26 Afghan security forces arrested for having suspected links with Taliban
12:51 AM EDT Aug 14
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) - U.S. and Afghan government troops have arrested more than two dozen Afghan security forces at a highway checkpoint for suspected links with Taliban militia, an Afghan official said Friday.
The arrests were made late Thursday in Shahjoy district in southern Zabul province, said Thor Jan, the chief of police in Shahjoy. The 26 pro-government militiamen who were arrested had been deployed at the post to secure the highway that stretches through Zabul and connects the southern city of Kandahar with the capital Kabul.
The commander of the post, Syed Mohammed, fled the raid, Jan said.
He said the suspects were in the custody of American forces. It was unclear where they were being held.
U.S. military officials were not immediately available for comment.
Jan said the troops were also suspected of involvement in robberies in Shahjoy and of extorting money from travellers along the highway.
Zabul is a rugged region where Taliban rebels are active. A number of foreign workers have been kidnapped by insurgents along the highway in the province in recent months.
While thousands of international troops are providing security in Kabul, the outlying regions, particularly the south and east, remain unstable as President Hamid Karzai's government braces for landmark elections this fall.
Militia forces largely loyal to local commanders are responsible for security in much of the country. A program to disarm the militias has been slow to get off the ground and the fledgling Afghan national army still only has about 10,000 men.
Sole woman in Afghan presidential race vows to make a mark
Thu Aug 12, 4:51 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Her round face framed by a sky-blue scarf and her fist punching the air, Masooda Jalal, the only woman contesting Afghanistan 's landmark presidential elections, is a picture of determination as she declares, "I'm sure of winning."
In a country where women have historically been kept out of the government, the courage of Jalal, a 41-year-old doctor from the ethnic Tajik minority, makes her standout in an otherwise male-dominated political arena.
Jalal dismisses religious objections that have been raised in this conservative Muslim country to women contesting the highest post in the October 9 poll.
"There is an interpretation of the Koran according to which a woman can indeed be a leader," said the mother of three who is a trained pediatrician and was an official with the World Food Program in Afghanistan under the ousted Taliban regime
Visitors to her apartment, in a block dating back to the days of the Soviet occupation, are met at the door and escorted in to the living room by Jalal's husband, an eminent philosophy professor at Kabul University who manages her diary like a secretary.
Asked why she chose to enter politics, Jalal told AFP in an interview: "My patients said you should be our delegate to the loya jirga."
"I did not have this in my mind. I was never involved in politics," she said.
Jalal was elected in 2002 with some 200 other women to attend the first post-Taliban loya jirga, a gathering of hundreds of tribal members to choose the shattered country's interim president.
"During the loya jirga the warlords came into the tent and dictated to delegates they would vote for (Hamid) Karzai," she recalled.
However she defied the warlords by opposing Karzai, who would eventually be picked as Afghanistan's interim leader.
She was urged to abandon her quest but said, "I was not convinced. The women of Afghanistan preferred that I challenge (Karzai)."
"My husband was very worried," Jala recalled. "He said, 'If you get only four votes it is going to be a shame for the family'."
Jalal went on to win 171 votes, second to Karzai's convincing 1,295.
She has tried to distance herself from the warlords, saying that the people know she was never involved in the war that gripped Afghanistan for 23 tears.
If elected, she would build a strong government, fight corruption and try to tackle social injustices like discrimination between the sexes and forced marriages, she said.
"She will be the mother for this country," she said, referring to herself in the third person.
She also vowed to take on the powerful warlords. "Karzai made a coalition with them. I will not sell the country."
But Jalal dismissed the obstacles in her quest for the presidency in a country where tribal rules inform all decisions and the warlords can dictate the votes for whole provinces.
"Of course it is difficult. We have no free press. We have no money but we have people power," she said.
"I will try my best and we will see. If I am not the winner, (my campaign) will still be important. As a woman, I am giving a lot of courage to the women of Afghanistan."
Afghanistan to open 5,000 polling sites for presidential election
KABUL, Aug 12, 2004 (Xinhua via COMTEX) -- Authorities would establish 5,000 polling sites to facilitate participation of Afghan voters in the forthcoming presidential race, a spokesman of the joint UN-Afghan Election Commission said Thursday.
