Saturday, May 07, 2005

America's undiplomatic diplomat 

President Bush is traveling to Latvia and Georgia before going to Moscow to take part in the 60th anniversary celebration of the end of World War Two. Bizarrely, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has sent a letter to Condi Rice protesting Bush's visits in the former Soviet republics.

Even more bizarrely, there is somebody at the State Department who's not holding back. His name is Dan Fried, and he is the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs:
[Fried] told reporters traveling with Bush that Russia ignores a two-year non-aggression pact the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany -- which ended when Germany invaded Russia in June 1941 -- in portraying itself as a victim of the Nazis.

In visiting Latvia and Georgia in connection with his visit to Russia, Bush is "celebrating victories of freedom over tyranny" beginning with the defeat of Nazi Germany and progressing to the liberation of the Baltics from Soviet domination and now the potential future freedom of Georgia following its 2003 "Rose Revolution," Fried said.

"It is taking the president's freedom agenda and applying it to the complexities of the real world," Fried said.

Fried said the U.S. and Russia have "competing narratives of World War II. The first is the true narrative, which is ours," he said. [ouch!]

The Soviets "spread communism where they went," said Fried, who also said the U.S. erred before World War II by remaining isolationist and failing to organize the West against Hitler. France and Britain, Fried said, can be faulted for appeasement. The difference is that while the U.S. and Europe recognize those "darks spots" in history, Russia doesn't, Fried said.
Please don't hold back; tell us what you really think. Dan Fried surely is not a career diplomat - he's too honest.

Fried is right, of course. Not taking anything away from the incredible war-time sacrifice (both voluntary and involuntary) of her people, the Soviet Union's role in World War Two is ambiguous on at least these two grounds: because together with the Nazi Germany she was the initial aggressor of the war and remained Hitler's ally for almost two years thereafter, and because the "liberation" of the Eastern Europe meant merely the replacement of one totalitarian system with another, less bloody and over time less destructive one.

All this will make for interesting celebrations tomorrow. Stay tuned.


Genocidal garbage collectors 

While we were all distracted by the British poll and trying to see whether the last one of the "Three Anglos" Bush-Blair-Howard troika to face his people would also be re-elected, another election took place in the Middle East. It is almost becoming a pattern, isn't it? This time, it was Palestinian local elections, and just like in Great Britain, everyone had something to be happy about, or as this headline put it, "Both Fatah and Hamas celebrate Palestinian vote":
While the two groups and election officials offered slightly different figures, unofficial results indicated that Fatah won at least 45 of the 84 municipalities that held ballots in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Hamas won at least 23 municipalities, including convincing victories in the three largest towns that were at stake. In the remaining 16 municipalities, smaller parties or independents got the most votes, and in some cases there was no clear winner.
With its increasing electoral success, Hamas appears to be at pains to appear reasonable and respectable - to a point:
"We are not Iran or the Taliban," a Hamas leader said as the militant group won election in this Palestinian town closest to Israel.

The green Hamas banner was hoisted Friday over city hall, and celebrating leaders like Mohammed Ghazal pledged not to impose their strict religious views on the communities they now rule. "We believe that personal freedom is one of the foundations of Islam," he said...

Leaders of Hamas, which has long opposed negotiations with Israel, tried to allay concerns that they will impose hard-line religious views in the communities they will govern, saying the group will focus on providing better municipal services. In Qalqiliya, many such services are shared with a neighboring Israeli town.
By the way, Hamas still believes in a "one state solution" - Palestine from Jordan to the Mediterranean - so about a quarter of Palestinian local governments are now in the hands of people who want to more efficiently collect trash and more efficiently kill the Jews. Hamas might not be Iran or Taliban, but for all the new-found respect for personal freedom, there is still too much Nazi Germany in there.

The big question of the Middle Eastern politics is whether the everyday practice of democracy will serve to moderate the extremists who choose to participate in the process. Democracy, after all, is a game of constant give-and-take, haggling, and compromise which erodes absolutist positions of all ideological stripes. We can also hope, I guess, that Hamas will become so busy trying to fix sewage pipes that it will firstly simply run out of time and eventually from the inclination for suicide bombings.


More terrorists seized in Pakistan 

It's called a chain reaction: Pakistani authorities are said to have arrested seven or eight other Al Qaeda members following their capture of Al Qaeda's number 3, Abu Farraj al-Libbi a few days ago. One of the seized is another senior terrorist figure with a $4 million bounty on his head (al-Libbi's was $5 million).

It's not just al-Libbi who is apparently singing, but his magic notebook might soon provide a wealth of information:
U.S. officials are working feverishly to decipher numbers and apparent codes in a notebook retrieved from suspected al Qaeda leader Abu Faraj al-Libbi...

Sources said officials believe al-Libbi's seized notebook contains "hot" contact information. They said officials are hopeful the notebook contains useful information because al-Libbi was stunned when he was captured...

Al-Libbi was trying to destroy the notebook when he was apprehended, multiple sources said.
Hopefully, when the experts succeed in deciphering the contents of the notebook, unlike "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (the movie is highly recommended) the answer to Life, the Universe and the Whereabouts of Osama bin Laden will not be "42".

I particularly liked the observation that al-Libbi was stunned when captured - "One senior official described al-Libbi as 'shocked' and enraged. 'He thought he was invincible,' the source said. 'He was caught with his pants down. This was not the time and place of his choosing'." I guess it never is. But just how much stunned?

That much. You would be too, if you were cornered by Pakistani security agents disguised as burqa-clad women.


Friday, May 06, 2005


Well, here it is, another milestone. I have to say that it caught me by surprise - I didn't expect it until sometime next week, by which stage I might have thought about something clever or memorable to say on this occasion. However, my post yesterday "The disadvantages of pissing off America" has generated quite a great deal of extra traffic and brought the occasion forward. Just goes to show, you spend 20 hours compiling "Good news from Iraq" segment and maybe an extra 5,000 will visit, but put together in half an hour a couple of pictures of dishevelled losers and you'll get 40,000.

Anyway, thank you all: the faithful and the occasional readers, correspondents who send comments, ideas and links, and fellow bloggers who link and encourage. Without you, none of it would be possible, and none of it would be worth it.


A victory for Saddam 

There is one disgraceful aspect of the British election which really stands out - it's the victory of the despicable George Galloway in the London seat of Bethnal Green & Bow. Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party for his very vocal opposition to removing Saddam from power, subsequently started a new political party Respect, moved from his native Scotland, and ran against Oona King, half-African-American, half-Jewish Labour member and a strong supporter of the liberation of Iraq.

Galloway chose his seat well - it has 40 per cent (some reports put it at 50 per cent) Muslim population - Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi, majority of them fiercely opposed to war. Neither Galloway nor his supporters, however, seem to see anything wrong, hypocritical or self-contradictory in using the democratic process to punish those who made democracy possible in Iraq. And in the end the poll in Bethnal Green & Bow did bear a passing resemblance to the Iraqi election:
Yesterday the constituency saw its largest police presence ever on polling day, with hundreds of officers on the street and some forced to drive rental cars. Every polling station had at least one officer outside it as compared to three on previous elections, and dozens of police patrolled Brick Lane at the heart of the constituency's Bangladeshi community. Respect's lead there, at the centre of the city's curryland, was said to be seven to one.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, whose seat is 25% Muslim, has managed to survive with only a small swing against him. It might have helped that he is not Jewish. As Mark Steyn comments:
The defeat of Oona King, a black Jewish pro-war Labour MP, will mark an ominous development in British politics. I think there's no doubt that, under cover of "anti-Zionism", there's now an explicit anti-Jewish component to the political scene. And, disreputable as it is, Labour nominating committees will be thinking very carefully about whether they want to run Jewish candidates.
Galloway did outdo himself, though, in his victory speech:
Galloway declared his victory as a victory for Iraq.

"All the people you killed, all the lies you told, have come back to haunt you," Galloway said in a message to prime minister Blair.
Actually, the victory for Iraq already occurred on January 30, when millions of Iraqis, braving the guns and the bombs of thugs who fight for the man Galloway would still have ruling over Iraq, went out and overwhelmingly voted against terror and for a new and democratic Iraq. Ironically, Iraqi people risking death from suicide bombers and mortars have managed a larger turnout than voters of Bethnal Green, only 51.7% of whom voted yesterday.

Update: For all the readers who questioned my description of Oona King as half-African-American, her father is Preston King, African-American activist (he "was expelled from the US for draft dodging (Bill Clinton formally pardoned him 40 years later). He is now a respected professor of politics").


Piling up the corpses 

This is how some in the mainstream media continue to cover Afghanistan - here's the latest from "The New York Times":

Afghan Rebels Step Up Attacks, Killing 9 Near Pakistani Border
The first paragraph reads:

Nine Afghan soldiers were killed and three were wounded in an ambush Thursday in southern Afghanistan, in the most deadly single attack by rebels against the newly trained Afghan National Army, a military spokesman said.
There is no mention in the story of what has been covered by many other newspapers and news-wire services, mainly that the ambush misfired on the Taliban, attracting a swift response from the Coalition air force, which killed twenty rebels.

We have to go past the analysis that "the attack, along with heavy fighting in the neighboring province of Zabul on Tuesday, provided further evidence that American military predictions that the insurgency was declining might have been overconfident", before we get to paragraph six, which quotes Afghan official that 100 Taliban were killed throughout the country in April, and paragraph eight, which mentions that 40 Taliban were killed in the said fighting in the Zabul province.

So the news can indeed be that the Afghan Army has suffered large casualties in an ambush, or that the Taliban are mounting fresh attacks in the spring - but it could also be that when they do, they get absolute hell trashed out of them by the American and Afghan security forces. Insurgents who don't enjoy outside support (unlike, say, the Viet Cong) cannot sustain these levels of casualties - their effectiveness depends on the ratio being actually reverse. So "Afghan Rebels" do indeed "speed up" their own extermination.


Another one for Tony 

It looks like Tony Blair made it across the line, albeit with a reduced majority.

It's a result that won't totally satisfy anyone, but has something for everyone. Labour Party has won a historic third term in office, but suffered a swing against it. The Conservatives did not win government, but they put themselves in a better position to do so at the next election, when Tony Blair will no longer be leading Labour. The pro-liberation forces can rejoice that a staunch American ally was not kicked out of the office by the unsettled electorate. The anti-liberation forces can console themselves that at least he received a bloody nose.

I don't normally quote whole documents, but this is perhaps a very opportune time to reprint
a letter sent to Tony Blair by Iraq's new president Jalal Talabani a few days ago. What more is there to say?

I cannot begin to explain my emotions, after over five decades of personally fighting for and promoting democracy and human rights, to witness a nation take its first steps towards a dream.

Now the democratically elected parliament has honoured me, a Kurd, with the post of Presidency. This is a symbol of the promise, integration and unity of the new Iraq.

Let nobody mislead you, the Iraq that we inherited in April 2003, following the British and American led liberation, was a tragedy. The Ba’athist criminals had starved the country of an infrastructure and the people of their freedom. Apart from the Kurdish safe haven, Iraq was a playground for thugs and a prison for the innocent.

Saddam’s war against the Iraqi people was ongoing; we have evidence which demonstrates that the regime was executing its challengers until the last days of its rule. It was that war, lasting almost forty years, which was the true war of Iraq.

We have all heard of the genocide, gassing, ethnic cleansing, mass murder and the environmental vandalism of the territory of Iraq’s historic Marsh Arabs. We understand that there is no turning the clock back. Instead, we press ahead with democratisation and justice.

Unfortunately, Saddam’s former henchmen, and religious extremist associates have chosen to fight their losing battle, which in turn has made post-liberation Iraq less stable than we would have wished. Yet true Iraqis have largely shunned the terrorists, and their cowardly acts are increasingly becoming limited and confined to certain areas.

Millions of brave Iraqis defy terrorism and reject dictatorship every day, without fuss, and certainly without attention from the television cameras. We undertake to rebuild a shattered country that has been scarred by decades of tyranny. With unwavering resolve we support plurality, egalitarianism, and the political process.

Building a democratic federal Iraq is a difficult, and slow, but rewarding process. Those who doubt the swiftness of transition must keep in mind that a state such as Iraq is a cultural, ethnic and linguistic mosaic that was only ever held together by brute force, thus, political speed can kill.

Nevertheless, January saw Iraq’s first free and open general election, leading to the first democratically elected government of our desolate history. Yet our struggle for a better, emancipated Iraq is only due to the consistent and unwavering support of Prime Minister Blair, the British people, and the coalition of the willing.

For many Iraqis, the positive role that Britain has played is a welcome change. From our colonial master, Britain has become our democratic guardian. In 1991 I saw at first hand how Prime Minister John Major, fresh from the liberation of Kuwait, bravely led the way in implementing a safe-haven for Iraqi Kurdistan.

For 12 years, heroic RAF pilots, with the support of neighbouring Turkey, flew in Kurdish skies to prevent Saddam from completing the anti-Kurdish genocide that he had started in 1987. We were finally able to start rebuilding the 4,500 villages destroyed by Saddam’s regime and to begin the process of nurturing civil society and democracy. And now thanks to Prime Minister Blair’s courageous and principled decisions, we can recreate this throughout Iraq.

Of course the liberation of Iraq has been controversial, as all wars should be. Sadly in this case, war was not the ’best’ option, it was the only option. Under Saddam, war was never controversial, never discussed, simply ordered and executed by him and his thugs.

Iraqis sometimes wonder in amazement what the debate abroad is about. Why do people continue to ask why no WMD was found? The truth is that Saddam had, in the past, used chemical and biological weapons against his own people, and we believed he would do so again. Of course Saddam himself was, in the view of those who opposed him, Iraq’s most dangerous WMD.

Instead of continually focussing on the negative, the British, who will soon commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE day, should know that in the eyes of the majority of Iraqis, it was you who brought us our own victory day.

Britain should be proud that the liberation of Iraq has in our eyes been one of your finest hours. History will judge Prime Minister Blair as a champion against tyranny. Of that I have no doubt.

We are not reticent about expressing our great thanks to the British people and paying homage to the tragic British losses. Every Iraqi family, in fact, has lost a loved one because of Saddam’s regime. Every Iraqi understands the pain of conflict, the grief that accompanies war.

We honour those who sacrificed their lives for our liberation. We are determined out of respect to create a tolerant and democratic Iraq, an Iraq for all the Iraqi people. It will take time and much patience, but I can assure you it will be worth while, not only for Iraq, but for the whole of the Middle East.


Thursday, May 05, 2005

The choice of a new generation 

How's this for a bad product placement?

If I were Pepsi, I would cry.

By strange coincidence, Pepsi also seems to be a drink of choice among some Iraqi insurgents. Possibly because until 1992 Pepsi boycotted Israel and was aggressively pursuing the Arab market. Coke, on the other hand, is quite Israel-friendly, and thus a target of crazy boycotters.

(if you're really into marketing, here's a very interesting article about the Middle East's most bitter conflict: between Coke and Pepsi.)


