Afghanistan: Donor meeting reaffirms international commitment
KABUL, 7 April (IRIN) - A key meeting between the Afghan government and international donors ended on Wednesday with renewed commitment from wealthy nations to reconstruction and Kabul calling for more attention on what it called "neglected infrastructure building."
Donor countries that have contributed billions of dollars in humanitarian and development aid to the country in the post-Taliban period, got the chance to talk directly to authorities about progress in reconstruction at the third Afghanistan Development Forum (ADF).
"It was a dialogue of real partnership between Afghanistan and the international community," Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan foreign affairs minister, told IRIN as the meeting in the capital Kabul drew to a close.
Jean Arnault, Special Representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), underlined the international community's ongoing commitment to the country.
"We have to make sure that the effort at creating peace in this country will not end on 18 September with the parliamentary election, but will be extended for as long as it takes to make sure that this process of peace consolidation is successfully translated into strong peace dividends," he said.
Concensus was reportedly reached on the need to promote the rebuilding and fresh construction of infrastructure, and to rapidly address poverty reduction, Abdullah added.
Finance Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi reiterated Kabul's desire to have a greater say in how foreign aid money is spent in the country. "We asked the international community to allow the government to have a greater say in the allocation of resource for development, for social protection and for nation-building."
President Hamid Karzai's government has long been unhappy that the bulk of foreign aid does not pass through its hands, [but?] some donors argue the fledgling administration does not have the capacity to handle the vast sums involved. "We argued that at leas two-thirds of the assistance should be channelled through the government," Ahadi maintained.
The government, in turn made a new commitment at the conference to be open about where donor money was being spent. "From the discussions it is clear the government needs to improve its criteria for accountability and transparency," Abdullah noted.
Although the gathering was not a pledging conference, Ahadii noted that the United Kingdom - one of the lead nations fighting the massive narcotics problem in Afghanistan - announced an additional US $151 million contribution to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF).
"The ADF was a good opportunity to take stock of what was agreed in Berlin in terms of economic strategy, assess continuity and to articulate any changes that need to be considered," Steve Symansky, International Monetary Fund (IMF) head of mission, told IRIN at the conference
Donors pledged $8.3 billion over two to three years at the 2004 ADF in Berlin, but some of that money must still be committed to specific projects, partly due to ongoing insecurity in many parts of the south and east of the country.
Countries Work Together to Beat Enemy in Kandahar
April 7, 2005 Combined Forces Command - Afghanistan Coalition Press Information Center (Public Affairs)
By U.S. Army Spc. Claudia K. Bullard 105th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Coalition forces at Kandahar Airfield continue to combine efforts to maintain security and stability in southeastern Afghanistan.
Units from the Afghan National Army’s 1-1 Kandak, the U.S. Army’s 3rd Battalion of the 7th Field Artillery Regiment, and the Romanian army’s 300th Infantry Battalion have been executing Operation Iron Damper to capture or keep on the run anti-Coalition militant forces reportedly operating in Kandahar Province.
The operation included distribution of information leaflets encouraging residents to report munitions and improvised explosive devices. That distribution, in Arghandab District, was followed by a visit with local elders by ANA and U.S. Army personnel to check on the welfare of their people and gain information about ACM forces. U.S. and Romanian forces performed night operations to root out reported militants.
Lt. Col. Adrian Soci, 300th commander, said Coalition forces want militants to know “who controls the area.” Sgt Maj. Radu Predescu said the ACM “are probably on the run.” Predescu pointed out the local population reported the existence of ACM to local police authorities, demonstrating their desire for peace.
Though U.S. forces are undergoing a major transition of troops and equipment, operations continue to ensure ongoing security and stability.
“We are sending a message,” said 3rd Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Clarence Neason, “that there are no ‘sanctuaries’ in the Kandahar Province.” He added, “The purpose of the operation is to let insurgents know that while in the midst of a transition, we remain focused on sustaining and enhancing security and stability throughout Kandahar Province.”