"Across Afghanistan there will be up to 5,000 polling centers where people go to vote," Julian Type told reporters here at a press briefing.
Each polling center, he added, would have five polling stations and so there will be up to 25,000 polling stations throughout the post-Taliban country.
The first-ever post-Taliban presidential polls with the contention of 18 candidates including President Hamid Karzai is scheduled to be held on Oct. 9.
"Voting will be held on a single day," noted the official.
Commenting on the duration of its counting, he said, "This could take two or three weeks."
"Our intention as far as possible is to count the votes from province in that province," the official maintained.
As of Aug. 10, a total of 9,643,302 out of 9.8 million eligible voters have registered for the presidential election. The registration process is to end on Sunday across the country.
Afghan Election Fraud Is Concern
On a visit, Rumsfeld notes challenges in the Oct. 9 balloting. Poll officials hope to prevent people from voting more than once.
By John Hendren Los Angeles Times Staff Writer August 12, 2004
KABUL, Afghanistan — Hamid Karzai is battling a resurgent Taliban, an expanded drug trade, deadly intimidation of voters and 17 challengers who want to turn him out as president of Afghanistan in the upcoming election.
Now there is another worry: voter fraud.
Concerned about reports that some Afghans have registered to vote more than once, the international organization overseeing the scheduled Oct. 9 election is planning to mark the hand of each voter with indelible ink so any who return can be spotted.
The number of people who have registered more than once could be anywhere from 1,000 to 100,000, Karzai acknowledged in a joint appearance Wednesday with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"This does not bother me," quipped Karzai. "This is an exercise in democracy. Let them exercise it twice."
At this point, 9.4 million voter registration cards have been filled out in this nation of nearly 29 million. Election overseers from the U.N.-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body said more than 90% of eligible voters probably had registered. In a religiously conservative Muslim nation where women have long held second-class status, 41.6% of the newly registered voters are women.
The voter statistics were cited by Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers during an unusual joint visit to Kabul on Wednesday by the United States' top civilian and uniformed defense officials.
"Your leadership team is showing great courage in your efforts to stabilize the country," Rumsfeld said. " … There has been a campaign of intimidation, attempts to dissuade people from registering. The surge in registration that's taken place throughout the country, I might say, has to be a tribute to the determination of the Afghan people to make this work."
Another concern for the fledgling democracy is the nation's high illiteracy rate. The paper ballot approved Wednesday is as long as a newspaper page and half as wide, with photos of each of the 18 candidates because half of the population cannot read, election advisor Julian Type said.
There also is a concern about voter intimidation. Two United Nations workers registering Afghan voters were among six people killed in a recent bomb blast at a mosque in the province of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul. U.S.-led forces frequently have battled Taliban fighters and their allies in the vicinity.
On June 26, a bomb on a bus carrying election workers in Jalalabad, the capital of the eastern province of Nangarhar, killed three women. One day earlier, gunmen abducted and killed as many as 16 Afghan men from buses traveling through the central province of Oruzgan. The assailants allegedly shot their victims because they were carrying voter registration cards.
"Those who do not want Afghanistan to succeed tried their best to kill our people, to intimidate them not to register. We lost 12 registrars for elections in the past three months," Karzai said.
The government, backed by the international community, is using 16 teams to secure election sites and discourage intimidation. Rumsfeld and Myers on Wednesday visited one of the teams, based in Jalalabad.
Before traveling to Uzbekistan, Myers spoke to U.S. troops in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
"You are integral to the successes here," he said. "You are here because the United States of America needs you here."
Pakistan arrests five Qaeda suspects
By Amir Zia Thursday August 12, 7:40 PM
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan has arrested five al Qaeda suspects in the last two to three days as part of a month-long crackdown on Osama bin Laden's shadowy network, officials say.
The arrests come a day after Pakistani intelligence officials said bin Laden has exhorted his followers to launch strikes on the United States, Britain and Pakistan.