The disadvantages of pissing off America 

Why life as a top Al Qaeda operative is not good for your health and well-being, not to mention your skin:



Al Qaeda's number 3,
Abu Farraj al-Libbi, has been captured by the Pakistani authorities. Libyan national, al-Libbi has been Al Qaeda's top operative in Pakistan, believed to be behind two assassination attempts against President Musharraf. He's also believed to have been in charge of sleeper cells in the United States and Great Britain, following the capture of the previous number 3, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Speaking of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, two years ago he was another exhibit for the case that life on the run from the US authorities can be rather rough:



And, of course, let's not forget about Saddam:



God only knows what the years of cave-dwelling have done for Osama.

Update: The ultimate makeover, however, belongs to Abu Ali, also known as Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, bin Laden's security guard suspected to have played a major role in the October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS "Cole".



Abu Ali and several of his colleagues, of course, had a close encounter with a Hellfire missile while driving through Yemen.


Live from Basra 

A good friend of this blog, Steven Vincent, the author of "In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq", is back in Iraq and blogging from Basra. As Steven's local friend tells him:

In Basra, conditions are different than up north. In Baghdad, it is all explosions, insurgents, terrorists. Here, life is in flux, the very fabric of our existence is changing. We see it happening all around us, but we don't know what direction it will take. Everything is so amorphous, uncertain and unpredictable.
And as Steven writes, "Which is why I'm here, I told her. And hopefully can stay to report on some of these issues. More--insha'allah-- to come." Make sure to drop by once in a while and check on his progress.

Speaking of Steven's book, here's an offer from his publisher:

Every tenth person who emails us through the Red Zone blog will receive one free copy of "In the Red Zone". One email per person, please. This offer ends at noon, CDT, on Saturday, May 7, or when we reach 100 free copies, whichever comes first.
Highly recommended.


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Blog interview: Brian Anderson and "South Park Conservatives" 

Brian Anderson is the author of a delightful new book titled "South Park Conservatives: The Revolt against Liberal Media Bias" (you can buy the book here, and here you can read my review). Recently I had a chat with Brian about the rise of the new media and the right-of-centre cultural counter-revolution,

I remember reading in the early to mid 1990s many an opinion piece from a prominent conservative activist or commentator bemoaning the fact that our side has effectively lost the culture war. What happened?

One big thing that happened - and it's the central theme of my book - is the explosion of new media, which had undermined the liberal near-monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information. It's now increasingly possible for right-of-center ideas and arguments, ranging from libertarian to socially conservative, to get a fair hearing and win adherents, though of course there are considerable tensions disagreements on the Right. You've also seen, in part made possible by the new media, the emergence of a withering anti-liberal humor, exemplified by the Comedy Central cartoon South Park, standup comedians like Nick Di Paolo, internet humorists like Scott Ott of
Scrappleface and Chris Muir of Day by Day, and talk show host and comic Dennis Miller. I'm not arguing that all these comedic efforts are conservative - South Park, for instance, mocks the Right from time to time, and is one of the most obscenity-laden shows on television - but that they've got little time of the day for liberal elites and their politically correct worldview. That's a striking shift in popular culture, and it has been quite recent - I'd locate its birth in the mid to late nineties. It's a sign of how liberalism is losing political and cultural traction.

How are the liberals reacting to the challenge? Is there a counter-counter-revolution in the making?

"South Park Conservatives" is filled with examples of liberals raging against the new media, which has been one reaction. A more recent effort has been to get up to speed within the new media - so you have the launch of left-wing Air America a year ago or so; Al Gore TV on the horizon; and lots of left-wing blogs and Internet sites. That's a healthier reaction, though the troubles Air America is experiencing to date suggest the Left might go back to the rage-against-the-new-media approach. Many on the Left understandably yearn for the days when the New York Times and the network newscasts established the range of acceptable opinions.

Generational change plays a large part in the cultural counter-revolution. Why do you think Generations X and Y seem to be more conservative, or at least less liberal, than their elders?

The failed historical legacy of the American Left - its inconsistent and at times feckless response to fighting the enemies of America, the failure of its economic programs, its anti-social obsession with rights at the expense of public safety, its victimology, its surrender to vested interest groups, its elevation of individual gratification over the family - has produced a backlash, in my view.

City Journal colleague Kay Hymowitz has been writing about this in our pages, with regard to the family and romantic mores. A lot of younger Americans grew up watching their own families or the families of their friends getting torn apart as Mom or Dad took off to find themselves. There's a great scene in a South Park episode in which young Stan's parents decide to get a divorce. Stan confronts his mother, who has found an obnoxious new boyfriend, Roy. "Stanley, you know you're the most important thing to me, right?" she says, seeking to reassure her son. Stan replies: "then get back together with dad for me." Mom gets cold: "Now, Stanley, you have to understand how divorce works. When I say you're the most important thing to me, what I mean is: You're the most important thing after me and my happiness and my new romances." That's biting social observation, and for lots of young Americans, it hits home.

The Fox network is perhaps the greatest success story in the rise of what you describe as "South Park conservatism". Since the costs of entry into the media market are so prohibitive, is Fox destined to remain a lone ranger, or can you see more of direct competitors emerging for the liberal media giants?

Fox News is indeed a remarkable success story - and it's still less than a decade old. It completely dominates cable news, and now one in four adult Americans claims to get news from it. I don't share the view that it is a wing of the Republican Party, as liberals are always charging. Every time I turn it on, there are liberals galore yammering away. I believe CBS MarketWatch media critic Jon Friedman gets it right: "The success of Fox," he notes, "is not the result of Fox being right-wing. It's because they did such a good job of reaching out to the right-wing TV audience."

I do think there's further success to be had for other enterprises that reach out to that audience - and not just in news and opinion programming but also in entertainment, where so much of television programming remains broadly liberal in sensibility. Entry costs are a problem when it comes to news coverage, obviously, but there's no reason more conservative-minded reporters and producers can't be hired by other networks. In fact, it's already happening on cable: MSNBC airs Scarborough Country every night, hosted by the genial former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, and you have Dennis Miller on CNBC. I think you'll soon see greater numbers of non-liberal or even conservative screenwriters and directors getting work in the entertainment industry too. The market rewards are too great to be ignored permanently, even if Hollywood is reflexively liberal.

Conservatives dominate radio, liberals suck at it; TV is still largely a liberal domain; and I would call the Internet 50-50. What accounts for these differences between the various media?

Political talk radio just hasn't worked for the Left, and Air America's weak ratings to date don't point to any imminent takeover of the airwaves by liberals. Political talk radio arrived in the late eighties as an alternative to - a revolt against, as my subtitle puts it - the liberal tilt of the media mainstream, including public radio, it's important to add. It provided an outlet for views, many of them populist, that liberal elites deemed beyond the pale, outside the mainstream - even though the talk shows were giving the real mainstream a voice!

What need was there, though, to listen to, say, Mario Cuomo's brief-lived radio show - he was going to be the liberal answer to Rush Limbaugh - when you could get the same snobby condescension on the New York Times editorial page, CBS News, or NPR? I love Cuomo's explanation for why liberals fail on the radio: we write with "fine-quill pens," he says, while conservatives write with "crayons." Unpack that arrogant, elitist observation and you get a quick picture of why today's Democratic Party is having trouble winning elections once you get away from the coasts.

Cable television is no longer a liberal domain, even if the fading networks remain one. Pick up your remote and zip across the cable (or satellite) channels at night and you'll see Sean Hannity and Scarborough and Miller and right-of-center talking heads amply represented, and South Park too, no friend to liberals.

The Internet is about 50/50, though I'd say many of the really influential blogs and sites are broadly, if sometimes uneasily, right-of-center: Instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, PowerLine, FrontPage, NRO, and so on. Recent surveys say about 12 percent of Americans - 26 million people - are reading political blogs, and they break down about evenly between Democrats and Republicans, so it makes sense bloggers and sites break down about evenly too.

How do you see the future of the blogosphere?

I think it will continue to grow, so that many more millions of Americans will be reading blogs. Blogs are influencing, and will influence even more extensively in the future, other areas of life than just politics. I'm reading music blogs these days, and there are a growing number of sports blogs, gossip blogs, blogs for everything one can imagine. It's a wonderful explosion of free speech, of passion and idiosyncrasy, of insight and stupidity: democracy in action. The kind of collective wisdom of the blogosphere - its ability to locate and make readily available a wealth of local know-how, to speak like a Hayekian - will have salutary effects on all media, since a Fox News or New York Times that rushes to print or air false information will get called on it. You'll see more crossing over from blogs to other media outlets - as in your own writing on Afghanistan and Iraq for OpinionJournal.

My only worry is that regulations might stifle this wonderful democratic development. The prospect of extending FEC regulations to the blogs represents a serious threat to free speech. I guess, too, that there may be something to Camille Paglia's recently observation that blogs can encourage sloppy writing and a breakdown of the ability to sustain a well-thought out argument. But I'd have to say the blogosphere and Internet has given City Journal, a pretty highbrow magazine overflowing with thoughtful, long essays, a lot more readers. So the blogs haven't diminished the interest in reading serious long-form journalism, at least not in our experience.

In many ways, the book publishing industry has proved to be the most open to putting out a conservative product on the market. Networks and newspapers will not be that easy - partly because to allow in more non-liberal viewpoints would be to admit there is a bias there to start with, and that would destroy their self-image as objective purveyors of "nothing but the facts". But what about the entertainment industry - why is it so resistant to making the same capitalist decision that the book industry did?

I think the financial pressures were greater on the book industry, and Regnery (my publisher) proved in the nineties that conservative books could really sell. Part of the reason right-of-center titles could rocket up the bestseller list is the existence of new media. As Tom Bevan of RealClearPolitics, reviewing my book,
recently observed, conservative authors no longer have to rely on a good review from the New York Times Book Review or an appearance on Today to find an audience for their books. There's talk radio, Fox News, blogs and Internet sites - a whole universe of interested reviewers and interlocutors. I've been delighted to do e-interviews with bloggers, because it's a literate, media-savvy, politically engaged readership you're reaching.

When asked why there aren't more conservative academics on our campuses, the liberal academia likes to answer that there simply aren't enough, say, conservative English or sociology scholars to hire. Certain occupations and pursuits - journalism, writing, arts and entertainment - seem to naturally attract non-conservatives. Even if given the opportunities and outlets, will we be able to find enough right-wing comedians, film-makers, entertainers, etc. to fulfill the demand?

I think demand is starting to create supply - and will do so more in the future. There are tremendous opportunities available for smart people who aren't peddling typical liberal fare. It might be tough making an initial breakthrough, but there's an audience waiting. I think film will be the next big conservative conquest. You're already seeing the outline in the success of movies like The Passion, The Incredibles, and - in a radically different way - Team America: World Police.

Another aspect of the conservative counter-attack in the culture wars is the growing popularity of Christian entertainment, whether in books (the "Left behind" series being the most prominent), visual entertainment ("The Passion") or music (the rise of the Christian rock). Can Christian conservatives and South Park conservatives work together in culture wars?

Well, obviously there are tensions - quite significant ones. One of my contentions in South Park Conservatives, though, is that a free media has benefited the Right in all its varieties, including Christian forms. You're absolutely right: Christian pop culture is flourishing - and the big-budget Hollywood adaptation of C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe could be a blockbuster on par with The Passion. Christian cable stations and radio shows draw big audiences, creating an effective means for Christians to get the word out about the music and books and movies they've created or affirm. There are scores of God blogs now, reaching ever bigger audiences.

Yet ultimately there's no way for the Republican Party to retain political power, at least on the national level, unless it also appeals to folks who may not be on board with everything the Christian Right stands for. In this light, looking to the media, I think it would be a significant mistake for conservative legislators to push for the extension of broadcast regulations to cable television and satellite radio, in the hope of stamping out indecency. That would be a quick way to alienate a lot of younger Americans who might otherwise be sympathetic to the Right's broader policy goals. Keeping Tony Soprano from swearing on HBO isn't a smart way to roll back judicial activism or make sure the war on terror is fought aggressively - truly important struggles to win. I was troubled to see some groups on the Right complaining about Laura Bush's hilarious stand-up routine at the correspondents' dinner the other day. That kind of humorlessness is politically disastrous in today's America.

Do you think that as the media "consensus" collapses there is a danger that people's media habits will become increasingly ghetto-ized, as each group in society (liberals, conservatives, conservative Christians, etc.) will increasingly only be getting their news, ideas and entertainment from "their" media sources and any sort of commonality and communality will be lost?

This is an argument advanced most intelligently by the liberal political theorist Cass Sunstein in his book Republic.com. In my view, it's an overstated worry. First of all, the media consensus of the past was biased to the Left, so it's not as if it achieved some perfect sense of community and objective neutrality. Certain voices, certain ideas--mostly those on the Right--had a hard time getting a fair hearing, or even any hearing at all in the mainstream media. That's why the new media revolt I write about in SPC has been so consequential. Second, at least with the blogosphere, you've got much more of an agora going on than an ideological ghetto--even when criticizing, say, a Frank Rich column, you're going to link to it, quote from it, dissect it, so your reader gets to check what you're saying against the original. National Review and The New Republic occasionally do opinion duels. After we began making City Journal articles available on line, we're flooded with letters from left-wingers. Now a lot of them are of the "you are evil Nazis" variety; but some are pretty thoughtful. Finally, it's worth noting that 48 percent of Fox News's viewership does not consider itself conservative. Even talk radio isn't ghettoized in the sense Sunstein and others fear.

What's next on your plate?

I've got some ideas for an article, and maybe a book, on cinema, and would like to do something on sports. But we'll see.


Happy World Press Day 

Belated happy World Press Day to our news and views providers, on which we, bloggers, lead parasitical existence (as some would argue).

On that occasion, Reporters Without Borders has released their annual report about the state of press freedom and journalistic safety around the world. Not surprisingly,

Iraq was singled out as "world's largest minefield" for journalists, where 19 journalists were killed last year and more than 15 were reported kidnapped. In all, 56 journalists have been killed since fighting began two years ago, seven less than the 63 killed during the two-decadelong U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
This unfortunately tends to happen when you put very large numbers of journalists among very large number of shootings and explosions. In Afghanistan, by contrast, 1 journalist was kidnapped, 6 were physically attacked, and 9 were threatened in 2004, but no one was killed, maybe because there are hardly any journalists left there to report the good news.

Philippines has meanwhile emerged as a very deadly place for journalists, with 15 killed over the last two years and 56 over the last decade. There, local governments are a lot deadlier than insurgents. Another unpleasant place has been described by Reporters Without Borders as a "kind of hell" for journalists and its Home Affairs Minister as a press freedom "predator". No, again, it's not Iraq; it's Bangladesh (but Shaukat Mahmud, general secretary of Bangladesh’s National Press Club, thinks the report is unfair to his country:

"The report is unfair, some of those who are killed in the country areas are not killed because of their journalistic work. Some are killed by private mafias because of arguments over business and infighting between journalists.")
Cuba "is the hemisphere's only prison for journalists and the second biggest for them in the world, after China (with 26)", and in Venezuela, Chavez has "hounded the 'oligarchic' media at the slightest criticism of his rule, thus encouraging violence against journalists."

