Saturday, March 12, 2005

Some people you should meet today 

Today's soldier:
"Mahir Ibrahimov came to the United States in 1993 from his homeland of Azerbaijan, a republic of the former Soviet Union, with his wife, daughter and a dream of opportunity.

"Eleven years after moving to America, he volunteered to help defend his country, the United States, the best way he knew how: by becoming a contracted linguist for the Army.

" 'After 9/11, I felt it was very important to be helpful any way I could,' Ibrahimov said. 'I feel that this is a very important mission at this time. Nothing is more important than the events here in Iraq and around Iraq'...

"Along with his master's degree, Ibrahimov is also a qualified Arabic and English linguist. He is fluent in Russian, Azerbaijani and Turkish and can communicate in another five languages from the Turkic linguistic family...

"His proficiency in languages has earned him the nickname 'Genius' by the civil affairs unit he is contracted to, while enabling him to actively participate in experiencing the regional cultures of Iraq."
Meet also Estonian soldiers in Iraq:
"One small European country is playing a major role in keeping supply convoys safe while moving through Iraq. Each day, hundreds of trucks travel the streets of Iraq carrying cargo bound for military installations and forward operating posts.

"One of the ways the Army is minimizing the risk involved in delivering supplies to Soldiers in Iraq is through a joint operation that includes Soldiers from 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y., and a platoon of Estonian infantrymen.

" 'It's not too easy to cordon and search with a bunch of tanks,' said Capt. Jade Hinman, Company C commander. 'To have a group of Estonians who are good at what they do is like having a plate of brownies to myself'... Hinman said he is sometimes the butt of jokes because many American Soldiers have never heard of Estonia and say it is a mythical country, but the Estonian Soldiers are some of the best he's seen...

"Estonian Army Capt. Neeme Brus, a media relations officer with Multi-National Corps - Iraq, said Estonia knows the value of freedom and the need to fight terrorism here, before the fight ends up in their own back yard."
(hat tip: Dan Foty). The Willing do come in all shapes and sizes.


Saturday reading 

Ain't the blogosphere grand? I don't have time to bring you updates on what's going on in all the interesting - and under-reported - places around the world; but others do. Registan has some on-the-ground dispatches from Kyrgyzstan (Gateway Pundit has more). Publius Pundit rounds up the news from Moldova and Lebanon. Daily Pundit blogs about dynamic between France, Lebanon and Syria. Bloggledygook has a Ukraine round-up. And, as always, don't miss Regime Change Iran's daily briefing.

Bill Roggio looks at the proposals to make the Democratic Party more credible on defence issues.

Lorie Byrd at Polipundit says goodbye to Dan Rather - it's been a long time coming. PunditGuy has more thoughts.

The democratic revolution - John Hawkins collects the memorable quotes.

Crossroads Arabia, having read my interview, disagrees with Stephen Schwartz (there's discussion of Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia at Daily Pundit, too).

Peaktalk, meanwhile, having read my post about an encouraging opinion poll in Indonesia, is skeptical.

Bloggledygook brings you the untold story of Ukrainian TapeGate: Borys Feldman and his ordeal inside Kuchma's regime.

Are less acculturated Latino youth living in the U.S. generally healthier? Fausta investigates the latest study.

Tom Elia writes about a journalist as rube.

Homespun Bloggers' 6th radio show is up!


The last postcard from Afghanistan 

Posted by Hello

Our Afghanistan (photo)blogging correspondent Maj John Tammes from the Bagram Air Base is leaving Afghanistan soon. Before he signs off, he writes:
"Our replacements have just arrived, and I have not much longer here. I wanted to pass along one final photo for you: – one of all our eventual replacements here. This is an ANA (Afghan National Army) soldier in the Zin Ghar (mountains south of here) taken a few months back. He and his fellow ANA soldiers have been trained and equipped by the US and the Coalition, and are usually fairly tough and combat experienced. They are taking more and more responsibility for the defense of Afghanistan over time."
Good luck to the "eventual replacement" in keeping Afghanistan safe and secure. Thank you to Maj Tammes for his contribution to this blog, but much more importantly, thank you to him and his brothers-in-arms for their contribution to the cause of freedom. We're but scribes and spectators, they are the doers. My hat off to them.


Friday, March 11, 2005

We're about 5 million years overdue 

"With surprising and mysterious regularity, life on Earth has flourished and vanished in cycles of mass extinction every 62 million years, say two UC Berkeley scientists who discovered the pattern after a painstaking computer study of fossil records going back for more than 500 million years...

"[The report's authors] Muller and Rohde conceded that they have puzzled through every conceivable phenomenon in nature in search of an explanation: 'We've had to think about solar system dynamics, about the causes of comet showers, about how the galaxy works, and how volcanoes work, but nothing explains what we've discovered,' Muller said."
Seeing that the dinosaurs found themselves on the ash heap of (pre)history some 67 million years ago, for the past 5 million years we have been living on borrowed time.

It's only a matter of time before the next Great Dying takes place. The first prize ("Get out of extinction" card) will go the a reader who is best able to work Halliburton, Chimpy Bushhitler and neo-ziocons into a convincing theory.


Outlawing the obvious 

"U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Thursday for a world treaty on terrorism that would outlaw attacks targeting civilians and establish a framework for a collective response to the global threat.

"Although the United Nations and its agencies already have 12 treaties covering terrorism, a universal definition has been elusive.

"World leaders and officials have had deep disagreements over whether resisters to alleged oppression for example, Palestinian suicide bombers attacking Israeli targets are terrorists or freedom fighters; and whether states that use what they think is legitimate force might be branded terrorists.

"But Annan was categorical in his address Thursday to terrorism experts and world leaders from 50 countries, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

" 'The right to resist occupation … cannot include the right to deliberately kill or maim civilians,' Annan told the conference on democracy, terrorism and security. The United Nations, he said, must proclaim 'loud and clear that terrorism can never be accepted or justified in any cause whatsoever'."
Good on Annan for stating the obvious; after all, all decent individuals around the world know that flying passenger planes into skyscrapers or detonating oneself outside a pizza parlor or a mosque is a no-no. But the Secretary-General might have more trouble convincing everyone that this is the case.

In the end, this exercise will rise or fall not on the strength of its sentiment - the United Nations has produced volume after volume of well-meaning treaties to solve all the world's problems - but the willingness of the member states to enforce it. Left to their own devices, the international community is more than reluctant to use force under any circumstances. Good luck to the UN with its 13th (lucky number?) international convention on terrorism, but if I were a gambling man I would bet that the first time this treaty is invoked it will be Darfur all over again, when an expert commission concluded that what's happening over there is not quite a genocide, therefore the UN is not technically obliged to take a strong action to stop it.


Renaming mountains 

OK, this story isn't all that important next to all the momentous developments in the Middle East and all other consequential political news that we, serious bloggers (just joking) blog about, but with my Polish bias, I couldn't help myself:
"Mount Kosciuszko, [Australia]'s highest mountain, could be given an alternative Aboriginal name. The proposal is part of a [New South Wales state government] scheme to give dual names to all landmarks of Aboriginal cultural significance...

"Poland's ambassador in Australia, Jerzy Weiclaw said yesterday Polish newspapers had been inundated with letters from concerned Poles over reports that Australia was about to change the name of its highest mountain at 2228 metres...

"However the state Government moved to reassure people, saying Kosciuszko will 'remain the predominant' name for the 2228 metre mountain, the national park and the range."
By one of those strange historical quirks, the name Kosciuszko is today familiar to three nations: Poles, Australians and Americans. For the Poles, he is a national hero, a leader of an (unsuccessful as they usually were) anti-Russian uprising in the late 18th century; for Australians he's an almost unpronounceable name of the highest mountain (named so by a Polish explorer Strzelecki - another unpronounceable who left his name on several Australian geographic features), although few would know who Kosciuszko was; and finally in America he's known as one of the heroes of the War of Independence. I guess you can call him one of the first of the Willing (in those crazy old times when the French were, but the Brits weren't), an expert at fortifications who fought alongside another Polish general Pulaski (died at Savannah and has several towns, I believe, named after them). So as you can see, the Polish-American friendship has a long history, way beyond the current war on terror (Poles were also in charge of artillery at Alamo, fought in the Civil War, and as American citizens in American army were well represented in every other conflict since then).


Welcome to Dennis Prager's listeners 

It's been a great pleasure to talk to Dennis and his listeners across the United States. If you're coming here via Dennis's show this morning, make yourself comfortable, have a look around, and check out the latest installment of good news from Iraq, and from Afghanistan (the past news round-ups are indexed on the sidebar). And here's the opinion poll from Iraq I spoke to about on the show.


Thursday, March 10, 2005

New - first? - Afghan blog 

"I would like to say hello to all bloggers. My name is Waheed. I am a 20 year old male from Afghanistan and I have been working with the US Army in Kabul, Afghanistan as an interpreter for the last 2 years. Our base is located inside the ANA (Afghan National Army) Central Corps and the US officers train the ANA. I would like to thank my friend Paul Edwards who persuaded me to start my blog and send the real news from Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan is getting better day by day. There are still some fights in the southern provinces and also near the Pakistan border. The ANA and US Army fight against them, but the enemy is weak and they just carry out guerilla attacks and then escape."
So begins the blogospheric journey of Waheed at Afghan Warrior. As Afghanistan enters the 'sphere, bookmark him and make him feel welcome.



Just a quick reminder for the masochists among you that I'll be on Dennis Prager's show on Thursday, March 10, at 11 AM Pacific time, to discuss, among other things, good news from Iraq. Feel free to listen in if you're in Los Angeles on KRLA-AM station, or - since Dennis's show is syndicated across the US - you might even get it on your local radio station (here's a partial list), or indeed you can listen in via Internet streaming anywhere in the world.

There won't be much blogging tonight - it's early night for me, as the time difference between the West Coast of the US and the East Coast of Australia means I have to get up before 5 AM my time.


Lebanon - where to from now? 

The empire strikes back, or at least tries to, in Lebanon; first with the mega-Shia demonstration of somewhere between 500,000 (the media) and 1 million (the organizers and the authorities), but either way impressive in a country of 3.7 million, and now with the prospect that the president will re-nominate the pro-Syrian prime minister who only resigned a few weeks ago.

What does it all mean? So much for the Druze opposition leader Walid Jumblatt's
attempts to woo Shia away from the government and away from Syria to join the opposition. Jumblatt might have called the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah "a great Lebanese who freed Lebanese territory from Israeli occupation, [who] should join the caravan of those who want liberty and independence," but judging by the slogans at the Shia demonstration, Hizbollah is quite happy with non-Israeli occupation of his land.

Lebanon has been a much fractured polity for the last few decades. In a country that until the end of the civil war in 1990 has been dominated by Maronite Christians (now no longer an absolute majority), the Shia (not a majority yet but the largest group in Lebanon) see Syria as a protector and guarantor of their newfound political influence. Thanks to the demographic growth, Hizbollah is now the most significant force in Lebanese politics; thanks to Syrian protection, it is also the only military force outside the government which has been allowed to keep its weapons.

Iran has been waging a long-standing proxy war in Lebanon against the United States and the West generally, using Lebanese Shia as their revolutionary vanguard on the Mediterranean. It is no surprise that the Lebanese Shias have so decisively thrown their weight behind Syria (which also happens to be one of Iran's few international allies) and the pro-Syrian government. Iran's mullahs, currently under pressure from the world community over their nuclear program and facing growing domestic dissent emboldened by the new "spring of nations" sweeping the Middle East, are very keen to provide a diversion elsewhere and frustrate America's democratic rampage through the region. And for Lebanon's Shias it also helps that Assad and his clique who control Syria are mostly members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.

The Shia show of strength might have emboldened Assad, but in the end, the fate of Syria's military presence in Lebanon is not a function of a popularity contest. Assad is not a committed democrat who will base his decision about the withdrawal on who's got the louder voice of the "Arab street" in Beirut. The fate of Lebanon and Syria will still be decided by the so-called "larger circumstances", such as the broader geo-political situation in the region, the strength of Western pressure, and the considerations of personal survival for the region's last remaining Baathist regime.

As to which babes will gain the upper hand in Lebanon; these

or these

or whether, indeed, the two kinds can continue to coexist in one country, only time will tell.


Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Sgrena Code, Part II 

Updated: scroll down.

I wrote yesterday that "[we're] not at the stage yet where Giuliana Sgrena's version of events has more holes in it than her car, but it's getting there."

Today, the Italian media has finally published the photos of the car in which Sgrena was traveling on the way to the Baghdad airport, when it was riddled with the now-infamous volley of 300-400 American bullets, killing the Italian intelligence agent and wounding Sgrena herself. The photos appear to show one bullet hole in the lower right-hand corner of the windscreen, next to the wiper.

Thanks to LGF reader Thomas for hosting the pics.

Now it definitely looks like Sgrena version of events has more holes in it than her car.

"[Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini] said the car was traveling no faster than 25 mph, and disputed the U.S. military's assertion that several warnings were given... But, according to the senior U.S. military official, the car was traveling at speeds of more than 100 mph. The driver almost lost control several times before the shooting as the car hydroplaned through large puddles."
Having lived in Italy, I'm skeptical about any assurances which start with "We weren't speeding, really..."

Sgrena's captors, the Islamic Army of Iraq have also came out to say that they have
refused to accept the ransom for the journalist. Why wouldn't they? Sgrena has proven to be quite priceless.

Update: Reader Hagel translates an article from the Dutch press written by one of Sgrena's colleagues (original here):

Journalist Sgrena didn't like the Yanks
Filed on 3/8/2005 06:53
By Harald Doornbos

BEIRUT – "Be careful not to get kidnapped", I said to the female journalist sitting next to me on a small plane flying to Baghdad. "Oh, no", she said, "we are on the side of the Iraqi people. No Iraqi will kidnap us."

Eight days later this woman, Giuliana Sgrena, was kidnapped by armed Iraqis during a visit to the university of Baghdad. A month later she is freed. But don't ask how. For four weeks she was in captivity, appeared crying in a videotape, begging for her life and the withdrawal of Italian forces from Iraq. She also said that "Iraq wasn't a place for journalists". Then followed negotiations between Italian authorities and the group of kidnappers, who threatened to behead her.

It's highly likely that ransom was paid Friday, after which Italian security agents picked her up. But the trouble didn't end here. Just after Sgrena was freed, her car was shot at when, on the way to the airport, the driver drove too fast towards an American checkpoint. One bullet hit Sgrena in the shoulder and one of the secret agents died.

Sgrena, who arrived in Rome Saturday, claims that the Americans tried to kill her. The member of the secret service received a state funeral yesterday and is revered as a hero in Italy.

It doesn't sound nice to attack a colleague. But Sgrena's attitude is a complete disgrace to journalism. Didn't she say, sitting next to me in the airplane, that "normal journalists like you" don't stand behind the Iraqi people. "The Americans are the biggest enemies of mankind", the three women told me, because Sgrena traveled to Iraq with two Italian colleagues who also disliked the Yanks.

When I told I wasn't going to sit in Baghdad, but travel as an embedded journalist, I was treated as the Big Traitor. "I just don't want to be kidnapped", I said. "That is the only reason I go with the Americans."

Jeering. "You don't get the situation. We are anti-imperialists, anti-capitalists, communists", they said. The Iraqis only kidnap stooges of the Americans, the enemies of the Americans have nothing to fear.

Now I told them that I thought they weren't sane. You cannot deny that Al-Qaeda-like groups operate in Iraq, who specifically target western journalists. And Al-Qaeda warriors are the Arabic equivalent of fascism: anti-American, anti-Jewish and – above all – anti-communist.

But well, the three knew better. When we arrived in Baghdad, I waited on an American jeep which was going to pick me up. I saw how one of the three Italian women walked around crying, because an Iraqi had stolen her computer and television equipment. Shivering they stood outside, waiting for a taxi to bring them to Baghdad.

With her total prejudice Sgrena didn't only put herself in danger, but because her conduct an Italian security agent is dead and the Italian government spent millions of euros trying to save her life. Let's hope Sgrena chooses another job. Propagandist or parliamentarian maybe. But she should quit journalism immediately.

I won't accuse Sgrena of being a willing accomplice to her kidnap and the subsequent anti-Coalition, pro-insurgent media circus, but her apparent belief that her anti-American and anti-war position will act like a magic talisman protecting her from trouble makes her, on the most generous reading, naive beyond reason in light of the long string of kidnappings and executions of Italian, French and other journalists and activists who were "on the side of the Iraqis [read: Iraqi insurgents]" as much as Sgrena.


The visa update 

An update on one of my pet topics - and I know that some of you were interested last year to know where it's all going:

"Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania introduced legislation on Thursday, February 10, 2005, which would include Poland in the Visa Waiver Program. Co-sponsoring the bill is Maryland's Senator Barbara Mikulski.

"At his press conference, Senator Santorum said that his bill is identical to the one he introduced in September 2004 which did not pass as it did not clear the Democratic side. He is optimistic that this time it will pass due to the growing support in the U.S. House of Representatives and with the public support of the Bush Administration...

"Earlier this week, two bills were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives which would include Poland in the Visa Waiver Program. Connecticut Congresswoman Nancy Johnson reintroduced her bill which is identical in language with Senator Santorum's bill. A different version was introduced by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston which would provide for a contingency step to help Poland meet the 3% overstay rate. Congressman Dan Lipinski of Chicago is a co-sponsor of both bills. Illinois Congressman Shimkus is co-sponsoring the Johnson bill."
(hat tip: Dan Foty) This issue - that loyal allies such as Poles have to have visa, while Germans and the French don't - has acquired a hugely symbolic status in Poland. Resolving this anomaly once and for all will go a long way towards showing the alliance matters. Last time it was the Klansman Byrd himself who threw a spanner in the works; I hope that this time around the Democrats - the self-styled party of ethnic minorities - will be smarter.


Blog Interview: Stephen Schwartz 

For those who have been keenly following the war against the terrorists as well as those who finance and rouse them, Stephen Schwartz needs no introduction. Journalist and an author (most recently of "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror"), he has been a vocal opponent of Wahhabism and an unmasker of many tentacles of the Terror International. He contributes frequently to Frontpage Magazine, the "Weekly Standard" and Tech Central Station.

Today, I wanted to ask him about his take on the progress of the war on terror, what to do about Saudi Arabia, the hidden aspects of the Balkan wars, the future of Islam, as well as, more personally, about his own religious and political journeys.

We are now more than three years into the serious phase of the war on terror. How do you think we’re going and what are some of the things that can go wrong in the future?

Contrary to common wisdom, I believe we are winning the war on terror.

First, as horrible as they have been, the quantity and frequency of serious al-Qaida attacks outside Iraq has been much lower than might have been the case.

Second, I believe the elections in Afghanistan and Iraq represent a solid repudiation by the peoples of those countries of the radical Islamist nightmare.

Third, recruitment to radical Islamist movements in certain key Muslim countries has been much lower than many predicted, by which I refer to Morocco, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Radical Islam is quiescent in Algeria and Egypt. The Iranian people increasingly demonstrate their opposition to Khomeini's scheme for clerical rule, which had no precedent in Islam and was even, in Islamic terms, heretical. Although the Ba’ath dictatorship remains a troublesome element in the Middle East, Syrian Islam itself has not become radicalized. I also believe that the assassination of Rafik Hariri - which I believe was carried out by al-Qaida or other Wahhabi elements in an attempt to shift the "jihad" from Iraq, where they suffered a body blow from the successful election, to Lebanon - will not bring about a civil war.

Four things can go wrong, and they are quite simply defined:

First, we may fail to compel Saudi Arabia to stop financing international Wahhabi expansionism. We absolutely must, in dealing with the Saudi kingdom, do as we did with the former Soviet Union: make them shut off the money tap.

Second, we may fail to halt Saudi-Wahhabi infiltration and bloodshed in Pakistan, the country that – even more than Iraq - is the crucial frontline state in the battle against radical Islam. We must compel Musharraf or his successor to pursue a consequential and effective struggle against extremism in that country.

Third, we may fail to free American Islam from the influence of the Wahhabi lobby. We must examine why a foreign state, Saudi Arabia, is permitted to operate extremist religious and educational institutions in our country. This intrusion into our internal affairs should be dealt with by severe legal measures. In addition, the main organizations of the Wahhabi lobby - the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Students Association of the U.S. and Canada (MSA), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and the Arab American Institute (AAI) - should be fully investigated and, if possible, shut down. They camouflage themselves as legitimate civil liberties and advocacy groups, but in reality exist to prevent the free exercise of opinion among American Muslims and by non-Muslims commenting or reporting on Muslim issues. Those among them receiving Saudi funding should, to begin with, be compelled to register as foreign agents.

Fourth, or as part of the third proposition, we may fail to enable and support moderate American Muslims in liberating themselves from Wahhabi influence. The shocking truth is that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are the only countries in the world where Wahhabism dominates Islam.

Saudi Arabia creates a major headache for policymakers and politicians. Ostensibly it has been America's close ally over the years, but on the other hand it's largely responsible for the international spread of Wahhabism (a topic you documented in your book "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror"). What’s the solution to the Saudi problem?

Aside from the comments above, the solution to the Saudi problem requires: First, that the U.S. demand full cooperation from the Saudis in the war on terror, meaning the arrest of al-Qaida financiers (who presently flaunt their presence in the kingdom with impunity) and production of a full and transparent report on Saudi involvement in al-Qaida, especially in the events of September 11, 2001.

Second, and to reinforce the point above, that the U.S. demand Saudi Arabia cut off financing of the international expansion of Wahhabism.

Third, that the U.S. support Saudi liberal and religious reformers in reestablishing Islamic pluralism, which was abolished when the Wahhabis and the House of Sa'ud seized control in the 1920s. The immediate effect of this must be the separation of the Saudi state from the Wahhabi clerical structure, presently subsidized by the state. Wahhabism must be no more than one among many competing Islamic traditions, as Communism in Russia is now no more than one among many political parties.

In addition, a liberal and religious reform program in Saudi Arabia would include a written constitution, elected parliament, independent judiciary, modernized education and general religious freedom. (Issues of Islamic law are too complicated to take up here, but a pluralistic shariah can be harmonized with global legal canons.) Up to one third of the Saudi population today is composed of foreign workers, many of them Christians, as well as Hindus and Buddhists. No other Muslim country in the world bars non-Muslims from practicing their faiths.

Such a program would reflect the wishes of the majority of the Saudi populace, who, contrary to common wisdom, are not Islamist fanatics. Saudi Arabia has the largest middle class in the Arab world, but a middle class lifestyle is impossible in a country where women are barred from driving.

Liberal and religious reform in Saudi Arabia can and must be accomplished through a peaceful, orderly transition, without any further violence (except, I should hope, capital punishment for the founders of al-Qaida, and other terrorists). It does not require the overthrow of the royal family. The royal family may remain as heads of state after the British model, and even retain their sources of wealth. But the form of governance and relationship between the state and the Wahhabi ideology must change, and inevitably will change.

I and the Saudi dissidents with whom I have contact do not believe the Saudi propaganda, and the line put forward by their apologists, that the only alternative to the present regime is a worse one. In terms of its treatment of its own subjects, Saudi Arabia is the worst tyranny in the world. Even Iran allows women to drive and the organization of labor unions, and is undergoing a debate over the extent of press freedom and the institution of freer elections. None of these rights, and no consideration of their possibility, exists in Saudi Arabia.

Not surprisingly, the Balkans have fallen off the radar lately with the world's attention focused on the Middle East and Central Asia. One of the lesser known aspect of the Balkan wars was the attempt by Islamic fundamentalists to infiltrate the region, radicalize the local Muslim population and give the Caliphate a foothold in Europe. These efforts were largely unsuccessful. As somebody who was there on the ground in the Balkans in those crucial years, could you tell us briefly why the Wahhabis failed and what the current situation in the region is?