It was not clear how senior the five suspects were.
Government officials said on Thursday the suspects, whom they declined to identify, were captured in various parts of the country.
"These people keep many aliases and it is too early to say whether there is an important target among them," one official said on condition of anonymity.
"They often appear as ordinary people, but during interrogation and investigations, they turn out to be real valuable people, big gems," he said.
The authorities are chasing a web of leads from questioning at least three top al Qaeda operatives caught in the last month -- Tanzanian-born Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, Qari Saifullah Akhtar and computer engineer Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that Two Turkish al Qaeda operatives, believed to be behind an attack on Jewish targets in Istanbul last November that killed 60 people, had been detained in Pakistan. They also fought with Muslim rebels in Russia's breakaway region of Chechnya.
On Thursday, Pakistani officials reported new breakthroughs in the hunt for al Qaeda and its local Islamic militant allies.
An Uzbek, suspected of being trained by Ghailani to carry out a suicide attack, was arrested in Nowshera, 120 km (75 miles) west of Islamabad, on Wednesday. The man, identified as Mansoor, was caught by electronic surveillance and is being interrogated.
Ghailani, wanted in the United States for the 1998 embassy attacks in east Africa, was arrested along with 13 other foreigners during a raid in the eastern Pakistani city of Gujarat on July 25. He provided information leading to Mansoor's capture, intelligence officials said.
Also on Wednesday, a man from the United Arab Emirates called Mohammad Khalid Rashid Ahmed was detained in Pakistan's tribal region of Mohmand trying to cross into Afghanistan. The al Qaeda suspect was accompanied by three Pakistani militants.
WAR ON TERROR
Hundreds of al Qaeda and other Islamic militant suspects have been handed over to U.S. custody since September 11, 2001, when Pakistan decided to support the U.S.-led war on terror.
But many local and foreign militants remain in Pakistan, having developed links to al Qaeda and its leaders in the 1980s and 1990s when they fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and then trained together in bin Laden's camps.
Pakistan has detained more than 20 people in the last month, including key foreign and local al Qaeda operatives, in a swoop that has led to a security alert in the United States and the arrest of 13 al Qaeda suspects in Britain.
Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed confirmed some suspects were arrested, but he refused to give any details.
Ahmed has said Pakistan is targeting four or five "key planners" from al Qaeda, without whom the network would be much less able to launch attacks at home or abroad.
They are mid-ranking operatives, as opposed to leaders such as bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri.
Pakistani intelligence officials told Reuters on Wednesday that bin Laden, believed by U.S. officials to be hiding along the 2,450-km (1,520-mile) Afghan-Pakistan border, had called for more attacks on targets in the United States, Britain and Pakistan.
It is not clear whether the arrests are leading Pakistani intelligence and a handful of U.S. agents working with them any closer to the big prizes of bin Laden and al-Zawahri.
Experts question whether the two are able to give operational orders to al Qaeda when they are unlikely to risk using satellite communications and are hiding from tens of thousands of U.S. and Pakistani troops on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan frontier.
But bin Laden does appear to be exhorting militants to launch strikes abroad.
"Osama has given the go ahead to target important places and personalities in the U.S., U.K. and Pakistan," one Pakistani intelligence source said on Wednesday.
1,000 Kaneohe Marines Ordered To Afghanistan
The number of Hawaii-based troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is going up again. A battalion from Marine Corps Base Hawaii has been ordered to the Middle East.
The unit will make up the first large deployment of Hawaii Marines to the region.
It was just a few weeks ago that Marines from Kaneohe came home from Iraq. There were just 20 of them, providing intelligence communications in that country.
More Marines were deployed for Pacific operations.
"They left on a deployment to Okinawa to join together and become a part of the 31st MEU with the mission of actually operating in the Pacific area of operations," Col. Jeff Patterson said.
Now, the 1st Marine Battalion, 3rd Regiment, has been ordered from Okinawa to join other armed forces personnel from Hawaii in the Middle East.
"It's a battalion-size organization. Together they equal about just over 1,000 Marines," Patterson said.