Kenya's First Lady, Lucy Kibaki, has meanwhile decided to celebrate the World Press Day by storming with her bodyguards into the newsroom of the nation's largest newspaper, demanding the arrest of journalists whose work she didn't like and bitchslapping a cameraman.

And in the United States, the media is being persecuted by bloggers. Although Reporters Without Borders think that the judiciary is
a bigger problem, though they rejoice that "the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and the presidential election campaign pulled the US media out of the patriotic lethargy that had gripped it since the 11 September 2001 attacks."


The last charge of the light-weight brigade 

I wonder why could this be?

Media coverage of the war in Iraq has soared in the final days of the General Election campaign, according to new research today.

Two weeks ago Iraq received 8% of the election coverage in national newspapers, but that figure more than doubled to almost 18% in recent days.

News monitoring service Factiva also revealed that more than 1,100 articles mentioned the words “Tony Blair” and “Lie” or “Liar” in April.
It seems that it's not only parts of the American media which didn't want their country to win the war and then didn't want their country to win the peace, but if they couldn't affect either outcome, at the very least they didn't want their government to win another term.

Large sections of the British left are frothing at the mouth at the prospect of Tony Blair getting re-elected. Meanwhile, Max Hastings, eminent British military historian and member of the anti-war right, writes:
"Perhaps the neocons got it right in the Middle East":

The greatest danger for those of us who dislike George Bush is that our instincts may tip over into a desire to see his foreign policy objectives fail...

Scepticism, however, should not prevent us from stepping back to reassess the progress of the Bush project, and satisfy ourselves that mere prejudice is not blinding us to the possibility that western liberals are wrong; that the Republicans' grand strategy is getting somewhere...

It seems wrong for either neocon true believers or liberal sceptics to rush to judgment. We of the latter persuasion must keep reciting the mantra: "We want Iraq to come right, even if this vindicates George Bush."
We've heard a lot of similar second thoughts recently, but coming from Sir Max, whose commentary over the last three years I've been reading with increasing dismay (as has Mark Steyn), it's quite timely and welcome.


AFP strikes again 

Almost as good as the first time, another Agence France-Presse story summarizing the day's violence in Iraq is titled:

Iraqi official, 26 others killed in fresh violence
Again, reading the article, you realize that of those 26 killed, 13 were insurgents - 12 who died in a fire-fight with American and Iraqi forces at a checkpoint in Ramadi, and one who died north of Baghdad when a roadside bomb he was placing blew up prematurely.

This is not to minimize the daily carnage inflicted on Iraqis by the neo-Baathist insurgents and Al Zarqawi's terrorists, but to show that it is not as one-sided as one can get the impression from following the media coverage. The difference is that while the enemies of the new Iraq kill more, the Coalition and Iraqi authorities detain more. In addition to the above incidents, I had a look at a few stories I could lay my hands on and quickly counted 62 insurgents arrested and 12 killed over the last three days.


Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Dear Powerline... 

...Happy 25,000,000 visits.

You're making us all feel rather inadequate!

Hmmm, my 2,000,000 is coming up soon. I wonder how I should celebrate?


Saddam - still Iraq's most wanted 

The Iraqi rumor mill is going crazy lately:
Iran rejected claims by Saddam Hussein's chief lawyer that unnamed Iranian-backed Iraqi politicians were plotting to assassinate the ousted dictator in his Baghdad prison cell.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi's comments followed claims by a Jordanian lawyer that a former Iraqi government official, identified as Hazem al-Obeidi, had warned Saddam's defence team a man was being trained to work as Saddam's personal guard before killing him.

"Saddam has been dead since a long time ago, he doesn't need to be assassinated," Asefi told reporters, poking fun at the claims.

"Iran considers such accusations ridiculous and not compatible with any sort of logic."

Iraqi national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie also scoffed at the accusations by Ziad al-Khasawneh, describing them as a ploy to have Saddam moved to another country to face an international court.
Hey, maybe now that he's out of a job, Iyad Allawi can shoot Saddam? And maybe they decided to off Saddam because he wouldn't play along:
US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid a secret visit to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and offered him his freedom and a possible return to public life if he made a televised request to insurgents in Iraq to call a ceasefire with allied forces, according to the pan-Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

Saddam rejected Rumsfeld's proposal out of hand, according to Al-Quds Al-Arabi. Rumsfeld offered to strike a deal with Saddam two weeks ago when he paid a ‘surprise’ visit to Iraq. The offer was known to just a few Iraqi officials in Jordan, the Arab daily reported, quoting anonymous sources.
The first story comes from a Jordanian lawyer, the second one via Iraqi officials in Jordan - is there something in the water in Amman?


Historical trivia of the day 

There is one other bond that the American and the Polish people share, and that's their history of constitutionalism. As Carl L. Bucki writes:
"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal." These words, so close to the hearts of all true patriots of freedom, begin the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence. But we must not attribute their origin solely to Thomas Jefferson, for these words are identical to those of Wawrzyniec Goslicki, a Polish philosopher whose writings were to be found in Mr. Jefferson's library. How could it be that a Pole might supply the words of inspiration for the founding of the United States of America? One should not be surprised. Intellectually and philosophically, America and Poland have shared a common devotion to the cause of liberty and freedom.
While America's is the world's oldest written constitution, dating back to 1787, Poland's short-lived Constitution of the 3rd of May is the world's second oldest (and Europe's oldest), as we celebrate today its 214th anniversary.

Both the American and the Polish constitutions were quite similar in spirit, born out of the same Enlightenment milieu, standing like two beacons of progress and reform amongst the contemporary sea of autocracy. The May Constitution granted political equality between the nobility and bourgeoisie and placed the peasantry under the state's protection, in the first move to abolish serfdom then dominant throughout the Eastern Europe. The Constitution also enshrined a separation of power between the three branches of government (including a bi-cameral legislature), and it abolished outdated political practices which over the centuries had reduced Poland from Europe's greatest power to an anarchy-ridden playground of its greedy neighbors. Unlike the American Constitution, it did not create a republic with an extensive franchise, but it was still a document far ahead of its times. Edmund Burke called it "the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time."

So far ahead of its times, in fact, that the autocratic rulers of Russia, Prussia and Austria could not allow it to stand as temptation for their own subjects and a spur for the revival of Poland. Poland was invaded by Russia, the Constitution abolished, and the country partitioned between its neighbors in 1793 and 1795, ceasing to exist for the next 123 years.

Today, May 3 is celebrated in Poland as national holiday.


Ye shall know them by their marsupials 

Australian troops in Iraq are trying to stand out in the crowd:
The Australian commander of the Al Muthanna task group, Lieutenant Colonel Roger Noble, says Australian soldiers are making sure their vehicles are recognised by people in the southern Iraqi province.

In the first week of deployment in the region, Australian troops have painted large red kangaroos on the side of their armoured vehicles.

Lieutenant Colonel Noble says the people of Al Muthanna appear to think highly of Australians and have started to distinguish them from other international forces in Iraq.

"When they look at ours they look up and see a big red kangaroo, which is pretty much a universal symbol for Australia and they know who were are and what we are," he said.
Kangaroos may appear to be cute and cuddly creatures, but they are pretty ferocious fighters, using their powerful legs to kick the enemy. They are also known to box and can run up to 40mph and jump up to 30 feet. So, a word of caution to tourists and jihadis: don't mess with a kangaroo.


Why we fight 

As you're reading the latest installment of "Good news from Afghanistan", remember that every Islamofascist killed or detained, every new school opened throughout the country, and every vote cast in a democratic election is a step forward against this:

"Authorities have found the bodies of three Afghan women, one of whom worked for an aid group, who were raped, strangled and dumped with a warning for women not to work for such groups...

" 'This is retribution for those women who are working in NGOs and those who are involved in whoredom'... The note was found attached to the chest of one of the dead women...

"The bodies were dumped near a road outside Pul-i-Khumri city, the provincial capital of Baghlan...

"One of the three was a 25 year-old woman who until recently worked for a Bangladeshi non-governmental organisation (NGO) involved in providing micro credit, mostly to widows.

"A group calling itself 'Afghan Youths Convention' claimed responsibility for the killing, according to a caller who telephoned a Reuters reporter in northern Afghanistan.

"The caller did not say if the previously unheard of group had any connection with any faction or radical Islamic movements such as the ousted Taliban.

"A doctor in the city said forensic tests showed the three were raped and then strangled with a rope."
"Afghan Youths Convention" - it sounds so innocent, doesn't it? - might or might not have any official connections with the Taliban, but it certainly shares its misogynistic ideology. And so, ironically, the United States armed forces continue to do more for women's rights in Afghanistan than any of the international feminist organizations, or UN conferences, ever could.


Pajamas Media 

The future of the new media revolution is here - and you could be part of it.

Pajamas Media will have two components: pulling the combined resources of the blogosphere to secure good advertising deals for participants, and sharing with the rest of the media on commercial basis the best of our intellectual output.

Any blogger anywhere in the world can participate - in fact, the more the merrier and better for all of us. The combined traffic through the blogosphere is certainly starting to rival that of many of the mainstream media outlets.

For more background, read these posts from Roger Simon, one of the key people behind the project.

Roger is now being swamped with inquiries, so if you're interested, send me an email to a_chrenkoff "at" hotmail "dot" com with "Pajamas Media" in subject line, and we'll go from there.


Australian hostage 

A group calling itself Shura Council of the Mujahedeen of Iraq is holding Australian-born, US resident Douglas Wood hostage. His crime: he's an engineer, who's worked with the US military on reconstruction projects that benefit all Iraqis, including his captors.
"The militants released a statement with the video, saying it was timed to coincide with Australian Defence Minister Robert Hill's weekend visit to Australian forces in southern Iraq.

"Sitting on a concrete floor between the two masked gunmen, Mr Wood asks US President George W.Bush, Mr Howard and Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to 'take the troops out of here and let Iraq look after itself'.

" 'My captors are fiercely patriotic,' he says. 'They believe in a strong united Iraq looking after its own destiny'."
Let Iraq look after itself is, of course, a shorthand for let the insurgents look after Iraq, and if the insurgents really believed in a strong and united Iraq they would have participated in the election and the representatives of the Sunni establishment would now be members of the new government. But some fools still buy this sort of neo-Baathist talking points.

An Australian hostage negotiation team has arrived in Baghdad, but with a circumscribed mission, as Foreign Minister Alexander Downer explained:
"We'll be doing everything we can with two exceptions - we won't be paying ransom and we won't be changing our policies...

"We are not sub-contracting our foreign policy to terrorists and we're certainly not going to have the money of Australian taxpayers expropriated by terrorists."
There is also some more traditional assistance:
"Heaping the blame for most kidnapping on foreign fighters, Sheik Hamid Al-Shoka promised [an Australian newspaper] to get his Public National Unity organisation's network of tribal leaders to try to have Mr Wood released.

"Sheik Al-Shoka said the network had negotiated the release of two French reporters, two Italian soldiers and a Kuwaiti prince, all without payment of ransoms.

" 'This is bad for us. If these people keep fighting the US in Iraq the Americans will stay here,' he said.

"Sheik Al-Shoka said the sheiks represented many tribes, both Sunni and Shiite, and were able to exercise their traditional authority to gather information on the kidnappings. Mr Wood's plight would be communicated to the network's 22 offices across Iraq after a Public National Unity meeting in Baghdad yesterday."
At least Sheik Al-Shoka gets it; hopefully this attitude will percolate down through the Sunni community.

Update: Check out Carpe Bonum's thoughts on how we should handle hostage situations.


Monday, May 02, 2005

Axis of Treason 

At Axis of Logic, Mike Whitney is brutally honest, but it doesn't make him any less of a fool:
"I can say without hesitation that I support the insurgency, and would do so even if my only 21 year old son was serving in Iraq. There’s simply no other morally acceptable option."
After all the "we oppose the war but support our troops" political contortionism on the left, it's refreshing to see somebody out there (and I mean, really out there) saying "screw the troops, too... I wish I had a son, so that he could be killed by the insurgents to make my political stance seem really principled."

But why is Mike Whitney so gung-ho for gung-ho Iraqis (and presumably foreign jihadis, too)? Well, the "brave Iraqi Minutemen" meme rears its ugly head again:
"As Americans, we support the idea that violence is an acceptable means of achieving (national) self-determination. This, in fact, is how our nation was formed, and it is vindicated in our founding document, The Declaration of Independence...

"The Declaration of Independence is revolutionary in its view that we have a 'duty' to overthrow regimes that threaten basic human liberties. We must apply this same standard to the Iraqi people."
Did you know that America and its Iraqi puppet regime "threaten basic human liberties" of Iraqis? Neither did I. Must be the same "basic human liberties" that thrived under Saddam. Oh, you know, the famous Baath Party Declaration of Everyone's Dependence on the Regime that guaranteed all Iraqis the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but only if your name was Saddam or you were born in Tikrit. The other twenty-odd million enjoyed the constitutionally protected right to life sentence, deprivation of liberty, and pursuit by the secret police. Damn the Yankee imperialist invaders for taking these long cherished rights from the Iraqi people.

But the idiocy doesn't stop there - it culminates with this pearl from Whitney:
"We have to recognize that the disparate elements of Iraqi resistance, belittled in the media as the 'insurgency', are the legitimate expression of Iraqi self-determination."
Yep, a few thousand murderous thugs with AK-47s are a more legitimate expression of self-determination that the eight million who voted in the democratic election. Silly, George W.; instead of stealing the Florida vote in 2000, he should have simply set off a few roadside bombs and the Axis of Logic Left would have found him a legitimate president.


Good news from Afghanistan, Part 12 

Note: Also available at the "Opinion Journal" and Winds of Change. Big thanks, as always, to James Taranto, Joe Katzman, and everyone else supporting this project.

Update: One of Glenn Reynolds's readers writes to him:
"Apparently there was a blast in Afghanistan today. CNN led with it at 8 when I woke up (late).

"This is the first I’ve heard of the place in months on the TV. I wonder how CNN managed to find the place. If this doesn’t prove Arthur’s point about coverage nothing does. (As if we needed proof)."

Sometimes, a simple story can better encapsulate the essence of a situation than dozens of learned articles and reports.
This is one such story:
"They practice on concrete rather than on grass, and their kit is far from uniform, but Afghanistan's premier women's football team is looking forward to making history this summer when it plays its first international match.

"Even before they step onto the pitch at the Banuwan women's competition in Iran in August, the women of Kabul Selected will have overcome more obstacles than most athletes.

"The team has been playing in organised leagues for a little more than a year. When they began, most training took place behind closed doors. While they still lack the amenities available to male players, the best players from the capital's 12 girls' teams have moved into the open."
The team is now practicing next to the grass pitch of Kabul Athletic Stadium, where the Taliban used to conduct their public executions - making one wonder whether, perhaps, God is a woman, after all.

Just as it reveals the triumphs, the story also illustrates the challenges facing Afghanistan and its people: lingering discrimination and the need to maintain the struggle against ingrained conservative attitudes, lack of resources and an all too slow flow of foreign assistance. But positive development should not be overshadowed by negativity; Afghanistan has had enough of it for the past quarter of a century. The difference now is the unparalleled range of opportunities opening to Afghans, and the fact that with some much needed and generous help they are starting to make the better tomorrow happen. Below are some of their stories from the past month.