Opposition Alliance Receives Official Praise, Popular Doubt
Amin Tarzi - Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
On 31 March, former Education Minister and presidential candidate Mohammad Yunos Qanuni announced the formation of the National Understanding Front (Jabha-ye Tafahom-e Melli, JTM) as the main opposition group to President Hamid Karzai's government. A day after the formation of the JTM, Karzai issued a statement welcoming the formation of "an opposition to the government." The 1 April statement added that Karzai believes that in a democratic system the existence of an opposition "committed to reform and the true application of law" is essential.
Afghan media in general have been less enthusiastic about the aims and prospects of the new front.
The independent Kabul daily "Cheragh" on 3 April commented that some believe that the JTM is "manufactured by the [Afghan] government and foreign elements" to have a symbolic opposition and also to "paralyze" the political parties represented in the front. "Cheragh" labeled the leadership of JTM as "second- and third-rate members" of the former mujahedin.
The pro-government Kabul daily "Eslah" on 2 April commented that the JTM is not an opposition party to help the country move forward; rather, it is a group that will only try to "criticize the government and disrupt its work."
Pajhwak News Agency reported on 5 April that a sampling of Kabul residents showed that they blamed the founders of JTM for the destruction of their city. Mohammad Qasim Akhgar, identified as a political analyst, told Pajhwak that the people of Afghanistan have reached the maturity level to distinguish the truth from lies and accused the founders of JTM of being "criminals." Habibullah Rafi', director of the Ariana Encyclopedia, said that while the existence of an opposition was a necessity in a democratic system, those associated with JTM have been known to ferment discord among Afghans based on ethnic and linguistic differences. A Kabul resident named Aminullah told Pajhwak that members of JTM should be brought before the court for their crimes.
The JTM is a coalition of 12 individuals belonging to 11 registered and unregistered political parties, which, according one of three deputy leaders of the front, Mohammad Mohaqeq, was formed based on an agreement during the Afghan presidential elections in October 2004. Mohaqeq told the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran on 1 April that some of the presidential candidates agreed to "form an alliance and the candidate who receives the most votes would lead the alliance."
As such, Qanuni, who finished second to Karzai with more than 16 percent of the vote, became the leader of JTM. Mohaqeq finished third with close to 12 percent of the vote, while another deputy chairman of the JTM, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, despite a rigorous campaign aided by his considerable personal financial assets, secured only 0.8 percent of the vote, finishing eighth. The third JTM deputy chairman, and the only female in a leading role, Najia Zahra, is a relatively unknown political figure and was not a presidential candidate.
Qanuni, Mohaqeq, and Ahmadzai, along with Sayyed Ali Jawed, the front's spokesman, all have their own political organizations and all were members of the mujahedin groups that were formed to fight the Soviets and their puppet regimes in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Most of these mujahedin groups also took part in the destructive and divisive civil wars that engulfed Afghanistan after the collapse of the communist regime of President Najib in 1992. After the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, most of the top leaders of the JTM joined hands in the loose anti-Taliban alliance that later become known as the United Front of the Northern Alliance.
Ethnically, the JTM's leadership can best be regarded as an alliance of Tajik and Hazarah political ambitions with a symbolic Pashtun presence in the person of Ahmadzai.
Missing from the JTM is the fourth-place finisher in the presidential elections, namely Abdul Rashid Dostum. According to a 3 April report in "Cheragh," he has "formed an unofficial opposition" alliance with Abdul Latif Pedram, another former presidential candidate who came in fifth.
While Pedram is not important to the JTM's larger plans to become the most viable opposition to Karzai's government, the absence of Dostum, who secured 10 percent of the vote for president -- almost the same level as the number of his co-ethnic Uzbeks in Afghanistan -- is major loss, especially among the Uzbeks, unless another viable leader emerges among Afghanistan's Uzbek population.
While Dostum -- after switching sides in 1992 -- eventually became part of the United Front against the Taliban and thus earned international recognition, both he and Pedram were associated with the communist regimes of the 1980s and as such have a different past than the current leadership of the JTM.
If the current composition of the newly formed opposition front remains unchanged, it will have to find a platform to attract popular support other than their standing in provinces dominated by Tajiks and Hazarahs, where Qanuni and Mohaqeq did well during the presidential elections. A representative opposition alliance requires credible representation from Afghanistan's main ethnic groups and different political opinions, not only the mujahedin parties of the 1980s. As such the JTM can best be described as an attempt by some of the former mujahedin who have been sidelined in the current Afghan political landscape to make a joint reentry, not a comprehensive and representative opposition platform.