The number may be small compared to the number of troops deployed from Schofield Barracks. However, this is the largest number of Marines deployed at one time from Kaneohe.
There are 6,600 Marines stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe.
The group will have company from Hawaii. There are already 8,000 soldiers from Schofield in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of the Hawaii Army National Guard have been training for Iraq duty, and are scheduled to report to their normal duty stations on Monday.
In all, there are already some 12,000 armed forces personnel deployed from Hawaii.
UN human rights expert due to make week-long visit to Afghanistan
Source: UN News Service 12 Aug 2004
A United Nations expert will begin a one-week visit to Afghanistan this weekend to check on the rights of prisoners and women, the exercise of political rights, human rights education and transitional justice.
Cherif Bassiouni, the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights in Afghanistan, is due to arrive Saturday in Kabul, the capital, and will hold talks with key Government officials, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), UN and other international agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
He will also make on-site visits, the details of which have yet to be finalized.
In a related development, as of today women in Faizabad in northeastern Afghanistan will receive more legal support to combat discrimination and domestic violence and to improve their living conditions.
The Department of Women's Affairs, with support from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), is establishing Women Working Groups (WWG) focusing on three areas: protection, public awareness and creating opportunities for females.
These groups bring together Government officials, organizations advocating women's rights and UNAMA. The network is already serving Afghan women in 26 districts in Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan.
Letters: Afghan poppy trade; Relief workers cannot always be neutral
The International Herald Tribune IHT Friday, August 13, 2004
Afghan poppy trade
Virtually any informed person in Afghanistan with his feet on the ground for more than a few hours will tell you that Afghan poppy production has soared because the government of President Hamid Karzai and U.S. forces have failed to deliver the level of security needed to enable traditional agriculture to recover, including ensuring farmers adequate agricultural inputs, irrigation, roads and markets ("Afghans' efforts win praise from Rumsfeld," Aug. 12). In that absence, farmers have no alternative but to turn to opium poppy, which is a hardy crop needing few inputs. And the farmers have had a ready market, including the warlords who finance their activities in part from the crop and continue to be given largely free rein.
Brennon Jones, Ho Chi Minh City
The article "Energy agency, in revision, sees oil use rising" (Aug. 12) reports that the International Energy Agency said in a statement, "current oil prices are a concern and are causing economic damage."
But the worry that oil prices are relatively high shows just how far we are into denial. We know that oil is a finite resource, a major pollutant and a key factor in the global warming that threatens us all with a variety of foreseeable disasters. Yet we demand that it be cheaper than good quality mineral water, while devouring it thoughtlessly and gratuitously. Higher oil prices - reflecting the reality of oil as a rapidly diminishing and environmentally damaging commodity - are the only possible catalyst on the horizon that just might make us change our ways. "Economic" damage? Continue as we are and you ain't seen nothin' yet.
Peter Sherwood, Hong Kong
Relief workers cannot always be neutral
John Burnett ("Relief workers in the line of fire," Views, Aug. 5) wrote of the politicization of aid work and called on the United States to reinforce aid agencies' political neutrality. In his article, however, Burnett misses one critical point: In delivering aid, humanitarians cannot be neutral in many contexts.
Why have humanitarian workers - especially in Iraq and Afghanistan - been increasingly targeted? The answer is frightening for humanitarian workers: They are targets because they are providing humanitarian aid.
The objective of the murderers in Iraq and Afghanistan is to maintain disorder in their countries. Therefore, by delivering aid, humanitarians are working against the goals of the saboteurs and coincidentally helping the military achieve its mission of providing stability. The more efficient and effective a humanitarian organization is, the more important a target it is in the eyes of the anti-U.S. forces.
Neutrality is not what you say you are - it is what you are perceived to be. Aid delivery coincidentally helps one side of some conflicts, and in doing so it makes it impossible for those delivering aid to be neutral in the eyes of so-called insurgents.
So what do we do?
Big agencies rightly refuse to pay ransom when a staff member is kidnapped - by paying ransom you encourage more kidnapping. But now the stakes are higher. If aid organizations pull out when staff are killed, doesn't this just encourage the targeting of the undefended humanitarian workers?