SOCIETY: The Afghan political scene continues to develop and evolve, as ten parties opposed to President Hamid Karzai decide to
form a coalition. "Alliance leader Yunus Qanooni told a news conference in Kabul the Front of National Understanding had agreed on common policies for the September 18 National Assembly election. These include calls for a reduction in the powers of the president, more help for disarmed militiamen and better use of foreign reconstruction aid." The President himself has welcomed the development in a good democratic spirit, saying in his statement: "Hamid Karzai, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, welcomes the creation of the Afghanistan National Coordination Front as the opposition to the government of Afghanistan... The president appreciates this initiative which aims to establish an opposition to the government, within the democratic political framework in Afghanistan, and considers it as an important step towards strengthening democracy and the rule of law in Afghanistan." Not to mention that such consolidation makes political sense.

And the democratic bug keeps on biting: "
Three political parties led by former mujahideen leaders will be among seven parties to be registered officially with the ministry of justice next week, a precursor to their participation in the forthcoming parliamentary elections." Even Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan have nominated candidates from within their community to represent them in the election.

In another positive development,
religious leaders are calling to end the past sorry chapter of national history:
"Following three days of discussions, some 150 provincial Ulema Council leaders or Islamic Religious scholars, agreed to put an end to racial, tribal and factional discriminations, which were the root causes of many of the factional fighting under the leadership of the Taliban and the Mujahideen...

"The meeting attended by scholars from Herat, Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgon focused on five problems concerning Afghans, and eliminating poppy came top of the list, putting an end to disputes that erupt from racial, tribal and linguistic differences, was second on their agenda..

"Mulawi Khdadad Salhi, the head of Herat Ulema Council [said]...: 'We plan to preach to people through our mosques in order to end the hostilities which have been created during the past 25 years of civil war, fought under the Taliban and Mujahideen struggle'."
Meanwhile, the preparations for the election are already underway:
"Six months after a successful presidential poll, Afghanistan's fledgling political system is starting to prepare for a much more ambitious undertaking: parliamentary elections slated for 18 September.

"Already, colourful posters conveying party messages can be seen in public places in the capital Kabul, and in some provincial towns. Local TV and radio stations have begun airing debates and newspapers are full of editorials and comment on what sort of parliament might emerge from the historic election."
Read the rest of the report about the logistical effort involving in preparing Afghanistan's first democratic parliamentary election - not surprisingly, it's huge. Australia is donating additional $12 million, mostly towards the cost of the September election, but also for health and education projects. "The total amount given to Afghanistan by Australia since 2001 now stands at $110 million." And China will help to train professional personnel for the Afghan government, in fields such as diplomacy and economy.

Meanwhile, "Afghanistan's economy minister said... he wanted Afghans to contribute funds to rebuild the Darul-Aman palace so the building could
serve as the new parliament building. Minister Amin Farhang said the plan to rebuild the palace would create up to 10,000 jobs. But Farhang said private donors would have to help with the $60 to 70 million in estimated costs to restore the palace. Farhang appealed to wealthy local businessmen and Afghan exiles to pledge what they could to help the project. Farhang said 'even a dollar or two to help this important cause'."

Just as with the presidential election in October of last year, continuing education will be vital in this country where democracy is still a novel experience. For example, "the National Democratic Institute (NDI) plans to impart
basic training to thousands of candidates for the upcoming legislative elections in running their campaigns and grasping the rudiments of parliamentary business. Naik Mohammad Kabuli, the head of NDI's Educational Programs, [said] the trainees would be educated on the fundamentals of going on the stumps, the vote-casting process, monitoring of the ballot and the role of candidates in Parliament. The training program is scheduled to get under way from May 26."

It's not just the candidates, though; to make it easier on the voters, "candidates for Afghanistan's first post-Taliban parliament
must choose symbols such as an apple, a ladder or an ice-cream cone to help illiterate voters identify them... Since over 80 percent of Afghans cannot read or write and up to 500 different candidates may be on each ballot paper, prospective parliamentarians will each have a tiny picture beside their names."

In an effort to increase the awareness among the previously neglected half of the population, "the
Afghan Women's Association (AWR) in Peshawar will organise a 4 day workshop for hundreds of women in the Afghan city of Jalalabad, in eastern Nangarhar to inform and educate them about the forthcoming parliamentary elections... The training programs will be spread over 4-8 days, and held in 8 schools focusing on the political process in Afghanistan, and the legal and administrative issues involved in elections. Last year, the association held 50 sessions throughout the country."

USAID is also assisting in the election preparation through its civic education initiatives:
"One of the ways USAID is helping Afghanistan prepare for its September 18 parliamentary elections is through electoral civic education programs. Specific training for women political party activists is underway. In three provinces, 181 women attended this training, held at local Election Training & Information Centers (ETIC). A separate civic education initiative for all Afghans, underway since late October, has reached 437,000 voters as of March 10. Also, a candidate and parliamentarian training program began on March 14; attendance is 30-40 participants per day.

"To utilize Afghanistan's new thriving media outlets, two USAID trainers made radio broadcasts in both Dari and Pashto explaining the parliament structure under the new constitution. In addition, USAID provides electoral administration and computer training to IEC (International Electoral Commission) Commissioners."
In another much needed public education campaign, "the Afghan Independent Human rights commission plans to carry out an opinion poll, to gauge knowledge of human rights among Afghan people throughout the provinces... The results would be used to educate and inform people of their rights."

A novel (for Afghanistan) initiative is being put in place to
improve the standard of governance across the country: "For the first time in Afghan history, provincial officials are to be tested on their skills and academic qualifications, in a bid to bring reforms to provincial government departments... The Administrative Reforms Commission in Kabul had earlier placed adverts in media outlets calling skilled people to apply for government posts. ... All staff will be tested, excluding the provincial governor and new applicants and staff previously employed by the provincial government will be expected to compete for the 53 provincial government posts."

USAID is also helping to strengthen the governance by
enhancing the operation of the Central Bank: "A central bank with strong regional branches provides a solid foundation for Afghanistan's growing economy. One objective of USAID's multi-faceted economic governance program is strengthening operations of Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), Afghanistan's central bank. Branch Management Workshops are held each month, which both enhances the network and builds local employee skills. This month, 120 participants attended the three day workshop, including 33 regional managers from DAB's capital branches. Workshop participants learned about new banking forms and technology."

Also, as part of its efforts to support the growth of Afghan judiciary, "in FY2005, the
legal training programs have continued to build capacity across all levels of judicial personnel. In three provinces, 221 Afghans, including judges, Supreme Court staff, prosecutors, law students, professional staff, various organizations, and Ministry of Justice staff, participated in training programs covering a wide variety of topics, including: legislative drafting, legal opinion writing and court administration, basic rights of the accused, and basic computer skills. USAID has also conducted human rights training sessions for 3,037 local community residents in six provinces. This training focuses mostly on the rights of women and children, the new Afghan constitution, and the elections process." USAID has also recently completed renovation of the Provincial Court of Appeals building in Ghazni province.

To struggle to improve women's rights continues. In
Herat, women slowly and step by step are trying to break through the old barriers:
"A new plan in Herat to teach women to drive and give them licenses is at once a symbol of the official rights women continue to win in Afghanistan and a reminder of the difficulties they still confront in exercising those freedoms...

"Now, for the first time in memory, shops in Herat are hiring women to sell their wares. Women's fitness clubs are popping up along the city's leafy avenues. And ever more women are trading their burqas, the head-to-toe garment worn in public, for an Iranian-style shawl, or chador, which covers the hair and body but not the face."
In Bamyan province:
"The new governor sounds like a typical politician, promising paved roads, electricity, jobs and water, just like the last governor.

"But the new governor of Bamiyan is anything but ordinary. Habiba Sorabi is a woman, the first female provincial governor in Afghanistan's tortured history. Her appointment by the president marks a step forward for Afghan women, oppressed even before the Taliban forced them to stop working and beat them for showing skin.

" 'Thank God a thousand times,' said Massoma, a woman of about 40, who like many Afghans does not have a last name, as she sat near an unpaved road in Bamiyan, hoping that someone would give her a ride. 'Women are more powerful than men in this country,' added her daughter, Marzia, 22. 'If God wills it, they'll do better things'."
You can read more about Habiba Sorabi here:
"As the new governor of Bamian province in central Afghanistan, Habiba Sorabi has a clear idea of what she hopes to accomplish. She wants to build roads, open schools and supply electricity to residents of the province, located about 200 kilometres west of Kabul. She also hopes to lure visitors to this poor, war-ravaged region, despite the fact that its most famous tourist attractions - two huge, 1,600-year-old stone Buddhas - were destroyed by the Taleban in 2001.

"Sorabi has already gone a long way toward accomplishing one of her primary goals - raising the status of women in society - simply by being appointed the first female governor in the country in March."
The example is spreading slowly to other, significantly more conservative, parts of the country:
"She can't leave the house without an all-covering blue burqa, many of her relatives are scandalised, but Shahida Hussain is preparing to stand for parliament anyway.

"The 50-year-old women's rights activist who lives in the Taleban spiritual heartland of Afghanistan is one of at least two women in the southern city of Kandahar who are preparing to stand for elections in Afghanistan's parliamentary polls on September 18."
Read the whole article; there's plenty more there about women's political ambitions in the Pashtun south of Afghanistan.

A series of
workshops aim to open up a discussion of treatment of women: "The male and female trainers who lead these meetings across Nangahar province ensure that Islam is at the centre of the discussions, pointing out that many of the traditional practices and attitudes towards women are expressly forbidden in the Koran." Meanwhile, "UNICEF is planning to hold 18 workshops on children's rights in the forthcoming year to educate government officials about children's rights."

Most of the Afghan refugees have already made it home over the last three years, but the trickle back continues. "The former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata has said that the country is
becoming safer for returning refugees... He said that the international community has done a lot and he thinks that the country has come a long way in this regard." Meanwhile, "a delegation from northern Afghanistan has begun a UNHCR-sponsored tour of all provinces of Pakistan to tell refugees about improving conditions in the areas they fled up to 25 years ago and to hear their continuing concerns about returning."

A noticeable
new trend in returnees has emerged:
"Attia Ali had a brother in Denmark, a sister in the Netherlands and a well-paid job in Pakistan. It is a tribute to the enduring draw and improving prospects of Afghanistan that she has quit her job and is now headed back to her homeland...

"Now many are like Ali - Afghans who are well-established in Pakistan and could easily be expected to consider it home. They are giving up their present occupations but are confident that the future lies in re-establishing themselves in an Afghanistan that is finally emerging from decades of war."
But for those from less fortunate backgrounds, the challenges of rebuilding lives can be enormous. The United Nations program is helping the returnees to find shelter:
"In order to qualify for that assistance returnees need to have access to a piece of land. Then UNHCR provides them with building materials and the assistance is given in a staggered way. Monitoring teams from the agency and implementing partners go and see how work is progressing. If they build the walls then they get the window frames and so on.

" 'At the end of the process before the building is officially handed over to the beneficiary they get a small cash grant, around US $50 to cover some of their labour costs. Roughly speaking, the cost of our assistance depending on the area and materials used, is about $650. And the overall cost of a house depending on the area and materials is approximately $1,200,' [a spokesman for UNHCR in Afghanistan, Tim] Irwin explained.

"Since the UNHCR shelter programme began in 2002, some 110,000 shelters have been constructed across the country. In 2004, the UN agency provided around 27,500 shelters and the plans for 2005 is to slightly reduce that. The average returnee family has about six to seven members, suggesting that roughly 715,000 returnees benefited from the shelter since 2002, including an estimated 180,000 returnees in 2004."
In the northern province of Baghlan, the Ministry of Refugees and Returnees will distribute plots of lands to 10,000 homeless families who have recently returned from Iran and Pakistan.

The Afghan education system is already
experiencing explosion, but lot more remains to be done:
"As a new school year begins, a record number of children are enrolled in the country's schools. But national and international officials know that more needs to be done, especially when it comes to providing educational opportunities for girls.

"The education ministry, with help from the United Nations children's fund UNICEF, has begun a campaign to enroll an extra 500,000 girls in schools across the country, particularly in rural districts.

"Because many remote areas lack school buildings, the programme will pay for mosques and homes to be fitted out as classrooms. About 75,000 girls are already studying in such temporary schools.

"The main obstacle is not a lack of facilities, however. Authorities are hoping to overcome years of prejudice by showing parents and village leaders the benefits of educating girls as well as boys."
The First Lady, Laura Bush, has made some welcome announcements during her recent trip to Afghanistan:
"The former schoolteacher and librarian unveiled a series of multi-million dollar US-funded projects to promote women's learning, saying they would help secure the war-scarred nation's path to democracy...

"She announced a 17.7-million-dollar grant for a new American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, 3.5 million dollars for the international elementary school of Afghanistan and five million dollars for a women's teacher training institute."
As Mrs Bush said, "These are more than just development projects, they celebrate the bond between the US and Afghan people. They are symbols of our shared hopes and dreams for the future... That dream is a prosperous, peaceful and fair Afghanistan." For the story behind the project, see this report:
"When first lady Laura Bush, on her visit to Kabul March 30, announced that 'The United States is supporting the establishment of the American University of Afghanistan with a multi-year commitment of more than 15 million dollars,' it was one more step in the fulfillment of Sharief Fayez's dream. Fayez was Afghanistan's minister of Higher Education until December 2004. Born in Afghanistan and educated in the United States, he dreamed of an institute in his homeland along the lines of the American Universities in Beirut and Cairo - a private institution with lectures and textbooks in English that would train new generations of Afghan professionals and leaders."
Here's more about the efforts to help Afghan women make up for a lot of lost time:
"Meet Farzana. She's the principal of Sha Shaheed School, a school for girls who missed years of their education during the five years of the Taliban's rule. The school is one of nine supported by CARE's Out of School Girls Project that provides fast-track education for girls by teaching two years in one.

"During the Taliban years, Farzana and her family fled to Pakistan, and she was able to work. However, after September 11th, her family moved back to Kabul and Farzana was able to keep working. She's 28 years old and single, which is unusual for a woman her age in Afghanistan, and lives with her father. While her brothers and sisters are all married, she tells us that her father is open minded and encourages her to pursue her career.

"The Sha Shaheed School teaches 360 girls who come in six days a week, either for the morning or afternoon, for their classes. Most of the girls are between 10-14 years old and were in school before Taliban, but had to stop going to school for five years when the Taliban didn't allow girls to be educated. These girls are now much older that the kids in their grade and CARE aims to provide a fast-track education so they can rejoin the school system at the appropriate age."
In Khost, twelve prefects have been appointed as truancy officers to ensure that children are attending four local schools. Pakistan has donated 20,000 school bags to Afghan students. And 12 Afghan school principals are currently visiting the United States as part of an exchange program sponsored by the State Department's Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) through a grant to the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), to learn new administration and teaching methods.

