Monday, June 06, 2005

Good news from Afghanistan, Part 13 

Note: Also available from "The Opinion Journal" and Winds of Change. As always, thanks to James Taranto, Joe Katzman, and all of you for continuing support. Please also note that because of the Memorial Day weekend, the publication of this "Good news" has been postponed, so it now contains the news for the past five, and not the usual four, weeks.

Over the last few weeks, Afghanistan has been in the news again - unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. The media pack has made a brief re-appearance in Afghanistan to report on carefully staged "spontaneous" riots, which briefly erupted around the country, ostensibly in protest over a report in "Newsweek" (later retracted) about desecration of Koran by the American military personnel at Guantanamo Bay.

Sadly, in the rush of commentary about Afghanistan's slide into anarchy and America's deteriorating position in Kabul, most of the international media again missed or downplayed many other stories, some of them arguably far more consequential than an anti-government rampage whipped up by opponents of President Karzai. Take this story, for example:
A crowd of 600 Afghan clerics gathered in front of an historic mosque yesterday to strip the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar of his claim to religious authority, in a ceremony that provided a significant boost to the presidency of Hamid Karzai.

The declaration, signed by 1,000 clerics from across the country, is an endorsement of the US-backed programme of reconciliation with more moderate elements of the Taliban movement that Karzai has been pursuing ahead of the country's first parliamentary elections, due in September.

Symbolically, the ulema shura, or council of clerics, was held at the Blue Mosque in the southern city of Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban movement.

At the same venue in 1996 the Taliban leader held up a cloak said to belong to the Prophet Mohammed, which is kept in a shrine in the mosque. He was proclaimed Amir ul-Mumineen or Leader of Muslims by the same clerical body, one of the few occasions the title has been granted anywhere in the Islamic world in the modern era.
This important gathering and its implications were reported by only a handful of news outlets around the world - in stark contrast to the news several days later about the assassination at the hands of the Taliban of the head of the council and the suicide bombing at the historic mosque during his funeral, which appeared through hundreds of media outlets around the world.

Faced with this sort of media coverage, President Karzai expressed his exasperation during his recent visit in the United States: "Sometimes - rather often - neither our press, nor your press, nor the press in the rest of the world will pick up the miseries of the Afghans three years ago and what has been achieved since then, until today."

Below, then, the last five weeks' worth of stories that were yet again completely overshadowed by terrorism and violence.

SOCIETY: Registration of candidates for the September parliamentary election has closed, with some 5,300 Afghans putting their hands up: "Of the 5,531 hopefuls registered with the poll panel for the parliamentary vote, 2,826 are men and 212 women; for provincial council seats, 2,705 people including 319 women are in the run." To the satisfaction and relief of the officials, the registration has concluded peacefully. You can read more about the process, as well as the challenges of the next few months here. The voter registration will commence on June 25.

Meanwhile, both the candidates and the electors face a dilemma: "Would you want to run for office as a toothbrush? How about a meat grinder?... The Joint Electoral Management Body, JEMB, made up of a small army of international advisors along with nine Afghan election commissioners, has come up with a solution: create 400 generic symbols that have no religious, ethnic or political significance, and assign one to each candidate. Hence, voters this fall could be deciding whether they want a toothbrush, an electric plug, a hairbrush or a broom to represent them."

Afghan democracy is meanwhile maturing with growth of a multi-party political system:
A leading politician who ran against Hamed Karzai in last year's presidential election has announced the creation of a new coalition that hopes to win a majority of seats in the national legislature this autumn, and create a parliamentary form of government.

Mohammad Yunus Qanuni, who ran for president last October, said that the National Understanding Front (Jabha-ye-Tafahhum-e-Milli), made up of 11 political parties, would act as an opposition to the Karzai government.

Once in parliament, the bloc will seek to amend the constitution to replace the current system of government, which it believes gives the president too much power. Instead, the coalition favours a system in which "the prime minister is chosen by parliament, and power is shared between the president and the prime minister", said coalition spokesman Sayed Ali Jawed, of the Hezb-e-Wahdat-e-Islami party.
Quanuni's bloc, as well as another party, Mustafa Kazemi's Iqtidar-e-Milli, have been recently registered by the authorities. "So far, of 88 parties having submitted applications, 67 have registered with the Ministry of Justice."

And it seems that the democratic bug is proving very infectious in Afghan society:
For the first time in the history of the eastern Afghan provinces, barbers have form a committee, calling themselves Pak Salmanian or the clean barbers with the hope of taking part in the forthcoming provincial elections.

Barbers attending a meeting held in the provincial capital of eastern Nangarhar,Jalalabadd, from Kunar, Laghman and Nangarhar, nominated Saida Gul as their leader and representative.
According to Saida Gul, "A barber's life is in a bad way, because people no longer respect them in the society. So they have taken matters into their hands and want to address their own problems by having a representative." And another member of the association said that "democracy was at play and their rights were finally being met."

A new youth movement is aiming to put aside past conflict and build a better future for the country:
Hundreds of young men, fed up with the ethnic animosities that have long divided Afghanistan, are traveling the country preaching peace and brotherhood.

"Just yesterday our youngsters were trying to kill one another, but today they're thinking about national unity and they want to live as brothers," said Haji Sarajuddin, a teacher from Kandahar province.

Sarajuddin recently accompanied about 200 senior high school students from the traditional Pashtun stronghold in the south to Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, in an area where ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks are in the majority.

The two regions came to symbolise the deep divisions that marked the years of strife of the Nineties.

But in April, nearly 300 students in Mazar-e-Sharif warmly embraced their fellow countrymen from Kandahar when they met at a local hotel.

The students, all in their teens or early twenties, were too young to have participated in the years of civil war.

"We know that due to the conflicts, a lot of distance has come between the peoples of Afghanistan," Mohammad Nazar, 23, told IWPR. "You can't bring about national unity by just talking, so about 30 of us at schools in Kandahar got together and decided to do something practical."

From the core group of 30, the unity movement boomed, said Nazar.

The young men say they have no political agenda other than reconciliation. They have taken their message not only to Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, but also to other northern regions such as Parwan, Baghlan, Takhar and Kunduz, to Paktia and Zabul in the south, and to the capital Kabul and the nearby Wardak province.
Meanwhile, the Karzai administration gets an additional boost as some of his past enemies are coming in from the cold:
A Taliban splinter group, widely regarded as a moderate camp, on Monday pledged support to the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai.

Abdul Hakim Mujahid, heading the political wing of the Jamiat-i-Khuddamul Furqan, categorically declared aversion to the trail of murder and mayhem stemming from Taliban activities in Afghanistan.

In an exclusive interview with Pajhwok Afghan News, Hakim said they had snapped all links to the hard-core Taliban leadership after joining Khuddam's council three years ago.

Khuddam resumed activities in Peshawar (NWFP) soon after the ouster of Taliban from power in 2001. Last year, its leader Mohammad Amin Mujadeddi said the party, launched more than 30 years back, had been reactivated.
In a recent TV interview, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, "a former foreign minister for the ousted Taliban militia called on his former comrades to hold talks with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, and criticized Osama bin Laden for never caring for his host."

In the capital, a symbol of national unity is undergoing restoration:
Darulaman Palace, a symbol of national unity and independence since 1929, is being rebuilt after being left a shell of a building by years of civil war.

Designed by German and French architects and constructed mostly by hand between 1919 and 1929, Darulaman was commissioned by the then king, Amanullah Khan, who is still revered for ending British influence on the country.

Darulaman was used by the Afghan defence ministry from the Soviet occupation of 1979 onwards. It was severely damaged in 1991 and 1992 during the factional fighting that brought an end to communist rule.

"Darulaman palace represents the link between the old and new Afghanistan," said Nasrullah Stanekzai, deputy minister of information, culture and tourism.

When completed, the new palace will be used by Afghanistan's legislature for offices and meetings, although the body does not plan to convene there for its regular sessions.

The three-phase, 70 million US dollar reconstruction project is being undertaken by the Darulaman Reconstruction Foundation with financial assistance from German donors as well as expatriate Afghans living in Germany.

Rebuilding is expected to take three years. The project will employ an estimated 1,500 workers, said Abdul Hamid Farooqi, a foundation member.
Afghanistan is also receiving other support for the development of democracy: "The National Democratic Institute (NDI) together with the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) will train potential candidates competing for the Wolesi Jirga (the Lower House) and the Provincial Council elections, to be held concurrently on September 18... The training organized by NDI, will initially take place in eight major provinces and consist of training sessions on the election process and the requirements for political candidates."

USAID is also involved in training of political candidates: "In preparation for the parliamentary elections, voter education programs include independent candidate and political party training, with over 12,000 Afghan participants across 8 provinces. Judicial support includes human rights and women's rights training to 3,037 local community members in 6 provinces, judicial personnel training, the distribution of the Afghan Constitution and legal code, and English training for legal professors."

Afghan activists are also receiving recognition for their work: "Three democratic activists from Afghanistan have been chosen to receive the 2005 Democracy Award of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which will be presented on July 13 at an event in the U.S. Congress. The three honorees are leaders of civil society organizations who have distinguished themselves in educating average citizens and local leaders about the basic values and principles of democracy, the rights of women and ethnic minorities, strategies for peace-building and conflict resolution and the importance of broad political participation."

After decades of lawlessness, Afghanistan legal system is also receiving some much needed attention and assistance. A new law regarding the structure and authority of lower courts has been recently approved. "In this connection, 36 judges took oath of office and will later head the criminal, civil, trade and common security tribunals."

The Afghan government has also recently approved a new Juvenile Code, which gives Afghan children some much needed legal protections:
One key provision in the new Juvenile Code, which was formally adopted by the Afghan cabinet in February 2005, is the increase in the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12 years, as well as recognizing the definition of a child as being anyone under the age of 18.

