currently undergoing basic training. Permanent corps now stand in the four regions of Afghanistan - North (Mazar-e-Sharif), South (Kandahar), East (Gardez) and West (Herat) - and in Kabul. And plans for permanent brigade headquarters are also under way.

"Office of Military Cooperation - Afghanistan Deputy Director of the Defense Operations Sector British Lt. Col. Andy Fenton recently completed an operational assessment of the southern region, assessing the operations and conduct of these soldiers. By all accounts, the soldiers serve nobly, stand ready and ably carry out their duties. 'The soldiers,' said Fenton, 'displayed a good standard of tactical skill and a high standard of situational awareness' on the operations I participated in. They drew their experience from either prior, pre-ANA combat experience or from their ANA service. 'They knew the area well and seemed to anticipate potential trouble,' he added. 'And they acted proactively to situations, rather than reactively'."
In help build fully professional and modern armed forces, Afghanistan's first military academy is starting to graduate cadets:

"The National Military Academy of Afghanistan graduated its first class of basic training soldiers March 17. The 112 cadets then swore into the academy in front of three ANA generals as well as Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix commander Army Brig. Gen. Richard Moorhead and Army Col. James Wilhite of the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan, as well as representatives from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and the Turkish force commander...

"The basic training course included physical fitness training, basic infantry tactics, weapons familiarization and qualification, military customs and courtesies, first aid, road marches and proper drill and ceremony...

"The newly formed academy is the first military academy for the Afghan National Army and is being structured around the same format used at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. With the completion of the officer candidate basic training, the cadets move on to four years of higher education at the academy. Upon completion of a four-year college degree, each cadet will then be a commissioned officer in the ANA."
Here's another report on the opening of the Academy. In other related developments, the Afghan Army has opened the 27th out of the planned total of 34 recruitment centers (one for each of Afghanistan's provinces). This one is situated in the famous Panjshir Valley which for decades has been a hotbed of resistance, first against the Soviet occupation, and then against the Taliban. There are also improvements in the way Afghan troops are being trained and mentored:

"For the first time in the history of the Afghanistan National Army, an embedded training team [EET] will work with its unit from the first day of training. ANA soldiers are trained in kandaks, battalion-sized elements of 800 soldiers, then sent on missions throughout Afghanistan. The ETT, made up of coalition soldiers, mentors and trains the kandak in actual military operations.

"Until now, the members of an ETT met their kandak for the first time on graduation day at the Kabul Military Training Center. They would then transport the kandak members to their assigned duty station.

"ETTs now have the opportunity to build trust and bond with the ANA soldiers much earlier. More importantly, an ETT has a hand in its kandak’s basic training, where in the past, training had to be conducted in the field after basic training."
The US Army is also helping their Afghan colleagues to computerize their communication network. "We are building a communications infrastructure starting from virtually nothing," says U.S. Air Force Capt. Robert Frees, a strategic computer network consultant for the U.S.-led Office of Military Cooperation in Afghanistan. As one report explains:

"Through tremendous effort by OMC-A [Office of Military Cooperation - Afghanistan] and the Afghan MoD's Communications Directorate, computers and networks are being installed at the MoD, at all five corps headquarters and at all training facilities. OMC-A is carrying out a $31 million comprehensive plan for initial stand-up, intermediate automation and permanent sustainment of communications systems connecting all echelons of the ANA with their first-ever automated command and control systems...

"A large investment in human resources is also necessary. The base of knowledge and experience ANA soldiers have with computer technology is very limited. ANA Maj. Gen. Mohammad Amin Norestani, chief of legal affairs for the MoD, recognized the importance of computer technology early in the development of the new ANA...

"The next project in OMC-A's comprehensive plan is to set up eight computer labs at the Kabul Military Training Center so new recruits can learn about computers before they get to their first assignment."
In a related, but somewhat less high-tech development, "the Afghan National Army can now talk freely - from Kandahar, to Kabul, to Herat - thanks to recently received communication equipment that replaced Soviet-era radios and systems."