Meanwhile, at an
international competition in Romania, "Ahmad Israr Karimzai a young Afghan computer programmer has won a silver medal, for developing a Pashto Messenger after he discovered that Pashto language users in Afghanistan were stumbling across problems with the characters specific to the language. 171 computer programmers from 41 countries took-part in the two-day competition under four different categories; Israr entered his concept under the program making section."

And speaking of
information technology:
"The Cisco Networking Academies Program (CNAP) is a $4 million alliance to train Afghans to install and maintain modern computer networks and related information technology. The alliance consists of Cisco Systems, Inc., USAID, United Nations Development Program, and the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Currently, CNAP operates three academies in Kabul, with approximately 400 students, including 170 women. CNAP is launching its second phase and plans to:

"- Expand from its Kabul base to more cities nationwide, and increase enrollment to more than 1,000 over the next two years;

"- Expand the training content beyond Cisco to include new technology partners such as Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, Panduit and others;

"- Expand to reach high priority groups such as women, demobilized combatants and workers from privatized state enterprises;

"- Build career prospects for trainees through job search training and employer job fairs; and

"- Raise revenue and assure sustainability though fee-based training for outside professionals.

"Although the CNAP alliance forms the foundation of USAID's Information and Communications Technologies program, other related elements include: strengthening the technical capacity of the Government of Afghanistan's Ministries, increasing access to telecommunication and information services of rural Afghans, and enhancing access to information and micro-finance support for small businesses."
The work also continue to rebuild Afghanistan's shattered and underperforming health system. Eight new maternity clinics will be open in Kabul over the next few weeks in a bid to reduce high infant and mother mortality rates. Meanwhile, "a Tuberculosis treatment center was opened in Albaraz in the northern Afghan Balk province... cutting down the journey time for many patients who travel miles to the capital city to see a specialist." Construction will soon start on a new 200-bed hospital in Herat. And a training centre for nurses run by the Malalai maternity hospital in Kabul has been opened, thanks to support of the Japanese government.

The capital's
emergency sector receives a much needed boost:
"The Norwegian Red Cross Society (Norcross) has undertaken to re-create an ambulance service in the city, having recently concluded a USD 1.2 million reconstruction of the Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, the only orthopaedic referral hospital in Afghanistan.

"The Kabul Ambulance Service, the city's only functioning ambulance service, has been established as a free-of-charge service for the whole population.

"A staff of 103, including a driver and nurse for each of the Service's 13 ambulances have been trained to operate from one base station and four sub-stations in Kabul. Staff are trained in two basic courses dealing with medical emergencies and special driver training, and they then receive annual refresher courses...

"Six of the ambulance service staff are female and, of these, two are ambulance nurses working at the call centre."
Speaking of ambulances, 10 new ones were recently donated by the government of Pakistan.

The second phase of the successful nationwide
polio campaign has commenced: "Almost 6.6 million children of five years of age or below would be administered polio drops during the three-day drive, said the Health Ministry's Vaccination Department head. Dr Sayed Ashrafuddin Ainee [said]... 40,000 health workers would give children the vaccine at their doorstep. 'We had vaccinated about 5.5 million children below five years of age in the first phase of the vaccination campaign February 27,' he recalled."

another much needed campaign will hopefully have a considerable impact on health of the Afghan people:
"With Afghanistan facing a high prevalence of iodine deficiency disorders, including mental retardation, physical stunting and goitre, a new campaign to be launched on Tuesday 19 April will encourage Afghan households to increase their consumption of iodised salt...

"The new campaign, led by the Ministry of Public Health with the support of UNICEF, builds upon a successful increase in the production of iodised salt following the establishment of ten iodised salt plants in Afghanistan since 2003. These plants now have the capacity to meet the population's requirement of iodised salt; the new information campaign aims to increase demand from households."
Meanwhile, "the first generation of professional midwives to undergo full training has graduated in Afghanistan, where maternal and child mortality are the worst in the world... In all, 138 female trainees from more than 20 provinces completed a two-year course at the Afghan institute of health science, funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Aga Khan Development Network." AIDS awareness workshops are being held for Afghan refugee women in Peshawar, Pakistan. And heart patients will benefit from the expertise of a team of 23 Indian doctors specializing in heart disease who will hold consultations at the Ibn-e-Sina hospital in the capital Kabul.

"Most patients want their scars removed, all evidence of burns, skin diseases and even gunshot wounds erased. But others, hiding beneath their burqas, want nose jobs.

"Cosmetic surgery has arrived in Kabul, in the form of the tiny Hamkar Surgical Clinic, across the street from the bombed-out Cinema Theatre building, in need of its own face-lift. In this clinic, tucked away at the top of a dark stairway, people can pay for tummy tucks, although no one has been brave enough yet to try. Women will be able to buy larger breasts, although only one woman has expressed interest so far.

" 'It's peaceful now in Afghanistan,' nurse Mohammad Fazel said. 'People can get rid of their wrinkles. They can get rid of their bad figures.'

"Most Afghans are still too busy surviving to worry too much about appearance. But the existence of such a clinic--which charges as little as $100 for a nose job--shows how much Kabul, at least, has changed since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001."
In the media news, new independent radio is proving a huge hit with the Afghan people:
"A recently released report from Altai Consulting finds that local independent radio stations in Afghanistan are very popular in their coverage areas; listenership was estimated at 79 per cent, and 29 per cent of the respondents have called or sent a letter to a station. The stations were established by Internews in Afghanistan under a grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

"The report, which was based on a six-month project commissioned by USAID/OTI and Internews, evaluates the interaction between new and traditional sources of information in Afghan communities, and assesses 16 of the 29 local radio stations established by Internews since 2003...

"Most of the Afghans surveyed are intensive media users and radio in particular is listened to widely by women and children, as well as men. In fact, media are a primary source of education for women."
Meanwhile, a hit TV show is pushing the boundaries and creating controversy in this deeply conservative society:
"The two men spend several minutes debating which came first, the chicken or the egg. They argue over whether people dream in color.

"This hardly seems like the most controversial TV show in Afghanistan. But in between the polite chitchat, these men - the Afghan version of MTV VJs - play music videos, which sometimes feature heaving bosoms, dancing women and sexually suggestive lyrics. Such videos have turned the TV show 'Hop' into one of the most popular programs on the Afghan capital's most popular new TV station, Tolo TV. They also have drawn the ire of the country's clerics and the scrutiny of the government...

"Tolo TV, which premiered in October, features women as VJs on 'Hop' and as commentators on other programs. At some point, the women will take off their head scarves - shocking in a country where women still cover their hair with scarves or wear burqas, which cover everything, even a woman's eyes...

"On Tolo, people Rollerblade and fly kites at a New Year's celebration. Men and women talk to each other, even laugh together. Jennifer Lopez videos are shown frequently, and commercials tout the benefits of chicken bullion and dandruff shampoo. In many ways, the station shows a vision of Kabul not as it necessarily is, but as many young people would like it to be."
As the report notes, "the debate over programming on the five private TV stations in Kabul highlights a major difficulty facing the new Afghanistan: trying to balance democratic freedoms and a largely conservative Islamic society. The constitution protects freedom of expression and prohibits anything that is against Islam. This inevitably leads to conflict, because what is against Islam often depends on who is watching." It will be interesting to see how this debate develops.
First daily newspaper opens in Mazar-i-Sharif. "Shafiq Payam, the editor-in-chief of Baztab, Reflection... is a man with a mission - to break the hold that local warlords have on the media. 'Through Baztab, we want to establish freedom of expression in the north,' Payam [says] 'Even though it could be dangerous, we think that if we publish facts and reflect the demands of the community, people will support us and no powerful figure will be able to keep us from doing our job'." The newspaper will have a circulation of 5,000 copies - it's the city's first newspaper since the Soviet occupation. Also in Mazar, "a cultural institute for young people was founded... by journalists and cultural experts with the aim of helping young jobless journalists to bridge the gap between university and employment."

Not all the entertainment is as sophisticated as TV shows or newspapers - read all about
the Clean Afghan Circus and its menacing "Wall of Death".

Great news, too, for this
Afghan teenager:
"An Afghan girl whose father and two sisters were killed in a 1998 bombing attack in Kabul will have her memoir published after winning a contest co-sponsored by 'Good Morning America' and Simon & Schuster.

"Farah Ahmedi's 'The Story of My Life' was released Friday with a first printing of more than 175,000 copies. Ahmedi, whose victory was announced on "Good Morning America," was to appear Friday night on ABC-TV's '20-20' and then go on a 10-city tour.

"Now 17 and a resident of Carol Streams, Illinois, Ahmedi will also receive $10,000... She and her mother fled Afghanistan for Pakistan, where they lived in dire conditions. They were admitted to the United States in 2002.

" 'The contest was launched last fall on "Good Morning America," with contestants asked to submit 600-word essays about their lives. A panel of judges that included authors Mary Karr and Mary Higgins Clark narrowed nearly 6,000 submissions down to three finalists, 'based on quality and persuasiveness of the entrant's story and overall potential of this life story for both on-air and book appeal'."
Religion in its various expressions, instead of serving to oppress, is now bringing people together across Afghanistan:
" 'Looking at the audience, I see that you are all Kandaharis,' the singer said into the microphone as he surveyed a sea of heads sporting the sparkly caps and long-tailed turbans common to that southern city. 'But my Pashto is not strong, so I hope you will enjoy our music in Dari.'

"The tourists crowded into the Ahmadi Supermarket and Restaurant applauded encouragingly.

"This northern city might seem an odd destination for travelers from Kandahar, which, after all, is the ethnic Pashtun stronghold where the repressive Taliban movement originated. Mazar-e Sharif, a city dominated by ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, was one of the last holdouts against the Taliban. During the violent struggle for control of the city, which the Taliban held from 1998 to 2001, members of both sides engaged in massacres of the other.

"But the Taliban is gone now. And when it comes to ringing in the Persian New Year in Afghanistan, even people from Kandahar will admit that Mazar-e Sharif has no equal. 'This is the place to celebrate, so of course I wanted to come,' said Abdul Rezek, 28, an auto parts salesman who had taken the 18-hour bus ride from Kandahar with 12 of his friends several days earlier. 'Definitely people here know where I am from,' he added. 'But they say, "You are as a guest here. We welcome you".'

"It has been a recurring theme of this year's festivities in Mazar-e Sharif."
As the report notes, "within each group, Afghans from vastly different provinces are mingling with a degree of ease that is notable in a nation still struggling to forge a national identity after years of regional conflict." Exactly what Afghanistan needs right now.

Sikh families in Kunduz can now celebrate their religious Baisakhi festival for the first time in 15 years. And speaking of religious diversity, recent torrential rains around Kabul have uncovered many ruins dating back to Afghanistan's Buddhist past.
Entertainment, too, is proving to be a revitalizing force at New Year:
"A lively concert - perhaps the first of its kind following the fall of the Taliban regime which banned music in Afghanistan - was held in this northern city of Kunduz, drawing hundreds of youths.

"About 1000 men and women, who participated in the event billed as rare - applauded the young local singer, Dawud Yaqubi, and the allegories presented by a female team of Mediothek office, which organized the festival.

"The 25-years-old singer felt elated over giving the concert. 'I left home during the Taliban government just because they barred me from singing; but I feel lucky to be with you once again,' he [said]."
Meanwhile, the "Time" magazine reports: "The Taliban banned music in Afghanistan, but a 13-year-old with an exquisitely pure and melancholy voice is leading a revival":
"It's midnight, long past bedtime for most children. But in a poor, war-ravaged neighborhood of Kabul, more than 300 men are gathered at a wedding party to listen to the singing of Mirwais Najrabi, a pale, chestnut-haired 13-year-old. He performs in an open courtyard, under the night sky, to an audience that has endured so much suffering and grief over years of oppression, war and mayhem. Yet for this brief, transcendent moment, their burden is lifted by the exquisite purity of the boy's voice...

"Boy vocalists, long a part of Afghan tradition, were silenced from 1996-2001 by the puritanical Taliban regime, which regarded song as un-Islamic, and had many musicians arrested and beaten. Now, three years after the Taliban defeat, singers are wandering back from exile in Europe and the U.S. to a tumultuous welcome, and Kabul's virtuosos have unearthed the instruments they buried in their gardens. Songs blast from Kabul shops, and more than a dozen radio stations flourish around the country. Mirwais, one of the first to sing in public after the Taliban's ouster, is at the vanguard of this revival. Despite his youth, he recognizes the enormity of the change. In the old days, he says, 'If the Taliban caught me, they would have shaved my head. And only Allah knows what other punishments I would have faced'."
In other arts news, 16 Afghan movies will screen at a film festival in Germany, another indication of cultural revival underway in Afghanistan.

fashion makes a comeback in the capital:
"Apparently inspired by fashions they see in films from Bollywood as well as Hollywood, young people in the Afghan capital Kabul are shedding traditional clothes for outfits that would have been unthinkable during the five years of Taleban rule that ended in 2001. 'I watch Indian films for the clothes, because Indian actresses wear fascinating Punjabi costumes,' Belqis, 33.

"While women clad in blue burkas are still a common sight on the streets of Kabul, Belqis' s only concession to traditional clothing is a headscarf. She told IWPR that she had two Indian saris at home and was delighted to be able to make her own fashion choices without harassment.

"Both men and women seem anxious to keep up with the latest fashions. For barbers, hair stylists and clothes sellers, business has never been better. Baseball caps, jeans and denim jackets can be seen everywhere in the capital, especially around schools when classes get out.

" 'I'll follow fashion until I get over my resentment of the Taleban era,' said Jamaluddin, 25. Sporting sunglasses and a black sleeveless shirt, with his hair parted down the middle, he said he took his sartorial inspiration from Indian film star Tere-Naam after watching one of his movies."
And a new development is slowly starting to make impact on the conservative Afghan society - marriage for love:
"Beneath a blue burqa which glides through the shadow of the Hazrat Ali shrine, a pair of feet with delicately painted nails makes its way towards the gardens where some of Mazar-i-Sharif's young women meet their lovers in secret.

"The northern city's young men openly discuss this educated minority of urban women, who discreetly challenge Afghan traditions that fathers must choose the men their daughters marry and that brides cannot see their husbands in advance.

" 'Today, girls can meet boys in government offices, in aid agencies, non-governmental organisations, at university,' explains Aimal, a 24-year-old dressed in jeans and a western shirt who works for the United Nations in Mazar.

"Virtually impossible under the ultra-Islamic Taliban, these meetings are a prelude to 'love marriages', still an extremely rare phenomenon in Afghanistan but becoming increasingly popular in towns.

" 'People who make love marriages are educated people, people who have a job, which is still rare in Afghanistan today,' adds Aimal. 'Only educated people can meet other young people and have a boyfriend or a girlfriend before getting married,' says Hamidullah, a 25-year-old journalist sitting at a table full of men at a restaurant in central Mazar."
Let's hope the trend will spread. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission says that the practice of forced marriages has been decreasing due to its efforts, and "at a religious gathering in Kabul, [President] Karzai urged Afghan scholars to follow the lead of Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, who earlier this month termed forced marriages un-Islamic and said violators should be jailed."