Do we hand over responsibility for delivery of humanitarian aid to the military? Do we subcontract aid delivery to private military corporations? Or, in the hope of maintaining some neutrality, do we ask humanitarian workers to do their work knowing that they are unarmed and undefended targets?
One answer is to provide more funds for security training for humanitarian staff. The other answer is unknown to me, but it is more complicated than just asking the United States to proclaim that relief work is neutral - although that wouldn't hurt.
Andrew MacLeod, Geneva The writer is an early warning and emergency preparedness specialist for the UN. This is a personal comment.
Afghan teenagers bound for Germany
Nineteen Afghan teenagers will come to Germany next week as part of a government program to encourage understanding between Muslim countries and the West, the foreign ministry said.
The group of 15 to 17 year olds will be guests of families in the eastern state of Saxony from August 18 to September 8, spending a week each at two different schools during their stay, the ministry said in a statement.
The students attend the Amani high school and the Durani girls’ school in Kabul, both funded by the German government and attended by some 6,000 pupils.
“The foreign minister is encouraging increased contact between German schools and schools in countries with a large Muslim population as part of a cultural dialogue,” it said.
The students have already had contact via e-mail with their German counterparts under the program, which is being financed with some 50,000 euros (61,000 dollars) from the foreign ministry and the Saxon government. afp
Three presidential candidates change their second running mates
Radio Afghanistan- 08/11/2004 - The Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) has told Bakhtar News Agency:
Homayun Shah Asifi, a presidential candidate, has announced that Abdollah Rahmati will run as his first deputy in place of Mohammad Hashem Asmat Elahi. Dr Nilab Mobarez will run as his second deputy and will replace Tajwar Kakar.
Gen Abdorrashid Dostum [a presidential candidate] has announced that Makhdum Wazir Mohammad will run as his second deputy in place of Mustafa Kamal. abdol Hassib Arian [a presidential candidate] has announced that Syed Yahya Ahmadiar will run as his second deputy to replace Syed Mohammad Zaman Ahmadiar.
Both the government authorities and the people may contact the JEMB located in the street No 10, Wazir Akbar Khan, until 1200 hours [0730 gmt] tomorrow if they have any objections over the candidature of Abdollah Rahmati, Dr Nilab Mobarez, Wazir Mohammad and Syed Ahmad Yahya Ahmadiar. BBC Monitoring
Imports Through Afghan Transit Trade Rise by 61% in June
Friday August 13, 10:08 AM
PESHAWAR, Aug 12 Asia Pulse - The volume of imports through Afghan Transit Trade (ATT increased by 61 per cent in June, said Zia-ul-Haq Sarhadi, chairman SCCI standing committee on Railway and Dryport and Frontier Customs Agents Group NWFP.
He attributed this large increase to the deletion of 14 items from the negative list of ATT, including refrigerators, air conditioners, television sets, parts, cotton yarn, soap and tea etc.
Sarhadi, who is also member of the customs advisory committee said that if the ratio of ATT remains the same during financial year 2004-05, it would reach Rs 30 billion (US511.5 million), which would be a matter of concern.
He said that during 2002-2003 the volume of the ATT remained Rs 14.061 billion, which increased to Rs 20.196 in 2003-04.
Sarhadi also urged the government to maintain strict vigilance over all goods brought under ATT to prevent them being smuggled into Pakistan.
Afghan teens learn U.S. culture as they prepare for study abroad
BY KIM BARKER Chicago Tribune Thu, Aug. 12, 2004
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan - (KRT) - Uzra Azizi sat in the front of the class, sharing a table with a boy. She wore her long, dark hair in a ponytail and raised a slender index finger in response to almost every question.
Only the month before, Uzra and the other 13 Afghan girls at this high school had never done such things. They were survivors of a broken country. They had lived through the Taliban, which kept girls out of school. They had never gone to school with boys, and they always covered their hair in public.
"I didn't have any courage when I was in Afghanistan," Uzra, 15, said in a quiet voice. "I would never raise my hand in a class with a boy."