Southeastern Representatives Critical Of Afghan President
Daily Afghan Report April 6, 2005 Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
Elders from Paktiya Province have criticized Hamid Karzai for not addressing the problems of their province, Pajhwak News Agency reported on 5 April. Malak Modir, identified as a tribal elder, complained at a community gathering that Paktiya is not represented in the Afghan government and officials from Kabul ignore the provincial problems. Wakil Gol Mangal and Aminullah Zazi told the gathering that 94 percent of the voters in Paktiya supported Karzai's presidential bid, but "he hasn't even given 40 percent of his time and efforts" to address the problems of the Paktiya region. A female attendee at the gathering, Sharifa Zurmati Wardak, discussed the issue of women's rights and warned that "old habits from the past eras," such as forced marriages, are returning to Paktiya. Paktiya supported Karzai's candidacy with 95.6 percent of votes, second only to Khost Province, south of Paktiya. AT
Northern Afghan Warlord Meets U.S. Envoy
Daily Afghan Report April 6, 2005 Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
General Abdul Rashid Dostum on 4 April met with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Kabul, Jowzjan Aina Television reported. Dostum, who was recently appointed as the chief of staff of the High Command of the Armed Forces of Afghanistan, discussed the country's armed forces with Khalilzad. According to the report, Dostum is expected to begin his new position "in the very near future." When Karzai appointed the controversial Dostum to the largely symbolic post in March, human rights activists questioned the move (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 March 2005). Despite his government appointments, Dostum has thus far refused to leave his northern stronghold and relocate to Kabul, even when he was officially deputy defense minister. AT
Afghanistan Seeks to Reform Provincial Gov't Departments
Friday April 8, 9:07 AM Asia Pulse
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, April 8 Asia Pulse - 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, officials said Wednesday.
The Administrative Reforms Commission in Kabul had earlier placed adverts in media outlets calling skilled people to apply for government posts.
The head of the government's Administrative Reforms Commission for the Northern provinces, Azizurahman Rasikh told Pajhwok Afghan News, the assessments will be administered by mid April: "We have begun collating the applications and the candidates will be assessed according to merit." He added, 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.
Correspondents say the restructuring process is being implemented throughout the country, in an attempt to eliminate corruption and bribery within the government departments, addressing a complaint voiced my many Afghans, but it still remains a mammoth task for the Afghan government grappling with democracy in a post-war country.
Rasikh said a questionnaire will asses their academic qualifications and skills has been handed out to the relevant provincial staff, and the results will siphon out anyone inappropriate for the job. He said the deputy governor will be tested in the capital Kabul, but the others will sit their exam in the provincial capital.
Mohammad Zahir Wahdat, the current deputy governor told Pajhwok that he hadn't submitted and application or reapplied for the post, but will make his decision soon.
"I am applying for the post of secretary to the governor's office, and I have handed in my application," said Mohammad Farhad Sulemanzai, a journalism bachelor.
(Pajhwok Afghan News)
The world looks to Rome and last farewell for Pope John Paul II
Friday April 8, 1:39 PM AFP
The world looked on Rome as leaders from more than 100 nations and a multitude of mourners prepared for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, one of the most cherished pontiffs of recent history.
As pilgrims camped out overnight hoping to snare a prime spot, officials in and outside Saint Peter's basilica worked toward dawn to prepare for a requiem mass of stately splendour.
Rome itself was wrapped in a tight security blanket, a no-fly zone over the city complementing a traffic ban on the streets to protect the dignitaries and mourners from the world over.
In the darkness, hundreds of pilgrims slept on the street hoping to be the first in line when crash barriers onto Saint Peter's Square are opened at 6:00 am (0400 GMT).
Four hours later, at 10:00 am, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger will lead the mass in front of leaders representing more than half the world's countries and its major religions, as well as many of the two-to-four million pilgrims who have flocked to Rome this week.
Hundreds of millions more are expected to watch the ceremony broadcast live around the world.