"Caliphate propaganda" is, in reality, a minor theme in radical Islam and is commoner in Central Asia, where a strong Islamic order is proposed to fill the gap created by the fall of Communism. Wahhabism failed to gain a foothold in the Balkans for several reasons. First, Bosnian and Macedonian Slav Muslims see themselves as natives of Europe first, as Muslims second, and as having little to do with the Arab world and its extreme ideologies. Second, Slavic Islam is overwhelmingly identified with the Ottoman tradition of Hanafi religious law, which is pluralistic. Third, the long period of Titoist tolerance toward Slavic Islam reinforced pluralist habits. Fourth, the struggle of the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) was conducted in defense of a multiethnic, not a "Muslim" Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Nevertheless, as I observed in a trip to Bosnia in late summer 2004, a kind of "street Wahhabism" is visible among alienated young people who are disillusioned with the international powers governing the country. Unemployment stands at 60 percent. In such an environment, Wahhabism has an appeal. It is for this reason that I am pleased to note the translation and imminent publication of my book, The Two Faces of Islam, in Bosnian, with the support of leading Bosnian and Croatian Muslim religious scholars (ulema), in Sarajevo and Zagreb.

The situation in the Albanian lands is somewhat different, because of the much stronger presence of Sufism among Albanian Muslims. The unfortunate truth is that when the Tito regime ordered the suppression of the Sufi orders in Bosnia-Hercegovina in the early 1950s, Bosnian Sufism became a purely folk phenomenon, losing its organized character. This happened because Bosnian Muslims accepted the equation of Titoism with progress. By contrast, Albanian Muslims in Kosovo, Western Macedonia, south Serbia, and Montenegro always viewed Communism in every form, including that of Enver Hoxha in Albania proper, as a form or tool of Slav imperialism. The Sufi orders could not be broken in Kosovo, Western Macedonia, south Serbia, or Montenegro. They remained a vital element of local cultural life and were a bulwark of the Albanian national culture. It is estimated that 40 percent of Muslims in western Kosovo (known as Dukagjini in Albanian and Metohija in Serbian) are Sufis today. The number may be as high or even higher in Western Macedonia.

As anybody who has explored the topic knows, Wahhabis hate Sufis with a homicidal rage. For this reason alone, Wahhabism had and has no future in the Albanian lands.

Finally, however, I am sorry to say that Bosnian Muslims have a tendency to look toward Germany and Turkey for emulation, and have grown somewhat disaffected with U.S. policies in the Middle East. This is not true of Albanians, who realize that without the support of the U.S., dating to the Woodrow Wilson administration, Albania proper would never have been allowed to survive, and, certainly, in 1998-99 Kosovo would have been drowned in blood. Albanians will never desert the United States and will never support radical Islam.

In the past you have written extensively about the problem that generated a great deal of discussion on my blog: does Islam need a Reformation or an Enlightenment?

I believe it is a mistake to think that the form of historical renewal of Islamic societies would follow the experience of Christian and, to a lesser extent, Jewish society. Islam does not need a reformation; indeed, Wahhabism poses as a Muslim reformation, with some justification - i.e. alleged simplification of the faith and removal of "superstitious" traditions. Nor does Islam need an Enlightenment, meaning a period in which religious belief is overthrown. Islam needs the restoration of pluralism, in which reformation and enlightenment ideas may be discussed freely and answered rationally, peacefully, and with full intellectual freedom by believers. If there is a model for Islam to be taken from the West it is that of the Catholic counter-reformation and modernization of the Roman church. Islam does not need a Luther; it has one in Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Islam needs a Leonardo and a Leo XIII. That is, it needs both creative intellectuals and clerics who can revive its spirit of inquiry and debate.

A colleague of mine, a Catholic neoconservative, recently noted that "neocons" seek to reestablish some place in the Western public square for Christian and Jewish religiosity. It is therefore unfair to ask Muslims to abandon their religion, and then to have to make the long journey back to affirmation of religious values in society. Turkey had 75 years of forced secularism, and its people now want to see whether religious believers can govern with less corruption and militarism, and fewer false promises and nationalist excesses, than the heirs of Mustafa Kemal. There is a curious parallel, in this context, between Turkey and Mexico, where a similar historical evolution has occurred. I would like to see Muslim countries become like Catholic countries such as Poland and Nicaragua, in which faith suffuses the culture and contributes to public civility, but in which there is no religious usurpation of political power.

In addition, I believe that Muslim zakat or required charity provides a basis for Muslim countries to avoid involvement with welfare state bureaucracies.

Having read your blog comment, I would say we are in agreement. I would also ask the public to consider the following question: was the life of the ordinary people, and of the mind, better in Renaissance Italy or Elizabethan England? This question is especially relevant if one takes as one's standard the status of Jews. (In which terms, by the way, life was overwhelmingly better in Ottoman Turkey.)

I believe we make a mistake in thinking that historical and social success is determined by religious success; I believe the opposite is true. To me, Protestantism flourished because it took root in nations living on the North Sea where navigation and commerce were impelled by individual initiative, from which Protestant theology, for various reasons, benefited. Spanish Catholicism fell into decline because it conquered the richest provinces of the New World, and the country choked on all that gold and silver. Similarly, the Islamic world has been slow in its social development; first, because it conquered ancient and overcrowded societies where progress was always slow; second, because it gained control of the main global trade routes.

Bernard Lewis asked why Columbus departed from Spain rather than Morocco. But the Muslims had no incentive to travel out into the Atlantic, because they controlled the routes for silk, spices, silver, gold, and slaves. (Unfortunately, oil today plays the same role as the control of trade routes did in the Muslim societies of the past. It is a curse, holding social and economic progress back.) The Portuguese, Dutch, British, and Danes (the latter were early traders in southeast Asia, which is largely forgotten today) explored and subdued distant territories thanks to the incentive of their disadvantageous home locations. The British turned out to be the most successful at it, and since they were Protestant, Protestantism advanced in their wake.
Italy, by contrast, traded very successfully with Ottoman Turkey, got fabulously rich, and remained Catholic. Here the Jewish issue becomes relevant. Italy's treatment of Jews was uneven. Never forget: the Talmud was published (by the great Christian printer Daniel Bomberg, who was employed by the Venetian Jews) but then ordered burned in Italy beginning in 1553; was then printed without any interference whatever in Constantinople, at the end of that century, and next in Poland, in 1609. The Amsterdam edition of the Talmud did not appear until 1644-47. The printing of the Talmud in England came much later. But in general, Jews lived only somewhat less well in Italy than in Protestant Holland, and because of their minority situation, the status of the Jews is always the best guide for judging the situation of a society. In this the exalted Ottoman state can hardly be excelled.

Here are links to some articles of mine on the question of the "Islamic Reformation": here, here and here.

Is radical Islam a growing force? What are the chances of the Muslim world becoming more accepting of modernity?

I believe radical Islam is in decline, and inasmuch as I define "modernity" as the triumph of capitalist democracy, I believe that the Muslim world will be transformed in the next two decades. There is no obstacle in Islam to capitalist democracy. Muhammad the Prophet himself (peace be upon him) was a caravan merchant, and Muslims were once one of the world’s great trading communities. Aside from occasional problems represented by political loudmouths, Malaysia represents a good example of this. Bosnia-Hercegovina could have become the Singapore of the Muslim world, a European center of commerce, cultural exchange, and intellectual achievement, but for the Yugoslav aggression of 1992-95.

Flowing from the previous two questions, in the world enamored with anti-Americanism, I'm very heartened by the presence of what I call the "triple K" - the Kurds, the Kuwaitis and the Kosovars (and more broadly, of course, the Balkan Muslims), all communities where not just the elites but the "men on the street" remain quite friendly towards the United States. Can the rest of the Muslim world over time become more like "the triple K" or is that sort of Muslim pro-Americanism too much a function of specific historic circumstances?

I believe Iraq shows us that as capitalist democracy advances, friendship with the United States, the most successful capitalist democracy in history, will also prevail.

As a convert to the Sufi branch of Islam you bring a perspective to the discussion of Islam that is absent from writings of most other Western commentators. Please tell us more about Sufism and its place in Islam of today.

I am not a "convert," because I previously had no religion to "convert" from. My mother was Christian, my father Jewish, but I was raised in an antireligious atmosphere. Sufism is my first experience in complete religious affirmation.

Sufism plays a role in Islam comparable to traditional (not "pop") Kabbalah in Judaism and to the activities of the religious orders in Catholicism: it teaches spirituality and reinforces "the faith of the heart" in contrast with ritualized observance. Many Muslims view Sufism as the majority form of Islam, given that Sufism or Sufi-influenced Islam dominate in French-speaking West Africa, Morocco, the Balkans, Turkey, Kurdistan, Central Asia, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In addition, although they face political problems, Sufi orders are powerful in Egypt, Sudan, Syria, and Iran, where they can play a positive role in the future.

But Sufism, like authentic Kabbalah or the activities of the Franciscan order, cannot be politicized. The Way of the Sufi is the Way of the Heart. It is personal and must remain so. Nevertheless, Sufi commitments to pluralism, interfaith respect, and, in general, peace, represent an immensely positive influence in Islam. One Sufi order, the Albanian Bektashis, proudly call themselves "the most progressive Muslims in the world" - they support the complete equality of women, popular education, and civic activism. But to repeat, the Way of the Sufi is the Way of the Heart, like the Way of the Kabbalistic Jew or Franciscan postulant, and must not be corrupted by political demands.

Sufism is an extremely complex phenomenon, for me as for others, and I am not yet prepared to expound on it publicly at length. I will say that lately I have been more drawn to Central Asian Sufism, with its history on the borderlands of Buddhism, shamanism, and the Chinese religions and martial arts. A Sufi of my acquaintance once said there are two kinds of Sufis, and you can tell them by their favorite movies. Western and Arab Sufis love The Matrix, because they equate the matrix program with Wahhabism, and the film's heroes break through its control by self-discipline. Eastern Sufis love Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, because it shows that love and spiritual discipline produce miracles. I find myself increasingly drawn to the latter.

Sufis are also generally divided between "sober" Sufis and "ecstatic" Sufis. I was recently interrogated in an official public forum about which group I belong to. I said I have a lot of both in me. But of such details, enough for now. As I said, Sufism is personal.

Like so many other influential intellectuals you've also made a political journey in your life, having started as a man of the left. Was it a slow and gradual process or was there one particular drastic breaking point?

I was a confirmed and enthusiastic believer in the (very) radical left from the age of 14, in 1962, to the age of 29, in 1977. It was then that I first began to doubt the millenarian promises of Marxism. Let me stress here that I was a serious Marxist, not a '60s street radical. But I had studied anthropology and realized that since our species had existed for some 35,000 years, and in all that time a "great change" and the onset of "species being" or "the end of history" had never taken place, it would not take place. State-socialist revolution is a fantasy of return to the security of the womb, of a world without conflict or death. But conflict is innate to nature and death is the unavoidable outcome of life. I further recognized that no social experiment could succeed on a compulsory or "universal" basis. I tried to find ways to reconcile my emotional identification with the left and intellectual and political liberty, through anarchist, syndicalist, and surrealist conceptions, as well as the legacy of Trotsky.

But most importantly, I was and am bilingual in Spanish and the rise of the Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua was the final blow for me. I simply could not support the erection of another Cuba. In addition, I saw that in Spain after Franco, popular sovereignty had been secured by a monarchy, not by revolution. I broke publicly with the left in 1984, after seven years of doubts. The process of disengagement was mainly internal, but was painful for myself and those close to me.

My vision of global capitalist democracy is not a fantasy of "the end of history" or eternal peace and security, in contrast with the false claims of Francis Fukuyama. It is based on entrepreneurship, not compulsory collectivism, meaning that competition will always be a factor in society, and competition inevitably leads to contention. History will not end until humanity ends, and in later generations wars and revolutions may again take place. At the same time, however, their extremity may be ameliorated. Still, we have no guarantees for the future. History, like the human mind, plays tricks, and we can only do the best we can to secure liberty for the greatest number of people, act morally, and defend our rights.

Friedrich Engels predicted that the arrival of a single world market - what we call "globalization" - would institute the social improvements called for by the revolutionary movement of his time. Trotsky wondered if, after the coming of worldwide Communism, human psychological needs might not give rise to a new religion. (Muslims do not like this idea at all, by the way, since Muhammad (pbuh) is believed to be the final prophet.) But, to repeat, there are no guarantees. A single world market dominated by China might give rise to fresh tensions; a new religion very likely would provoke new confrontations.

A sneak preview to my readers of what you're currently working on?