But these girls now face a new challenge, halfway around the world: American high schools. They will arrive in the United States this month. And for an entire school year, the girls and 26 Afghan boys will study in U.S. high schools, the first foreign-exchange students from Afghanistan in 30 years.
In July, the students attended a mock U.S. high school, set up in a ski lodge in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, a country friendly to the United States and willing to issue visas to the Afghans. The exchange program officials wanted to train the students in a third country for a month, to ease them into the transition from Afghanistan to America and allow them to work on their English, which they had learned in various ways such as in classes or from their parents. Many of the students, all 15 and 16, had never before been outside Afghanistan, or neighboring Pakistan.
Here, they took a crash course in the United States.
Like other high school exchange programs, this one tries to educate foreign students about America. No American students will travel to war-torn Afghanistan; the program is an "exchange" in ideas only.
The Afghanistan experiment is part of a relatively new program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, that targets the Islamic world, from Morocco to Indonesia. Program alumni will theoretically go back to their home countries and become leaders. They also will know and presumably like the United States.
Of all the students involved, those from Afghanistan will be under a closer microscope than most, especially the girls. Even the country's education officials allegedly tried to persuade the girls' parents not to send them, worried about what might happen. Will the girls be hurt? Dance? Even date?
"It was a very difficult decision," said Mohammad Sarwar Azizi, Uzra's father, sitting in the family's home in Kabul. "Many Afghans would decide not to accept this program. Will it be easy for her? Will it be difficult for her? All these questions are coming to our minds and more."
Some will live in California; others will be sprinkled in small towns from Southern Pines, N.C., to Oregon, Wis. They will live in Indiana and Idaho, Virginia and Texas, Connecticut and New Jersey.
The students had different dreams of America, different hopes. Some wanted to experience Valentine's Day and see tall buildings and movie stars, especially Arnold Schwarzenegger. Uzra wanted to see a Christmas tree.
But before that happened, the girls and boys learned to go to school together in Kyrgyzstan. They learned about American culture, slang, rules and laws.
They studied in classrooms with the U.S. map, the English alphabet and student artwork on the walls. In class, they spoke only English and learned maxims such as, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."
Once, Afghanistan was a beautiful country, with green grass, huge Buddha statues and ancient forts. Many of these teenagers know this - in their suitcases, they have packed postcards and tourist pamphlets from such times, the 1960s and 1970s, to show their new friends in the United States.
But the students have not seen that Afghanistan. These pictures might as well be of a foreign country. The students saw people die.
They were matter-of-fact about this, answering questions in a conflict-resolution class with the obvious: Conflict is all they have known. One boy drew clouds on his family tree for the sorrows his family has seen. The students wrote poems about war or described love "as strong as death."
"We didn't see any peace in Afghanistan," said Yalda Faqeerzada, 16, who saw a man killed by a rocket outside her home. "We grew up in war."
They also grew up under the Taliban, which turned the women into wraiths, forcing them to wear the burqa, the loose-fitting garment that covers everything, even the wearer's face. Women could not work; girls could not go to school.
Some girls studied in Pakistan. Others studied at home or hid their backpacks under burqas as they walked to secret schools. A few simply waited.
"I don't want to talk about the Taliban," said Nazifa Jafary, 16, who sat home for three years. "If I do, I cry."
That was enough. Within seconds, tears poured down her face.
Each girl had her story of fear and woe. Several of the girls' mothers kept their daughters' blue burqas, folded and hidden away, so the girls would always remember what happened. Before leaving Kabul, Alina Mohsini sat in her room and wondered whether she should take her burqa to show Americans what she was forced to wear.
"I really hate it when I see it," Alina, 16, said, staring at the burqa. "It was a really painful time, a dark time. It was the same every day. We couldn't go outside. I was a little girl."
Even after the Taliban fell, Afghan girls had to fight for their education. Militants have burned down several girls' schools. Some parents do not let their girls go to school. Several families chosen for this exchange program by the not-for-profit American Councils for International Education did not want their daughters to go to America. The three girls picked from Herat all canceled.