The code also introduces important protection for children under the process of the law, including no child can be held without trial for more than two months, and children awaiting trial will be kept in the care of their families or guardians. The new code provides a broader range of measures for children convicted of crimes, including official cautions and probation as an alternative to custodial punishments.
USAID continues to support the growth of the Afghan justice system through projects large and small:
A small but significant advance for Afghan democracy was made April 27. The Hirat Province districts of Guzara and Obe opened courthouses as part of the Afghanistan Rule of Law Project.

"After 25 years of warfare and the destruction or decay of so many courthouses, this event celebrates a new beginning," said Inge Frylund, a rule of law adviser with the U.S. Agency for International Development. "The opening of a new courthouse symbolizes the newfound importance of (the) rule of law in Afghanistan."

USAID funded the projects, but Afghan citizens did all the work.

"The architects, engineers, contractors and builders were all local Afghans working together to build the courthouses," said Kenneth E. Hennings, west regional development adviser for USAID.

Each project cost $90,000, including all the furniture and books.
Read also this report about the progress of civil service reform throughout Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is finally getting mapped, which will have immense benefits for land titling:
On April 3rd a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between USAID/Land Titling & Economic Restructuring in Afghanistan (LTERA) & the Afghan Geodesy & Cartography Head Office (AGCHO). The LTERA project has begun training a team of mapping specialists from the AGCHO in a fast and affordable technique using aerial photography for mapping. LTERA is providing equipment and capacity building in geo-spatial mapping technology and AGCHO is providing mapping materials, coordinates and a flying permit to restart the mapping of Afghanistan, which was interrupted by years of war.

Mapping is an essential component of LTERA's initiative to move Afghanistan towards a unified, modern system of property registration. "Only 30% of Afghanistan has been properly mapped," said Engineer Abdul Raouf, General President of AGCHO. "We still have 70% to go."
While the lot of a woman in Afghanistan is still a difficult and often dangerous one, many previously unheard of opportunities are opening up for the long forgotten majority of the population. An Afghan province, for example, is slowly adjusting itself to the first female governor:
High in the snow-capped Hindu Kush, visitors stream to see the new governor. A huddle of turbaned men carrying plastic sunflowers in a gold vase nod respectfully. The British ambassador flies in from Kabul. By morning's end, the office is filled with 25 bouquets of fake flowers, and a calf is tethered outside.

Nothing unusual, then, in a culture that prizes deference to authority, except for one thing: The new boss is a woman.

Habiba Sarobi is Afghanistan's first female governor, a major advance in a society where only four years ago, under the Taliban, women were denied everything from school lessons to lipstick.
Girls and women are finding new expression through sport and exercise:
From the corner of a Kabul basement, next door to a barber shop, come high-pitched and most unusual sounds. A small posse of Afghan girls shout "heey-ya!" as they practice karate jabs, kicks, and punches.

The eldest of the bunch, Nargas Rahimi, returned to her Afghan homeland last year after growing up in Iran. "I saw that Afghan women didn't have the faintest idea about exercise. So I came here to act as an example for Afghan girls and to help them take part in Afghan society," she says.

With the help of several new Kabul fitness clubs (with women-only hours) like the Khusal Khanmeena gym, Afghan girls and women are getting their first taste of sports. Girls' schools here are also introducing athletics, and the women's Olympic committee is now training some 1,500 Afghan girls to compete abroad. Last summer, for the first time in the nation's history, two women competed in the Olympics.

After years of being cloistered in their homes during Taliban times, women are now looking to private gyms and sports clubs as one of the few pathways opening up for women and girls trying to reemerge into a society that remains highly segregated - and dangerous. Two weeks ago, a woman was stoned to death for adultery.

"Sport can be used as a vehicle for creating a safe space, an entrance into the public sphere," says Martha Brady, a program associate with the Population Council in New York who has worked on bringing sports to girls in Egypt. In many countries, she says, "you can see an 8-year-old girl outside kicking a ball around. You don't see her when she's 13 because she's sequestered at home."
And the Iranian consulate in Kandahar city has recently donated more than 1,000 books to the local Women's Affairs Department, with promises that it will soon open literacy and computer centers for women throughout the city.

After the initial rush, which saw millions of Afghan refugees coming back home from Iran and Pakistan, the trickle continues. Over 50,000 Afghan refugees have returned home from Pakistan since the resumption of UN-assisted repatriation programme in March. 400,000 are expected to do so by the end of the year. Meanwhile, "in a bid to entice Afghan refugees in Pakistan back home, Kabul has announced it is building homes in six or seven Afghan provinces for about 48 thousand families in 2005."

Afghanistan's independent media is thriving in a climate freer than anything experienced before in country's recent history. Afghan TV has just undergone modernization: "The Afghan National Television... switched over to a new digital system. The conversion from analogue to a digital system took two years and was finalised with financial assistance of $7.44 million from the government of Japan."

Read this story of Afghanistan's new must-see TV:
A bearded man from the bazaar is whisked into a barber shop, where he's given a shave and a slick haircut. After a facial, he visits fashion boutiques.

In a few tightly edited minutes of television, the humble bricklayer is transformed into an Afghan metrosexual, complete with jeans, sweater, suede jacket, and sunglasses.

It may sound like standard reality TV fare in the West, but it's edgy in Afghanistan. Tolo TV aired the show only once.

But in a pop culture as barren as the mountains here, Tolo's mix of MTV-style shows and hard-hitting news programs has turned the up-and-coming network into an entertainment oasis.

Today, it's a kind of must-see TV that has government officials leaving work early to catch their favorite show. But it's also a lightning rod for Afghan critics who see the station as a threat to the country's Islamic values.
Some programming, however, aims to combine entertainment with more serious messages:
On the outskirts of the Afghan capital Kabul, Daud Maqsoudi and several other men and women were sitting around, talking about village reconstruction.

"We should be united and rebuild Chamanistan [Afghanistan]. Lets consult with everyone and find out how to rebuild our land," Haji Tawab, who was introduced as the community elder and head of the Shura [community council] was heard saying. Tawab's call was followed by a murmur of agreement from the group.

Maqsoudi and the others are not rural villagers but renowned Afghan actors recording the new "Let Us Build Our Village," radio soap opera that was aired for the first time on Wednesday. The new programme is only the second radio soap opera after the BBC's popular ten-year-old "New Home New Life" programme.

Like the BBC's offering, "Let us build our village" is also broadcast in Dari and Pashtu. It's the brainchild of the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD), and designed to realistically portray both the joys and hardships of life in rural Afghanistan. The programme will focus on progress in construction and reconstruction of rural communities.

"Afghans are really fond of soap operas and the experience of New Home New Life proved that soap opera dramas can be one of the best means of bringing people together and raising awareness of rural areas," Maqsoudi, the director and editor of the new drama, who also wrote for the BBC soap, said.
Meanwhile, Ajab Gul, Afghan cinematographer living and working in Afghanistan is predicting a revival of Afghan cinema, as he and many other artistic exiles are slowly returning back home. One of them is Babrik Shah, a former mudjahedin commander in the war against the Soviet occupiers and the star of Gul's latest film.

Community radio, too, is moving beyond its first baby steps: "USAID funded student radio stations in the Herat and Mazar Novice Journalism Training Programs (NJTP) are becoming increasingly self sufficient thanks to commercial sales. In Herat these funds are used to provide additional English language and management training for NJTP students, while in Mazar the funds are building a second studio in the radio station Rabia Balkhi. This facility will provide students with more live broadcasting opportunities and studio time."

Speaking of radio, music is a big hit after the Taliban-induced absence of many years:
Music was anathema to the Taliban, but now a programme of music charts broadcast by a private radio station every Friday has become a "must listen" for Afghans.

Until the US-led invasion in late 2001 toppled the regime led by Mullah Omar, anyone found listening to music faced a brutal beating and incarceration.

These days Arman FM, the country's only private radio station, broadcasts its "Top 40" on Friday to a large and devoted audience.

There are no useful national statistics, and so gauging the most popular songs demands considerable improvisation.

Arman - which means roughly "Request" - sends out its staff to the music shops of Kabul to conduct a weekly survey on which cassettes are most in demand.

Once the most popular singer is found, Arman's musical editors decide which of the songs to choose for the hit parade.
Music from the region is proving to be the most popular, including that of Ahmed Zahir, "the Afghan Elvis Presley", dead for 26 years but still on top of the charts.
Arman is popular not only for the charts. Listeners can phone in and talk on air. There are also music request programmes, and when games with prizes are broadcast, the entire mobile phone network occasionally goes down under the overload.

The station receives around 2,500 calls and letters every day, some of the missives running to pages and decorated with hearts carefully pasted on.

News is also an important part of the station's broadcasting. When there is news of major national or international significance, the music programme is interrupted for a news flash.

Three brothers of Afghan origin from Australia established the broadcaster, which went on air for the first time in April 2003 with a total staff complement of just nine.

Today there are 170 people working for the station, many of them crammed into just four rooms in a house in the centre of Kabul which is now much too small.

The venture has been a commercial success, the station earning a profit from its advertising.
Meanwhile, "an independent Pashto magazine - the first-ever initiative of its kind in the literary domain in the southern Ghazni province, hit the newsstands on Wednesday [4 May]. The bimonthly mag, Lawang (clove) seeks to provide an outlet of expression to the literati - particularly youths - of the province famous for its rich cultural history in the not-so-distant past."

And in a contribution to preserving cultural and historic heritage, "the French government will build a history museum in the capital city of Mazar, in northern Baghlan province. The head of the provincial information and culture department, Saleh Mohammad Khaliq said there have been no museums in the region since 1981, and this new building will house Afghan heritage and historical artifacts. Balkh Province is perceived to be a province of great historical importance in Afghanistan where many artifacts dating back to the Kushanid Dynasty, Buddhist and Greek era, and Islamic ages were found."