"Sarajevo Rose", a collection of articles on the relations between the Balkan Sephardic Jews and Balkan Muslims (with some material on Balkan Catholics and Orthodox Christians), will appear in March 2005, i.e. next month, from Saqi Books and the Bosnian Institute in London, distributed in the U.S. by Palgrave/Macmillan. It will be very interesting to see the reaction to that book. It represents a practical attempt to express my conception of the Sufi mission: to promote interfaith respect between all the believers in One God, the same God, that created the universe and, as both Muslims and Jews affirm, is alone worthy of worship. I have several other projects in hand but to discuss them now would be premature.


Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Don't f*** with Maximus 

This must rank as one of the more bizarre recent political-entertainment stories:

"In one of the more bizarre terror plots hatched by al-Qaeda, Australian actor Russell Crowe was the target of a kidnapping scheme as part of a 'cultural destabilisation plan'.

"Crowe has revealed he was approached by the FBI in the months leading up to his Academy Award win for Gladiator in 2001 and warned, vaguely, of the threat: 'That was the first (time) I'd ever heard the phrase al-Qaeda.'

"It was about - and here's another little touch of irony - taking iconographic Americans out of the picture as a sort of cultural destabilisation plan."
Ironic not the least because the "iconographic American" is actually a New Zealander who's a permanent Australian resident.

"Cultural destabilization plan" has a sinister ring to it. And it puts some other recent controversies in an entirely new light. Just who exactly was responsible for Janet Jackson's Superbowl "burqa malfunction"? And what if Michael Jackson was actually framed by Al Qaeda's Neverland sleeper cell (or at least a sleep-over cell)?

The jihadis are not particularly well known for their worldliness, but they obviously know enough about our popular culture not to have made some basic mistakes, such as kidnapping Barbara Streisand, Alec Baldwin or Gore Vidal. You know you've botched up the job when the only response you get to a ransom note is: yep, you can keep 'em.

And this is
the second most bizarre story:

"Irish rock star Bono (Paul Hewson) is one of several people who have been nominated for the president of the World Bank. US Secretary of Treasury John Snow said Bono's candidacy would not be considered lightly because he is known for his work in the fight against AIDS and his charity activities."
And following on the success of U2's latest album "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb", the group's guitarist, the Edge, has been nominated to replace Mohamed ElBaradei as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. God knows, he might actually do a better job.

What else can go wrong today?


The Sgrena Code 

The Italian hostage friendly fire story (or unfriendly fire, depending on who you believe) continues to roll on. It's not at the stage yet where Giuliana Sgrena's version of events has more holes in it than her car, but it's getting there. For the best round-ups, check the Moderate Voice, Instapundit and the continuing coverage at Little Green Footballs.

I wrote two days ago that "the critics think America Machiavellian enough to want to kill the Italians, and at the same time stupid enough to do it a way that created one of the more serious diplomatic incidents since the start of the war. Can't have it both ways, I'm afraid." My sentiment has been echoed by an unnamed Italian intelligence source quoted in "Corriere della Serra": "It would have been the simplest thing for the Americans to send their agents to suppress the incident and therefore blame the Iraqis, or to send Iraqis to perform the dirty job, rather than commit the act with friendly fire without even succeeding in the attempt."

People who have not had much direct personal experience of politics, the military, or for that matter any other large and complex organizations, tend to think conspiracy is a way of life. Those who have, know that in most cases it's stuff-ups.

As one German newspaper
writes: "Sgrena's kidnappers wanted, with the help of the journalist's dramatic appeal, to create a mood in Italy that would lead to the withdrawal of the country's troops... But they didn't succeed because Berlusconi remained firm... [However, because of the shooting,] the terrorists achieved an unexpected victory... [Intelligence agent] Calipari's death and the circumstances of the shooting of the journalist by American troops will create political damage in Europe and will foment the debate in Italy over withdrawing its troops."

Sgrena thinks the Americans wanted her dead, possibly because their opposition to paying ransom for kidnap victims, possibly for some other shadowy reasons that Sgrena so far has refused to disclose. But you have to wonder why the Americans could possibly want to create one of the biggest propaganda coups for the opponents of war and damage the relationship with one of their staunchest allies in order to silence one woman. Sadly, in a world where "The Da Vinci Code" is the best selling book of recent times, too many people will think that just about anything is possible.


Tuesday reading 

Tim Blair presents the new cross-over country hit, "My momma was a moonbat / Daddy was a Navy SEAL."

Vodka Pundit has some
words of advice for the first blogger in the White House press corp.

John Hawkins at Right Wing News
interviews Michelle Malkin. Don't miss it.

Bill Roggio fisks Daniel Okrent and the "New York Times" on the
militant/terrorist dichotomy.

Transatlantic Intelligencer watches Berlin Film Festival award its top prize to a
sympathetic portrayal of a suicide bomber.

Pundit Guy asks: would you become a Dukes of Hazzard expert
for $100,000?

How many dissident leaders does Iran have?
At least 565, says Regime Change Iran.

No Pasaran blogs about
the death penalty and international opinion - whether they are against it depends on the country applying it.

Decision 08 takes a look at the
Harry Truman and Howard Dean factions of the Democratic Party and concludes: one of you has to move out...

Astute Blogger discusses Bush's
Lebanese squeeze play.

Logical Meme watches
Bill Moyers become unhinged.


Blessed - though not necessarily rewarded - are the peacemakers 

A few weeks ago, Daniel Henninger of the "Wall Street Journal" suggested that the Nobel Peace Prize should go to Iraqi voters ("They have already won the world's peace prize by demonstrating in a single day a commitment not seen in our lifetime to peace, self-determination and human rights--the goals for which the Nobel Peace Prize began in 1901."). Today, I'm reading news that a group of Iraqi Christians living in the United States has launched an online petition to nominate the Grand Ayatollah Sistani for the prize. According to the group, Sistani "gave Muslims all around the globe a good example how to follow peaceful ways to resolve complex social (and) political challenges that face them, condemning terror and emphasizing ... rule of law."

I won't be the first one to suggest it, but how about President Bush? Both Bush and Blair were
already nominated last year (in case you're wondering: they did not win it), in the words of the nominator, independent Norwegian member of parliament Jan Simonsen, because they "got rid of a dictator and made the world more safe."

A year later, the case for the Peace Prize is if anything stronger, with elections having taken place in Afghanistan, Iraq and among the Palestinians, and with the winds of change blowing through Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the region.

Personally, I think there is wisdom in waiting - after all, Arafat and Rabin had shared their instantaneous Peace Prize for the initiative that did not in the end lead anywhere - but should the current trends continue in the Middle East for the next few year, why not Bush in 2008? It would make a nice retirement present for the President and it would drive the left absolute bonkers. Alas, it's unlikely to happen, but still, it's a nice thought.


The voices of free Iraq 

Lots of interesting stuff on your major Iraqi blogs:

Zeyad at Healing Iraq is
saying goodbye. Kind of. For the time being. Zeyad might not have been the first prominent Iraqi blogger (that gong goes to Salam Pax), but he was the first explicitly political, moderate, pro-American one, and thus a trailblazer for the next generation of stars of Iraqi blogosphere (it's through Zeyad that I first discovered Iraq the Model guys). We'll miss him.

Speaking of Iraq the Model, you can find some still shots, partial transcripts and personal reactions there, as Omar watches
terrorist confessions on Al Iraqiyah. I guess it was only a matter of time before "reality TV" hit Iraq.

And there's a lot of interesting stuff from Ali at Free Iraqi. Ali sees
troubles ahead for Sistani, as his godchild, the United Coalition list starts to fracture. Personally, I don't necessarily see such fragmentation as a bad thing, as it acts as a check on majoritarian power. Ali also shares his reflection about the Iraqi election: was it a vote for democracy, or freedom, or independence?


Monday, March 07, 2005

Democracy for some 

Muslim community flexes its political muscle in Great Britain. Nothing wrong with that in principle - British citizens of Muslim faith have as much right as any other Britons to be involved in their country's political life - but this particular instance is quite concerning:

"Islamic leaders have instructed Muslims to vote against Labour in nearly 40 marginal constituencies in protest at the war in Iraq and the government’s detention policy.

"They have targeted seats with a large number of Asian voters including those held by Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, in Blackburn, Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, in Derby South and Stephen Timms, the energy minister, in East Ham...

"The plan to inflict maximum embarrassment on Labour was agreed last week at a meeting of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).

"Members hope that by voting tactically they will cut Labour’s majority at the general election without allowing the Conservatives to make significant gains.

"Muslim leaders are determined to give Tony Blair a bloody nose over the war in Iraq and the introduction of anti-terrorist legislation which, they claim, unfairly discriminates against members of their community."
Two ironies: the anti-terrorism legislation and enforcement aside, the great majority of British Muslims are not Arabs but actually come from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, as well as East Africa, yet that does not stop them about complaining about the liberation of Iraq. I wonder how British Iraqis are feeling about all this?

Secondly, isn't it funny that the British Muslim establishment wants to punish Tony Blair, through a democratic vote, precisely for his role in ensuring that their Muslim brothers (and sisters) in Iraq were actually given a chance to have a democratic vote of their own for the first time in half a century.


World media buries a good news story - again 

I missed this story when it originally came out a few days ago, so hat tip to Jeff Norris for bringing it to my attention:

"In the first substantial shift of public opinion in the Muslim world since the beginning of the United States' global war on terrorism, more people in the world's largest Muslim country now favor American efforts against terrorism than oppose them.

"This is just one of many dramatic findings of a new nationwide poll in Indonesia conducted February 1-6, 2005, and just translated and released...

"Key Findings of the Poll:

"- For the first time ever in a major Muslim nation, more people favor US-led efforts to fight terrorism than oppose them (40% to 36%). Importantly, those who oppose US efforts against terrorism have declined by half, from 72% in 2003 to just 36% today.

"- For the first time ever in a Muslim nation since 9/11, support for Osama Bin Laden has dropped significantly (58% favorable to just 23%).

"- 65% of Indonesians now are more favorable to the United States because of the American response to the tsunami, with the highest percentage among people under 30.

"- Indeed, 71% of the people who express confidence in Bin Laden are now more favorable to the United States because of American aid to tsunami victims."
I guess the Yankee gunboat - or rather, aircraft carrier - diplomacy has paid off.

This is a major development, a substantial piece of good news, and a vindication of the Administration's policies, which means that of all the major media outlets in the world, only
ABC , "Boston Globe", and the "Washington Times" have carried the original Reuters story. No other American outlet, no European news provider, nothing in the Muslim world (except for the "Jakarta Post"), and only one mention in Australia.

Compare and contrast with the publicity given to any new poll that shows that "the foreigners hate us", "we have squandered the world's sympathy" and "anti-Americanism is on the rise." One could think that the media is biased or something.


Good news from Afghanistan, Part 10 

Note: Also available from the "Opinion Journal" and Winds of Change. Many thanks to James Taranto, Joe Katzman, and all of you readers and fellow bloggers for your help with the series.

"Before my arrival in Virginia in August of last year, I had never slept in my own bedroom, attended school with boys, or gone out in public without covering my hair. I never thought I'd come to the USA. The odds were against me: Most people from Afghanistan have never traveled outside its borders," writes
Ghizal Miri, a 15-year old Afghan woman who is one of the forty high school students spending a year in the United States under a scholarship program.

In her letter ("Thanks, America, for sowing seeds of freedom in my Afghanistan") to the local newspaper in a community where she currently lives, Miri recounts her personal odyssey, contemplates her dreams and opportunities, and also writes about the progress at home since the overthrow of the Taliban regime: "Believe it or not, my country has made great advances toward improvement. Most people in the U.S. do not hear of these advances, however. I'm not saying that problems don't exist or that everyone's happy. Security, drugs, organized crime, corruption, and poverty are still in Afghanistan, but significant advances have been made over the past three years to improve things."

As Afghanistan falls off the media map of the world, here is the snapshot of the previous month's efforts by the Afghan people to rebuild their lives and their country.

SOCIETY: With the presidential election behind and with the parliamentary election still to come, the international community joins in to help create the
democratic infrastructure for Afghanistan:

"A new multi-million-dollar project aims to put in place the necessary democratic foundations for an Afghan legislature to be established following parliamentary elections scheduled for early spring. Funded by France, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) will implement the two-year project designed to ensure the timely establishment of the Afghan parliament and support its functioning...