In Kabul, officials in the Education Ministry called in the girls' families. According to several parents, the girls and U.S. officials, a ministry official told the parents not to send their daughters.
"He told us, `Your daughter will be swimming with American boys,'" said Azizi, Uzra's father. "He told us, if you send her, you should wash your hands of your daughter right now. You will never get her back."
So Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote an encouraging letter to the families, telling them about his experience as a foreign-exchange student from Afghanistan. None of the Kabul families backed out.
The acting minister of education, Eshraq Hossaini, said the ministry treated girls and boys as equals. He called the allegations about ministry intervention "only a rumor or I can say a total lie."
Despite what they have lived through, the girls seemed naive and more concerned about what gifts to buy their new American friends than anything else.
Weeks before leaving, Uzra started packing, filling a small silver suitcase with new jeans and sparkly shirts - the kind of clothes she figured American teenagers wore. The suitcase sat in the bedroom she shared with two sisters, who all slept on mats on the floor.
In her Kabul bedroom, before she left for Kyrgyzstan, Uzra said she was willing to adapt in America, learning to use the Internet, trying new food, going to classes with boys. But she said she would always cover her hair in public. She would never go on a date, or wear nail polish. She would always be an Afghan Muslim girl.
At the mock U.S. high school in Kyrgyzstan, Uzra stood outside the circle of boys, nervous.
On this afternoon, she had been told to break into this circle, however she could, part of a class exercise. But this meant she had to touch boys' hands. She had to shove boys.
She stood on the grass, watching the boys who held hands tightly, keeping her outside.
"Pull their pinkies back!" shouted Hawa Ansary, a girl who had already successfully pushed into the circle.
Slowly, Uzra started. She tried to pry back one boy finger at a time, moving from boy to boy, looking for the weakest link. She pushed. She laughed. Occasionally, she stepped back and covered her mouth. She could not believe she was doing this. Finally, she forced two boys to open their hands. She ran inside, breathing hard.
"It was so difficult," she whispered afterward. "I've never done anything like that before."
Her hands shook. In Afghanistan, boys and girls traditionally are not friends. They do not talk to each other. They certainly do not dance together or touch each other's hands. They live in separate worlds. For most, these worlds do not converge when they grow up. Women have their own sitting rooms, their own parties, their own lives.
This school tried to get the girls and boys used to each other. In America, they would have no choice. They will have to sit in a classroom with the opposite sex. The boys might have to wash the dishes. The girls might have to kick a ball.
At first in Kyrgyzstan, the girls did not even say hello to the boys. They did not sit with them at meals. They did not come outside when the boys played Indian music and danced into the night. It was as if the boys did not exist.
Slowly, this changed. In classes, boys and girls were forced to work together. In after-school clubs, they were forced to play together. Boys learned to throw the ball to girls. They learned to joke with each other.
By the 18th day of school, the high walls between the girls and boys had dropped somewhat.
That was the day Uzra and Hawa forced their way into the boys' circle. That evening, the drama club put on a play. Afterward, the boys and girls talked about skits, about meeting to hash out roles.
Later that night, when the music came on and the boys started to dance, some girls stayed to watch. A teacher encouraged them to dance, and they did, hesitantly, boys on one side, girls on the other. It was like any high school dance in America.
But not everyone wanted to join. Uzra saw a classmate dancing and walked back to her room, upset.
"I don't feel comfortable," she said. "When I saw her dancing, I just cried. I just could not stop. I don't know why."
Every day held a first. The girls learned to throw a baseball, to draw a family tree. Some girls swam in a lake, fully clothed. They painted their nails with glitter.
Nazifa, who cried when she thought of the Taliban, walked up to a cosmetics counter during a field trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital. She bought lip liner, lipstick and eye makeup and asked the workers to show her how to put it on. A week later, she prepared for another field trip by wearing makeup for the first time.
Within a day or two of arriving in Kyrgyzstan, all the girls took off their head scarves. They did not talk about this. Finally, Uzra removed hers, choosing to wear it around her shoulders.
"We have to adapt," Uzra said with a shrug.
The teachers at this school tried to get the students ready for more change. The students were told to take showers every day, which was considered a waste of water in arid Afghanistan.