On a somewhat lower-brow level, Kabul is now playing host to a circus - a spectacle that many residents of the capital are seeing for the first time in their lives.

Health system is being slowly rebuilt, often with much needed assistance from overseas. The International Midwives' Day on May 5 was marked in Kabul with the launch of the Afghan midwives' association, with some 300 women from around the country present. Child and mother mortality remain a very significant problem in Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia will construct a hospital, a nursing school and playgrounds near the Kabul airport. Also in Kabul, "a diabetic center opened at the city's Maiwand Hospital as part of a bid to treat for free patients suffering from the disease... Prof. Mahmood Gul Kohdamani told Pajhwok Afghan News the project costing $38,000 was funded by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF). Currently, the center has 10 beds." A new 30-bed private hospital has opened in Deh Kepak district. And this German initiative will help Afghanistan's most vulnerable victims:
Children injured by landmines will be among those to benefit from a new paediatric hospital built and run by Germans in the Afghan capital Kabul.

Although the hospital, financed largely by the German charity Peace Village International, has been accepting patients since the beginning of the year, last month saw the formal opening, presided over by German ambassador Rainald Steck, Afghan Health Minister Mohammad Amin Fatemi and Irene Salimi, a well-known human-rights advocate who has long worked to aid Afghans in general and children in particular.

The 40-bed German Paediatric Hospital has the capacity to administer general anaesthetics to young patients. Before, such patients would have had to travel abroad for this treatment.
Japan, meanhwile, has recently donated $4 million-worth of equipment to two medical labs in Kabul.

Also: "An eleventh salt iodisation plant in Afghanistan began production... in the Bagrami district of Kabul, with the capacity to generate up to 40 metric tonnes of iodised salt per day for the capital's population and surrounding provinces. The new "Namak-e-Zendagi" - or "Salt of Life" - plant, which has been supported by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and UNICEF and is managed by a private company, will supplement the existing supply of iodised salt within the area. Lack of iodine is a major cause of medical conditions such as goitre and physical stunting, brain damage in newborn babies, as well as impairing intellectual development and educational potential amongst children."

There is also some unfinished business now being taken care of: "Afghan health workers battling polio will set off into remote mountains next week hoping to reach about two million children who missed an immunization drive because they were cut off by heavy snow. Afghanistan is on the verge of eradicating polio with only one case reported so far this year compared with 27 in 2000." And an anti-smallpox vaccination drive is being currently prepared.

Education system, too, is rising again. With another recent grant assistance of $40 million, the World Bank is taking stock of its work to help rebuild the Afghan education system:
Over the past three years, the government of Afghanistan has made notable efforts to revive the higher education sector in parallel with ongoing progress in primary and secondary education. Eighteen higher education institutions have reopened their doors and enrollment has jumped from 4,000 students in 2001 to 37,000 in the fall of 2004. As in primary education, the enrollment profile is skewed with approximately two-thirds of students in their first and second years. With students returning from Pakistan and other countries and the students graduating from high schools, demand for higher education is on the rise, not only in terms of enrollment but also in terms of relevance of curricula and quality of teaching.

The Strengthening Higher Education Program aims to progressively restore basic operational performance at a group of core universities in Afghanistan, and to provide an institutional base for the development of an agenda focusing on tertiary education development, capacity building and reform. The program is envisaged as the first-phase of a long-term higher education development program in Afghanistan. In addition, it will act as a catalyst to attract various resources to the Afghan tertiary education sector with a long-term development framework. The program also facilitates and finances partnership program agreements for Kabul Polytechnic University, Kabul University, and four regional universities (Balkh, Herat, Kandahar and Nangarhar) with established foreign universities.
USAID continues to support training of teachers: "USAID supports several teacher training programs, including Master Trainers who train local teachers, through the Accelerated Learning program and through literacy programs at the Women's Teacher Training Institute. Over 7,500 teachers have received formal classroom training and 65,000 teachers in remote areas have been trained through the Radio Teacher Training Program."

Afghanistan is also getting closer to having own educational radio and TV:
Afghan broadcasting authorities have just reserved a TV and a radio FM frequency for Educational Radio and Television service to open a dedicated channel specialized in educational broadcasting. This concession was facilitated by UNESCO in the framework of a $2.5 million project funded by the Government of Italy for the upgrade and rehabilitation of distance education services in Afghanistan, and under which transmitters suitable to go on air in the given frequencies will shortly be provided.

After being almost totally destroyed during years of civil conflict, the building housing the Educational Radio and Television Centre (ERTV) of Afghanistan's Ministry of Education has been fully renovated and equipped with computers, radio-Tv production equipment and Internet, and is again operational since July 2004. UNESCO has already provided three months of intensive training in fields such as TV and radio techniques, use of digital equipment, programme production, English language proficiency and computer literacy. On December ten ERTV's "key" production staff -including two female producers- received advanced training at the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and in the Malaysian Educational Broadcaster.
In higher education, Afghan academics are receiving some valuable direct assistance from overseas institutions. For example, at the San Diego State University:
Six Afghan professors are learning basic computer skills from their peers at SDSU as part of an ongoing effort to help rebuild the higher education infrastructure of the war-torn country.

"What we had was destroyed. We are more optimistic now," said Mohammad Tahir Torakay, a professor and head of what's left of the Department of Agronomics at Nangarhar University in Jalalabad.

In June, the Afghan professors will complete their month-long visit to San Diego to learn basic computer and internet skills at a learning laboratory at SDSU's City Heights Community Technology Center.

SDSU faculty and staff have been participating since last year in efforts to establish new computer-aided learning opportunities at Nangarhar University, including the installation in 2004 of a satellite-based computer laboratory that provides broad-band internet access to faculty and students for the first time. Their work is part of an ongoing project funded in part by Rotary International and The Fred J. Hansen Institute for World Peace.
And another group of Afghan academics is studying at Indiana University how to revive higher education back home:
"Our methodology of teaching is so much older. I need to know about that new methodology of teaching," said Mohammad Zaher Osool.

"When we finish, we transfer our knowledge to Afghanistan. We hope to bring a change there," said Mohammad Hakim Azimi.

University Professor Zarghona Achekzai is grateful to be teaching again. She was forced to quit for five years under Taliban rule. "At first it was difficult for all of the women because after a long time for the first time they go to the university and job for the first time and it was difficult," she said.
Read this extensive report from Steven Kelley, sports columnist at "The Seattle Times" about Afghanistan's only golf course and the triumph of the spirit it represents for its founder:
Kabul Golf Club is the pride of Afzal Abdul, who is symbolic of so many people I met traveling around this massive country last week with a delegation from the remarkable international aid organization Save The Children.

Neither the Soviet tanks, nor the civil wars, nor the Taliban's repression has robbed Afzal Abdul of his passion. The mines, the bombs, the fear that comes from 30 years of war hasn't taken away his love of golf.

How much do you love the game? Have you been jailed twice and charged with the crime of being a golfer? Afzal Abdul has.

The Soviets locked him up during their occupation in the 1980s. They built a compound adjacent to the ninth hole and every day watched the golfers suspiciously.

Finally, they stormed his clubhouse, closed down his course and put him in jail for six months, without giving him a reason. He believes they must have thought he was conspiring with the golfers to overthrow the Soviets...

Ten years later, the Taliban broke into his home as he slept, took all of his golf clubs, his shoes, all of the certificates and trophies he had won and jailed him for two months.
As Kelley writes: "This course is a metaphor for Afghanistan. It is the story of the country, really, condensed into nine holes of golf. It may be chewed up and littered by the devastation delivered by all of the wars. But it is surrounded by beauty that robs your breath. And with the Taliban government gone, hope now glimmers for Kabul golf, just as it does for all of Afghanistan."

In other sports news, "the Afghan Karate team has come second in the Asian "full-contact heats after winning a gold medal, beating their strongest opponent Japan... Qasim Ali Haideri, an Afghan refugee living in Iran won a gold medal in the middle weight category and 6 bronze medals were won by other Afghans."

And traditional British sport, popular elsewhere in South Asia, is starting to conquer Afghanistan:
A cricket craze seems poised to sweep the country following the surprisingly strong showing by a team of young Afghans at a recent international competition. Their success came despite the fact that they don't even have enough shoes for all the players.

The team - made up of youths between 13- and 15-years old - finished second out of 14 teams in their age bracket at the Asian Cricket Council Cup finals held in April in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Afghanistan's Hashmatullah Rabani was named the tournament's best player and Sanauallah Mohib was honoured as best bowler.

While the game has been played here since at least 1992, it has only been in the last four years, since the fall of the Taleban regime, that it has been able to flower.
RECONSTRUCTION: There is some good overall news for the Afghan economy: the currency is stable, as are fuel and gas costs; gold prices are up, but foodstuffs are down. Afghanistan is also getting its first international money transfer system with the United Arab Emirates, which is home to some 200,000 Afghans. And an United Arab Emirates-based Bank Alfalah has opened a branch in Kabul, "raising the number of the private banks operating in the country to a dozen... With a growing deposit base, Bank Alfalah offers facilities such as transferring remittances, credit cards, auto loans, home loans, ATMs, long-term finance, trade finance, structured finance and investment in money market and forex market."

In direct reconstruction assistance, the European Union has announced it will be delivering 340 million euro ($417 million) in aid in 2005/06 on top of 660 million euro ($809 million) already spent in Afghanistan.

The communications network keeps expanding throughout the country, bringing Afghanistan into the twenty-first century:
Before the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, 27 million Afghan citizens had to make do with approximately 20,000 working telephone lines. Domestic connections were spotty, while only a handful of expensive satellite phones could dial internationally.

Today, through the extraordinary efforts of the Afghan Wireless Communication Company and its parent company, Telephone Systems International (TSI), more than 300,000 citizens subscribe to the Afghan wireless network, with coverage in twenty cities and an additional twenty cities slated for service by the end of the summer.