"Support to the Establishment of the Afghan Legislature (SEAL) project will establish a secretariat to the parliament and secretariat staff to work effectively to support the new parliamentarians who will be coming from isolated Afghan rural areas with no knowledge of or previous experience in such a body.

" 'We recognise that establishing a parliament in Afghanistan is a new experience for everybody and creating an effective secretariat is vital before the parliament starts its work,' [says] Karen Jorgensen, UNDP senior deputy country director...

"According to UNDP, more than 100 people will be recruited and trained to look after the work of the parliament and its members. 'We are trying to support building a truly Afghan parliament that fits the culture and the objectives of the Afghan constitution,' Jorgensen added."
The efforts to rebuild and expand Afghanistan's justice system also continue. In the latest initiative, "a new multi-million dollar project will promote public access to justice in rural areas of Afghanistan. According to officials at the Italian Embassy in the capital, Kabul, the initiative is to promote access to justice in selected districts of the country in the framework of human rights protection. The project aims to benefit from the traditional and communal justice systems that currently operate in remote areas of the post-conflict country." The 6 million euro ($7.8 million) project, funded by the European Union, will run for 30 months in up to 60 districts of Afghanistan.

In an effort to improve the standards of
public service throughout Afghanistan, "[President] Karzai last year set up a nine-member reform commission to screen all of the country's bureaucrats. Those who pass the screening test can keep their position. Those who fail are enrolled in a retraining programme and retested again after three months. If they fail again, they are dismissed. According to commission members, such a review was necessary because, over the years, the civil-service system had become rooted in nepotism, corruption and incompetence. Plans call for the testing programme to be expanded into the provinces after it is fully implemented in the capital." USAID is also assisting with improving the governance:

"Budget and operational reform is a key component of the USAID Afghanistan Economic Governance (AEG) program. AEG is helping facilitate the Afghan FY 1384 Budget process and to date nearly all Afghan Ministries have presented draft submissions. AEG's Budget Project within the Ministry of Finance has focused on capacity building and will continue to enhance Afghanistan's ongoing budget process. This year has seen significant improvement, with increased standardization in budget submissions and greater compliance with budget proposal guidelines."
In more recent USAID efforts to strengthen the economic governance: "Initiated in December 2002, Economic Governance programs have strengthened the overall economy through reforms and training within its fiscal, financial, and regulatory sectors. Fiscal responsibility has improved with the installation of a new banking framework. One of the Afghan banking sector reforms is the implementation of an Internet Communications Platform. Da Afghanistan Bank's (Afghanistan's Central Bank) Panjshir and Logar capital branches have been brought into the DAfB Branches.com, bringing the total number of DAB branches operating on the automated system to 29. This internet-based system makes real-time data possible for daily and monthly reports, which include number of payments, accounting snapshots, cash positions, and current account balances. Instant access to this data greatly facilitates performance management, activity tracking, accounting data collection and the realization of specific benchmarks under the International Monetary Fund's Staff Monitored Program."

While progress has been uneven from region to region, and hampered by security problems and conservative attitudes, the latest United Nations report on the
status and standing of women in Afghanistan observes that women have "made historic gains, with the support of the international community," and that in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Taliban, "women came to the fore of the political life in the country and contributed to the new constitution, which clearly affirms equality between men and women." In one of the latest political developments, "Afghan President Hamid Karzai will appoint a female provincial governor for the first time in Afghanistan's history. Karzai will be choosing the governor of the central Bamiyan province from a short list of all-female candidates that includes the former Minister of Women's Affairs, Habiba Sorabi." You can read here a list of official American initiatives to assist Afghan women in politics, business and education.

judges are also coming onboard in the fight for equality:

"More than 70 judges who attended the final day of a seminar on promoting Afghan women's rights, held at the Kabul Supreme Court on Thursday, have called to put an end to violence against women, creating more infant and maternal hospitals in rural areas, and enforcing the rights of women as written in the Afghan constitution, fully.

"A statement containing 11 recommendations was issued at the end of the three-day workshop at the Supreme Court, which was attended by Dr Abdulmalik Kamawi the head of supreme court administration, Judge Bahawoden Baha the head of judicial reforms commission, Mahboba Hqoqmal President Karzai's advisor on womens affairs, Dr Massoda Jalal minister of women affairs and Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai the deputy for ministry of justice.

"Some judges went further and called for a specific penalty or punishment to be imposed for the abduction of women."
And "women in northern Herat province have been offered official driving lessons for the first time in Afghan history."

On the
refugee front, "the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ruud Lubbers, said today he believes most of Afghanistan is safe enough for the return of some 3 million Afghan refugees who remain in Pakistan and Iran." As Lubbers says, "We are still not 100 percent there, but to a large part, Afghanistan is becoming safe enough to return to," he said. "We have seen last year, again, substantial repatriation. In round [figures], 300,000 to 600,000 from Iran, 300,000 from [Pakistan]. It adds up to three million people [since the fall of the Taliban regime]." When back in Afghanistan, the United Nations is assisting many returnees to get back on their feet:

"A widow for 15 years, Rahima, like most of the residents of the village of Andkhoy near the Turkmenistan border, fled with her children to Pakistan five years ago to escape Afghanistan's civil war. In 2002, following the defeat of the Taliban, she returned. She had the skills to provide for herself and her dependents but lacked the money and materials needed to resume her work as a carpet weaver.

"Through the local village council, or shura, Rahima's precarious position as a single mother and sole source of income was brought to the attention of a UNHCR-funded organisation which is helping returnee families to earn a living.

"The income-generation programme is aimed at families who are considered particularly vulnerable. Most recipients are returning refugees with large families and no means of supporting themselves. Many, such as Rahima's, are families headed by widows.

"Those selected are given the wool and tools needed to make one carpet. The package, worth around $110, allows the weavers - who are almost exclusively women - to then use the sale of the finished carpet to purchase new supplies and continue the cycle while providing for their families."
Meanwhile, some of those who have not yet returned will be the subject of a census conducted by 2,000 workers throughout Pakistan. "In addition to providing a more accurate idea of the number of Afghans in the country, the census will record vital information such as date of arrival, place of origin in Afghanistan and current residence in Pakistan. It will also ask about repatriation intentions."

In health, the battle to raise
health standards throughout the country continues: "A new vaccine storage facility will open in Afghanistan's eastern city of Jalalabad on Tuesday 8 February, improving immunization services for at least 500,000 children in surrounding provinces. The new storage centre, which has been established by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health with the support of UNICEF, will be able to hold 700,000 vials of various vaccines at any given time. This capacity is sufficient to meet both immediate and longer term vaccine needs for four provinces -- Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar and Nuristan." Thanks to huge vaccination drives, the number of cases of polio has dropped by 44% and there are only a handful of cases left in Afghanistan. But more will be done: "The springtime Afghan government polio vaccination campaign, starting Monday 28th aims to reach more than 5.5 million children in 257 districts throughout the country within three days... 36,000 volunteers, including 8,000 women, will be participating in the program."

There is also more
help from overseas: "India's expertise in telemedicine will be deployed for the benefit of the sick and infirm in Kabul this year. The Indian Space Research Organisation will link Kabul with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) through the Insat satellite. The network will be extended to other cities in Afghanistan in due course for diagnosis and treatment of patients in the neighbouring country."

Meanwhile, a group of doctors and nurses from Wisconsin is working in Afghanistan to help
reduce mortality in the country's largest women's hospital. "Two doctors, three nurses and a hospital administrator from Wisconsin are in Afghanistan this week and next training health care professionals. The trip is the first phase of a three-year project that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has awarded to the Center for International Health, based in Milwaukee... While in Afghanistan, the team will observe and evaluate medical practices at the hospital and eventually make recommendations. Several medical teams are expected to visit the hospital in the course of three years."

In education, Afghanistan is receiving significant assistance from

"USAID continues its long-term efforts to expand educational opportunities in Afghanistan through its Afghanistan Primary Education Program (APEP). One component of this three-year long program is to provide textbooks, teacher training and accelerated learning for over-aged students. To date, more than sixteen million textbooks have been printed and distributed to the district level. Distribution continues from the district level to the school level.

"Few Afghan teachers have received formal training and many live in mountainous, remote areas where winter travel is difficult and few training opportunities exist. APEP developed a teacher training program via radio, to help those teachers to learn current teaching techniques. To date, 43,000 teachers have been trained by radio, and 6,819 through formal programs. Currently, 150 teacher trainers are enrolled in a master training program sponsored by APEP and implemented in conjunction with the Ministry of Education. This particular training program is expected to be completed February 21st. Years of Taliban rule severely restricted primary school attendance. Now, older boys need to be caught up and girls of all ages need the educational access they were denied. APEP accelerated learning programs helps over-age students reach their appropriate grade level as quickly as possible, before they are forced to drop out due to economic or early marriage reasons. APEP met its 2004 target to enroll 170,000 students in its Accelerated Learning programs and it continues to assess gaps in enrollment figures. Their current focus is on the common increase in drop outs at Grade 4. This trend is due to curriculum expansion and more frequent testing in this particular grade. In addition to this trend, the severe winter can hinder enrollment in some provinces."
USAID is also making it easier for Afghan women to take advantage of new opportunities in higher learning: "With the start of the academic year this month, female students will begin entering the newly-rehabilitated National Women's Dormitory in Kabul. The dorm will enable girls from rural areas to attend one of four institutions of higher learning in Kabul, including the medical school, the Afghan Education University, the Polytechnic Institute and Kabul University. Last fall, President Karzai and the U.S. Ambassador inaugurated the facility of four expansive wings with three floors, a huge dining and study area with modern kitchen, pristine laundry facilities, a library, sports courts, with full access for the physically challenged. The spacious, bright dorm rooms have separate sleeping/study units for six girls. The dorm will accommodate 1,100 female students."

Read also about this school in Kabul, which is teaching
deaf Afghan children the sign language and helps them to integrate better within the society and the workforce.

In the media news, "young Afghans are enthusiastically tuning in to
pop music. Three years after the collapse of the Taliban regime -- which had banned any music it deemed as 'un-Islamic' -- the popularity of pop music programs aired by Afghanistan's new private broadcasters is on the rise. Kabul's private Tolo TV has been broadcasting a nightly one-hour music video program for the past five months called 'Hop.' The format is similar to that of the international music television channel MTV -- with an Afghan twist... In addition to the songs of Western pop music stars like Madonna and Jennifer Lopez, 'Hop''s young Afghan hosts also present music videos by Iranian, Turkish, and Indian pop stars.

"After just five months on the air, the format is proving to be extremely popular with young Afghans. In fact, according to some audience research, 'Hop' is becoming the most watched prime-time television program in Kabul. The one-hour show begins at 7:30 p.m. every night -- immediately following the news on the private station Tolo TV. The pace of the program is fast -- with tight editing and camera angles that are unconventional by the standards of Afghan state television. And the script focuses mainly on music and performers."
USAID is one of the foreign organisations who are currently working to revitalize and strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's nascent media:

"The newest media center, Novice Journalism Training Program (NJTP), is housed in Jalalabad, Nangarhar province. The NJTP provides practical journalism training to Afghan university students and links them with 300 fellow journalism colleagues and students in Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Kabul, and most recently Khost and Kandahar provinces. The NJTP continues to be successful as it expands. The NJTP now runs Kabul University Radio and will increase its air time and its coverage area. Currently, the station only airs one hour per week and can not be heard beyond the university campus. The NJTP's radio station at the University of Herat was the only Afghan media outlet that went live real-time with the speeches of President Karzai and Iran's President Khatami in Iran last week. The speeches were covered by student journalists. Upon his return, Karzai was interviewed live on the student station."
Speaking of Iran, Afghanistan's western neighbor has established a cultural center in Herat, which will provide training for professionals working in the areas of cinematography, television, journalism and literature. Read also about the efforts to make Afghanistan's independent radio self-sustaining by promoting advertising.

Art life also
revives in the capital:

"Kabul's badly depleted music scene received a welcome injection of excitement last week with the arrival of Suphala, the tabla player and composer, who held a joint concert with some of the Afghan capital's most celebrated classical musicians.

"One of the first foreign musicians to visit the war-battered city - and a rarity as a woman performer on the tabla, a pair of small hand drums traditionally played by men - Suphala packed a concert hall here. Reporters from Afghanistan's leading private television station, Tolo TV, followed her around town. Local companies and donors sponsored the concert last Thursday in a new hall at the private Foundation for Culture and Civil Society.