While some of the teens had stopped praying, others insisted on praying at the scheduled five times a day. They left baseball games in the middle of the seventh inning and skipped the end of lunch. The teachers, from America and Kyrgyzstan, told them to be flexible, that in the public schools of America, they might not be able to pray whenever they wanted.
"But praying is the most important thing for us," Hawa, 16, said. "It's our religion. We can't just leave it."
Repeatedly, the students were asked how they might deal with students who cracked jokes about Islam. They were given scenarios to act out: What would they do if someone said they were terrorists? Or called one Osama bin Laden? Some said they would avoid such people. Others said they would stay quiet. Most seemed willing to do whatever they had to do to avoid any conflict.
Regardless of the subject, the students were enthusiastic. They all raised their hands to be picked to read out loud - repeatedly. Uzra consistently turned in more homework than required, and she was not alone.
When asked to sing, they loudly sang songs such as "Leaving on a Jet Plane." They eagerly learned slang, such as "I could eat a horse." They all wanted to join drama club. They loved art club. They were so over the top that it was not clear whether some would fit in.
There were other potential red flags, especially for the boys.
In Afghanistan, men are extremely affectionate with each other, holding hands and hugging. Such behavior worried teachers, who feared how Americans boys might react.
"You always say, `He's beautiful, he's lovely,'" teacher Angela Bowden, an American Peace Corps volunteer, told the boys in her class. "But watch how you say this, because some people might take it the wrong way."
The boys all said they understood. Yet the next day, on the field trip in Bishkek, one of Bowden's students walked hand in hand with another boy. The people of Bishkek stared.
Many of the girls had fantasies of what America would be like, of Hollywood celebrities, of having their own rooms. Only Yalda had been to the States.
For a month last summer, she attended a youth camp in Maine through Seeds of Peace, a program for children who grew up in war and other conflict. When she came home, she missed America and cried for three days. Her transition showed what the girls might face when they return to Afghanistan.
"Everything I wanted to do, the people of Afghanistan said this was bad for girls," said Yalda, who could not wait to attend high school in America. "The girls there, they are not allowed to laugh on the streets. They are not allowed to talk."
Her feelings came through in almost every assignment, every conversation. At the end of one Friday class, her teacher asked the students to write an essay about the women's movement in Afghanistan. Many students looked confused. There was no women's movement in Afghanistan.
So the assignment was changed, to write about women's rights. Even though the essay was due Monday, Yalda finished it that day. She wrote at the end of lunch and before art club. She wrote seven pages of scrawled fury by the time dinner was over, and she did not care about her grammar.
"My father always hits my mother and I could not say anything to him because he might hit me, too," she wrote.
"If a child is born - if it is a boy that they become so happy and bring sweets for their parents. If it is a girl the people will say to the mother that how unlucky you are that you born a girl.
"From that day that I born till now I didn't see happiness in my life."
Yalda figured that all the girls would have a hard time coming home. She did not really want to think about it.
By the middle of this month, all the Afghan students will have arrived in America. They will meet their host families and get ready for school. Some host families will be Muslim. Most live in small towns and suburbs.
Uzra worried. She had already removed her head scarf, despite her earlier pledge. But she never talked to the boy who shared a table with her in homeroom. As for wearing makeup, never. She bought glitter polish with silver stars, but not for her nails. She liked the way it looked inside the bottle.
"They say, `If you come back from America, you will be this way,'" she said. "I think, if a person does not want to change, they don't have to, right? But they say, `No, you will be hugging boys, you will be going to dinner. It will be hard for you.'"
Uzra's roommate, Alina, wondered about Yalda, and what her camp experience might mean.
"She was only gone for a month, and she hated to come back. We'll be gone for a year," Alina said. She became quiet.
The girls had started to change, no matter how they denied it. Some had danced; some had painted their nails; some had swum in a lake and talked about buying a swimsuit. They had taken off their head scarves. Even Uzra had raised her hand in a class with boys.
They had done all these things, and they had not even arrived in America. Really, they had no idea what might happen.
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