Afterward, John Paul II will be buried in the crypt of St Peter's alongside some of his illustrious predecessors, in a tomb marked only by a simple slab.
"There is an amazing atmosphere here, it's fantastic. We're sleeping on the ground, but we're happy," said 18-year-old Christof Kita, camping outside the square after travelling for 27 hours with three relatives from the late pope's native Poland.
Elsewhere in the city, knots of people, many waving Polish flags, wandered through the streets. They had sung, laughed and prayed into the small hours.
The floodlit basilica -- a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture -- shone in the night, quieter now after three days and nights when a tide of humanity flowed past the pope's body resplendent in red and white vestments.
Among the leaders who arrived late Thursday were UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and King Juan Carlos of Spain, who knelt in prayer beside his wife Queen Sofia in front of the pope's body.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, one of a number of Muslim leaders attending the funeral, flew into Rome's Fiumicino airport shortly before midnight.
He praised the pope as "a religious leader for the Catholics," but also as "a man with concern for all human beings."
Other leaders already in the Italian capital include US President George W. Bush, who clashed with the pope over the US-led war on Iraq but who hailed him earlier this week as "one of history's great moral leaders."
John Paul II, who reigned over the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics for 26 years, died late Saturday aged 84 after a long struggle against Parkinson's disease and other illnesses.
On the eve of the funeral, the Vatican published his final testament which disclosed that he had considered resigning five years ago, when he reached the age of 80, as he became increasingly ill.
"May the mercy of God give me the necessary strength for this service," he wrote in 2000.
He also revealed he had contemplated being buried in Poland, but in the end left the funeral arrangements to the College of Cardinals, which will convene on April 18 to begin the process of electing his successor.
As security was buttoned down, Rome's second airport, Ciampino, was closed to commercial flights until midnight (2200 GMT) Friday, and a no-fly zone over the city itself was being enforced by Italian and NATO aircraft.
Over 10,000 police, military and paramilitary officers, including hundreds of marksmen, were being deployed. Teams with sniffer dogs patrolled.
Police said cars would be banned throughout Rome all day on Friday and that all public offices and schools would close.
Pilgrims continued to pour across Italy's borders by train and bus however, in particular from Poland, whose President Aleksander Kwasniewski was expected to have a front-row seat at the mass.
Poland's delegation included his predecessor Lech Walesa, whose Solidarity trade union movement was inspired by John Paul II to resist the then-communist regime in power in Poland.
It contributed to the fall of communism throughout eastern Europe, in what historians say is one of the pope's greatest legacies.
French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger echoed the words of many pilgrims when he told AFP in an interview that the emotion shown by the immense crowd was a message to world leaders to work for peace and for mankind.
"Instinctively, in the whole world, people felt John Paul II was a credible man who defended what was best in people, who acted neither for power, nor for money, nor for vengeance, but for people," he said.
The testament, originally written in Polish and published by the Vatican in a seven-page Italian translation, confirmed his lack of materialism.
In it, he said he had left "no property that needs to be disposed of."
The pope, who allowed his frailty to be reported in detail and in ways that would have been unthinkable for his predecessors, advised believers to reflect on their own mortality.
"Be vigilant, because you do not know the day our Lord will come," he wrote.
Among the first world leaders to arrive in Rome for the funeral was Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who said Israel hoped John Paul II's successor would continue his efforts to bring Christians and Jews closer together.
Leaders of Muslim nations were also expected, among them Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.
But there was also discord when China said it would boycott the funeral to protest the invitation to President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan, the island state recognised by the Vatican but which Beijing regards as its own.
As pilgrims continued to pour toward Rome by train, coach, car and whatever other method they could find, many were directed to a university campus to the south of the city where a tent city has been set up.
Sebastian Cupial said he had travelled 26 hours hitch-hiking from Poland.
"It's nothing," he said. "You have to understand that in Poland, we really love the pope and it's the last time we will be able to thank him."
Two still missing after deadliest US chopper crash in Afghanistan
Thursday April 7, 3:48 PM AFP
A search and recovery operation was under way to find the bodies of two missing US servicemen after the worst American military helicopter crash in Afghanistan left at least 16 people dead.