"But it was the welcome Suphala received from Afghanistan's master musicians that set her visit apart. The musicians, who had survived years of war and repression only to be silenced completely under the Taliban, gathered to play for her, gave a lunch at the mostly destroyed musicians' quarter in the old city, and then, in an unusual break with tradition, joined her on stage."
Meanwhile, just across the border, a new initiative aims to preserve Afghanistan's music heritage:

"Music might have suffered terribly in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, but a group of exiled Afghan musicians in neighbouring Pakistan have taken it upon themselves to preserve the musical tradition of their homeland by setting up music academies in this border city [Peshawar].

"Today they are reaping the benefits from their hard work and are looking forward to the day when their music students will be able to perform freely in their newly liberated country under President Hamid Karzai."
As the academy's founder Ustad Mohammad Ihsan reminisces, "the Taliban insisted that there is a 'hadith' (a record of the Prophet's sayings) warning people not to listen to music lest molten lead be poured into their ears on Judgment Day. Until then, the Taliban police were wreaking their own violence --against musical instruments and anyone who dared enjoy their use... Musicians were persecuted and their musical instruments and recordings destroyed." Adds singer Balyalai Samadi: "Music plays an important role in Afghan society in keeping the ethnically diverse country together." Hopefully, it can do so again.

Not just music, but
humor, too, is being given a free rein:
"Mubariz Bidar would give Robin Williams a run for his money. He's an Afghan comic who has this city - once ruled by severe Taliban - howling at their former oppressors. His spot-on impressions of everyone from a Taliban soldier to an Afghan drug addict would have even Mullah Omar giggling into his turban.

"At a recent impromptu performance, Mubariz wraps on a long black turban - a favorite Taliban accessory - and twists his face into a scowl. He grabs a Kalashnikov to complete the look. Then he screams at the men to go to the mosque, physically prodding them with his rifle. He grabs one long-haired man and berates him for letting his locks grow - a Taliban pet peeve. His imitation is so precise that the audience can't stop laughing.

"It's a disturbing sight for outsiders, but for Afghans who remember the hard-line regime and can finally laugh at it, it's a welcome release."
As the report notes, in addition to the therapeutic aspect, there is also a serious side to comedy and theater: "Before last October's presidential elections, a Kabul-based nongovernmental organization hired the actors to promote voting in some of the country's most remote southern villages. Hundreds of people saw each show; the message stuck. Women's turnout in Paktia province, which borders Khost and is so traditional that women are rarely seen in public, was among the highest in the country. The success of the shows, Afghan observers say, illustrates how effective humor and theater is for educating a public with a low literacy rate (only 64 percent of Afghans can read). It may be, they say, the best way to unify the country's four major ethnic groups that are still quietly split along ethnic lines - one of the major obstacles to lasting peace."

Afghan sportspeople continue to enter the world stage. Among the latest,
two judokas, making their debut at the 3rd South Asian Judo Championship being staged at Indore, India. Afghanistan has also conducted its first paraolympic games in Kabul. "Eighty disabled players from Nangarhar, Balkh, Herat and Kandahar provinces will participate in the volleyball, football and basketball matches... Adding poignancy to the competition is the fact that most of the disabled players have been disabled in the civil war in Afghanistan."

Lastly, something for the
local pride: a Canadian author of a new book is arguing that Buddhist monks from Afghanistan had reached America centuries before Columbus.

RECONSTRUCTION: A postcard from

"Afghanistan's war ravaged capital of Kabul is a city that appears to be on the mend. With nearly three decades of destruction and mayhem in its past, thanks to the political shenanigans of the rugged country's warlords and unscrupulous politicians, Kabul now presents itself as a city where its people and leaders want change in right earnest, a change for the better and a change that reflects its modernity.

"Engulfed in snow and battered by inclement weather over the past few days, the Afghan people haven't stopped their activities to make the city beautiful. Cranes can be seen lining the streets to reconstruct heavily damaged buildings, buildings ravaged by bombs and rockets since 1979."
No wonder that with all the growth going on, Kabul is now grappling with a problem that was unimaginable only three years ago - traffic:

"Like cities everywhere in the world, Kabul is facing a surge in traffic that sometimes threatens to strangle the capital. Now, three government agencies are working to ease the congestion.

"The city government is planning to construct a number of car parks while the traffic department is busy installing new traffic signals in an attempt to bring some order to the current chaos on the streets.

"In addition, the ministry of transport is planning to build car parks near the main entrances to the capital to get more vehicles off the roads."
And the lights are flicking back on around the capital:

"Ismail Khan set himself a daunting task when he took office as Afghanistan's minister of water and energy in December. The former mujahedin commander who long held sway over the western city of Herat promised the hard-pressed residents of Kabul that he would fix their energy shortage within two months.

"Now, through a combination of hard work and good luck, it appears that the strongman from Herat has been able to fulfil his pledge. Instead of having power for only a few short hours, three nights out of seven, residents of much of the city now have electricity on a nightly basis.

" 'Right now, 70 per cent of Kabul's homes have electricity every night,' Ismail Khan [said]. Providing power in a city that saw much of its electrical infrastructure destroyed during decades of fighting hasn't been easy. In addition, years of drought have severely limited the country's ability to use its hydroelectric generators - the country's main source of generating power - to produce electricity.

"It would take between 150 and 200 megawatts of power daily to meet all the power demands of the city. Since Ismail Khan took office, the amount of electricity available to the capital has increased from 60 to 110 megawatts a day. He hopes to be able to provide 100 per cent of the energy need very soon.

"This seems possible because the government has recently purchased 25 generators from a British-based manufacturer, at a cost of 4.9 million US dollars, which will have a combined capacity to produce an additional 30 megawatts of electricity daily."
Meanwhile, in the provinces, the lights also switch on with some innovative technology:

"The first of several solar-powered street lights have been installed in the eastern Afghan town of Orgun-E in a joint effort between the local Afghan government and Coalition partners. The solar lights, installed by Coalition Civil Affairs and local Afghan workers, were completed to help the local government improve living conditions and reduce crime."
And with some interesting consequences: "Local officials believe this prompted a citizen to turn in the location of a weapons cache. 'This is what you see with progress; you can't stop it,' said Paktika Province District Chief Haji Abdul Satir. The weapons cache consisted of 11 anti-personnel mines and a small quantity of small-arms ammunition. The cache was recovered by the Afghan National Army and later destroyed."

The reconstruction effort throughout Afghanistan is set to continue with some significant foreign assistance. Among the
projects envisaged under the $81.9 billion security and aid package requested from the Congress by President Bush: a law school, seven provincial hospitals and up to 210 health clinics for Afghanistan.

Among Afghanistan's growing commercial and infrastructure contacts with neighboring countries: the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP)
gas pipeline project has received support from the Pakistani government (under this project Afghanistan wants to supply natural gas from its abundant reserves to both Pakistan and India) and Turkmenistan is now also trying to accelerate the work on the project; the Pakistan-Afghanistan Joint Economic Commission is now in sitting (first on the agenda, improved transport and communication infrastructure along the border); Pakistan has also offered to accord Afghanistan a preferential trade agreement, which would, among other priorities, work to reduce tariffs between the two countries; Iran is planning to construct a 207-kilometer railway line from Turbat e Jam in Iran to Pakistan, through the border city of Islam Qala near Herat, thus linking Afghanistan to international markets; Indian Industry chamber CII will be participating in training of Afghan construction industry workers; India will also be assisting Afghanistan in reviving its mining industry as well as civil aviation industry, in particular upgrading the air traffic management system and assisting with maintenance (speaking of air traffic management, the Kabul airport might finally be getting a radar); business council will be established by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry to coordinate economic cooperation between Afghanistan and the Emirates; and a business forum on Afghan reconstruction has been recently held in Uzbekistan.

The efforts to revive agriculture also continue. One of the latest initiatives concerns

"In an attempt to restore the local economy while reviving an Afghan tradition, the government has begun a program to plant pistachio trees in several northern provinces, restoring a crop that has been decimated by years of war and drought. The program began in late January, when 10,000 saplings were planted in the foothills around Maimana, the capital of Faryab province."
The report adds that "there are still hundreds of thousand of acres of pistachio forest in the northern provinces, including more than 300,000 acres in Badghis and 200,000 more in Samangan. Despite the destruction of more than 50 percent of its pistachio trees, Afghanistan still exports 1,300 metric tons of the nuts annually, valued at about US$130 million." However, over the past few decades the harvests were interrupted by war, as local warlords restricted access to forests and monopolized the trade.

USAID also continues to contribute to modernization of Afghan agriculture:

"USAID's is enhancing food security and income for the rural population through its Rebuilding Afghanistan's Agricultural Markets Program (RAMP) project. The project's objectives are to increase agricultural output and productivity as well as boost incomes by linking producers and markets. The program supports the expansion of knowledge and technologies (new crop varieties, fertilizers, crop management and protection, equipment and machinery) through extensive field demonstrations, information dissemination, and building private sector capacity. In the last several weeks, 1,422 farmers attended crop demonstrations and 98 participated in agricultural training programs and field days.

"RAMP also supports market center construction, providing Afghan farmers with a place for cleaning, sorting, cold and dry storage and packaging for their products. The facilities are strategically located to capitalize on project improvements in irrigation and road rehabilitation. They also give buyers and traders easier access to farmers and their produce. To date, 141 market centers have been constructed. Construction on a vegetable dehydration factory in Parwan province is nearly complete and the factory will contract with 1,400 Afghans to provide vegetables for the international dehydrated vegetable market. The factory is expected to employ several hundred workers."
HUMANITARIAN AID: As harsh winter conditions grip the country, the need for humanitarian aid increases dramatically. Fortunately, the international community is responding with emergency supplies and help in delivery to the particularly affected areas. In one such action, "following a request from the Afghan Ministry of Health and an assessment of the needs, Italian Cooperation, working in conjunction with the Italian Red Cross and the ICRC, distributed 45 tonnes of wood and over 400 blankets on 1 February to families living in a makeshift camp at Chaman-i-Babrak on the outskirts of Kabul. A similar distribution was carried out to 60 families living in another tented camp, Shahi Shahid, the following day. Nearly 200 families - about half the camp's residents - benefited from the aid provided in Chaman-i-Babrak. While it certainly did not cover all the needs, it was a start. A further distribution is planned."

More help is arriving: the United Nations
World Food Program (WFP) has distributed 3,350 metric tons of food to 442,100 Afghans in need. "Major donors to WFP's operations in Afghanistan include: the United States (US$126 million), Japan (US$34 million), India (US$26 million), the European Commission (US$17 million), Italy US$8 million), Canada (US$6 million), the International Committee of the Red Cross (US$3 million), the United Kingdom (US$3 million), Switzerland (US$3 million), Saudi Arabia (US$2 million), Denmark (US$2 million), Luxembourg (US$1 million), Netherlands (US$1 million) and Ireland (US$1 million)."

International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies is also assisting the
Afghan Red Crescent society in helping some 17,000 internally displaced persons living in Kabul who have been particularly affected by the severe weather conditions.

Winter aside, many organisations are also trying to help Afghanistan's

"Nearly 500 girls and boys graduated from a vocational training course run by a Belgium-based NGO... in the capital city of eastern Nangarhar province, Jalalabad. Most of the students were young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who couldn't afford to go to school because they had to earn money for their families by working on the streets.

"Eng. Mohammad Ismail Mahmood, the president of the Afghan branch of the NGO, in Jalalabad told Pajhwok Afghan News: 'Nearly 250 girls and 250 boys who trained in 13 subjects will be provided with the relevant tools of their trade, worth up to US $80'...

"Zarghona, a student, [said]: 'I am very happy to have learned embroidery (Charma Dozi) and now I can help my family.' Jawid, a resident of Jalalabad, told Pajhwok: 'Before coming on this course I was earning a living by transporting heavy goods using a hand-cart. Now that I know how to sew, I hope that one day I will become a good tailor.'

"Eng. Ismail said most of the students were orphans and disabled youngsters and some of them developed the skills of welding, and repairing motorcycles."
And this Pennsylvania girl is doing her bit to help her Afghan peers:

"Sometimes it takes a look from a different perspective to realize that Americans take much for granted.