The development of the Afghan wireless network has been the mission of Ehsan Bayat, an Afghan-American who fled Afghanistan in 1980. Observing the need for a comprehensive communications network in Afghanistan, Bayat partnered his United States-based company, TSI, with the Afghan Ministry of Communications to launch a wireless network that Bayat hopes will be "the digital artery of our nation, allowing communication, commerce, and electronic exchanges to flow easily among all Afghans."

This digital network "leaves no part of Afghanistan untouched," according to Bayat, who adds "by the end of the summer, we will have three-quarters of the nation covered."
Existing providers are grumbling about the government's decision to grant additional GSM mobile phone licences, but the market is growing and the increased competition is really paying off for the consumers:
Roshan, started by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, Monaco Telecom International and U.S.-based MCT Corp., has been operating in Afghanistan for 18 months.

With the country's landline system virtually non-existent after decades of conflict and neglect, Roshan and the other GSM provider, Afghan Wireless Communication Company, have about 800,000 subscribers, or three percent of the population.

That total is expected to grow to one million by the end of the year, Khoja said.

The Telecommunications Ministry says the new licenses will generate revenue for the government in fees, attract more than $200 million in new foreign direct investment and create thousands of skilled, well-paid jobs.
Says one operator: "When we came in to Afghanistan 18 months ago you used to pay $3 a minute for an international call, $1.50 for a local call and you used to have to pay $350 to have the access unit to get the service. Today, you can go into a bazaar and you can basically get service from one of the two operators for about $60, with a phone and sim card, and you're paying 10 cents a minute anywhere in the country and, at most, 50 cents for international calls per minute. Very, very competitive."

And there's more good news for Afghan consumers:
The Telecommunication Ministry had decided in principle to allow the private sector to launch the digital phone service at the district level.

Telecommunication Minister Amir Zai Sangeen told a news conference here on Tuesday the objective behind the decision was to enable people in the countryside to have access to a better communication system.

Currently, the digital phone facility is available in 11 provinces only and that too under a stringent government control. But as a result of Tuesday's decision, the private sector can now launch the service after seeking permission letter from the ministry concerned.
As mobile communication is experiencing a boom, 2,000 Afghan boys in Kabul are making a living selling pre-paid cards.

With another recent grant of $45 million, the World Bank takes stock of its work to help rebuild Afghan transport infrastructure:
More than two decades of conflict combined with a lack of maintenance has resulted in the deterioration of large part of Afghanistan's road network. This has meant that the road network has been rendered only partially usable with high transportation costs. Today, more than 50 percent of the main road network is in poor condition.

The Emergency Transport Rehabilitation Project (ETRP), funded by a World Bank credit of US$108 million, approved in March 2003 aimed at restoring road and airport infrastructure in Afghanistan. Under this project, the government funded the rehabilitation of the Kabul - Doshi, Pol-e-Khomri-Kunduz - Shirkhan Bandar highway, including already completed work on the Salang tunnel; rehabilitation of Kabul International Airport including reconstruction of damaged runway pavement, provision of airfield ground lighting, and other related equipment to support safe airport operations; and rehabilitation of secondary roads.

The supplemental grant of US$45 million for the Emergency Transport Rehabilitation Project approved today, will increment the project budget for Kunduz-Taloqan-Kishem road rehabilitation, and other components for satisfactory completion of the project. The project is expected to be completed by the Ministry of Public Works and Ministry of Transport by June 2007.
Afghanistan might finally be getting - for the first time - a railways connection with abroad:
The government of Afghanistan plans to build its first international railway, linking the former Taliban stronghold city of Kandahar in the south, to Pakistan, said Public Works Minister Shorah Ali Safari.

Safari said in an interview today that he submitted a proposal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's cabinet 10 days ago and "hopes" the project will be approved this year for construction to start in 2006. He didn't elaborate on financing.

The country now has less than a kilometer (three-fifths of a mile) of railroad, built by the Soviet Union to supply its troops. Afghanistan, with a population of 29 million, prevented the British and Soviets, which both tried to rule the country, from building railways, seeing them as invasion tools. The U.S. invaded in 2001 and ousted the fundamentalist Taliban government.

"Time has changed," said Safari, 60, speaking in the Iranian city of Mashad. "Trains are no longer used to invade countries -- they'll boost our economy and benefit our people."
And an important road project is helping to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs:
The reconstruction of the 78 kilometers long Kandahar-Arghistan road - costing more than $1 million - started on Sunday [8 May].

Funds for the project, to be completed in three months, would be provided from the development budget, Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai said, adding the road would link his province with Oruzgan and Bamiyan.

The Kandahar's Public Works Department reckons the scheme, having a propitious effect on the economy, will offer 9,000 people employment opportunities.
Kabul airport, meanwhile, will be getting an upgrade, thanks to Japan: "Japan will provide Afghanistan about 28 million US dollars in grant aid for the construction of an international terminal at Kabul International Airport under an agreement reached by the two countries... The terminal is scheduled to be completed in 2007. Currently, both international and domestic services use the same terminal at the airport. The new terminal will be created for international flights and the existing terminal will be used for domestic services."

Just in time, too, as Air Arabia, the Middle East region's first and only low-fares airline, is opening a route between Bahrain and Kabul.

In energy news, a "pipe dream" is getting close to reality:
Back in the days of the Taliban, Mir Sediq was an engineer for Unocal, working on a pipe dream: bringing natural gas from Turkmenistan down through Afghanistan to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea.

Today, Mr. Sediq is minister for Afghanistan's energy, mining, and industrial sector, and he's confident that the pipeline is coming close to reality.

Driven by a Pakistani economy growing at nearly 7 percent a year and higher energy prices, the pipeline, on paper, is the closest thing to a win-win scenario as one can find in Central Asia. For Pakistan, expected to run out of its own reserves in five years, the pipeline will help sustain growth. For Turkmenistan, it helps to provide a market for its substantial gas reserves. And for Afghanistan, it could mean from $200 million to $350 million per year in transit fees.

In the rough parlance of oil industry executives, that beats a kick in the head.

"This pipeline is an opportunity for Afghanistan, and we would like to keep Afghanistan a place that is open and attractive for foreign investment," says Sediq. "The foreign investment rate of return is 17.5 percent, based on the assumptions that the gas reserves in Turkmenistan are enough and the consumption rate in Pakistan remains high. Only security of the pipeline is left, and the government of Afghanistan is capable of providing security."
As the report notes, "it wasn't so long ago that the pipeline was thought to be dead. Taliban attacks in the south appeared to be on the increase, and other sources of energy, such as Iran or Qatar, were more attractive. But growing Pakistani demand, increased Afghan stability, and higher energy prices for Turkmenistan have made the pipeline increasingly feasible. This week, President Hamid Karzai told donor countries the project was a top priority - on a par with the war on terror and opium eradication."

Thanks to Indian authorities, the Afghan capital should be getting more power soon:
Committed to building infrastructure in Afghanistan, the government is all set to clear the... Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul power transmission project that will bring the much-needed Uzbek power for the capital. The project is to be executed by the Power Grid Corporation.

Sources said that the Finance Ministry has already approved the key project after a nod from the committee on non-planned expenditure. It is now waiting for a green signal from the Cabinet after which the public sector undertaking would take on the construction of the 205 km transmission line.

As part of the reconstruction exercise, Kabul would be getting 300 MW of power from a hydel power venture in Uzbekistan. Power would first be evacuated from the power station all the way upto Pul-e-Khumri and thereon to Kabul.
There are also plenty of small-scale projects to electrify Afghanistan. For example, thanks to the Aga Khan Foundation, villagers in Khenjan district, 50 kilometers south of the northern Baghlan province are now getting electricity from two hydroelectric and diesel-electric generators.

And some infrastructure initiatives are the result of local private charity: "An Afghan businessman has donated more than 19 million afghanis (about $400,000) for a water supply project in a village of Guzra district in the western Herat province."

Afghanistan's links with the region are expanding. Pakistani authorities are opening another 10 border crossings with Afghanistan, in addition to the two currently in operation. The trade between the two countries is definitely on the rise: "Pakistan's exports to Afghanistan have almost reached the mark of $1 billion, recording a growth by 84 percent in the last 10 months of the current fiscal year." Afghan economy is still very underdeveloped and will take some time before its exports to Pakistan reach significant levels.

Meanwhile, 50 Iranian enterprises are currently operating in Afghanistan. They are "involved in production of potable water, medicine, polyethylene pipe, electrical switches, concrete, computer and liquid gas cylinder filling device as well as wood industry, construction of houses and restaurants and establishment of dental clinics."

Agriculture still remains Afghanistan's main industry and employer - and the efforts are underway to modernize the sector. The United Nations, for example, is helping Afghan farmers to become more efficient:
The United Nations agricultural agency is set to oversee the distribution in Afghanistan of around 14,000 grain storage silos - produced by local tinsmiths and technicians - to farmers in nine provinces.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the aim of the project is to help reduce post-harvest losses, improve grain quality, increase the income of farmers by allowing them to sell grain during the off-season when prices are more favourable and enhance household food security.

Some 220 tinsmiths and technicians in the country are currently being trained through the project in an effort to build local capacity and improve the quality of local silo production.

"The small metallic silo has been adopted by many developing countries as appropriate, affordable technology for small- and medium-scale farmers to prevent food losses," said Tim Vaessen, FAO's Emergency and Rehabilitation Coordinator.

The locally produced silos, with grain storage capacities ranging from 120 to 1,800 kilograms, will be given to individual farmers, farmers' groups and cooperatives.
USAID is helping too: "Farmer training programs take a holistic approach, including: agricultural best practices taught through crop demonstrations and radio programs, infrastructure construction (farm to market roads and irrigation systems), high value crop production such as potatoes and grapes, microfinance practices, quality control measures, poultry production, livestock health services, agricultural processing and marketing, agri-input dealer training, business and management skills through Village Based Seed Enterprises. To date, 642,732 farmers have been served through these programs."