The Afghan army has also received some valuable military aid from the
Indian government: "Balloons were tied to new trucks aligned in an L-shape, ready to be driven away. But salesmen weren't haggling with customers trying to make deals. Instead, the government of India turned over the keys to 50 four-and-a-half-ton trucks it donated to Afghanistan in a ceremony held at the Afghan National Army's 1st Brigade, 201st Corps, motor pool at the Presidential Palace in Kabul."

Throughout Afghanistan, disarmament program is slowly coming to a successful conclusion. "Afghanistan has completed the cantonment of heavy weapons in the
Panjshir valley, the former stronghold of late Afghan guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Masoud and anti-Taliban fighters, a UN spokesman said here Sunday. 'The collection of heavy weapons in the Panjshir valley is concluded on Friday with collection of 115 pieces in total,' said spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva... Over 200 pieces of heavy weapons have been held in the Shindand District, Herat province, and Kunduz province, which have been regarded as significant areas for storing heavy weapons." The program is now entering the final stage:

"Gen. Zahir Azemi, a spokesman for the defense ministry, said that the DDR program had four phases and the third stage has been completed. The first phase, which was considered a pilot scheme, was confined to some provinces, the second and the third phases were fully implemented by the disarmament of militias throughout the country later. The defense ministry says that they plan to have the final phase completed by the 20th of June.

"Gen. Azemi added that the disarmament program that started in November 2003 started from Kandahar and has disarmed nearly 45,000 people so far. He added that more than 7,700 of those disarmed were military officers and the rest were soldiers. Nearly 98% of the proposed collection of heavy weaponry is complete, this includes 29,000 pieces of light and 8,000 heavy weapons. Ahmad Jan Nawzadi, a spokesman for the UN-backed disarmament program, said that rest of the 20% is also under the control of the defense ministry, but the process has been impeded due to cold weather and transportation problems."
The Japanese government has pledged a further $12 million towards the disarmament program and mine-clearing along the Herat-Kandahar highway.

Across the border, the Pakistani cottage arms industry, once booming on the back of the demand from Afghanistan, is now
in decline. " 'Our business was so good during the 1980s when the Afghans were fighting their holy war against Soviet aggression,' says Jan Muhammad, a 63-year-old arms dealer who is considered one of the leading experts on manufacturing pistols. But Muhammad bemoans the hard times his family has found since then. 'I don't want my sons to join this trade because there is no future for them in this business,' he says."

More weapons caches continue to be confiscated throughout Afghanistan. According to US authorities, the number of caches turned over by Afghan citizens has
increased by 100 per cent over the past year. "In February 2004, of the 65 caches recovered, Afghan citizens turned in or reported 25. A year later, of 73 caches recovered, citizens turned in or reported 49. Coalition forces discovered the rest." In early March, soldiers from Combined Joint Task Force 76 recovered several weapons caches in Afghanistan over two days during the past week. Some of the caches were turned in by local Afghans." More caches were recovered in mid-March.

In other recent security successes: the arrest of
four senior Taliban in the southern province of Uruzgun, including Mullah Abidullah Akhund, a prominent commander in Deh Rawad district; the increase by 30 per cent since the same time last year in the number of roadside bombs reported to authorities by the Afghans; the rescue of a kidnapped Iranian national in Farah; killing of Raz Mohammed, a high level Taliban in Paktika province; and killing of 35 Taliban fighters in an action in Khost province.

The war on drugs also continues. A UN study finds that opium poppy cultivation is
down across Afghanistan: "Afghan farmers are growing less opium this year because of a government ban and fear that their crops will be destroyed in an internationally sponsored crackdown, according to a U.N. report... The report made no precise forecasts but said the trend was down in all but five of the country's 34 provinces because farmers had sown fewer opium poppies, which produce the raw material for heroin." As the Afghan authorities note, more foreign assistance is needed for the success of the crop substitution program.

Iran has offered Afghanistan support in fighting drug traffickers "by training Afghan border police, tightening borders and sharing intelligence." In Kandahar province, the police seized 1,200 kg of opium after a skirmish with traffickers. The following week, 1,400 kg has been seized in similar circumstances, also in Kandahar.

Happy New Year, Afghanistan!


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