"Taylor Barth, a sixth grader from Murrysville, Pa., got a glimpse of a different perspective from a friend, U.S. Army. Capt. Kevin Higgins. Higgins told Taylor about Afghan children he saw who didn't have some things considered part of everyday life here.

" 'My friend Kevin Higgins said that the children there had no shoes and I should try to do something about it,' Taylor said. 'We have all this kind of stuff, like great kinds of shoes and stuff they don't. And they should have the chance to have those kinds of great things.'

"Taylor, 11, wanted to do something to help, and suggested sending used shoes to Afghanistan."
Read the rest of the story how this small idea has snowballed into a humanitarian action involving the whole community.

summarizes the activities of the Coalition troops throughout the country:

"American troops came to Afghanistan as vengeful warriors on the trail of al-Qaeda. But three years after the fall of the Taliban regime, the average GI is as likely to be rebuilding and making friends as hunting America's enemies.

"Fourteen garrisons, called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), of American soldiers are distributing largesse across the country, often in still dangerous combat zones.

"Soldiers are building hospitals and schools, digging wells, treating illness, training Afghan soldiers and police, and advising local officials. The teams are increasingly pleased with the public-relations success of their efforts. Friends are won, security improved, and Taliban remnants sidelined, their officers claim.

"The PRTs are part of a new nation-building effort by the American government, from an administration that was once averse to the very idea. America doles out half of all foreign aid being spent on rebuilding the country, while the American ambassador meets its president daily to offer his assistance (and is nick-named the Viceroy for his pains)."
Speaking of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, "the US-led coalition forces will establish five new provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan. The PRTs are part of the civilian reconstruction efforts carried out by the Coalition Forces as well as the NATO led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Colonel Randy Brooks, Director of Civil Military Operations for the coalition forces told a press conference on Monday that the five additional PRTs would bring the total number of PRTs to 24." Read here how a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Farah province is bringing hope and support to the locals, including building three all-girl schools for 1,500 students.

The reconstruction cooperation between the troops and civilian authorities continues to bear fruit. Among the
recent developments: the opening of the Khoshal Khan Kuchi Tribal School, which will provide education to 1,400 Kuchi students; constructing a security wall at the American University; helping with the renovation of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Communications buildings; and distribution of more than 16,000 sets of cold-weather gear to the Interior Ministry personnel. In southeastern Afghanistan,

"the Afghan government and the U.S. Agency for International Development are partnering to put Khowst province on the high road to economic prosperity...

"Khowst spans across southeastern Afghanistan and shares a 140-kilometer-long border with neighboring Pakistan, noted Army Maj. Carl Hollister, commander of the Khowst provincial reconstruction team and a member of the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion.

"The province boasts 'an ideal location to facilitate trade,' Hollister pointed out. Accordingly, he said, the province's governor and the Khowst PRT "have been working together to develop this province into the economic engine" for southeastern Afghanistan.

"As part of that partnership, Hollister said, the governor and the PRT have formulated a five-year economic plan for Khowst. The plan features six areas of focus: education, healthcare, water, energy, reconstruction and economic development."
Read also this interesting report of how lessons learned in Afghanistan are now being applied in Iraq: "Although the insurgency there has proved far less virulent, military officers say successful partnerships with village leaders and efforts to bolster the central government may be the kind of experience that applies to Iraq. Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, who oversees day-to-day operations in Afghanistan, says the strategy has been to build goodwill for international forces and decrease support for the lingering insurgency. 'It's classic counterinsurgency doctrine,' Olson says. 'It's separating the guerrilla from the population'."

multi-faced nature of the military involvement in Afghanistan is illustrated by this story:

"Jeff Nelson isn't working in a typical job these days. The 1978 Lumen Christi High School graduate and colonel in the South Carolina Army National Guard is in Afghanistan, working to rewrite laws, reorganize the legal system and help develop infrastructure.

" 'Afghanistan is starting at less than zero,' Nelson said in an e-mail interview. 'There is a historic precedent for a legal system in this country -- it just hasn't operated for the past 30 years or so.'

"Nelson, the son of Circuit Judge Charles and Patricia Nelson of Jackson, splits time working to help the Afghan government reorganize its legal system and manage infrastructure projects such as installing electrical and telephone lines. He also makes humanitarian trips about once a month."
There is also help to develop local media: "The only radio station in the southern province of Zabul, has been reactivated after 26 years with the help of the civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Team(PRT) in the southern province of Zabul. On Monday, local people turned on their radios to hear Zabul Radio broadcasting for four hours from the provincial capital of Kalat."

The troops have been also active in helping the Afghan people affected by the recent
harsh weather: "That help included medical-assistance visits from the Parwan provincial reconstruction team to the Camp Chamin-e Barbak and Camp Huzuri displaced-persons camps near Kabul to deliver much needed winter clothing and medicine to more than 2,500 people... The packages, he said, contained 3,000 kilograms of beans, 3,000 kilograms of rice and 400 blankets. Village elders identified the neediest families in the village to receive the items. Coalition members also assisted motorists by rendering medical attention; providing food, fuel and warming tents; and by clearing a snow-covered stretch of the Jalalabad roadway." More on the topic here.

The help is also reaching some isolated villages in the
Ghazni province: "While conducting assessments of village needs, Coalition forces serving here delivered critical humanitarian supplies Feb. 2 to villages suffering from heavy snowfall. The members of the Ghazni Provincial Reconstruction Team conducted a mounted patrol to assess several villages and to distribute critical humanitarian aid along the way. With over two feet of snow making it nearly impossible to access these villages whose residents are more likely to travel with mules than the necessary four-wheel drive, the local residents enthusiastically welcomed the assistance."

In another
recent action, "about 50 U.S. and South Korean troops visited Chamin-E-Babrak, a local camp for displaced people, Feb. 5 and handed out nearly 5,000 items including medicine. Dr. Massouda Jalal, Afghan minister of women's affairs, was also on hand to help hand out supplies and visit with Afghans. Lines of people waited patiently for their turn to be given blankets, shoes, toiletries and clothing. Children received medicine in one line, and medical tents were set up for people who needed treatment. The mission was led by the Parwan Provincial Reconstruction Team, one of 19 PRTs spread throughout the country. The coalition forces provided medics, security and troops who said they just wanted to make a difference."

Elsewhere, "in a
40-person, 16-vehicle convoy of Soldiers and Airmen from here traveled more than 30 miles southwest into the Afghan mountains, delivering humanitarian aid to two snowbound villages. Enough blankets, clothes, food and medicine were provided for 2,700 households, officials said." And here's news about similar mission to Kharwar, a village isolated by 30 feet of snow.

The US troops are also
distributing food and other humanitarian aid supplied by the United Nation's World Food Programme. In central province of Ghor, "hundreds of Afghans in a snowbound mountain town cheered from the rooftops on Friday as a U.S. military plane air-dropped emergency supplies to an area where dozens have died during the worst winter in decades." In Zabol province, Operation Bear's Paw has been distributing tonnes of food via land, or if inaccessible, via air to remote villages (here's more about Zabul).

Other aid effort is purely a matter of private initiative. The humanitarian efforts of this group of Utah soldiers are
bearing fruit back home:

"A Utah soldier back in the states for a few days on leave from Afghanistan is getting to see firsthand one of his most important missions -- an eleven year old Afghani boy get life saving heart surgery.

"The eleven-year old Afghan boy is in Loma Linda, California today for heart surgery. His journey here started with a Utah soldier several months ago, as he and other members of the 211 Aviation unit of Apache helicopters based in West Jordan adopted his village.

"Layne Pace , 211 Aviation Regiment: 'His father approached us numerous times, asking for help. It was difficult to determine his problem. He was synoptic, dark in color, and didn't do well when he ran with other kids.' On another trip to the village a military cardiologist diagnosed the boy with a heart defect.

"Layne Pace: 'We knew what he had, we knew what we had to do, just didn't know how we'd be able to do it. So we stated a little campaign, several of us with a series of e-mails to family and friends back here in Utah to see if anyone was willing to help with surgery.' Pace found numerous people all over the country who were willing to help."
Another similar good news story: "In mid September, Capt. James Gruber had little Qudrat Ullah placed in his lap while on a routine refugee camp humanitarian visit by the 76th Infantry Brigade. Little did he know the miracle that was in store that would enable the child to receive treatment in the United States that was not available in Afghanistan...

"After diagnosing Qudrat's condition, Capt. Michael Roscoe, a physician assistant with the 113th Base Support Battalion, 76th Inf. Bde., contacted Lt. Col. Terry Snow, the Civil Military Operations officer for Coalition Joint Task Force Phoenix. Snow, an avid member of the Rotary Club of Greenfield, Ind., took the next step by using his contacts within the Rotary organization to secure funds through the 'Gift of Life' program.

"The U.S. military is providing transportation from Kabul to Indianapolis while Rotary will defray the costs of food and any collateral spending Qudrat will need while in Indiana. Within 72 hours of asking Rotary for help, Snow received word that the organization would provide funding. Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis agreed to perform the procedure on Qudrat through its own donations. Three surgeons volunteered to operate on the boy, making a $50,000 surgery free for this family."
A 14 month old Qudratullah, suffering from a serious heart defect, is being flown by the US army with his father to the United States for a life-saving surgery at Riley Children's hospital in Indianapolis (which will be performing the operation free or charge). And here's the story of the operation by the American army medic to correct a severe cleft palate of an Afghan boy.

Elsewhere, this serviceman's effort to
clothe the Afghan children are also proving very successful and rewarding:

"Capt. John Dingeman, the director of the 11th Wing Contracting Office, had no idea that his effort to distribute a box of donated items while deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2004 would grow into a massive project of good will.

"Working with a group of in-station community relations volunteers, Captain Dingeman made contact with a local hospital orphanage, where he would present them with the much-needed supplies.

"While visiting with the boys and girls who would make use of the notebooks, pads of paper and pencils he'd brought, Captain Dingeman observed that the Afghan children had yet another need -- their clothes were tattered and many of them had no shoes.

"The captain said that it was not just the smaller children, or the infants, or the teenagers who were barefoot but it was all of the children. 'I could not believe it,' he said. 'And I wanted to help.'

"When communicating with the contracting officer, family and friends back home in Michigan would often ask if there was anything they could do to help him while deployed. For the most part, Captain Dingeman said he had everything he needed, so instead of asking for items to help make his temporary living conditions more comfortable, he asked that items be sent for the children."
Read the rest of this amazing story of how Capt Dingeman's effort has taken off. Meanwhile, this serviceman's initiative is bringing shoes and school supplies to Afghan children:

"Todd Schmidt's idea took root during a conversation with his mother before his Army unit left for Afghanistan, and it sprouted during Internet exchanges with a Texas history teacher. In less than a year, his effort has brought backpacks, school supplies and winter clothes to thousands of children struggling in poverty as Afghanistan emerges from decades of civil war.

"Capt. Schmidt, 32, a Greenwood native, founded Operation Dreamseed after the 25th Infantry Division, normally based in Hawaii, arrived last April at Kandahar Airfield. Since then, the organization has grown. Other soldiers help deliver supplies sent by Maple Grove Elementary in Johnson County, where Schmidt's mother teaches, and by schools, groups and individuals from nearly every state.

"On Wednesday, Schmidt helped soldiers from the Georgia National Guard deliver 1 ton of supplies to an isolated mountain town. 'Believe it or not,' he wrote this week in an e-mail, 'even with 3 feet of snow in this remote, mountainous village of Nele Zaragak in the Ghor Province, many children were without shoes.'

"Schmidt estimated more than 3,000 children received shoes, clothing or school supplies. This week's delivery was the largest since the first large-scale mission in December at a soccer field, where 2,500 schoolchildren from Kandahar had gathered to receive backpacks and school supplies. Schmidt also has organized smaller deliveries."
Read also about the Operation School House, started by 265th Air Defense Forward 2, a Florida National Guard battalion.

Last, but not least, Maj. Robert Fraser of the Oregon National Guard is trying to introduce
softball to the people of Afghanistan.

SECURITY: There is some good
geo-strategic news for the future of the American-Afghan relationship:

"Afghanistan and the United States will establish a long-term military partnership and officials have already begun working out the details, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday. To consolidate the war-ravaged country's fragile recovery from years of impoverishing conflict, 'we do need a long-term, strong and strategic partnership with the United States,' presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin said at a news conference.