Also: "Laboratories to test the quality of imported food will be set up at all strategic ports and cities in Afghanistan, with 1 Million euro [$1.22 million] donated by the German government... The agreement was signed on May 16 between the UN director of food and agriculture and Obaidullah Rameen the minister of agriculture and livestock in the capital Kabul."

Read the story of one of the people who are making it happen:
Randy Frescoln had to make something out of nothing during a six-month assignment as a rural development worker in Afghanistan.

With no money to spend and no real job description, Frescoln set out to rebuild the war-torn Asian nation's agriculture. The job tested his ingenuity, creativity and, ultimately, his survival skills.
Lastly, you can always try to cash in on notoriety: "Provincial officials in eastern Nangarhar say they aim to develop the mountains of Tora Bora, once believed to be an Al Qaeda stronghold and a hide-out for Osama Bin Laden into a tourist attraction."

HUMANITARIAN AID: One of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan still needs much direct assistance to help its people in the short term. A significant proportion of that assistance is being provided by governments, but international and non-government organisations and individuals are also contributing.

Here's one program run by the International Organization for Migration:
The labour intensive programme underway throughout the province is aimed at stabilizing living conditions of communities with vulnerable populations; encouraging participation in a variety of legitimate income generating activities through the quick disbursement of cash and other resources to targeted groups and at raising the quality of public infrastructure while fostering cooperation between the local, district, provincial and national government officials and the affected population. So far, there are 23 projects under the programme that will employ an estimated 10,000 skilled and unskilled labourers for a period of 50 days each. More projects, which will employ even more people, are in the pipeline with all due to finish by the end of the year.

In the capital of Badakhshan, Faizabad, one of the projects is improving irrigation for farmers. The city is located in a valley with great potential for agriculture, but most fields are rain-fed only due to poor irrigation systems. IOM engineers have designed an improved intake for the canal so the volume of water available for irrigation will increase substantially. This will allow more farmers to water their fields and to increase agricultural output...

Other projects include the rehabilitation or construction of water supplies, roads, bridges, schools and clinics.
Four thousand houses for victims of war are being constructed by the authorities in Behsud district of the eastern Nangarhar province.

Meanwhile, to help education "a UK-based charity donated books to refurbish two school libraries in Dehdadi district, about 30km from" Mazar-i-Shrif. "About 2,000 books on such diverse topics as cultural, historical, and social works were donated to improve the libraries of Abida Balkhi and Bibi Zainab Girls' High Schools, which were pillaged during the prolonged civil strife."

Kids from Georgia are also helping: "Twenty thousand preschoolers from Primrose Schools recently raised $20,000, which was matched in-kind by School Specialty, and used to purchase 250 active learning kits for several schools in Afghanistan. The first shipment arrived in Kabul, with additional kits set to arrive over the next few weeks. The first school to receive the kits sent back a thank you note and photographs of smiling Afghan children playing with the learning toys."

So are kids from Minnesota - although more help is needed to make it happen: "When a Minnesota soldier stationed in Afghanistan put out a call for shoes to be donated to Afghans, the Brainerd High School French Club was quick to respond, collecting 1,100 pairs of shoes in the club's recent shoe drive. But the BHS students now need about $1,000 to ship the shoes to Afghanistan." See the story for details if you can assist.

THE COALITION TROOPS: The Coalition forces throughout Afghanistan continue not only to provide security but also assist with the reconstruction of the country and provision of humanitarian aid.

In western Afghanistan, Task Force Longhorn is reporting on their contribution:
Eight months and almost five million dollars... 221 projects completed or in progress, such is the legacy of Combined Task Force Longhorn.

From the youngest to oldest, from men to women, the CTF Longhorn reached out and touched the people of western Afghanistan.

"We have completed projects that range from building 10 new schools to air dropping humanitarian assistance supplies and then almost everything in between," said Maj. Rick Johnson, Regional Command West civil affairs officer.

CTF Longhorn took over for Task Force Saber in Oct. 2004, and has led the way ever since in providing humanitarian assistance and provisions to the Afghan people.

Projects started during TF Saber's era were completed by Longhorn, which includes four new schools in the Shindand district of the Farah province.

"Building schools has the largest and longest impact," said Johnson. "They can't be destroyed or misused as easily as vehicles. The entire community gets excited. The locals are very serious about education, even the warlords."
The Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team , meanwhile, is winning hearts and minds:
Maj. Carl Hollister says he has spent more time building schools and an electrical grid than fighting terrorists, but feels that his work has done as much as the force of arms to cut back Afghanistan's insurgency.

Leading a convoy of armored Humvees through the dusty streets of this city near the border with Pakistan, the U.S. paratrooper says his troops are ready to do battle at any time with the Taliban remnants and al Qaeda militants seeking to undermine the government of President Hamid Karzai.

But as commander of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Khost, his primary job is to oversee projects aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Afghans.

Interviews with local residents suggest that the program is working. "Life is a lot better now than it was under the Taliban," said Atta Attaullah, who runs a small shop that sells DVDs to U.S. soldiers.

Security remains a major concern for traders like him, who travel in large groups because of carjackings and terrorist attacks because they cooperate with the Americans. But since the fall of the Taliban, he said, "Girls and boys can go to school, and they don't have to pay the teachers. The coalition forces established a lot of schools, water pumps and roads."

Rahmat Ullah, a shop owner by day and a general practitioner by night at a local clinic, said the change of government had allowed him to complete his medical degree at Khost University. "U.S. forces bring us peace and freedom," Dr. Ullah said. "It's worth a lot of sacrifice."
In southern Afghanistan, the troops are building the first road linking Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces:
Creating the first road to directly connect the remote city of Tarin Kowt with the southern city of Kandahar is a monumental task no matter how you look at it.

No one knows that better than the Soldiers of Task Force Sword, the engineers of Combined Joint Task Force-76.

"Everything has to be trucked or flown in," said U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Scott Walden, Task Sword's operations sergeant major. "The areas through which this road is being constructed are so remote that many of the items our soldiers need have to be flown in."

The Soldiers are responsible for the road's "bottom half." They make sure the area where the asphalt will be laid is level, that water on it drains and that culverts run along it to handle the draining water.

"The number of Soldiers we have working on the project changes as we speak," he said. "Right now it's probably about half a battalion of engineers."

Walden explained the U.S. Agency for International Development will add an asphalt-like substance after his unit completes its work.
Project is expected to be finished before September.

Near Kabul, the troops from Indiana National Guard are trying to help the locals rebuild their lives:
Children are one of the Guard's key focuses. The troops tell News 8 that one in four Afghan children will not live to the age of 10. The need can be overwhelming... One orphanage News 8 visited is home to nearly 700 children. Even more take classes there. One teenager, Kalimullah, said the kids were happy to see American soldiers. "All of children want you here because they bring security, they bring peace, all of the children like [you]," he said.

Members of the Indiana National Guard also bring jobs to the locals. When News 8 was at the orphanage, people were being hired to lay blacktop. The commander emergency relief program provides the money to pay for projects that rebuild Afghanistan. LtCol Paul Grube of New Albany, Indiana is in charge. "The reality is if they can't feed their families then Taliban will pay someone $20 to fire a rocket. And so we've got to put the economy back together and once the economy is together then the quality of life is better and they're not so willing to go to war," he said.

The United States is spending $87,000 to fund a new kitchen going up at a teaching hospital. At the moment, all they have is a makeshift stove.
Work is often taking soldiers to the remotest areas of the country
During a four-day road trip into the far northwest corner of Afghanistan, a provincial reconstruction team based in Herat visited more than two dozen settlements, several of which weren't even on the map.

The journey covered 265 miles, lasted 78 hours and encompassed four districts. Led by a small civil affairs staff, the 16-member team met community leaders, explored remote areas and gathered information that could be of use in the future.
The Coalition forces are also increasingly involving the Afghans themselves in the reconstruction effort, hoping that the skills learned in the process will have positive future spin-offs:
Pushing at each other, Afghan men crowd together early in the morning, hoping to be the one accepted into a trade school to earn $3 that day and, more importantly, a skill that will provide a future.

In a nation where unemployment remains a pressing problem, the Contrack Construction Training Center is a place where Afghans are paid to learn necessary trade skills that upon graduation will help them obtain jobs with Contrack International, one of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' main construction contractors.

The Corps' Afghanistan Engineer District is committed to encouraging the employment of Afghans. "Our hope is that at some point we can reach the entire Afghan workforce," said U.S. Army Col. John. B. O'Dowd, district commander, at a recent news conference.

"A majority of workers on our projects are (Afghans) and 75 percent of the workers involved in our new construction projects are Afghans," he said.
The troops are also winning local support through some less than usual projects:
The American Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the eastern city of Jalalabad... completed rebuilding a main mosque costing $29,000.

The spacious Spin Jumaat (White Mosque) in the city center can house thousands of worshippers, said Nangarhar Governor Haji Din Mohammad, who lauded the American PRT's gesture.

Although foreigners themselves did not offer prayers, he observed, "their rebuilding of the mosque is a good lesson for terrorists, whose propaganda campaign against American presence here knows no end."
Elsewhere, the Coalition forces also support local culture and religion:
The day before members of the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team visited this small village in northern Khost province, a man brought his sick son here from Peshawar, Pakistan, in the hopes that powers from the shrine here would cure him.

No one knows if his visit was successful, but it is just one example of how revered the shrine here is.

Considered the second holiest site in Khost province, the Faquirana shrine is the destination for many Muslims who believe it has healing powers.

At more than 80 years old, however, the shrine was badly in need of repairs. Recently, the Khost PRT gave the village $7,200 to help restore the shrine and a mosque just down the road.
As one of the local residents said, "The Taliban are all over the Afghanistan, but we didn't get anything from them... But the Coalition is a friend of Islam."