And in sports news:
"The Deh Mazang area of Kabul was once one of the areas of the city which were most heavily bombarded from gun positions on the hill in front. On Sunday it rang to the sounds of snooker balls being shot across the snooker tables, playing host to a snooker competition.

"The area which now has the Ariana snooker club saw 80 players from eight different teams from all over Kabul participating in the competition in order to select the best team in the city, Ustad Aziz, the director of the snooker federation said."
RECONSTRUCTION: Afghanistan has launched its first new coins in three decades: "The coins worth one, two or five Afghanis - 2.3, 4.7 or 12 cents - will be accepted all over the country immediately, the Afghan central bank said. Officials said the coins will be more durable than existing bank notes and handier for small payments such as bus fares. The last coins, introduced in 1975 according to Central Bank chief Noorullah Delawari, were made worthless by runaway inflation after the collapse of Afghanistan's communist government in 1992 and fell out of use. The coins were minted in France."

A new phenomenon starts making impact in Afghanistan -
" 'When I saw hoardings on the streets which showed elders as well as youth talking happily on mobile phones, I was inspired to buy a mobile' 70-year old Haji Nasrullah said. The white-haired Nasrullah, dressed in a turban and traditional Afghan clothes was buying a Nokia mobile phone from a shop in the city.

"Mobile phone services, Alkozai tea, Sadre-Sihat shampoo are amongst the goods which are advertising on TV in a bid to attract customers. At the gate of Kabul airport the first thing that catches the eye are the big colorful advertising banners with images of men and women laughing. In the crowded streets of Kabul city and some provinces as well, companies importing goods make their products known with interesting pictures and sights.

"Advertising companies say that though they could not use pictures of women earlier they are now able to do so.

"Advertising is a nascent phenomenon in Afghanistan. It has not had the chance to develop because of the long years of war. Afghanistan had no commercial or independent radio and TV before the war. Even newspapers were not allowed to publish any private or commercial advertisement. Only government advertisements were carried by the official electronic media. Now Afghanistan's new private radio and TV stations are selling time for advertisements.

"But currently there are some private radios, TVs and newspapers which sell time for advertisements. There is no accurate data on the advertising market in Afghanistan but some commercial advertising agencies believe that it has grown rapidly in a short period."
After decades of conflict and destruction, Kabul is starting to undergo urban renewal. Elsewhere throughout the country, some areas are thriving, like the city of Herat:
"If the Pentagon started to look for a rest-and-recuperation spot for its troops inside Afghanistan, it could do far worse than this large city near the Iranian border.

" 'There are two words I would use to describe Herat,' said Sgt. 1st Class David Stansberry, serving his second tour in country. 'Prosperity and cultural.'

"In other words, Herat doesn't look like most of Afghanistan. It has modern buildings, paved streets and basic infrastructure. Its people, while approximating the cultural mix that makes up the country, seem a little different as well.

" 'The people seem to be more interested in developing their economy than shooting bullets at each other,' said Maj. Tim Butts, the Task Force Longhorn engineer. 'It's a very rich province, probably the richest in country.'

"Much of Herat's current success can be attributed to its geography. It's located in a relatively flat area that sits on trade routes to Iran and Turkmenistan."
Read more about the Herat cultural and economic renaissance.

In the past, the Afghan society had much underutilized one of its great resources - its women. Now, various American initiatives are
helping Afghan women to get into the world of business:
"American businesses, especially American businesswomen, are working closely with the U.S. government to promote the interests of Afghan women, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky says.

"Briefing reporters in Washington April 4 on the sixth meeting of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council that took place in Kabul March 29-31, Dobriansky, who co-chairs the council with the Afghan Ministers of Women's Affairs and Foreign Affairs, said the private sector provides a dimension of assistance to Afghan women that the public sector does not. 'Many of the government projects are large-scale and they might be more impersonal, like road building, but many of the projects that involve the private sector build ties in terms of personal relationships,' Dobriansky said.

"The under secretary said that, for instance, one of the U.S. council members arranged for 15 Afghan businesswomen to pursue a mini-MBA program at the Thunderbird School of International Management in Arizona, one of the highest rated international business schools in the United States. The 15 Afghan businesswomen will be mentored during the next two years as they implement their business plans, which involve a wide range of projects, such as promoting tourism, targeting the consumer sector and partnering with hotels...

"One of the most innovative ideas for entrepreneurship involves helping young artists at an 'incredible school' for orphans and abandoned children in Asiana, a school in Kabul, Afghanistan, to sell their paintings...

"Dobriansky said other private-public sector projects involve an initiative to help Afghan women weave carpets and ship them to the United States for sale; a $40,000 grant from Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, for micro-enterprise loans for Afghan women; assistance from the Loma Linda Hospital in California to a hospital in Kabul; and funding from AOL-Time Warner company for a women's resource center in Parwan Province. The under secretary said she expects other companies to fund more women's resource centers in Afghanistan.

"President Bush's wife, Laura, joined the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council at the Women's Teacher Training Institute in Kabul. Laura Bush, who was a librarian and works to promote literacy as first lady, has been personally involved with the creation of the institute since its inception. 'The goal of this institute is to train teachers who will be dispatched out to rural areas and will target young boys and girls who may not have as many benefits as do those in urban areas,' Dobriansky said...

"While at the Women's Teacher Training Institute, the first lady announced that the United States will contribute $17.7 million for the construction of an American University in Kabul and $3.5 million for an international school in Afghanistan running from kindergarten through 12th grade, Dobriansky said.

"Dobriansky said microenterprise is a key area in terms of providing loans for communities and for different types of economic projects. One of the projects that is expected to have a major beneficial impact on impoverished Afghan women is the Afghan Conservation Corps."
Not surprisingly, women are starting to make an impact in the business world:
"Sara Rahmani, businesswoman, picks a brown burqa-style dress from the rack, and holding it in front of her face, shows with a broad smile how she refashioned it for post-Taliban Afghanistan.

"The all-covering shroud that was mandatory under the hard-line regime has become a flowing gown, with head uncovered and the eye-level gauze dropped to the chest -- though not too low. It's on sale now for $30 (U.S.) at her Kabul store.

"The 36-year old former refugee is among the growing number of Afghan women going into business, capitalizing on new opportunities in a thriving, yet still male-dominated economy three years after the fall of the Islamist government."
Speaking of businesswomen, read also this unusual story of breaking barriers:
"Looking around Kabul after the war, Sediqi saw many women entering traditionally female lines of work. She herself had worked from home as a tailor under the Taliban rule and relied on her brother to sell her goods. But when the Taliban fell, she said, many women began to set up tailoring shops, and the competition was too stiff.

"So she decided to defy conventional notions about what is appropriate work for women. She saw that after years of war, much of Afghanistan's infrastructure and many of its buildings were in desperate need of repair. Being an enterprising businesswoman, she launched herself into Afghanistan's newest growth industry: construction."
Throughout the country, USAID is helping with creation of vital economic infrastructure:
"Industrial parks support economic growth in Afghanistan by serving as a mechanism for organizing and concentrating scarce public infrastructure resources. This encourages private investor interest, and generates employment opportunities. There are three industrial parks under various stages of construction in Afghanistan:

"- Kabul: Design and contracting stage complete. Though delayed by the severe weather, construction is underway. Thirty-four lots have been sold. Overall, about 65% complete.

"- Kandahar: Land preparation, sidewalks, sewage, and drainage designs are complete. Electricity and water supply designs are nearing completion. Overall, about 25% complete.

"- Mazar-e Sharif: Land preparation, roads, and sidewalk designs complete. Designs for water supply, sewage, electricity, and communication are underway. Overall, about 10% complete."
In April, the major pipeline project in South Asia moved one step closer, with the Asian Development Bank's audit of Daulatabad gasfield now completed. The project sounds impressive: "The 1700-km-long pipeline, with a 56-inch diameter, will carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. It will traverse a 750-kilometer area in Afghanistan - starting from Herat and passing through Helmand, Farah and Kandahar." And it has now received the final approval in mid-April, with the work set to begin in December. More here.

According to the Pakistani Prime Minister
Shaukat Aziz, "the bilateral trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan will touch US $ one billion mark this year and will be further enhanced by opening new rail and road links." Pakistan is also currently considering opening more border crossings with Afghanistan to accommodate the booming trade and contacts between the two countries. The number commonly mentioned is 10, on top of the three currently in operation. More about the growing trade between the two countries here.

communication infrastructure is getting another upgrade thanks to an Asian Development Bank loan:
"The Asian Development Bank (ADB) will help to improve telecommunications in Afghanistan through a US$35 million loan signed Wednesday to finance the nationwide expansion and upgrading of the country's leading cellular network. According to an ADB statement, the project will use a global system for mobile communications (GSM), cellular, satellite, and radio wave transmission technologies to extend the coverage of Roshan, a private limited liability company that provides cellular telephone, public call office, international gateway, and Internet services in Afghanistan.

"The project will help to expand Roshan's coverage towards its ultimate goal of countrywide coverage and will help fund the deployment of public call offices which extend the reach of telecoms to the less affluent and more remote users.

"After 23 years of conflict, Afghanistan is left with no functioning national fixed line telecommunications service, a barely functioning postal service, and poor roads. Cellular networks are still embryonic and require significant additional investment, particularly if they are to reach beyond the major cities. According to the ADB statement, pent-up demand for telephony services has been demonstrated by subscriber numbers significantly exceeding original projections."
Meanwhile, the Afghan government has invited bids for two more GSM mobile licenses. "According to the Ministry it is expected that these new licenses will generate large amount of revenues for the government in license fees, attract more than US$ 200 million in new foreign direct investment and create thousands of skilled, well-paying jobs. Currently the two GMS mobile companies Roshan and AWCC have a subscriber base of 800,000, accounting for 3% of the country's population."

Another Asian Development Bank loan will help Afghanistan to improve its
transport infrastructure:
"The Asian Development Bank (ADB) on Thursday granted an 80 million dollar loan for war-torn Afghanistan to improve a key part of the country's infrastructure.

"This project will reconstruct the last unpaved section of the national primary ring road, spanning 210 kilometres from Andkhoy to Qaisar in northern Faryab province, according to Afghan Finance Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady.

"The project will be an important link in the government's commitment to completing the 2,700 kilometre Afghanistan ring road as quickly as possible, Ahady said."
Construction will be also starting on a very important international link: "The US military in Afghanistan is going to connect the post-war Afghanistan with Tajikistan by building a bridge over Oxus River... , chief of US Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan said here on Monday. 'We recently made to award a contract for the construction of the Afghanistan-Tajikistan Bridge spanning the Pyandzh River at Shir Khan in Kunduz province. This bridge will serve as a vital link connecting the central Asian region with outside markets,' John B. O'Dowd told at a press conference... The contract of the 28 million US dollars project was signed with the Italian firm Rizzani de Eccher S.P.A of Udine on March 21." More here.

another recent significant project:
"Construction of a road building project from Said Karam district in the eastern province of Paktia to the Afghan-Pakistan border was inaugurated on Wednesday, the head of the department of information and culture of Paktia told Pajhwok Afghan News.

"The official, Deen Mohammed Darwish, said the 70.3 km-long road would connect Gardez to the Dand Patan district at a cost of $1.67 million funded by the World Bank. The 9 meter-wide road will be constructed by an Afghan-Korean construction company in six months. The road will be reinforced by 3,300 meters of wall as protection against floods. Paktia governor Hakim Taniwal formally inaugurated the project on Wednesday.

"The road will link four districts Sayed Karam, Ahmed Khel, Samkani and Dand Patan districts of Paktiya province Ghulam Nabi Farahi, an official of the commerce ministry said 'it is a great step for trade and investment for Afghanistan.' This is a transit road and will help to import goods from Pakistan to Afghanistan and from Afghanistan to Central Asia."
In Jalalabad, the inner-city roads will be improved at a cost of US$560,000 over the next two months. According to provincial officials, "the 14 kilometer city road will be asphalted and renovated to make passenger travel easier and cheaper."

Meanwhile, 35 of the 100 Hino
buses donated by the government of Pakistan will arrive in Afghanistan shortly. "460 buses have been donated to Afghanistan by Japan, India and Iran over the last three years," but that's still proving not enough to cope with commuter problems in the booming Kabul.

In other transport news, "the southeastern city of Gardiz, the capital of Paktia province will have
its first airport for civilian and military flights within three months. Funded by the United Nations Office of Project Services (UNOPS), the airport will be constructed at a cost of $370,000."

And to help with the construction boom now underway, "a cement factory based in Dubai, the International Star Cement Factory has announced that it will spend US$25 million on the
renovations of an old cement factory in Ghor district in northern Baghlan province. The international companies will, after talks with the United States, India and the Arab States announce the starting date soon. The Ghor Cement Factory was built in 1961 by Czechoslovakian government with a budget of 4 million Afs ($93,000). At that time the factory had 736 employees. It was later partially destroyed when fighting broke out between the Mujahideen Resistance and the Soviet forces."

A change in strategy will hopefully see more progress on the reconstruction front:
"Afghanistan won support from the World Bank and Britain on Tuesday in its bid to have a bigger slice of the billions of dollars of aid money that flow into the country channelled through its own budget...

"Afghan President Hamid Karzai has argued that large amounts of aid are wasted due to inefficiency or corruption among non-government organisations stepping outside their role as providers of humanitarian and development aid...

"A World Bank representative backed Karzai's request for greater control of the purse strings, not least to enable Afghan firms to become more involved in reconstruction."
Turkish government, meanwhile, has committed itself to further assistance with the reconstruction of Afghanistan, mainly to build more schools and hospitals.

Electrification of Afghanistan continues, through projects such as this: "The construction of a 110-kilowatt dam in a remote village of Worsaj district (Takhar) has brought power facility to about 150 families living there. Prior to the dam's construction, residents of Dar Hawili village had no electricity and yearned for the facility. But now they can enjoy having light for 16 hours a day. Provincial Rural Rehabilitation and Development Department's head Mohammad Nazir said the dam in Worsaj district had been built at a cost of 3.1 million afghanis [$72,000] by the National Solidarity Programme."

In a similar initiative, "about 1,500 families are enjoying the electricity facility after the construction of a
power-generating dam on a self-help basis in the Manogi district of the eastern Kunar province. Costing 10 million afghanis [$233,000] pooled by residents and traders of the district, the dam started functioning on April 11 - bringing to fruition a significant plan initiated by the people themselves."

Meanwhile, Afghan Water and Power Minister Ismail Khan says: "We are ready to involve the
private sector in generation and supply of electricity in order to bring efficiency to this vital sector." And "the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said... it has approved a 50-million-dollar assistance package for a power supply improvement project in rural Afghanistan. This will include a 26.5-million-dollar soft loan to finance the construction of a transmission network and a 23.5-million-dollar grant for construction and rehabilitation of substations and low-voltage distribution systems... The project, due for completion in June 2008, will benefit 1.2 million people by providing electrical connections with affordable and flexible payment options."

USAID is assisting the development of Afghan agriculture:
"USAID is enhancing food security and income for the rural population through its Rebuilding Afghanistan's Agricultural Markets Program (RAMP). 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 extension of technologies (new crop varieties, fertilizers, crop management and protection, equipment and machinery) through extensive field demonstrations, information dissemination, and building private sector capacity.