" 'The question of what form that will take is being worked on but it will, we believe, span over a broad range of spheres including the economy, including politics, including military,' Ludin said."
Meanwhile, a top American military commander reports on the progress in securing Afghanistan:

"[Col. Cardon Crawford, director of operations for the U.S. military command in Afghanistan] says al-Qaida no longer has an effective presence in Afghanistan and that the Taliban leadership is divided, with some members ready to join the political process...

"Crawford would not say whether U.S. forces have come close to finding bin Laden, but said his guerrilla group has become less of a threat in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida has 'no effective presence' inside Afghanistan now, Crawford said.

"He also said there are signs of divisions within the Taliban leadership, and he suggested that the Afghan government is preparing a new plan that would be designed to 'widen the fissures' within the Taliban leadership. He declined to provide details. Some Taliban leaders, he said, 'are probably willing - literally and figuratively - to come in out of the cold' and become part of the Afghan political process."
And some are doing just that: "Four senior leaders of the Taliban have accepted a reconciliation offer from the Afghan government... Under the agreement, which the official said will likely be announced within days, the men recognized the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai's government in exchange for assurances that they will not face arrest by Afghan or foreign security forces. The official identified the four as Abdul Hakim Mujahid, formerly the Taliban's envoy to the United Nations; Arsullah Rahmani, former deputy minister of higher education and a former commander in southeastern Paktika province; Rahmatullah Wahidyar, former deputy minister of refugees and returnees; and Fawzi, former charge d'affaires at the Afghan Embassy in Saudi Arabia and then first secretary at the Afghan Embassy in Pakistan." Ineligible for the amnesty are around 150 Taliban officials associated directly with Al Qaeda or known to have committed atrocities.

governors of Zabul and Ghazni in southern Afghanistan are also conducting talks with Taliban, using religious leaders and local elders as intermediaries. Read more about the talks here (as one Afghan says, "This is good news for our people, for our nation, for our brothers who had been deceived. It's a major achievement for our government. It's really time for unity, it's time to get along. We should hold each others' hands and rebuild our country.").

In their negotiations, the authorities are receiving some valuable assistance from an

"One of the Taliban's most senior and charismatic commanders has become a key negotiator as more and more members of the Islamic militia in Afghanistan give up the fight against the Americans.

"The commander, Abdul Salam, earned the nickname Mullah Rockety because he was so accurate with rocket propelled grenades against Russian troops. He later joined the Taliban as a corps commander in Jalalabad before being captured by the Americans after September 11.

"Now he is a supporter of President Hamid Karzai and is tempting diehard Taliban fighters to accept an amnesty offer and reconcile themselves to Afghanistan's first directly elected leader.

" 'The Taliban has lost its morale,' he said, speaking by satellite phone from the heartlands of Zabul province, a Taliban redoubt. 'But you have to go and find the Taliban and call to them and ask them directly. If they believe they will be secure and safe they will come down from the mountains'."
According to U.K. Army Major General Peter Gilchrist, deputy commander of international forces in Afghanistan, the local residents are proving increasingly helpful in combating the Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants. The Afghan and American authorities have also been successful in their efforts to isolate and bring to the table the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) group of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, widely seen as sympathetic to Taliban.

The terrorists and insurgents are losing their infrastructure as more arms caches continue to be found throughout the country.
Four were located on February 5, including one containing "82 mm mortar rounds, one 100 mm projectile, two 122 mm projectiles, eight 57 mm projectiles, one 76 mm projectile, 14 23 mm recoilless rifle rounds, two C-50 rockets, 10 anti-personnel mines, 500 fuses, 21 hand grenades and 12 VOC-25 rifle rounds." On one day alone, 7 February, the troops have located six caches with weapons and 1,100 kilograms of hashish. In 13 days up to February 12, 33 separate weapons caches were discovered throughout the country. Another large cache recovered in Herat; four caches discovered in Paktya, Kunar and Uruzgan provinces and Herat; and a huge cache discovered by the Afghan Zafar army corp in Shindad district, consisting of "600 cartons of guns, rocket missiles and 65 ballistic missiles." And two roadside bombs have been recently located and disarmed thanks to tips from local elders in Oruzgan district and Herat province.

In other security successes: the capture of the
top Taliban commander in the province of Uruzgun; the arrest in a raid in Quetta, Pakistan, of 17 Taliban members, including the former deputy governor of southern Helmand province, Mullah Khush Dil, and ex-Kabul police chief Mullah Ibrahim; and the arrest of four ranking members of Taliban in the south of the country.

Making Afghanistan safer for the future also means conducting the largest
de-mining operation in the world. "Shohab Hakimi is the chairman of the Afghan Campaign to Ban Land Mines and the director of the Mine Detection and Dog Center. '[Before] the number of victims was very high, about 500 to 600 per month, but, as a result of the work of the mine-clearing organizations in Afghanistan, this number has been decreasing every year,' he said. 'Last year, based on the report we had -- we are talking only about registered cases -- every month about 100 people lost their lives [or were disabled] because of a mine explosion.' Despite the progress, the country still has one of the highest land-mine casualty rates in the world. Afghan authorities estimate that some 800 square kilometers of land is contaminated with land mines and other buried explosives. There are also reports of use of land mines by militants groups." Some 8,000 de-miners are currently at work in Afghanistan.

Elsewhere, "a total of
19,179 mines collected from militia units in and around the city of Herat were detonated in a huge explosion near the city on Thursday morning, the largest event of its kind since the fall of the Taliban three years ago." Around 100 people per week are still killed and wounded by unexploded landmines, the legacy of quarter of a century of conflict which left Afghanistan the most heavily mined country on Earth.

This struggle to make Afghanistan safer from landmines has many heroes. One of them is Marine Corps
Maj. Scott Glennon who trains soldiers and Marines to use robots, which can locate and disable land mines and homemade explosive devices. "His unit has six large robots called Mobile Vehicle 4s. They weigh more than 12,000 pounds, are about 5 feet tall, 7 feet wide and 14 feet long... His unit also has several hundred small Croatian-made robots that weigh about 100 pounds each and are about the size of a push lawnmower."

It's not just mines; there is a lot of unexploded ammunition and weapons posing danger around the country, not to mention a lot of private militias to use them, thus necessitating a large scale
disarmament program: "Afghanistan has disarmed 80 percent of its estimated 50,000 militiamen under a joint program with the United Nations... 'This is another milestone in the disarmament process,' [says] Ariane Quentier, senior public information officer for the Mission... The program 'has kept gaining momentum since it was initiated last year.' A total of 40,104 militiamen have handed in their weapons under the program that provides training to help find jobs in civil society."

The authorities are reporting that the
south-western zone of the country, centered around Kandahar, has been 98% disarmed. The region around Jalalabad has been declared the second in the whole country to be fully disarmed. Meanwhile, "a second phase of disarmament of private militants have begun in Badakshan, Kunduz, Thakar and Baghlan provinces of Afghanistan." And there's more progress around Bamiyan.

Replacing militias, guerilla groups and other armed bands, the new
Afghan army is developing in line with the plans: "Afghanistan's new army will reach full combat strength by the end of next year and training of the overall force of 70,000 should be complete by the end of 2008... The army currently has 17,000 combat soldiers, with another 5,000 undergoing training, and it would reach its full combat strength of 40,000 by the end of 2006, U.S. Brigadier-General Richard Moorhead told a news conference. He said completion of training of the overall force of 70,000, including headquarters and other non-combat personnel, would take until the end of 2008." (update: the army level reaches 20,000 troops.)

You can also read this extensive profile of where the creation of the
Afghan National Army is at the moment:

"More than 3,000 Afghans are in a three-step, 20-week training regimen that concludes with a unit assignment...

"Launched in June 2003, the task force started slowly, focused for the first year primarily on the infantry. Recruits were tested and evaluated to determine if they were junior enlisted, senior enlisted or officer material. Additionally, U.S., French and British trainers kept an eye out for recruits who would one day take over as instructors.

"About a year ago, the task force turned over basic-training duties to those handpicked candidates. Moorhead said the plan is to do the same this April with the command and staff school, which the French army oversees. Later this year, the British will hand their clipboards to Afghan instructors chosen to conduct the senior noncommissioned officer school."
There's more - including building the training, logistics and communications aspect of the army. And here you can find some photos from Afghanistan's new military academy.

To speed up the process, the US is now
doubling the number of military trainers, adding 280 to the 300 currently serving. Read this article on challenges and rewards of being an American instructor of the Afghan armed forces. Police, too, are being trained by the US personnel, including "a three-man team from the 58th Military Police Company out of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, [which] has the daunting task of training more 3,382 police officers from 31 districts spread throughout three provinces."

NATO is finally coming onboard with more military assistance by way of an expanded peacekeeping force in the west of the country. The new units will come primarily from Italy, Spain and Lithuania. Others are also contributing to building the Afghan army; most recently India has delivered another 49 out of the promised 300 vehicles (235 in total have so far been delivered).

And in the fight against drugs, Gen. Mohammad Daud, deputy minister from the Kabul-based counter-narcotics department, says that 2005 will be
"the year for poppy eradication." "The poppy cultivation has dishonored Afghanistan in the world and we will eradicate the illicit drug this year," says Gen Daud.

Great Britain is doubling its anti-drugs funding for Afghanistan, from $50 to $100 million. Meanwhile, as the planting season begins, fifteen teams of Afghan anti-narcotics agents have set out from the capital into the provinces to ensure that the eradication programs are progressing as planned. Such verification is already underway in Herat, to confirm the local claims that "80 percent of the poppy fields have been destroyed in the regions of Herat. The remaining could not be destroyed due to the heavy snowfall and will be cleared when the weather gets warm."

Another province also reports
considerable success: "Nangarhar, one of the highest poppy producing provinces of Afghanistan has eradicated 99% of its poppy cultivation, according to provincial officials. Senior security official Commander Hazrat Ali told Pajhwok Afghan News on Sunday that there were some areas in the mountainous regions of Goshta, Lalpoora and Achin districts from where poppy had not been eradicated due to bad weather." The drop in cultivation in Nangarhar province is not an isolated phenomenon:

"Across Afghanistan, government officials and foreign aid workers who monitor poppy cultivation have reached a remarkable conclusion. One year after Afghan farmers planted the largest amount of poppy in their nation's history and provided the world with nearly 90 percent of its opium supply, many of them have stopped growing it.

"Poppy farming, officials said, may have declined by as much as 70 percent in three provinces that together account for more than half of Afghanistan's production: Nangahar in the east, Helmand in the south and Badakhshan in the north."
You can read this extensive report on how the local farmers are coping with the switch away from opium poppies and the support they are getting from the Afghan authorities and from overseas to help them stay on the straight and narrow. In one of the initiatives, "farmers of Nangarhar who have stopped cultivating poppy will be given loans to start poultry farming." Others are going into fish farming. You can also read about USAID's contribution to the Alternative Livelihoods Programme.

And to deal with the human side of the drug trade, this initiative from the
Czech Republic:

"A joint Czech-Afghan project Breaking the Circle, which is to modernize the center for drug-addicts in Kabul and improve their treatment, was launched in the past days in Kabul, head of the organizing Podane ruce association, Jindrich Voboril said Wednesday.

The EU set aside about eight million crowns (about 340,000 dollars) for the anti-drug project. 'We bought an on-line computer, which the doctors will use to acquire information material for drug-addicts. They have had only 30 years old books until now,' Voboril said. Also a generator to produce electricity was purchased for the facility.

"The project's main part will be launched in the spring. A new building worth 1.6 million crowns (about 68,000 dollars) will be constructed to house therapy sessions and workshops for former opium addicts and illegal opium producers. The old building will continue to be used for lodgings."
Writes Ghizal Miri, whom we've met at the start of the article: "America has planted seeds of hope in my country and it's my duty and the duty of the rest of the citizens of Afghanistan to help the seeds to grow and spread throughout our country. I plan to work toward the great opportunities that stand before me in order to make the dream of a strong, free Afghanistan become a reality." The journey is only beginning for Afghanistan; the country will need a lot more Miris, not to mention a lot more help from the West. But working together, there is finally hope.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?