And in another similar project:
The Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team is providing $22,000 to help repair a mosque and adjacent buildings damaged by rockets fired by insurgents.

PRT members attended an April 27 press conference at the mosque that marked the start of reconstruction on the buildings damaged in the terrorist attack.

Enemy fighters had fired rockets at Forward Operating Base Salerno March 22, from somewhere near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

One of the rockets fell short of its intended target and instead hit near a mosque in the small village of Khodigi Kalay, just outside the southern perimeter of the base.

Although the rocket missed the mosque by about three feet, shrapnel from the rocket caused significant damage to the mosque's facade, porch and a support pillar.
In a country where the health system is struggling to cope, any assistance that the troops can offer is welcome. Actions such as this are routine: "Medics from Forward Operating Base Salerno christened a new clinic just outside the base May 5 by treating 100 local Afghans as part of a Medical Cooperative Assistance Program. Medics from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the FOB Salerno Hospital, along with two local doctors saw about 100 patients. Most of the patients had minor problems and were given medicine and sent on their way. This was the first MEDCAP at the clinic, which was completed April 25 at a cost of about $20,000."

Here's another example:
In a country where preventive medicine is not readily available, the Task Force Victory Surgon Cell can make a big difference by going to remote villages to treat local people.

"We are here to identify any medical problems the Afghans may have, treat what we can, and refer the serious cases to the hospitals," said Dr. (Col.) Richard Hines, a family practice doctor with the cell.

The surgeon cell is comprised of Soldiers who practice many forms of medicine. Doctors, veterinarians, medics, and entomologists are a few of the professionals in the surgeon cell here, said Hines.

During operations, four stations are set up to control the flow of people and animals: a women's clinic, a men's clinic, a well-check tent for children and a livestock clinic, said Maj. Jamie Blow, a preventive medical officer with the surgeon cell.
There is also help for children:
Children suffering from difficult-to-treat medical conditions in rural Afghanistan may have no better friend than the U.S. Marines of "America's Battalion."

Over the course of their deployment to Afghanistan, the Marines and Navy corpsmen of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, have come to the aid of several children who were not receiving treatment for serious injuries.

One teenager, Syed Ullah, recently received a prosthetic eye after Marines on patrol in Nagalam learned of his wounds.

"Last year an insurgent's 107 mm rocket landed in Syed's village during an indiscriminate attack that has become the mainstay of (the insurgents') tactics," said Marine 1st Lt. Justin Bellman, executive officer of the 3rd Marines' Company I. "The rocket sent shrapnel into his face and arms, disfiguring him."
Troops at the Kandahar Airfield's U.S. medical facility have also recently treated a 3-year old girl, brought to a forward operating base by her mother, and suffering with 2nd degree burns.

Read also the story of Air Ambulance personnel who are regularly flying medical evacuation missions for Afghan civilians. And sometimes, medical help can have important security side-effects:
An Afghan boy whose father received treatment from a visiting U.S. military medical team last week turned a cache of ammunition and drugs over to coalition forces April 21.

The boy led Afghan National Army and coalition forces to a house in a village 10 kilometers away from Ghazni. The ANA approached the house's owner, who claimed he had no weapons inside. Afghan and coalition forces searched the dwelling and discovered a cache of 13 rocket-propelled grenades, a Russian-manufactured machine gun, a mortar round, several improvised-explosive-device components, plastic explosives, numerous rounds of ammunition and two bags of opium.
The troops often "adopt" certain local institutions, as this action shows:
One of the easiest and most effective ways U.S. Soldiers can win the hearts and minds of Afghans is through the children. Troops from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Combined Joint Task Force-76, got a chance to win the hearts and minds of young Afghans May 9 during a trip to an orphanage and all-girl school.

The troops, most of whom are based out of the Southern European Task Force on Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy, visited the side-by-side installations in Charikar, a village near Bagram Airfield. While there they handed out school supplies, toys and clothing to the kids.

The HHC Soldiers adopted the two installations taking donations from various individuals, groups and organizations from their home stations and the States. The school and orphanage were adopted by the previous HHC troops that the CJTF-76 troops relieved in March. The last time they visited, however, was November.
In agriculture, "the American contingent in the Italian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and US-based aid agency Catholic Relief Services on Monday donated $30,000 for staving off a looming threat posed by locusts in western Herat."

It's not just the American troops, of course. This, from the Italian contingent:
Today in the village of Qal eh ye Shanan, a games park created by the Italian military contingent (CIMIC) opened after two weeks work under the direction of the men of the "2nd Reggimento Genio Guastatori di Trento". The work - a memo reads - involved the installation of games equipment, the creation of a garden with benches, a volleyball pitch and the removal of tons of refuse from the games park about 1500 metres from 'Camp Invictia', the Italian base in Kabul.
Thanks to generous help from back home, the Italian soldiers are also constructing a school for the village. And the troops are also helping nuns help the locals:
The Italian contingent keeps on supporting Kabul's population. In this case, the help is for the so-called "angels of the sky", the three nuns of the Little Sisters of Jesus congregation who are still in the country: Chantal (French), Mariam (Swiss) and Chaterine (Japanese). The men of the 8th artillery regiment 'Pasubio' delivered 5 tonnes of humanitarian aid to them, to be handed out to the local people. The goods include 1800 kg of clothes, 700 of bedcovers, 2000 of food, 500 of toys and 800 of shoes. The logistics operation being led by col. Francesco Franza will have to deliver 1,350,000 litres of water for showers, toilets, bakeries, laundries, 58,000 hot meals; 69,000 litres of mineral water; 105,000 litres of diesel fuel, and repair armament devices and means of transport, take care of road maintenance and provide health assistance with ambulances.
In another action, the Italian-run Provincial Reconstruction Team has donated much needed medical equipment to a hospital in Herat; "the Italian civil-military team donated seven beds, 24 tables, a microscope, an operating table, and a stretcher,." The team has already spent $400,000 on public projects in Herat, and construction will begin soon on a center for the blind.

Meanwhile, French troops have finished building a school: "Built near the villages of Bandikhaneh, Sangaw, Shaykhu and Qal Eh Ye Miran the Katacha primary School will be able to give education to more than one hundred children of those villages. Seven classrooms, administration and teacher's office, sanitary facilities are now ready for the new school year. Initiated less than 10 months ago by the French Battle group, with funds from the European community delegation for Afghanistan for an amount of 60 000 euro (100 000 $)."

And Egyptian military personnel is providing valuable medical service to Afghan people at the Egyptian hospital:
Tears of joy spring to the corner of Khan Mohammad's eyes as he talks about what the Egyptian doctors have done for his son, Abdul Hafiz.

One afternoon, Hafiz stepped on an active mine. The explosion sent pieces of shrapnel into a portion of his small intestine, said Dr. (Lt. Col.) Hany M. Fares, the chief consultant of surgery with the Egyptian Hospital.

"He required a minor surgery to repair his small intestine," said Fares. "We cut out the damaged piece of intestine and then sewed it back together"...

Every day, the doctors and nurses at the Egyptian Hospital treat Coalition patients and local Afghans with stories like Hafiz's. The hospital staff treats 300 to 400 patients a day, said Col. Emad Rabie, commander of the Egyptian Hospital...

From serious problems to preventive medicine, the doctors and nurses at the Egyptian Hospital see it all...

There's a multitude of highly skilled doctors, nurses and professional services offered at the hospital, said Rabie.

The hospital has a gynecological clinic, radiology tent, ophthalmology clinic, pediatrics clinic, surgery tents, lab tent, internal medicine clinic, dentistry clinic and tropical medicine clinic.

Every six months, the hospital staff rotates out. The present staff has been here for three months. In the past three months, the hospital has treated 26,000 patients and performed 300 operations.
SECURITY: In a good sign for the future security cooperation between Afghanistan and the United States:
Most of the Afghans support President Hamid Karzai's bid to have long-term security ties with the United States.

President's spokesman Jawed Ludin told a news conference after the assembly of more than 1,000 chiefs and regional leaders, which Hamid Karzai summoned in the presidential palace... to debate on relationship with the US and whether permanent bases should be given to the US forces in Afghanistan.

"Our findings from today's discussions were that people are very positive about this, and I think that people are thinking, by and large, exactly on the same line as we had expected," Ludin stated and added that Karzai would discuss long-term strategic relations with the US when he meets President George W Bush this month.
On that topic, you can read the joint declaration issues during President Karzai's recent trip to the United States, which sets out in detail the future of the strategic partnership between the two nations.

According to some experts, the recent tactic of the Taliban to concentrate their forces and fight (which is not working out very well for them as they are generally getting wiped out - see stories below) is a result of the success of the Coalition and Afghan forces in making Taliban's previous guerilla tactics untenable:
Ian Kemp... an independent defense analyst in London... notes that the Afghan population, as a whole, is less sympathetic to the Taliban than it had been to mujahedin who fought the Soviets during the 1980s. He says that as support the Taliban is eroded further, it is more difficult for militants to find villages where they can safely take shelter after conducting a guerilla attack.

"The U.S.-led coalition is gradually eroding the sanctuary that was previously enjoyed by the guerilla fighters -- thus, making it far more difficult for them to operate the classic mujahedin hit-and-run attack upon their opponents and then retreat into a vast sanctuary and even cross the border into Pakistan. The Taliban today do not enjoy the popular support throughout the country. And, of course most significantly, the fact that the Pakistani forces are operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border makes it more difficult for the Taliban to operate," Kemp said.

Newly constructed provincial roads and an expanded number of U.S. forward operations bases also have strengthened the abilities of the U.S.-led coalition and reduced areas of potential sanctuary for guerilla fighters in Afghan provinces like Khost, Zabol, Uruzgan, and Kandahar.
According to Colonel Gary Cheek, commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, many of the clashes with the Taliban are now "limited to the border region where insurgents can launch small-scale attacks, then attempt to return to Pakistan."