Thirteen of the confirmed fatalities on the Chinook were members of the US military while three others were civilians employed by US government contractors, US military spokesman Lieutenant Cindy Moore.
She would not confirm the nationalities of the three civilians, but a Western security source said on condition of anonymity that all the victims were Americans.
Two US service members who were listed on the flight manifest were missing, presumed dead, Moore added. There were no survivors at the crash site in Ghazni province, around 100 kilometres (62 miles) south of the capital Kabul
The US blamed bad weather and said the crash had been an accident. "There was no indication of hostile fire," Moore said.
However, the ultra-Islamic Taliban militia, which continues to wage an insurgency in the war-torn country, later said it had shot down the helicopter. There was no way to independently verify the claim.
"This is the worst record for a crash in Operation Enduring Freedom," said US military spokesman Lieutenant Cindy Moore, referring to the operation launched in late 2001 to topple the Taliban regime.
Recovery operations were ongoing Thursday and a mortuary team would arrive on-site later Thursday to "care for the remains of the dead" and confirm what had happened, Moore said.
Chinooks are a mainstay of the US-led coalition force in rugged Afghanistan, where they are used for transport duties. They have also been employed for relief work during recent spring floods.
Moore said the helicopter was one of two Chinooks returning from a patrol in southern Afghanistan. The second helicopter returned safely to Bagram, the main US air base which is just north of Kabul.
Taliban spokesman Latif Hakimi said militants had shot down the crashed helicopter with an 82 mm gun. Taliban insurgents regularly claim responsibility for incidents involving coalition casualties.
Around 18,000 US-led coalition troops are hunting down remnants of the Taliban regime and their Al-Qaeda allies in Afghanistan. They are also helping with anti-drug operations.
US forces flying missions above Afghanistan's difficult, mountainous terrain have now suffered eight helicopter crashes since the end of 2001, Moore said.
The seven previous crashes before Wednesday's accident claimed 21 lives, she added. The last victim was the pilot of a Black Hawk helicopter which came down near the western city of Herat in October.
Six people -- three US military personnel and three American civilians -- were killed last November when their rented civilian transport plane crashed in central Afghanistan's Bamiyan province.
ADB to Help Expand Cellphone Services in Afghanistan
Thursday April 7, 1:24 PM Asia Pulse
KABUL, Afghanistan, April 7 Asia Pulse - The Asian Development Bank (ADB) will help to improve telecommunications in Afghanistan through a US$35 million loan signed yesterday 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.
"Our agreement with Roshan, the first significant loan of its kind to be made to a privately owned enterprise in Afghanistan in almost 30 years, will strongly support Afghanistan's reconstruction effort and economic development," said Michael Barrow, an ADB Senior Structured Finance Specialist.
"Telecommunications is an essential element of a country's infrastructure, alongside transport, water supply, and energy, and cellular telephony is seen as the only viable method of providing reliable, countrywide communications coverage in the country."
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.
This indicates that demand for cellular phone services is likely to increase rapidly over the next few years.
Despite the strong business case, however, private sector development in Afghanistan is constrained by the limited availability of funds.
"ADB's loan to Roshan will hopefully serve as a positive example that should help encourage aid agencies and commercial sector lenders to support private sector development in Afghanistan," said Mr. Barrow.
Roshan is ultimately owned by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, Monaco Telecom International which is majority owned by Cable and Wireless Plc UK and US-based MCT Corporation.
Nearly 7,000 Afghans return home as UN refugee agency resumes repatriation
Source: United Nations News Service 07 Apr 2005
One month after resuming its voluntary repatriation programme of Afghans from Pakistan, the United Nations refugee agency reported today that nearly 7,000 people had returned home with its assistance, a number that should balloon to 400,000 by the end of the year.
From Iran, where the voluntary repatriation programme continued through the winter, the number of Afghans returning since the start of 2005 was just over 4,000, a number expected to reach 350,000 this year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
Overall, more than 3.5 million Afghan refugees have gone home from the two countries since the agency began a voluntary repatriation programme in 2002, following the fall of the Taliban regime there.
Last year alone, UNHCR helped in the return of more than three-quarters of a million people. There are between 2 million and 3 million Afghans still in Iran and Pakistan.