"RAMP has made significant strides this reporting period and each achievement serves to enhance the impact of the others. Farmer training programs, including crop demonstrations, field days, and training by extension agents, build rural capacity and enhance productivity and quality of produce. Since March 13, USAID has trained 10,128 farmers for a total of 606,364 farmers since July 2003. Rehabilitating rural roads ensures that farmers can get their produce to market. In the past two weeks, twelve km of farm-to-market roads were paved, bringing the total to 312 km. Village-based seed enterprises (VBSE) are farmer-led seed production and marketing units that help farmers get rapid access to quality seed of improved crop varieties. To date, there are 15 operational VBSEs that have produced 813 tons of improved seed. To facilitate applications of the new technologies, RAMP repairs irrigation structures: In the past two weeks, 7 km of canals were repaired in the Nangarhar Valley and, in Helmand, 8 km of the Boghra canal were fixed. Together, these repairs have improved irrigation for 400 hectares in the two provinces."
The work begins on a $5.2 million project to build the embankments along Amo, Afghanistan's largest river. "From Jawzjan to Takhar... embankments would be constructed anew along Afghanistan's largest river, whose water recently gushed into populated areas, damaging about 55 villages... The Amo River - in full spate in the wake of snowmelt upstream - has already eroded 168,000 hectares of land in northern provinces. Also washing away crops and orchards, the flooding has inflicted losses on farmers."

Even some not very much more fortunate neighbors are trying to help: "The government of
Uzbekistan has sent humanitarian aid to neighboring Afghanistan. Jahon reported that some 60,000 plating stocks to Mazari-Sharif."

HUMANITARIAN AID: More help is coming for
those most in need:
"The World Food Program (WFP) have pledged 600 metric tons of food stuff worth US$158 million to the Afghan people who can't afford food, for the year 2005...

"Abad Ullah Abadi, the spokesman for the WFP... said the program would donate food in exchange for work and training people. He said in the last few months, 367,000 Afghans have taken advantage of this assistance.

"In addition the WFP is committed to 178 other projects, aimed at making Afghan people self-sufficient in farming, rebuilding streets, cleaning of canals, carpentry and tailoring."
"On April 20 (Wed), the Government of Japan decided to extend emergency assistance in kind equivalent to about 13 million yen (approx. 12.5 thousand dollars) including tents, blankets and plastic sheets to the Government of Afghanistan, which has sustained great damage from flooding caused by heavy rains." More here.

The International Commission for the Red Cross (ICRC) has over the past four months built a
water supply system to bring clean drinking water to 2,200 homes in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Twelve year-old Adnan, "who was often seen in the streets pushing his wheel barrow laden with water," had the right idea: "Thank God that we now have water that comes through a pipe line straight to our house, I can now go and play football instead of wasting time getting water."

Speaking of Nangarhar, "in
a remarkable gesture of community help, officials and traders of Nangarhar got together to help 6,000 victims of flood and rain in 21 districts of the province. The secretary to the Nangarhar Governor, Engineer Munir said that each family got 30 kgs of food including sugar, tea and rice on April 20th. He told Pajhwok Afghan News that sometime ago they had helped 1000 house in Hasark district."

Grass-roots efforts continue across the United States. From
Penn State university:
"Outreach employees teamed up to help see women and children through the grueling Afghanistan winter with warm clothing donations. Outreach staff collected and sent a total of 14 boxes full of warm coats, gloves, hats, scarves, sweaters, boots, long johns and blankets to Afghanistan after receiving a request from a World Campus student living and working near the Uzbekistan border in Mazar-e-Sharif."
There is also help from Canada:
"Members of the 49th Field Regiment were busy during lunch hour Monday at the Sault Armoury loading some precious cargo for an important trip halfway around the world. Boxes full of clothing and pencils are on their way to Afghanistan thanks to the generosity of a wide range of Sooites.

"The pencils are part of the Zonta Club's 'A Million Pencils for Afghanistan' project. The organization of business and professional women help out various causes. Lucy Holden, a grade 12 student from Mount St. Joseph College, spearheaded a clothing drive campaign to help Afghan children after she received an email from her father who is serving with the Canadian Forces in the war ravaged country."
This American woman finally gets the chance to see the results of her work:
"Sally Goodrich, whose son died in the Sept. 11 attacks, kept a grip on her grief as she surveyed the foundations of the Afghan school being built with money she raised in the United States.

"But the 59-year-old, who lost her son in the second plane to hit the World Trade Center, has been overwhelmed more than once as she surveyed the striking landscape of mountains and plains where al-Qaida honed its plot.

" 'How could it possibly have come from a place of such reverence and tranquility?' she told The Associated Press in the Afghan capital this week, the thought bringing fresh tears and a determined smile."
And one little patient is coming back home from the United States:
"A frail 16-month-old boy diagnosed with severe cardiac problems at a refugee camp near Kabul began his return trip home... - surgically repaired and chubby-cheeked.

"The long journey for Qudrat Wardak began in September, when an Indiana National Guard doctor examined him at the camp near the Afghan capital and found numerous heart defects - the worst being the reversal of the heart's main blood vessels that stunted the baby's growth.

"He weighed about as much as a typical 5-month-old when he arrived in the United States in late February for surgery. 'He couldn't talk, he couldn't play, he couldn't eat or do anything,' Qudrat's father, Hakimgul Wardak, said as the boy and his father prepared to leave Indianapolis International Airport. He spoke through an interpreter.

"Hakimgul Wardak said his wife won't recognize her little boy. 'She will be so amazed and she's probably not going to be able to take her eyes off Qudrat,' he said."
More about Qudrat's welcome home here.

THE COALITION TROOPS: Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the main vehicle through which the Coalition forces are assisting Afghans in rebuilding their country, are
reporting on the successes so far:
"The US-led coalition forces revealed on Monday they had successfully completed 16,000 projects in different Afghan areas since 2001 as part of the reconstruction effort.

"Director of Civil-Military Operations Col. Guy Sands told journalists at a news conference here that in 2004 alone, $60 million had been spent on a string of projects in different provinces through provincial reconstruction teams.

"Col. Guy Sands explained the projects initiated after the fall of the Taliban government covered the reconstruction of schools, health clinics and sanitation plans in different provinces.

"According to the spokesperson for the coalition forces, at the moment 20 provincial reconstruction teams were busy trying to rebuild Afghanistan. Of these teams, 14 are led by the coalition and the rest by the peacekeeping forces."
Speaking of that, "Italian Col. Aldo Guaccio assumed command of the Herat Provincial Reconstruction Team today from U.S. Navy Cdr. Kimberly Evans. The ceremony was part of the International Security Assistance Force expansion into western Afghanistan, marking the reduction of U.S. forces in the west." And speaking of NATO partners, the Japanese government, which has not deployed armed forces to Afghanistan, has now reached an agreement with NATO to otherwise provide support for their efforts to rebuild the country.

Sometimes the efforts of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams aren't as lofty as building a new school, but they can be
also important
"Rows of shoes stand at attention next to neat stacks of T-shirts and sweaters folded dress-right-dress. These items have all passed Sgt. Rena Brownridge's inspection.

"Brownridge, with the Gardez provincial reconstruction team's Civil Affairs Team Alpha, is in charge of sorting all of the boxes of humanitarian aid sent to the PRT. 'I saw all the boxes just kind of sitting around and that was kind of it,' she said. 'I rolled up my sleeves and got busy.'

"Surrounded by mountains of shoes, clothing and toys, Brownridge methodically works her way through the piles, sorting items by size, color and even season. 'It's amazing some of the stuff we get. A lot of it is brand new or close to it,' she said, smiling as she held a tiny red corduroy jumper at eye level. 'A lot of the children here don't get toys. They're like little adults. It's hard for them to be children when they're already out working, supporting their families. Even if it's just a Beanie Baby or a box of crayons, I think it gives them a piece of their childhood back.'

"After sorting and re-boxing the items, Brownridge and her team take them to area villages. 'We don't just go out and drop off boxes. We physically go out and give it to the people ourselves because we want to make sure that it actually gets to them,' she said. 'We also want to put a human face on our presence here. Some of these people have never seen an American soldier up close and they don't know what to expect... It's important that we show them that we're people too and we're here to help them, no strings attached'."
The troops also continue to support Afghan schools: "Soldiers of the 109th Engineer Group, deployed here from Rapid City, S.D., took a break from their engineer management duties in and around Bagram to deliver much-needed school supplies to the Boys Uzbashi Secondary School April 4. The supplies will prove beneficial to the 135 boys who attend the school. The school is located in Parwan Province."

On April 16, the Gardez Provincial Reconstruction Team members participated in the official opening of a new school,
the Sadet Khail School in Ahmad Aba, designed and built by the Team. "The new school replaces a cramped three-room building that was previously used for grades one through six. It is more than twice as big as the old school and will teach grades one through nine, about 550 students in all... Local residents hope the school will become a beacon, drawing students from surrounding villages there to further their education."

And this
"adopt a village" action is bringing assistance to Afghan kids:
"Airpower's 'global reach' took on a whole new meaning March 29 when 50-plus Airmen traveled to two villages a few miles outside Bagram to equip local Afghan children with supplies for their future.

"Men and women of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing delivered bags filled with school supplies to about 400 children from Ja Farkel and Langi Khail, two villages within Afghanistan's Parwan Province.

"In addition, each child received his or her own toy, said Senior Master Sgt. Tim Bolon, the 455th Expeditionary Mission Support Group first sergeant. 'We also dropped off about 40 large bags of men's, women's and children's clothing at each location - all donated by our troops here and their support system back home'."
As bad weather continues across Afghanistan, the troops continue to be called on for humanitarian and rescue missions. In Uruzgan province, helicopter crews have been helping villagers stranded by flooding. "Three days of heavy rains caused flooding along the Helmand River near Deh Rawod, roughly 70 kilometers northeast of Kandahar. More than 200 villagers were stranded on an island that was shrinking amid the rising water. U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, followed by flights of CH-47 Chinook helicopters, launched from a military base near Kandahar. They rescued the trapped villagers and took them to a nearby aid station set up by the coalition." Elsewhere, the US troops, together with the Afghan National Army soldiers, have rescued from the raising water 300 residents of the village of Lublan.

On one day, March 21, C-130 Hercules airlifters with the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron flew from Karshi-Khanabd Air Base in Uzbekistan with
three humanitarian airdrop missions "bringing needed supplies and water to remote areas of Afghanistan." "Flying three airdrop missions in one day is nearly unprecedented for us... That many airdrop missions is more than we would normally do in a given day, but we did it and the missions were very successful," says 774th EAS Commander Lt. Col. Jesse Simmons, from the Georgia Air National Guard at Savannah.

Medical evacuation of Afghans in need are also routine for the Coalition medical personnel, whether it's gunshots, burns or infections. Recently, for example, "an 18-month-old boy was treated by Coalition personnel for third-degree burns to both feet after an oil lamp in the child's home spilled flaming oil over the floor. The toddler was originally evacuated to Asadabad, but the medical facilities there were insufficient to care for the severity of his burns. He was flown by a Coalition aircraft to Bagram Airfield's Lacy Hospital for treatment."

Kunar province:
"Children suffering from difficult-to-treat medical conditions in rural Afghanistan may have no better friend than the Marines of 'America's Battalion.' Over the course of their deployment to Afghanistan, the Marines and Navy Corpsmen of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, have come to the aid of several local children who otherwise were not receiving treatment for very serious injuries. One such local teenager named Syed Ullah, recently received a prosthetic eye after Marines on patrol in Nagalam discovered his wounds."
Near Khwost, "a new brick-and-mortar medical clinic opened April 24 at Forward Operating Base Salerno... The building will be used by Coalition forces to offer medical services to Afghans in what is known as a Medical Cooperative Assistance Program, or MEDCAP."

Medical expertise doesn't just benefit humans:
"Task Force Victory Surgeon Cell held a cooperative medical assistance mission for Afghan livestock here March 22 - 24. Taking care of 3,256 animals is a big step in raising the health level of the Afghan people, said head veterinarian Dr. (Lt. Col.) Mark Martinez.

"Livestock in Afghanistan can be infected with worms if un-vaccinated. When eaten, the meat from these animals can pass the parasites to humans, said Dr. (Lt. Col.) Mike Lennon, an operations officer for the TFV Surgeon Cell. 'Livestock is the largest industry in Afghanistan,' he said. 'Over 80 percent of families make a living from their livestock'."
Sometimes, it's inspiration rather than perspiration, as these American servicemen - and women - at the Bagram Air Base recently showed by own example what's possible:
"American and Coalition forces celebrated International Women's History Month by holding a Women's Bazaar and Women's Day Commemoration honoring women from all over the world March 25 and 26.

"Women began serving in the U.S. Armed Forces in 1901 by enlisting in the Army Nurse Corps. In 1948 women were allowed permanent status in all the armed services. Throughout the years, women in the military have come a long way. Women are now pilots, mechanics, command sergeants major and officers. Currently, more than 350,000 women comprise approximately 15 percent of the active duty, reserve and guard units of the U.S. Armed Forces.

"In honor of International Women's History Month, a women's bazaar for Afghan women was organized by Sgt. Jamila Hodges, TSA Force Unit. 'This is our first ever women's bazaar. The women were scared to participate due to threats and rumors circulating throughout their villages,' said Hodges. 'But change is a focus, and we must be patient.'

"Celebrating International Women's History Month is very important in Afghanistan. 'The women of Afghanistan need to see that American Soldiers are trying to create change. When we tell them and then show them (how to change), it is easier for them to mimic our actions. If we take baby steps, it will change to bigger steps, which leads to improvement,' said Hodges.

"Zuhra Hussine, a vendor at the bazaar, had a smile on her face as she completed a sale. 'I will go back to my village and let them know the business here is good and we are so happy. The people here are so good to us,' said Hussine."
It's not just the American troops, of course. Read about how the US, Afghan and Romanian troops are cooperating in counter-insurgency operations in Kandahar province.

Italians, meanwhile, have recently taken over the Herat Provincial Recontruction Team. "There are about 70 Italians in place at Herat, with more than 200 slated to arrive by the end of May." Italian soldiers have already been helping for some time now, both in security and humanitarian fields:
"Italian soldiers of Italfor 10 contingent in Iraq distributed four tons of humanitarian aids (clothes, food, toys) in Kabul to 800 children of the greatest orphanage of the country, Tahai Maskan, in western suburbs of Kabul. A note reads that it was the occasion for a direct meeting between militaries and children. 'The example of civilisation and solidarity shown by the Italian soldiers is a tangible sign of their action and presence aimed at stabilising our country after a devastating 10-years-long war' the orphanage director, Soraya Abdullah Hakim, said."
The Mongolian troops, meanwhile, are providing howitzer and mortar training to Afghan soldiers. "To date, they have trained over 50 officers, 100 non-commissioned officers and 300 soldiers. Of significant note, the Mongolian trainers have graduated 20 D-30 gun instructors who will become the cadre for training the next class of future Afghan artillery specialists."