One recent security operation certainly demonstrated that peace is settling over some previously dangerous parts of the country:
When the U.S. Marine Corps' 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment ventured into the Tora Bora mountains recently to hunt down enemy fighters, they instead found Afghans eager for a brighter future.

The mission, dubbed Operation Celtics, began as an offensive in an enemy sanctuary - the rugged mountains of Nangahar Province that stretch along the Pakistan border.

It was one of several missions launched this week by Coalition troops to locate insurgents. Afghan National Army soldiers took part in the operations. "Lima" Company Marines were prepared for a fight, but found themselves sipping tea with village elders.

In the first few days of the operation, the Marines distributed roughly eight tons of civic aid. And not a shot was fired.
The amnesty program for Taliban leaders and fighters continues to bear fruit:
A top Taliban commander and dozens of his men have surrendered to the Afghan government as part of an arms-for-amnesty scheme, a military official said Tuesday.

Mulla Abdul Khaliq, locally-known as Haji Malam and 40 of his guerrillas on Monday surrendered to Afghanistan's military forces in south-central Uruzgan province, Muslim Hamed, the military commander of southern region told AFP.

"He was a big Taliban regional commander. His surrender will help in security in the region," the general said.

He said Khaliq was organising most of the anti-government insurgencies in the Uruzgan area where the remnants of the Taliban have been frequently attacking government targets and US-led troops since their regime was toppled by a US invasion in late 2001.
In another recent defection:
Peals of laughter rang through the remote Afghan farmhouse as neighbours rushed to welcome home the long-lost son of the soil. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged. Teenage boys offered trays of sweet tea. The women waited patiently in a back room, silent and unseen as ever.

The bearded man at the centre of the hubbub, Mufti Habib-ur-Rehman, allowed his solemn face to crack into a grin. "It's good to be back," he said.

Smile he might. Days earlier Mr Rehman, 35, a one-time Taliban governor, had been a wanted man. He lived as a fugitive across the border in Pakistan, 20 miles to the south. He had not seen his family in years. US troops were offering a $2,500 (£1,360) award for his capture, dead or alive.

Last month, after secret negotiations brokered by local mullahs - and promises from the Americans not to shoot - he came in from the cold.

"I am not a terrorist. I am here to work for the reconstruction of my country," he said before pledging allegiance to the president, Hamid Karzai.

Mr Rehman is one of dozens of mid-level Taliban officials who have defected to the government this year, a process which US officials hope is the beginning of the end for the insurgency that has dogged them since 2001.
Two more low-ranking Taliban officials have joined the reconciliation process in late May, and the Afghan authorities are planning more:
The Afghan government has announced an initiative designed to repatriate noncriminal combatants and insurgents back into Afghan society.

Professor Sibghatullah al-Mojaddedi announced the Tahkim-e Solh, or Strengthening Peace, program at a May 9 news conference in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Mojaddedi will serve as a commissioner for the program.

The program is designed to urge members of the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin and other anti-coalition militia who have not been involved in criminal activity to return to Afghanistan from foreign lands. The goal, Mojaddedi explained, is to "help unite Afghanistan and guarantee our country's sovereignty, peace, stability, and a secure environment for all Afghans."
The authorities are also getting tough on militants:
The president of Afghanistan's supreme court has issued a fatwa or religious edict saying that anyone who kills a foreigner will be sentenced to death. Fazli Hadi Shinwari, who also heads the Council of Islamic Leaders in Afghanistan, said that the recent kidnapping of Italian aid worker, Clementina Cantoni was also against Islamic teachings and that they had decided to issue the fatwa against all of these actions.

"Those who come to our country, respecting our laws and helping us are untouchable, according to the Islamic law," said Shinwari in an interview with the Italian daily, Il Giornale, explaining why such a strong fatwa was issued yesterday by the Council of Religious leaders, against killing foreigners. The fatwa adopted by the supreme count states that: "If a foreign guest of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is killed, the punishment for the assasination is the death penalty."
The demobilization of armed militias continues throughout Afghanistan:
More than 50,000 former Afghan military troops have disarmed, and 90 per cent of them have entered a programme aimed at helping them to re-join society...

"The most popular area of reintegration is agriculture with 43.6 per cent of participants choosing that option," Ariane Quentier, spokesperson for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told a press briefing in the capital Kabul. "Vocational training is a distant second with 26.9 per cent participation."

Of the 50,514 soldiers who have laid down their arms, 44,995 have entered into the reintegration programme.

Ms. Quentier also announced that nearly 31,000 light and heavy weapons have been collected under the Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process. "The discrepancy between the number of collected weapons and disarmed soldiers stem from the fact that certain weapons are manned by more than one soldier," she explained.
Here's more about the program:
Once a combatant, 34-year-old Abdul Ghafour wakes each day to begin his new life as the sole carpenter in the tiny village of Janat Bagh. The father-of-five, once a trained RPG [rocket propelled grenade] launcher in the former 54th military division, now helps to reconstruct his own village in northeastern Kunduz province's Khanabad district.

Ghafour's was one of the very first militias to be decommissioned through the UN-backed disarmament demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme in November 2003.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are supporting Kabul's efforts to honourably decommission the Afghan Military Forces (AMF). This is being achieved through the Afghanistan's New Beginnings Programme (ANBP), the official name of the DDR scheme. Today it is considered a major step towards restoring national security and creating an enabling environment for further security sector reform.

After surrendering his gun, Ghafour chose to take up carpentry in his efforts to rebuilt his life and reintegrate into society, while at the same time learning how to read. In addition to having a proper trade, he is also one of the few people who can read and write in Janat Bagh where most of the adults are former combatants and youngsters who missed school due to years of displacement.

"The DDR has healed the wounds of two decades of war. Now I am an important person in the village. I earn up to 5,000 Afghanis [US$100] and can read sign boards of pharmacies' and doctors'," Ghafour explained. "Nowadays I am often hired a month in advance as this is the season of construction here," he said proudly.
Recently, "fifteen former Jihadi commanders voluntarily surrendered their arms under the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) process. Commanders including Pir Mohammed, Arbab Wali, Haji Agha Gul, Noor Khan, Mamoor Hassan, Mullah Omar, Ghulam Hazrat, present security chief, and Najibullah, director of the national security, handed over 776 light and heavy weapons and 120 cars to officials in Takhar province on Monday [23 May]." And in the latest development, Gul Baghlani, former deputy commander of Jamiat-e-Islami in the northern Baghlan province handed over to the authorities three trucks full with all his remaining arms and ammunitions.

As a useful follow-up to the demobilization and disarmament program, under a new $3-million initiative, "a Japanese organisation will arrange vocational training courses in nine Afghan provinces for people surrendering arms under the DDR plan, the disabled and the jobless... Defence Ministry estimates say 56,000 militiamen have been disarmed during the past two years and 48,000 of them have already got civilian jobs after undergoing such training."

Full Afghanization of security begins:
U.S. forces are beginning to hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan National Army.

As the Bobcats of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, pull their troops from the Tarin Kowt area, the ANA's 3rd Kandak, 1st Brigade, 205th Corps, are moving in.

Replacing U.S. forces with ANA troops at a forward operating base is the first operations exchange to take place.
Meanwhile, a training program begins to make the border security more professional:
Changes are taking place on the borders of Afghanistan, and one man is leading the way.

Afghan Col. Safe Aube, commander of the Transitional Afghan Border Security Force, and 229 border-security volunteers from across the country are replacing the existing border police forces in Islam Quala, on Afghanistan's border with Iran in Herat province.

"The mission is to replace the existing border police with my men so that those men can be retrained to enforce the rule of law," said Aube. "Once the men are trained, they will return, and we will then move on to the next border site and do the same thing."

This pilot program is planned for 13 other border locations around the country. The hope is to put an end to corruption and increase revenue through proper taxes instituted at the borders.
Soldiers from Combined Task Force Longhorn, stationed in western Afghanistan, are lending a hand in the training.

Read also this story of Afghanistan's first military police unit. Says U.S. Army 1st Lt. Rusty Clark, officer in charge of MP mentoring: "These guys conduct operations exactly how they are taught; they maintain a high degree of motivation and attention to detail. It is amazing to have soldiers that are trained on individual tasks and you bring them together to perform some pretty complex operations. They still have some challenges, but their progress is incredible."

Italy has also given committment to help train the Afghan Army. And Turkey is donating $1 million towards modernization of the Afghan armed forces. Meanwhile, on a smaller scale, "the American Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) donated motorcycles, vehicles, wireless sets and other equipment to Nangarhar border police."

American forces are constructing the security infrastructure for the Afghan army:
Fourteen bases are being developed throughout the country for the Afghan National Army's 3,500-man brigades, but long before these bases are put in place, a team of engineers from the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan puts in many hours of planning and research.

One of the their latest projects is a new brigade base at Jalalabad in Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province, where U.S. Army Maj. Andrew Kirkner, an engineer with the Defense Resource Sector directorate at OMC-A, recently led a site reconnaissance for the new base.

"The recon allows us to look at the terrain, to see whether it is suitable for construction," said Kirkner. "We prefer relatively flat terrain because it is easiest to build on and keeps the cost of the project down."
In local law enforcement, some Kabul cops are getting more mobile:
Around 40 trained police personnel of the 10th security check-post Sunday started round-the-clock patrols on city roads on special bicycles and motorbikes, in a step to boost security in the capital.

DynCorp, with financial assistance from the United States, began training 32 of the policemen for patrols on bicycles and six on motorbikes in early February. Having undergone the three-month training, the cops were awarded certificates at a ceremony here yesterday.

One of the trainees, Aminullah said in a chat with Pajhwok Afghan News: "With the help of bicycles, we would be able to patrol more areas in less time. Earlier, we would patrol on foot."
And some female cops in Kabul are getting better facilities:
A hostel to accommodate 100 female police officers was opened in the capital Kabul by the Counter narcotics department and the women's ministry.