Under the repatriation programme, each returning Afghan receives a cash grant for transport assistance ranging from $3 to $34 per person, depending on the destination. They are also provided with a cash grant of $12 in place of food and non-food items distributed previously.
Army considers shorter tours for troops in Iraq, Afghanistan
WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Army is considering shorter tours of duty for troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan if improving conditions allow commanders to scale down the size of the US force there, a top general said.
Lieutenant General Franklin Hagenbeck, deputy chief of staff for personnel, said the army has studied six and nine month tours and found that returning soldiers and their families would prefer them to the punishing 12 month tours they now face.
"Soldiers will tell you they can take a deep breath for six months and they can maintain that level of focus and energy level for six months. In a 12 month tour they can do it, but it takes a greater toll," Hagenbeck told reporters.
Shorter tours of duty in combat zones would be more appealing to worried parents of prospective recruits, as well as to soldier's spouses, he said. About 53 percent of the army's active duty force is married, he noted.
The 12-month tours will continue as long as the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan requires the current level of forces, now at about 145,000, the general said.
"But what I would tell you is that we think multiple, shorter tours is the ideal way to go ultimately," he said.
"If General Casey and General Abizaid make decisions that would cause the numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan to shrink, we have run some models that would allow us to consider short tours," he said.
General George Casey, the commander of US forces in Iraq, said last month he should be able to make fairly significant reductions in US force levels by March.
Abizaid, head of the US Central Command, also has expressed cautious optimism about conditions in Iraq since the January 30 elections, and his commanders have said planning for possible reductions should begin in earnest this summer.
A turn for the better in Iraq could not come too soon for the army, which is having trouble recruiting prospective soldiers in large part because of fears parents and other "influencers" have about the dangers in Iraq.
The army has fallen short of its monthly recruiting goals for the past two months, and is behind its goal for the year to date despite increasing bonuses and other incentives and putting more recruiters on the street.
The same number of youths are coming into recruiting stations, or seeking information via the Internet, he said.
"But we've got many more influencers, particularly Moms and Dads but also teachers and coaches, that are saying, 'Army is not a bad choice, but why don't you wait a couple of months to see how this business in Iraq shakes out.'"
Nevertheless, Hagenbeck said he was confident the army would meet its goal for the year of 80,000 new recruits, and he emphasized that re-enlisment rates remain strong, currently exceeding the army's goals.
Recruiters think that events since the Iraqi elections January 30 is having a positive impact, he said.
"If conditions were to remain the same or continue on this trendline we think it is going to be very positive toward the influencers," he said.
Young lovers in burqas flaunt Afghanistan's rules of attraction
Thu Apr 7, 2:58 AM ET
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (AFP) - 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.
At Koti Barq, a small residential area built by the Soviets near the city, three young men talk about girls in a pharmacy owned by Sabur, a jovial, goateed 23-year-old who is also dressed in jeans.
"The vast majority of Afghan marriages comply with traditions; so they're more or less forced marriages," Sabur says.
More than three years after the fall of the Taliban, social customs in much of Afghanistan continue to be repressive. Many young people, particularly women, continue to be forced or pressured into marrying spouses who are not of their choice.
Those who shun arranged marriages often meet in towns like Mazar, particularly at work or at university.
"Hospitals too," says Ershad, 30, a doctor from the western city of Herat, the only one of the three wearing traditional Afghan dress. "Lots of people come to hospitals only to see girls. And all the doctors I know have a girlfriend."
After the initial meeting, young lovers have to make an effort to keep in touch. "But today, it's easy to contact boys or girls with mobiles," says 26-year-old Jamshit, the third of the young men at Sabur's pharmacy.
"Before that, if you wanted to meet a girl and to send her a message, you had to give it to her little brother, with a candy for him. With one risk, the message being caught by the father.
"Now, 80 percent of young people in Mazar have a mobile. It's like a fashion, and with it you can set up meetings without any problem."
All that's left is to find a spot for a rendezvous.
"In Mazar, there are several places where you can meet girls: hotels, some restaurants, shops, hospitals," says Ershad. "And pharmacies," he adds with a glance at Sabur.