And this from our other Asian allies: "For almost two years, the soldiers of the
Korean Hospital at Bagram Airfield have been providing medical support to Afghans and members of the Coalition. After many months of hard work and dedication, the 924th Medical Group of the Korean Hospital reached the achievement of treating 130,000 patients."

Good geo-strategic news: "Afghan President Hamid Karzai said... he is seeking a long-term security partnership that could keep U.S. troops there indefinitely and make permanent the military relationship that began when U.S. forces invaded his country in 2001."

Meanwhile, the close security cooperation between the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan continues with the 10th meeting of the
tripartite anti-terror commission. And in the clearest possible case of "for your freedom and ours", Afghanistan will be sending some troops to Iraq.

The amnesty offered by the Afghan and the American authorities for more junior Taliban who haven't committed crimes is paying off. According to the Presidential spokesman, Jawed Ludin "a large number of Taliban high-ranking leaders
accepted the government-initiated national reconciliation policy and would soon announce their support publicly... His remarks came amid reported presence of Taliban's senior leader Mawlawi Abdul Kabir to Kabul and talks with government officials." Here is another interesting overview.

Among the recent developments:

surrender of a high-ranking Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Wahed (also known as Rais Baghran) in Helmand province on 30 March. "Baghran addressed the gathering and said: 'While I was fighting the Russians, there was a need for that and now I am agreeing to lay down my arms and listen to the Karzai government, this is also a need.' According to him, this is a national, Islamic Afghan government; therefore, he joined it and he will try to convince other members to surrender."

the surrender of
Mullah Mohammed Naseem Akhund, the former Taliban governor of Zabul province. He has been living in Pakistan, but crossed the border back and gave himself in to the authorities in his home province of Helmund.

the surrender of
Habib-ur Rehman, who headed the criminal investigation department at the ministry of interior under the Taliban.

Three senior Taliban officials have surrendered to the government in the eastern province of Paktia. A former chief of Zurmat district during the Taliban's regime, the head of the Zurmat madrassa and a teacher of that madrassa surrendered to the government" on April 27.

Seventeen former commanders of the Hezb-e-Islami party of Afghanistan's "most-wanted" warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have recently come in from the cold. "Gathered in Khost city, the commanders from Khost, the neighbouring province of Paktia and Paktika provinces announced late on Wednesday that their joining the government was not a surrender but a declaration of support."

The troops in the
south of the country - the traditional powerbase of the Taliban, are reporting on the improving security situation:

"Much improvement in the southeastern part of the country can be attributed to concerted efforts among coalition and Iraqi forces to improve conditions as construction progresses along the Ring Road, between Kabul, Kandahar and Herat. The U.S. Agency for International Development is providing $21 million to complete the road. Construction is being carried out by U.S. Army National Guard engineers and is about one-third complete...

"A fledgling Afghan highway patrol is making inroads in security as well... The force has begun setting up checkpoints along the Ring Road and has made some drug busts...

"Part of the coalition's strategy for decreasing Taliban influence in these areas is to move firebases out into the communities. U.S. Army Special Forces A teams operating out of these firebases are 'changing the conditions' in Taliban strongholds... Several of these SF soldiers, many sporting full beards and relatively long hair, attended today's briefing. In time, coalition officials hope to hand over these firebases to Afghan National Army forces."
The successful disarmament program has concluded in southern Afghanistan. "As of the end of March, 44,414 members of armed formations have been disarmed under the program, 39,466 people have been included in the program of retraining and switchover to civilian professions."

Meanwhile, "noted Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) commander
Pacha Khan surrendered weapons to security officials in Said Karam district in the southern Paktia province... 'Today's jihad is that we hand over arms to the government and take part in the reconstruction of our country,' said Pacha Khan, whose party has played a crucial role in the holy war against Russians."

Afghan army is getting some
new equipment:
"The Afghan National Army is getting a new look over the next few months. As a result of a recent equipment donation, they will appear a little less Soviet and a little more like their Coalition partners.

"The ANA recently took delivery of 10 M113A2 armored personnel carriers from the United States at Camp Pol-e-Charkhi, on the outskirts of Kabul. This was the first shipment of vehicles with more to follow."
The rush to join the Afghan Army continues; in Nangarhar province for example, 5,000 people are waiting to enlist and budgetary restraints are having trouble keeping up with enthusiasm of people. New battalion headquarters and accompanying recruitment centers have also opened in Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif. "The recruiting battalion headquarters were the second and third to open in Afghanistan. A total of seven are planned throughout the country, each having command over a recruiting region. The first to open was in Gardez in November 2004."

For the enlisted, a training regime. One of the units which will spend a year in Afghanistan, training its new army, is the Nebraska Army National Guard's
209th Regional Training Regiment. Meanwhile, "officers assigned to the Afghan National Army's new Counterintelligence Directorate have completed a six-month course in the fundamentals of counterintelligence operations for their country's new army."

Not all the training is strictly military, but it is nonetheless
"On a hot and exhausting day, there's nothing better than a cool drink of water. For soldiers of the Afghan National Army, water is not only nice, it's a necessity. But in a difficult environment such as that found here, understanding and applying appropriate field sanitation measures can mean the difference between helping or hurting a unit's combat effectiveness.

"On April 14, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Terrill Jones, the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan's food service adviser to the ANA, conducted a comprehensive field-sanitation training class for the 2nd Kandak (Battalion), 1st Brigade of the 203rd Corps, located in the country's Ghazni Province."
Some of the training is being carried out outside of Afghanistan:
"The six Afghan army officers have fought the Soviets, the Taliban, maybe even each other. This week, the men, a lieutenant colonel and five captains, are learning a different way to fight - the American way.

"Their thick black hair, moustaches - two sported beards - and chiseled faces suggested age and combat experience well beyond the clean-shaven Marine Corps officers teaching them yesterday about the intricacies of the M82 sniper rifle.

"The soldiers are part of a Marine Corps pilot program to give Afghan military officers in the middle ranks - company and battalion officers - a taste of American military leadership and training to take back to the troops of the fledgling Afghan National Army, said Lt. Col. Keith Jensen, a Marine officer escorting the Afghans.

"They have flown halfway around the world to tour Marines bases here, Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Parris Island, S.C. Back in Afghanistan, Marines are training two battalions, about 600 men each. U.S. Army advisors are training more than a dozen other battalions."
More here.

Meanwhile, "the German police are training, some 80 Afghan officers in the art of using
computer technology to track down criminals in eastern Herat... The German government has built six new training centers in Herat, and donated Euro 1.5Million to the provincial police department." And Afghan police officers are training at the Advanced Course on Scientific Investigation at the Central Detective Training School in Chandigarh, India.

Speaking of the police, in Paktia "
ten women from former Taliban strongholds have enrolled in the provincial police academy in southeastern Afghanistan, for the first time in the region's history." Here's a similar story:
"By day Malalai Badahari wears dark glasses, combat fatigues and wields an AK-47. But at dusk the diminutive counter-narcotics cop slips her veil back on her head and goes back to her home life, where all her neighbours think she is a teacher.

"In the mud-brick street in Kabul where she lives with her husband, father-in-law and her five sons, revealing what she does for a living could mean death as the streets of the Afghan capital are crawling with gangsters and warlords linked to the country's booming drugs trade."
The Taliban continue to get disarmed. In recent developments:

the recovery, by the police in Khost province, of
60 kilograms of gun powder used to manufacture explosive devices;

collection of munition by local police from a district southwest of Kabul and delivery to the Coalition forces near Ghazni. "The items included 19 107 mm rockets, 31 82 mm mortar rounds, a 40 mm round, eight rocket-propelled grenades, three recoilless-rifle rounds, 23 fuses, two cases of ammunition, and 100 assorted small-arms rounds." As Army Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, commander of Combined Joint Task Force 76 said, "the voluntary turn-in of caches is a promising sign that the Afghan people are tired of war and violence and that they are investing in a more peaceful and better tomorrow."

"A former Afghan militia division commander informed coalition forces April 3 about
a large weapons cache in a village near Bagram. Coalition forces from Bagram found more than 24 tons of munitions in three industrial-sized shipping containers, along with various wells and holes nearby containing a variety of munitions."

New Zealand troops have also been busy disposing of munition: "Army explosives experts have blown up another cache of weapons, ammunition and bombs which were handed to them in Afghanistan. The New Zealand provincial reconstruction team (NZPRT) was handed six tonnes of weapons and ammunition last month by people in the Darrahe Jalmes Valley about 30km from the New Zealand base. The cache included 165 high explosive rockets, 242 boxes of ammunition, 457 mortar rounds, 103 high explosive recoilless rifle rounds and 600 rocket and mortar fuses."

discovery of a
weapons cache on the outskirts of Kabul, following a tip-off from local residents.

in Gardez province, in Khara Toot village in Dand Patan district, the policy seized
drugs and weapons cache containing missiles and anti-personnel mines.

"Police have seized a
large quantity of arms and ammunition from a house in Khanabad district of Kunduz province in North Afghanistan which was earlier a Taliban base. The seizure made on Saturday [16 April] included 10 anti tank mines, 90 mortars, 30 rockets and 1000 bullets." The same day, another large ammunition caches was seized in Kandahar.

the discovery, following a tip-off, of a large arms cache in
Spin Boldak district of the Kandahar province. According to the local police chief, "We discovered weapons including 3 rockets, heavy machine guns and 107 different types of guns and two wireless communication devices."

two more weapons caches were discovered in Chak district of
Maidan Wardak province, and one in Sarobi district of Kabul.

In other recent security successes:

arrest of three regional Taliban commanders after they surrendered without fighting in their surrounded hide-out. "The surrender came Thursday [31 March], shortly after the US-led coalition forces surrounded the trio and Afghan National Army in Charchino district of Uruzgan province, 250 kilometres north of Kandahar, said Gen. Muslim Ahmad, an Afghan commander. He said the suspects, Mullah Nabi, Mullah Saifullah and Mullah Ghani, were later handed over to the coalition forces";

the arrest in the Balkh district of
fourteen people in connection with a mine explosion which earlier killed two and injured one outside Mazar. "The men were found in possession of small weapons, drugs and other ammunition."

killing of
twelve Taliban fighters by US helicopter gunships and tankbuster jets on a road between Kabul and Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, in an ambush that went badly wrong for the Taliban.

the arrest of
three men in Kandahar province suspected of connection with local Taliban operations.

the arrest of suspects trying to
transport bombs in a car on the Jalalabad-Torkham Highway. In a similar incident, two Pakistanis were arrested on the border while trying to smuggle in bombs in their Datsun pick-up.

killing of two suspected Taliban fighters and
capture of a local commander, Mullah Allah Noor, in a gun battle in Charchino district of the Oruzgan province;

the arrest of
24 suspected Taliban in the Khost province on 17 April;

"A firefight between Afghan soldiers and suspected Taliban rebels left at least
eight militants dead in a remote mountain region of southern Afghanistan [on April 17]... Eleven other Taliban fighters were captured in the fighting in Zabul province, including Chechens and Arabs";

12 Taliban in an attack on a base in the Khost province, on the Afghan-Pakistani border;

on April 18, "at least eight Taliban militants were
killed and 10 captured in a joint operation conducted by the Afghan National Army and coalition forces in Zabul";

arrest in the Nangarha province of Noor Rahman, a former commander allied to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami movement. Hekmatyar is one of Afghanistan's most wonted;

foiling of a suicide car bomb attack in Herat, with the police arresting the driver of a car laden with rockets, landmines and anti-aircraft shells;

killing of
four Taliban in clashes near the Pakistani border.

Afghanistan is also
making strides in combating the scourge of drug cultivation. As one report notes, "this year, by all indications, fewer poppies are being grown nationwide. President Hamid Karzai declared a holy war on poppies after his election in October. A new Counternarcotics Ministry was created. The international community stepped up its anti-poppy campaign. Local officials and the police--a number of whom were involved in the drug trade--appeared to take poppy fighting more seriously." In one of the epicenters of the problem, opium cultivation collapses:
"Abdul Khaleq Watengul stopped growing poppies this year. He now prunes olive trees for $3 a day.

"The nearby opium market, once thriving, is a dusty trail of boarded-up stores and locked doors. Hundreds of men sit nearby, with nothing to do but complain about their unemployment. In Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, people buy poppy seeds only to feed birds or to use in cookies.

"The opium poppy trade has fallen on hard times in Nangarhar, once one of the top producers in Afghanistan."
Traffickers, too, are hitting tougher times:
"Rivers flooding, US soldiers at the border and corrupt militias losing their jobs and weapons - life as a drug smuggler in southern Afghanistan isn't what it used to be for Ahmed Jan.

"Getting convoys of 60 or 70 off-road vehicles, each filled with a ton of dry opium resin, through a day's drive from southern Kandahar city to the border with Iran has become complicated in recent months... 'It is much more difficult to get stuff out of the country so it's only a few secret routes that are running, like rivers of drugs,' says Jan, a rotund man in his 40s using a pseudonym.

"His problems are an indication that Afghanistan's fight against narcotics is paying off."
For more background on Afghanistan's war on drugs see here.

A lot more work remains to be done, both in terms of eradication of poppy fields and in finding alternative livelihoods for the farmers. But as Talibans wane and warlords become less of a problem,
the U.S. military will now be taking "a major role in training Afghanistan's police and will provide intelligence and transport for the country's new anti-drug forces, dramatically expanding American efforts against a booming narcotics trade." You can read more about how the US armed forces are contributing to counter-narcotics fight here.

And in other recent successes in the war on drugs:

in the
Badakshan province, "six heroin factories and nearly 7,000Kgs of opium and heroin were destroyed by a special task-force from the ministry of interior and the international peace keeping forces (ISAF) on the 28th of March." Three months ago, seven other illegal factories were destroyed, and the poppy cultivation today is said to be 60 per cent lower than last year;

the arrest by the police of
four drug smugglers and recovering of 480 kilograms of opium in Helmand on 3 April. "Over the past two weeks, police have seized about 3,000 kilos of opium in Helmand and Kandahar provinces";

second phase of poppy eradication has begun in the eastern province of Laghman in the mountainous region of the province. The area could not be cleared of poppy earlier as it was snowbound";

on April 16, police seized
93 bags of narcotics from a truck near Pul-i-Charkhi and arrested 10 people in connection;

in mid April, the police had
eradicated 2,500 acres of poppy fields in Farah province and 100 acres in Kandahar province (more from Kandahar here);

"The Transitional Afghan Border Security Forces along with a small contingent of Coalition forces
seized 479 kilograms of heroin along the northwestern border April 17. The bust also netted seven Afghans suspected of smuggling operations"; the seizure is worth $2 million;

mobile labolatory for the production of heroin seized by the counter-narcotics police in the Nangarhar province; "More than 30 heroin factories were discovered and seized in the same area of Achin district during joint operations of the Afghan police and the US-led coalition forces last November";

the arrest by the US authorities of
Bashir Noorzai, drug kingpin suspected of connections with the Taliban, as he attempted to smuggle 500 kg of heroin into the US;

recovery of
1,000 kg of heroin in Kandahar on April 25;

seizure of
90kg of heroin by the US troops in several villages in Achin district of the eastern Nangarhar province on April 26.


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