The hostel which was built with the aid of US$ 632,000 from the German government has a kindergarten, sports rooms, and classrooms. The accommodation was specially to provide homes for women working in the Kabul police force who don't have anywhere to live.

There are eight girls currently training at the police academy, and police trainers hope that the new accommodation would attract many new recruits from the provinces.

The director of the Police academy, Gen. Shir Aqa Rohani said that after the fall of the Taliban, about 2,027 students graduated from the police academy, and out of these 57 were women. He said the female police officers were assigned to the counter narcotics department at the Kabul airport.
The Taliban continue getting disarmed:

The Afghan authorities recovered a significant arms cache in the Farah province on May 3, including "several anti-aircraft machine-guns, dozens of rocket-launcher rounds, mortars and ammunition";

The Italian forces of Trento's 2nd Sappers have uncovered a huge weapons cache on May 18; the contents included: "55 HEAT rockets mod. PG2; 7 HEAT rockets mod. PG7; 2 single use launchers mod. RPG 18 with rockets; 7 antipersonnel mines mod. PMN; 5 detonators for antipersonnel mines PMN; 8 charges for rockets PG7; 1 crate of ammunitions cal. 12,7 mm; 2 kg. of explosive (balistite); 1 kg. of plastic explosive; 17 S5 KPB 57 mm rockets; 1 107mm HG rocket";

"Police claimed on Tuesday [May 24] having recovered a huge cache of weapons in Dawazi Kho district in the southern Paktia province... On a tip-off, he said, police raided the area and seized a huge quantity of heavy and light arms including anti-aircraft guns, machine-guns, 130 boxes of ammunition and parts of heavy weapons... Some days back, Paktia police had recovered a huge quantity of arms and ammunitions from a house in the Dand Patan district";

On the same day, police discovered 140 kilos of explosives and ammunitions in the eastern Sarobi district, about 75 kilometers east of Kabul;

In other recent security successes:

The killing of four Taliban in an airstrike on a suspected insurgent camp in central Afghanistan on April 30 (three civilians also died in the attack);

On April 30, "a senior Taliban commander was killed and another captured alive in clashes with Afghan and coalition forces in militancy-plagued Zabul and Kandahar provinces";

Overall, according to Afghan authorities, some 100 Taliban were killed by the secuirty forces in April;

The arrest of four Taliban fighters in an counter-insurgency operation in the Uruzgun province on May 1; two more Taliban militants, Mullah Rozi and Mullah Abdul Razzaq, were arrested there on May 2;

The capture of six Taliban by a joint patrol of Afghan police and US Army in a small village in Kandahar province on May 2;

The arrest by the Pakistani authorities of a Taliban man suspected of killing pro-American guerrilla leader Abdul Haq in October 2001;

Twenty Taliban killed and six arrested after a battle with American and Afghan forces near Deh Chopan in Zabul Province on May 3 (the death toll has subsequently risen to 40);

Another 20 Taliban were killed near Kandahar in a battle that also left nine Afghan Army soldiers dead on May 3;

"Officials in the southern province of Kandahar claimed on Saturday they had arrested 15 Taliban activists and four foreigners in an operation conducted by the Afghan army and US forces. Kandahar Corps Commander Gen. Muslim Hamed told Pajhwok Afghan News four Chechens and five wounded Taliban were among the detainees. The crackdown on insurgents lasted three days, he added."

"Four suspected Taliban fighters were killed while a policeman was injured in a clash in the southern Zabul province" on May 8;

The arrest of four gunmen in Moqur district of the Ghazni province on May 8;

Twenty three Taliban killed in a fierce firefight with the Marines (two killed in action) in the eastern province of Laghman on May 9;

The arrest on May 14 by the Afghan police in Sorobi district, 60 km east of Kabul of two Afghans and one Pakistani in possession of four remote control bombs and one bag of explosives destined to be used in attacks against the American forces;

"Security officials have discovered and defused a quantity of explosives on the Kabul-Nangarhar road, in Sarobi District [in eastern Nangarhar Province]. It is said that the explosives were intended to destroy the Naghlu hydroelectric dam";

On May 15, Afghan security forces "discovered and diffused several small bombs attached to two remote control devices on the Paktia-Khost highway about 40 kilo meters from Khost city"; in Paktia, quantities of arms and ammunition were seized;

The arrest on May 16 of a man who confessed to a bomb attack against the Kabul Air Force University last year;

"Police managed to thwart a possible rocket attack in the southeastern Paktika province, interior ministry said Tuesday [May 17]... Police discovered and destroyed 13 scud rockets which were ready for launch in a village at Argon district of the province;

The arrest in the central Uruzgan province of 15 Taliban fighters on May 17;

Following a tip from a local informant, "a raid by Afghan and coalition forces May 16 resulted in the capture of three insurgents suspected of using improvised explosive devices near Khowst";

Four Taliban with weapons and explosives arrested in Dand district outside of Kandahar City on May 18;

Twelve Taliban killed in a clash with American forces near the village of Gayan in Paktika province on May 21;

Two Taliban fighters were killed and 10 others detained in an operation in Deh Rawood district, Uruzgan province, and three Taliban operatives including Mullah Abdul Bari, a prominent Taliban commander in the south of the country, captured in the neighboring Charchino district on May 23;

A huge weapons cache seized by the Afghan army troops in Ajrestan district of Ghazni province after a shootout on May 25;

The arrest on May 26 of 19 people allegedly involved in a bombing of Baghlan-based Provincial Reconstruction Team convoy, which left two Dutch soldiers injured;

On May 26, "security forces arrested five suspected fighters and seized 350 shotguns during a crackdown on insurgents in Shahre Safa district of the southern Zabul province";

Six caches of munitions seized by Coalition forces (three of them turned over by Afghan citizens) on May 27; "In all, 172 cases of anti-aircraft ammunition, 130 mortars, 57 recoilless rifle rounds, 45 cases of machine gun ammunition, 17 anti-personnel mines, four rockets and three hand grenades were found. Afghan police also discovered and turned in three Russian-manufactured machine guns and one mortar system";

"Eleven Taliban soldiers have been killed and three others including a high-rank commander arrested in Afghanistan's southern province of Zabul" on May 30;

Up to nine Taliban fighters killed on May 30 "during three near-simultaneous attacks against Afghan and coalition positions along the Afghan-Pakistan border"; no Afghan or Coalition casualties were sustained.

The war on drugs is progressing across the country:
Last year at this time, the southeastern Afghan province of Nangrahar was covered with pink and white poppies, producing a quarter of the nation's opium crop. This year, after President Hamid Karzai announced a jihad or holy war against drugs, Nangrahar is almost 80 percent free of poppies.
There are still many challenges: corruption has to be fought, and farmers have to be assured of alternative livelihoods lest they be tempted to return to poppy cultivation. The report continues:
Eradication is just one of the more visible efforts to control the drug trade. With President Karzai's government fully engaged, the international community - with Britain in the lead - has developed a multipronged approach to Afghanistan's pervasive drug industry, including:

- A public affairs campaign to transform attitudes about drug production and use;

- Assistance for rebuilding the judicial system, including the Counternarcotics Prosecution Task Force and counternarcotics detention facilities;

- Creation of alternative livelihoods;

- Enhanced interdiction efforts.

"We now have the basis of all these key elements in place in Afghanistan," says Steve Atkins, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington. "It took 30 years in Thailand, which was a much less complex program. [Afghanistan] is a great challenge and one we don't underestimate."
The UN research is pointing towards some progress: "A new UN survey identifies a positive trend in opium-poppy cultivation in the majority of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. While researchers suggest that opium-poppy crops have grown in five provinces, the broader decline marks the first time in four years that such harvests have fallen in Afghanistan." According to the authorities, "anti-drug forces confiscated 40 tons of opium in the first five months of this year, compared to 135 tons during last full year [2004] and 10 tons in 2003."

The Afghan government is also launching a new campiagn against opium cultivation. And the governments of Afghanistan, Great Britain and Iran are increasing tripartite cooperation against production and trafficking.

Action hereos get drawn into a fight against drugs:
Villagers in eastern Afghanistan are being shown the country's first anti-opium movie, combining heroism, romance and an educational message, in an attempt to eradicate the flourishing drug culture in the region.

Black Poison, a film project described by its creator, Shafiq Shaiq, as an "action-adventure with romantics and heroics", has been shown to audiences in village squares across the Nangarhar province.

The film features real heroin laboratories and frequent bloody shoot-outs between police and dealers in the mountains.

Mr Shaiq, an Afghan media mogul who campaigns against the drug trade through a newspaper, cable TV network and radio station mini-empire, says he turned to film to wake up young people who are spellbound by the aura of the gunmen who strut about his native city of Jalalabad, in the heart of Afghanistan's eastern poppy fields.
In other recent successes of the war on drugs:

On May 2, anti-narcotics officials in Nangarhar and Herat provinces seized 100 kilograms of opium and arrested a drug dealer;

50 kg of heroine seized in the eastern Nangarhar province on May 8;

3,225 kg of seized hashish torched by the authorities in the southern Paktika province on May 24;

"The Afghan Interior Ministry's Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) destroyed a poppy crop spread over 200 acres of land in Banu, De Salah and Pule Hesarak districts of the northern Baghlan province" on May 25;

The arrest of three drug smugglers after a firefight with police near the border with Turkmenistan on May 29;

The raid on Bahram Shah village, the remote trafficking center near the Pakistani border, which netted two tons of opium and 550lbs of heroin;

Seizure of 180 kg of fine quality heroin by the police in the Herat province - the largest seizure of this type so far.

Afghanistan many successes - large and small - on the long and painful road to normalcy might not always get reported internationally. Fortunately for the Afghan people, they are taking place every day, whether or not the cameras are there to record them for our benefit.


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