The young pharmacist smiles. Quietly, he shows a red curtain behind the counter. "This is a very good place for secret meetings. And there's no risk: it's normal for a girl to come here to buy drugs," he says.
Those who have no secret place can always go to the gardens at the Hazrat Ali shrine, Afghanistan's holiest, where Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed is buried.
There, in the shadow of the mosaics and turquoise domes, "girls come to the shrine in burqa, call their boyfriend with their mobile and tell him: meet me there, under this tree, at this table's corner", says Sabur.
During the recent Afghan New Year in Mazar, dozens of young people could be seen dancing, singing and greeting each other at the shrine. But there were virtually no young girls out at a time which their parents no doubt judged to be unacceptable.
Instead they came to the pine-fringed pathways of Hazrat Ali two days later, for the traditional new year "Women's Day" picnic, strictly reserved for women.
But the men are never far away.
A few days before, Aimal, Sabur, Ershad and Jamshit -- but not Hamidullah, who already has a girlfriend -- said they were going to have a walk round the area "just to have a look".
3 ‘spies’ and 5 cops killed in Afghanistan
* Death toll from US helicopter crash 18
KABUL: Suspected Taliban insurgents killed at least three Afghans they claimed were spies for the United States, officials and reports said Thursday.
Jan Mohammad Khan, governor of central Uruzgan province, confirmed that three people were killed in Charchino district on Wednesday. “They were innocent civilians,” he told AFP.
However the Taliban said it had killed a total of six people allegedly spying for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, according to a report by the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press.
Gunmen have killed five policemen in southern Afghanistan, residents and a foreign security source said on Thursday. The policemen were killed in a firefight on Wednesday on a main road in the Nawarak area of Zabul province, they said. The raiders, who were believed to be Taliban members, blocked the road for several hours before fleeing, residents said.
A US military helicopter crash in Afghanistan on Wednesday is likely to have killed 18 people, a US military spokeswoman said on Thursday. “We have 13 confirmed American servicemen dead and 3 civilians employed by the US military as contractors,” Lt Cindy Moore told Reuters. Two other servicemen’s names had been on the flight manifest and they remained unaccounted for.
The CH 47 Chinook helicopter came down during a dust storm in Ghazni province, 120 km southwest of the capital, Kabul, while on a routine mission. It was the deadliest military air accident since Washington first deployed troops to the country in 2001. agencies
Who rules Afghanistan?
Khaleej Times 04/06/2004
AFGHANISTAN has been going through dramatic changes ever since the US invasion led to the unseating of the Taleban. The reconstruction of the country that has been ravaged by the long years of conflict and two invasions has been going on with the help of international aid. However, the pace of rebuilding effort is far from desirable.
This is perhaps why President Hamid Karzai at the annual meeting of donor nations and agencies in Kabul on Monday insisted on a leading role for the Afghan government in the aid and rebuilding effort.
A fierce debate is raging over the sluggish pace of reconstruction efforts undertaken by international aid agencies in Afghanistan. In fact, on Sunday — a day before the donors' meet — Karzai had accused non-government organisations of squandering funds channelled through them.
While the Afghan president is right in arguing that the Afghan government must play its due role in steering the development process in the country, facts on the ground do not really favour his argument. Lawlessness continues to rule the country. In fact, three years after the fall of Taleban and despite having an elected government in Kabul, Afghanistan is still ruled by scores of warlords. In fact, it is widely known in and outside Afghanistan that the Karzai government's writ is limited to the capital Kabul. No wonder then Karzai is called the President of Kabul, rather than Afghanistan. Except for the Taleban, who are closely monitored and hunted across the country, all other armed and lawless groups are free to do as they please. These groups that had been disbanded and reined in by the Taleban during their rule have regrouped to unleash their terror. No one including the government in Kabul can take on them. Whoever tries to challenge them would do so at their peril and go the Taleban way. On the other hand, opium menace is back in Afghanistan. As latest UN reports have warned, opium production, under this government, has touched record high levels. In 2004, a whopping 4200 MT of poppy was cultivated in Afghanistan against 190 MT in 2001.
The Afghan government does deserve to take control of the international aid effort. But it would be possible only when Karzai proves he is not the governor of Kabul but the President of Afghanistan.
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